Tag Archives: bad history

A Jewish garrison town in Carolingian Catalonia?

Please forgive a gap in posting. On the 4th started the biggest conference in a medievalist’s calendar, and I was running sessions on the first day; 29th and 30th also had a different conference in them, and a family house-move needing my driving fell between the two events. The week before that had been the finalists’ marking deadline, so I’d got very little ready for either conference till then, and by the third day of the conference this week I felt ill and, when tested, turned out to have caught Covid-19. Since then I’ve mainly been asleep, sweating feverishly or otherwise useless in our spare room. So it’s not been full of blogging opportunities. But all this time I have been trying, now and then, to finish this for you, refreshed over many weeks now from an old draft. The title of the post is a conscious riff off Arthur Zuckerman’s infamous and, erm, let’s say ‘disputed’ book A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, but I am actually reacting here to a reaction to it, published in 1980, by Bernard Bachrach of whom we were lately talking.1 I write here because although I can deconstruct Bachrach’s paper and see many things wrong with it as argument, I can’t actually dismiss it all out of hand without better access to the evidence than I have, and that frustrates me. So when I read it in 2019, I wrote the beginnings of this to try and work it out. Since then I made the effort to get hold of some important extra evidence that allowed me to write the closing section, and now at last I inflict it all upon you.

Spine of Arthur Zuckerman's A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY: Columbia University Press 1973)

Spine of Arthur Zuckerman’s A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY: Columbia University Press 1973), image by Dranoel26own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons, because this is a work which has its own Wikipedia page

So, for those unaware of it, Zuckerman’s book is a tour de force of medievalist imagination from 1965, in which some fourteenth-century references to a ‘king of the Jews’ in Narbonne are built up, with the aid of anything that could possibly be used as evidence even when it’s really not, into a concession agreed by Charlemagne and the Caliph of Baghdad to establish an autonomous Ashkenazi principality on Narbonne that was eventually shut down by various interests colluding with the pope in 900. Everything in the area gets wrapped into this theory, to the extent of the line of Saint Guilhem being figured as Jewish because of the reported size of one of their noses (says Bachrach, anyway).2 The most generous reviews of this book thought it might, just, have shown that the Jewish ‘king’ of Narbonne was a real dignity, of rather uncertain nature, in what certainly was a city with a big Jewish community in it.3 Bachrach didn’t even accept that much, but in this chapter he performs a clever move and, using the credibility gained from the fact that he is critical of Zuckerman, proposes a different understanding of Jewish presence in the Midi that has nearly as many problems, even if it’s less ambitious. The logic is quite complex, however, and needs expounding (and exploding) step by step. It goes like this:

  1. Among the considerable evidence for a Jewish presence in Narbonne, we find in the Visigothic-period Historia Wambae a reference to the Jews of that city expelling the local authorities in support of the rebellion of Duke Paul of the Tarraconensis in 673. For Bachrach, that shows they could muster armed force. Admittedly, that rebellion was unsuccessful, but though the Jews were expelled they were subsequently allowed to return.4
  2. When King Pippin III of the Franks took Narbonne in 759, the populace were induced to surrender by a guarantee that they would be allowed to retain their own law. Bachrach argues that this concession would have thus reinforced the Jews in their local position.5
  3. A letter of a Pope Stephen is recorded complaining to Archbishop Aribert of Narbonne about all the concessions Pippin and then Charlemagne made to the Jews in Narbonne and saying that Aribert needs to roll them back as soon as he can. Since there is no other record of this archbishop, or anyone of that rank in the see of Narbonne until the tenth century, this has usually been taken to be a forgery; Zuckerman, indeed, connected it to the end of his ‘princedom’ in 900. Bachrach rehearses these arguments, agrees the letter probably can’t be accepted, but somehow it remains in his argument as support for a Carolingian generosity to Narbonne’s Jews.6
  4. Since we have militarised Jews at Narbonne in 673 (at least per Bachrach) and an assurance that in 759 the Jewish importance in Narbonne would have been protected (per Bachrach), we can now introduce a third element, the service of all free men in the Carolingian army that is demanded by various Carolingian capitularies. From that we can, or at least Bachrach can, conclude that the still-militarised Jews of Narbonne would have been among the troops subsequently deployed in campaigns on the Spanish March.7
  5. In one of these campaigns, in 798, as readers of this blog will know, the old fortresses of Casserres de Berguedà, Ausona and Cardona were reactivated by a Count Borrell. Ausona is the odd one out here as it had been a city, as it would again become. However, Bachrach observes, by 900 (recte 906), the newly emplaced bishop of Osona could complain that there were no Christians in his diocese, and there is also apparently a Hebrew responsum from a rabbi in the Middle East to an Iberian-peninsula contact of his of c. 850 saying that there are ‘no gentiles’ in Ausona. The explanation is of course obvious, to Bachrach: no gentiles, no Christians, because the town had been settled by the Jews of Narbonne as a regular Carolingian garrison.8

Now, you can probably tell already that I don’t buy this. I’m not against the idea of Jewish settlement in the Spanish March, at all: it explains a few place-names, like Judaigues in Besalú where the comital family of Barcelona later had land.9 Moreover, there is fairly solid evidence of Jewish landholding in the south of France in this period, including someone Jewish whose lands had been encroached upon appealing directly to Emperor Louis the Pious and having his case upheld, as well as the various rather earlier or later evidence for a Jewish presence in Narbonne, in Barcelona and in Girona.10 My credulity runs out, however, before being able to accept a Jewish military garrison town that no source describes as such.

View over Barcelona looking towards Montjuïc

The most obvious place-name mentioning Jews on the Spanish March is however probably the crown of Barcelona, Montjuïc! Image by Fabio Alessandro Locatiown work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Basic lack of positive evidence isn’t the only issue here, either. Every one of those steps above has its own problems, which I should set out.

  1. The Historia Wambae, of course, reports the suppression of autonomy at Narbonne, and says nothing about the terms on which the Jews were allowed to return; one might imagine that it was not swords in hand, although Bachrach just waves at the lack of evidence for Wamba having cared about Jews very much and assumes he’d have been cool with that.11 But also, importantly, the Historia was written by documented polemical anti-Semite Bishop Julian of Toledo, and so it’s not a given that these Jewish actions are even historical, rather than a way to blacken the name of the rebel Paul with people whom Julian would have seen as distasteful and unholy associates. Blaming the Jews for the fall of cities is a good strong tradition in this era, after all.12 So to get from that to an organised Jewish political faction in the city, with regularised military capacity, is what you might call an over-reading of this source. What Bachrach suggests is not impossible, but it’s a long way from being what the source says and there are reasons to mistrust what the source says on such matters. This will be a repeated theme in what follows…
  2. Next, whatever position the Jews held in Narbonne in 673 then needs to have been preserved eighty-six years until the Frankish conquest, and of course that period also contains the Muslim conquest of the city in 721 or so. It is likely that that materially improved the situation of the Jews in the city, but it is, I’d have thought, extremely unlikely that they would have been allowed to continue to bear arms, if that was actually something they had been doing!13 Bachrach simply doesn’t mention the Muslim conquest, which gets him round that particular problem, but doesn’t do anything to remove it.
  3. If, nonetheless, we somehow still wind up at 759 and the Carolingian capture of Narbonne with a powerful Jewish faction in the city with an old right to bear arms, the Visigothic Law that it seems reasonably safe to say that King Pippin III guaranteed at Narbonne in 759 actually pretty much denies Jews any civil rights whatsoever, in an accumulation of legislation from the final years of the Visigothic kingdom that has attracted a lot of scholarly attention.14 It may be easy enough to imagine that those laws were never enacted or had been repealed—Jews are still attested in these territories, after all, however thinly—but to guarantee or restore them and the old Jewish privileges they deny at the same time would take a level of double-think we don’t usually attribute to the Carolingians. It’s certainly not inherent in what the sources actually say, and in any case it requires an assumption of prior continuity that is hard to credit given the likely disruptions to it which Bachrach doesn’t mention.
  4. The council record of 906 in which Bishop Idalguer of Vic says there are no Christians in his diocese is clearly inaccurate; we have land-charters from people in his diocese going back to 880, and in fact we have Christian burials from the city that probably belong to this period.15 It is also, however, spurious as it stands, having been inserted into a record of 788! This becomes more comprehensible when one realises that the plea is made as part of an attempt to be rid of a levy up till then paid by the new bishopric to the metropolitan of Narbonne. What Idalguer was supposed to be saying, in other words, was, “I don’t get enough tithe to afford this.” A certain amount of exaggeration is therefore easy to understand. Less easy to understand is how he wouldn’t mention that his episcopal city was a Jewish military colony, however; I feel that also might have made a good part of such a case. Arguments from silence are always more difficult, but this is really quite a loud silence. The record does talk about the difficulties the area had faced because of ‘the infestation of pagans’, but that, pace Bachrach and Zuckerman both, seems much more likely to refer to the Muslim conquests, in the same basically fictive way that other tenth-century sources from this are wont to do when seeking to justify a land claim.16 These were educated Christian clergy to whom Jews cannot have been unfamiliar (though if they were, it wouldn’t do much for Bachrach’s argument that there was a town of them right next door). Christianity has been dealing with the Jewish religion since its birth out of it, and churchmen knew that Jews were not pagans, whereas Muslims remained in a rhetorical and intellectual space where that could still be alleged.16bis
  5. Last of all, but important, another thing that Bachrach doesn’t mention, like the Muslim conquest of Narbonne, is the 826–827 rebellion on the March under the mysterious Aizó, which took Ausona out of Carolingian control. We don’t in fact know that that control was ever regained, at least before the area was brought back under the authority of Count Guifré the Hairy of Urgell and Barcelona in the 870s; it has been suggested that the town was completely deserted and it has been suggested that it became a Muslim fortress allowing a series of raids into the Frankish interior that seem to have stopped in the 850s.17 Either of these cases might be a pretty good explanation for why a Hebrew letter of 850 might say there were no gentiles there, but Bachrach’s arguments rely on continuity, a long long continuity right the way from Narbonne 673 to Ausona 906, so unsurprisingly, as with the Muslim conquest of Narbonne, he doesn’t mention this rebellion. Frighteningly, Zuckerman’s case actually fits better here, as he saw a reimposition of Jewish rule in this area c. 852 under ‘Abbasid pressure on the Carolingians, but that would wreck Bachrach’s argument, so he ignores it and in this case, that’s probably fair enough!18

So at the end of this, we have a very long chain of over-read sources, which, if every one is accepted, can indeed be lashed together in some dreadful Heath-Robinson fashion that allows one to bridge the gap between 673 and 906, but whose lashings are rotten at every join, and which has to reach over some really quite serious discontinuities that Bachrach ignores. It’s perhaps not completely surprising that I only lately discovered this paper because I’ve only ever seen one citation of it despite working on the county that grew up around reoccupied Ausona; there really is no reason to take this theory seriously, and people mostly haven’t.

Cathedral of Sant Pere de vic seen from the Riu Gurri

The cathedral of Sant Pere de Vic, seen from the Riu Gurri, photo by Enfo (own work), licensed under [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

And yet, there is apparently this rabbinic letter… The letter is the one piece of this puzzle I can’t point at and show Bachrach doing bad history with it, simply because I can’t read Hebrew. There are so many things that could be wrong with it: its date, the identification of the place-name it uses, its basic authenticity… but if it is what Bachrach says it is then I can’t ignore it. So I reluctantly picked up Zuckerman and, actually, he gave a lot more information. Firstly, we learn the name of the relevant rabbi, Natronai Gaon of Sura. He was based in Qayrawān in what is now Tunisia, and was consulted on several occasions between 853 and 868 by Jews in what Zuckerman insisted on rendering as Ispamia, and one of his letters of advice went to, “the town Ausona (Al-Osona) bordering on Barcelona County”.19 Zuckerman explained that hitherto this had been rendered as Lucena by scholars of Natronai’s letters, but preferred Osona because of the other evidence Bachrach would later repeat. One thing that Bachrach does not repeat, however, is that the letter also advises the Jews of the town not to buy cattle, fish or flour if the market day falls on a Jewish holiday, which tells us pretty clearly that the Jews were not organising the market or it presumably wouldn’t ever have done that thing.

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 318

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 318 and nn. 5-6…

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 319

… and p. 319 & nn. 6-8.

Now, Zuckerman’s notes are not clear (as you see above). They are anchored to strange places in the text, too, making it less than easy to see what note is supposed to cover what assertions. But it seems that we’re dealing here with pp. 318-319 nn. 6-8, in which as you see he prints what I suppose is some of the relevant Hebrew and various references, including to one German translation. That, thankfully, is on the web, and from that I can render the German as follows (badly):20

“Non-Jews often bring in oxen and rams from outside the city on Sunday and Friday, and from time to time the market day falls on a Jewish holiday; should one then buy from the non-Jews? – We decide: One should not buy on a holiday, and not fish or flour either. – And what you have asked: ‘On what ground?’ – Answer: Because Lucena is a Jewish town and has a very great number of Israelites – may the Eternal, the God of our Fathers, multiply them!21 – There are there almost no non-Jewish inhabitants, so surely the objects for sale are brought chiefly for the use of the Israelites; if non-Jews sometimes also find themselves there on market day, surely their numbers are vanishingly small against the majority Israelite population. Were this even in Córdoba, where the seat of government is, but where the Israelites are in the majority over the Arabs, there would be fear that the Israelites would be attracted to market more than would otherwise be done; how much more in a city like Lucena!”

Now, from this lots of things arise. Firstly we see that the German translators, Winter and Wünsche, assumed that the place concerned was Lucena, but we’ve already seen how Zuckerman headed that off, and I have to say that if he was right about the Hebrew, of which of course I’m no judge, then Osona seems more likely. Let’s assume it is for now, but that doesn’t end the questions by any means. Winter and Wünsche also did not offer much help in finding this text; they reference only Warnheim’s edition, as given by Zuckerman in the notes above, and say nothing about where we have this letter, from when, what its transmission is and so on.22 Now, all of that stuff could be really quite crucial in the interpretation of this letter; did its copyist likely have an idea what it was really about, and if not, what might he or she have corrected it to? Further inspection reveals that Warnheim’s edition is actually in Hebrew, with a German subtitle, and that Zuckerman’s helpful transliteration of its main title is not what’s actually on the title page – and neither is Winter and Wünsche’s, so even finding it may be beyond me, let alone reading it. I don’t suppose anyone else is able to help here? Manchester apparently have a copy…

All the same, if the text in question is what either of these writers say it is, i. e. a letter from a near-contemporary well-informed about Andalusi matters, I have at least to consider it. But even from the German, some important things emerge which neither Bachrach cares nor Zuckerman cared to mention (though the former Zuckerman at least implied).

  1. It’s clear that wherever this town was, the Jews were a majority there, a substantial one indeed, but not the only people present. At least, the market provision makes it seem otherwise, and Winter and Wünsch translated the Hebrew that Zuckerman renders, “Al-Osona is a Jewish place without gentiles” with an all-important qualifier, “gar”. The line that both Bachrach and Zuckerman also quote, “there are no gentiles in Osona”, is not actually in this source, and Zuckerman’s notes, once gleaned, say it’s “perhaps by the same author” (p. 319 n. 6) but cites it from a different edition with no further details.23 Again, help getting at this would be lovely!
  2. Much more important, though, is the reference to Córdoba, because that shows that Rabbi Natronai Gaon believed this place ‘al-Usuna’ to be in al-Andalus, under Muslim rule. He must have done, because that was the government whose seat Córdoba was! And that changes the picture rather.

Wherefrom follows a rethink. Around 850 is actually a bad time to see Vic as having been in Carolingian hands, as already discussed; it had certainly been in pro-Muslim ones only 24 years before and is not recorded in Christian ones again till 885 (though late 870s is likely).24 And while we can ignore some of the Christian reports that Jews let enemies into Christian cities, so much more easy to bear than Christians actually having lost them, we maybe need to consider Arabic reports that sometimes local Jews were put in charge of recently conquered towns; the Egyptian historian Ibn al-Athir says that the conquering general Mūsa ibn Nusair did this in Seville, for example.25 What if Vic was such a place? That is, maybe when the Muslim army arrived in 827 they took the place over, but installed a Jewish colony there rather than settle it themselves. Then Vic would indeed be a Jewish garrison town, but for the Muslims, or, probably more likely, a Jewish town with a Muslim garrison. That might be what this source is actually reporting!

Now, I would want a lot of those vital details about source transmission and indeed identity in hand before I started seriously proposing that last thing. But both Bachrach and, before him, Zuckerman just left these details out because they didn’t fit their respective wild hypotheses. I hope I’ve shown that Bachrach’s hypothesis has to be discarded whatever the results of this enquiry should be; but there could be an almost equally surprising alternative to their ideas derived from the same sources, and more easily I’d say, which neither of them for some reason wanted to discover. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about the preoccupations which drive our enquiries…


1. Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965, repr. 1972); Bernard S. Bachrach, “On the Role of the Jews in the Establishment of the Spanish March (768–814)” in Josep M. Solà-Solé, S. G. Armistead & Joseph H. Silverman (edd.), Hispania Judaica: studies in the history, language and literature of the Jews in the Hispanic world, Estudios 2 (Barcelona 1980), 3 vols, I pp. 11-19, repr. in Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XV, online here from the reprint.

2. On inspection, this is less racist and more crazy than Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 12, makes it sound; Zuckerman notes the name Naso given to Bernard of Septimania as a pseudonym by Paschasius Radbertus, in his polemical diatribe the Epitaphium Arsenii (Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 263), which Calmette explained as being a reference to a big nose, but which Zuckerman in fact sees as the ancestral title Nasi born by his alleged Jewish princes. Even in his critique of others, therefore, Bachrach doesn’t really represent what his source says accurately.

3. Nahon Gérard, “Arthur J. ZUCKERMAN, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900” in Annales : Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations Vol. 30 (Paris 1975), pp. 363-364; for the wider background at Narbonne see with more safety Jean Régné, Étude sur la condition des juifs de Narbonne du Ve au XIVe siècle (Narbonne 1912), one of several secondary sources that Bachrach uses rather than cite actual evidence for Jewish presence. After the discoveries of the previous note, one may justly wonder whether checking these would actually back up his points at all or if these citations would also turn out to be misread.

4. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 14, citing two chapters of Régné and himself, “A Reassessment of Visigothic Jewish Policy 589-711” in American Historical Review Vol. 78 (Washington DC 1973), pp. 11-34, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, chapter XI, pp. 26-27, rather than the actual source, Hist. Wamb. c. 5 (he says there). This is now available as Joaquim Martínez Pizarro, The Story of Wamba: Julian of Toledo’s Historia Wambae regis (Washington DC 2005), on JSTOR here.

5. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, pp. 13-14; the source is the Annals of Aniane, which are printed in Claude Devic and Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives, ed. by Edouard Dulaurier, édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments (Toulouse 1875), 16 vols, vol. II, online here, col. 7.

6. Jacques-Paul Migne (ed.), Anastasii Abbatis, sanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ Presbyteri et Bibliothecarii, opera omnia: editio præ aliis omnibus insignis, ad fidem manuscriptorum codicum et juxta probatissimas editiones expressa, Blancsini nempe Romano-Vaticanam, quod Librum Pontificalem, Mabillonii, Cardinalis Maii, etc., etc. Accedunt Stephani V, Formosi, Stephani VI, Romani, Pontificum Romanorum; Erchemberti Cassinensis monachi, Angilberti Corbeiensis abbatis, S. Tutilonis Sangallensis monachi, Grimlaici presbyteri, Wolfardi presbyteri Hasenrietani, Anamodi Ratisbonensis subdiaconi, Scripta vel scriptorum fragmenta quæ exstant. Tomum claudit Appendix ad Sæculum IX, Patrologia cursus completus series latina CXXIX (Paris 1879), 3 vols, vol. I, online here, col. 857; Bachrach discusses this and its problems over “Role of the Jews”, pp. 12-13 n. 6, in which he both accepts and rejects the arguments for a tenth-century date before using it as straightforward evidence for Pippin’s granting of land to Jews p. 14 n. 9.

7. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 16, “The count of Narbonne, whose military contingent surely had a substantial proportion of Jewish allodial landholders among its members…”, with n. 16 there providing cites only for Jewish military service three centuries before or five centuries after, both in other countries.

8. For the refortification see ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris”, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, online here, cap. 8; for the council of complaint, see Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memoòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, vol. I no. 75; for the letter, see below.

9. Judaigues occurs in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader and Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, doc. nos 312 & 523 at least, and I think at least one more, but can’t check right now given my situation.

10. Jewish landholders appealing to Emperor Louis the Pious in Devic & Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc, II, Preuves: chartes et diplômes, no. 97; for wider context see David Romano, “Els jueus de Barcelona i Girona fins a la mort de Ramon Borrell (1018)” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, vol. II , pp. 123–30, online here.

11. Bachrach, “Visigothic Policy”, p. 27, with only secondary references.

12. On Julian see Abdón Moreno García and Raúl Pozas Garza, “Una controversía judeo-cristiana del s. VII: Julián de Toledo” in Helmantica Vol. 53 nos 161–162 (Seville 2002), pp. 249–69, online here, and on Visigothic anti-Judaism more widely Rachel L. Stocking, “Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism: The Case of the Visigothic Kingdom” in Religion Compass Vol. 2 (Oxford 2008), pp. 642–658, DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.x; for the trope of Jews causing the fall of Christian cities to invaders, see among many other instances Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Ninth-Century Histories 1 (Manchester 1991), s. a. 852.

13. Norman Roth, “Dhimma: Jews and Muslims in the Early Medieval Period” in Ian Richard Netton (ed.), Studies in Honour of Clifford Edmund Bosworth (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2 vols, vol. I, pp. 238–266, on Academia.edu here.

14. S. P. Scott (transl.), The Visigothic Code (Forum Judicum), translated from the Original Latin, and Edited (Boston MA 1910), online here, XII.ii.3-18 & iii.1 & 3-28; for discussion, as well as the works in n. 12 above see Bat-Sheva Albert, “Les communautés juives vues à travers la législation royale et ecclésiastique visigothique et franque” in John Victor Tolan, Nicholas De Lange, Laurence Foschia & Capucine Nemo-Pekelman (edd.), Jews in Early Christian Law: Byzantium and the Latin West, 6th‒11th centuries, Religion and Law in Medieval Christian and Muslim Societies 2 (Turnhout 2014), pp. 179–193, online here.

15. Christians in Osona before 906 in any of Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia 4, doc. nos 1-74, really; for the burials see Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, “Dos exemples d’arqueologia medieval al nucli urbà de Vic: la casa de la Plaça de Dom Miquel i la necròpolis del Cloquer” in Ausa Vol. 10 nos 102–104 (Vic 1982), pp. 375–385, online here, and Joan Casas Blasi, Anna Gómez Bach, Raquel Masó Giralt, Imma Mestres Santacreu & Montserrat de Rocafiguera Espona, “Ciutat de Vic: darreres intervencions i línies de recerca” in I Jornades d’Arqueologia de la Catalunya Central: Actes. Homenatge a Miquel Cura, Publicacions d’Arqueologia i Paleontologia 14 (Barcelona 2012), pp. 220–224, online here.

16. The Church history background is set out in Élie Griffe, Histoire religieuse des anciens pays de l’Aude (Paris 1933), 1 vol completed, online here, pp. 246-250; even now this is a tremendously perceptive and thorough book and I wish he’d finished the rest. Bachrach cites it, “Role of the Jews”, p. 17 n. 22, because it establishes a 906 date for the council text, but otherwise ignores what Griffe says was going on. For the trope of Muslims as pagans here, see Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535, at pp. 15-16; cf. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 17 and Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 319.

16bis. On Christianity and Judaism, an interesting range of perspectives is to be found in Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (edd.), The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis MN 2007) , though goodness knows there are others. For Muslims as pagans, see John Victor Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York City NY 2002), pp. 105-134.

17. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X): 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuíc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 84–88, transl. as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town” ibid. pp. 461-463; cf. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Els orígens històrics de Vic (segles VIII-X), Osona a la butxaca 1 (Vic 1981), online here, pp. 22-26.

18. Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, pp. 316-319.

19. Ibid., ‘Ispamia’ p. 317 and thereafter, quote p. 318.

20. Jakob Winter and August Wünsche (edd.), Die jüdische Litteratur seit Abschluss des Kanons: eine prosaische und poetische Anthologie mit biographischen und litterargeschichtlichen Einleitungen (Trier 1894-1896), 3 vols, vol II, online here, pp. 23-24.

21. Identified by Winter and Wünsche as quotation of 5 Moses 1, 11.

22. Winter’s and Wünsche’s background information covers the author (vol. II pp. 22-23) without references, but of the actual text offered they say only, “Aus „Kebuzat Chachamim‟, Wien 1861, S. 110”, which from Zuckerman and Google it’s possible to decode as W. Warnheim (ed.), קבוצת חכמים: כולל דברי מדע פרי עשתנות חכמים שונים: Wissenschaftliche Aufsätze in hebräischtalmudischer Sprache (Wien 1861), p. 110, but as I say, that doesn’t get me personally much further.

23. As you can see above, Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 319 n. 6, gives this source as “J. Müller, Teshubhot geoné mizrah uma`arabe, no. 26, p. 9a”, but websearch for that string or variants produces nothing, so I guess that the actual title is again in Hebrew, and he transliterated it into Roman, an operation I cannot reverse.

24. The first possible evidence that the city’s church was up and running again comes with Archpriest Godmar, soon to become the first bishop, who turns up in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia 4, doc. no. 2, but we don’t know for sure that he was Archpriest of Vic; that association only becomes clear when he occurs as bishop ibid. doc. 7, in 885. Eduard Junyent, who first edited these documents, thought that the handwriting of the main scribe who worked with Godmar when he was archpriest, Athanagild, suggests that both had been brought in from Narbonne, which is a priori likely and would help make sense of the see’s later special subjection to the metropolitan one.

25. Accessible to me as Ibn el-Athir, Annales du Maghreb et de l’Espagne, transl. Edmond Fagnan (Alger 1901), which is no longer online whence I got it, sadly, but where the relevant bit is on p. 47.

Y’are caught

(The following was written pretty much entirely in February 2019, when I was reading for a now-stalled project that I hope to reactivate next year. I’ve edited for clarity and added the images and notes but otherwise it’s as it was then.)

I do hope some day to move away from what I think of my destructive mode of scholarship, where what I’m primarily doing is showing what I think people have got wrong. Still, one does find people getting things wrong, and even more occasionally one finds them apparently just inventing things, and when one finds those things it’s maybe important just to make a note. The perpetrator in this instance is also famous for scholarship in the destructive mode, in any case, so I feel they can take it.

Cover of Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot 1993)

Cover of Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot 1993)

Y’see, I’ve been reading Bernard Bachrach’s first Variorum volume of reprinted papers as I work towards revising my article on military service in Catalonia.1 I expected this to be far more egregious in terms of special practice and special pleading than in fact it largely has been, except about Alans, and in that respect it’s a lesson in humility to me; whatever his reputation may now be and the problems of his contributions may still be, there is sound and important scholarship in the Bachrach corpus of the early 1970s.2 Problems began to creep in, however, when he got to the point of being able to rest new work on his old work, at which point the actual sources on which his conclusions rest started to disappear from view and, perhaps inevitably, the occasional slip of memory occurred. And I just found one.

‘Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality’ is a fairly short and densely-referenced article in which Bachrach renewed his attack on a then-partly-established thesis that Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandsonfather [Edit: oops], by taking emergency measures to raise a mounted cavalry arm for his wars against the Muslims, established the foundations of Frankish feudalism. Here Bachrach, who had already written a couple of pieces against this idea, brought his conclusions to a more general stage.3 I’m utterly sympathetic to that as an aim; there’s no point working this stuff out if it never gets to where the people who write textbooks, and thus command the attention of the general audience, notice it. But your practice should be as rigorous there as, in this case, in Speculum, no? So I sat up when, describing early Carolingian campaigns into Spain, Bachrach says on p. 5, “The fortified civitas of Vich (Ausona) was occupied and garrisoned as were the castra of Casserres and Cardona. The latter fell only after a siege.” This is, of course, my patch and if there was evidence that Cardona was held and defended against the Carolingians in that campaign (which happened in 798), I really ought to have seen it. It’s certainly not in the only text I know that describes these fortifications, the anonymous biography of Emperor Louis the Pious whose author we call ‘Astronomer’.4 This matters a little bit because if it existed, it would be pretty much the only evidence going that the Frankish take-over in Catalonia was a conquest imposed from outside, as some have argued, rather than a consensual secession from Muslim rule to Christian as the Carolingian sources, perhaps naturally, paint it.4bis

The castle of Cardona

The castle of Cardona, tenth-century at platform level, fourteenth-century in most of its visible fabric, and now a quite expensive hotel; but it might still be quite hard to take by siege…

So what’s the source? Well, the endnote for the paragraph reads: “Bachrach, ‘The Spanish March’, 16, and Bachrach, ‘Aquitaine under the Early Carolingians’, 24, 25-26. J. E. Ruiz Doménce, ‘El Asedio de Barcelona, según Ermoldo el Negro’, Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, 37 (1978-1979), 149-168, provides nothing from a military point of view.”5 Good to know. But this being a reprint volume, those references to earlier work are really easy to check, and in them there is no reference to that resistance at Cardona; indeed, where referenced in the former he admits, “Contemporary and near contemporary sources tell us nothing of Cardona and Casserres”.6 Neither does the piece by Ruiz Doménec (as he’s actually spelt) have any such information. So where had this come from? Nowhere, I guess. It’s not a big deal, in the overall scheme of his argument, which I still find basically convincing. But we’re not supposed to make stuff up, are we? So I just point it out.


1. Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993). If you’ve never met a Variorum volume before, they can be quite confusing: they are a 1980s creation, reprints of articles and essays by a single author, done photographically with the original pagination and mise-en-page preserved intact. Their look and feel thus jumps erratically from chapter to chapter and the only way to cite the works within is by chapter number, as the original page ranges tend to overlap in many places. Occasionally people put new work in them alongside the old, which just complicates matters further. They’re kind of crazy, but if they weren’t so very expensive I’d have many of them.

2. I thought especially highly of Bernard S. Bachrach, “Procopius, Agathias and the Frankish Military” in Speculum Vol. 45 (Cambridge MA 1970), pp. 435–41, DOI: 10.2307/2853502, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, VIII, and idem, “Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History Vol. 7 (New York City NY 1970), pp. 49-75, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, XII, though perhaps it should be noted that these are both articles whose work is largely to show that others are wrong, at which Professor Bachrach was and remains frighteningly able.

3. Idem, “Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality” in Military Affairs Vol. 47 (Washington DC 1983), pp. 181-187; this is derived largely from idem, “Charles Martel”, and idem, “Military Organization in Aquitaine under the Early Carolingians” in American Historical Review Vol. 78 (Washington DC 1973), pp. 11-34, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, XIII. This latter is more typical Bachrach in that I have to agree with about a third of it, find a third of it quite difficult to agree with but have to think about it, and think one third of it gets meanings out of the sources that aren’t there; but also, and with no discredit to the author rather than the press, it is riddled with typos. The American Historical Association were obviously having a bad year, editorially speaking.

4. ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris”, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, online here, cap. 8: “Ordinavit autem illo in tempore in finibus Aquitanorum circumquaque firmissimam tutelam; nam civitatem Ausonam, castrum Cardonam, Castaserram et reliqua oppida olim deserta munivit, habitari fecit et Burello comiti cum congruis auxiliis tuenda commitit“, which I english roughly as: “Moreover, at the same time he [Louis the Pious, then King of Aquitaine] ordered the firmest possible guard placed at the Aquitainian borders and thereabouts, for he fortified the city of Ausona, the castle of Cardona, Casserres [de Berguedà] and other once-deserted hillforts, had them settled and committed them to the protection of Count Borrell [I of Urgell and Cerdanya], with suitable support.”

4bis. For example, cf. Ramon Martí, “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X), 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuïc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 59–63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451.

5. Bachrach, “Charlemagne’s Cavalry”, p. 5 n. 24 (p. 16).

6. The former reference is Bernard S. Bachrach, “On the Role of the Jews in the Establishment of the Spanish March (768–814)” in Josep M. Solà-Solé, S. G. Armistead & Joseph H. Silverman, Hispania Judaica: studies in the history, language and literature of the Jews in the Hispanic world, Estudios 2 (Barcelona 1980), 3 vols, I pp. 11-19, and that paper deserves a whole separate post for which I need help with Hebrew and which may therefore take a while; the latter is of course Bachrach, “Aquitaine”. The third one is online here.

Murder of a factoid about Mallorca

My backlogged blog chronology is getting a bit out of step here, as I find this in my drafts folder from November 2018 referring to an unusual luxury I’d been able to permit myself that summer, which was a trip to Cambridge University Library. I was privileged enough to do most of my undergraduate and doctoral work out of that library (even though my doctorate’s from London) and there are still times when it’s invaluable to get there, for the simple reason that unlike most big research libraries a good proportion of its stock is on open shelves. The speed factor this adds to checking references is hard to exaggerate; when ordinarily you might have to wait an hour or two for your books to arrive, being able to go straight to not just the things you already knew you needed, but also then the things which they reveal you also need to check, which otherwise might normally mean a second trip at some future point, is invaluable. I was at that point up against a tight deadline to finish my article “Nests of Pirates” and, among other things, I was able to check the thing I want to tell you about now, and because of the open shelves track it to its root rather than just the next layer down. It’s about the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, I think by the definition offered some time ago by frequent commentator dearieme it counts as a ‘factoid’, and I think I killed it.1

The Balearic Islands had a rough Late Antiquity.2 Taking part fairly fully, as far as patchy archaeological evidence and a few textual anecdata can so far reveal, in both the third-century crisis (during which Mallorca’s then-capital, Pollentia, burned down) and then the general shrinkage of economy and settlement suffered by the western half of the Roman Empire over the fifth century, they fell in the course of that century into the maritime empire of the Vandal kings of Carthage, where they remained until returned to imperial control during the Byzantine conquest of that kingdom. They then remained under at least some kind of Byzantine obedience into the eighth century, to judge by seals found at the hilltop fort of Santueri in Mallorca, and perhaps even later, but that’s where the trouble begins, because the terminus post quem non is of course Islamic conquest, and we don’t really know when that happened.3

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Now, first of all some important preconditions. There are five major islands in the Balearic archipelago, as you see above, in descending order of size Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera, of which Ibiza and Formentera sit apart as part of a separate group called the Pityuses, all over an area of about 150 square miles. There is much more evidence about what happened to Mallorca than any of the others; indeed, archaeologically and documentarily, we don’t actually have any proof so far identified that Cabrera, Formentara, Ibiza or even Menorca were actually occupied between the seventh (or for Menorca, eighth) and tenth centuries (mid-ninth for Menorca, as we’ll see), though it’s probably more likely that they were than they weren’t.4 Nonetheless, people who write about this area always seem to do so as if what happened in one island can be generalised to all the others, apparently believing that because they are governed as a unit now, and have been since, well, mumble mumble mumble, they must always have behaved as one. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, off Menorca

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, its own separate islet off Menorca, by Pytxyown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

So what we’re actually able to discuss is the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, not the Balearics, and we just have to live with that. Now, currently the archaeology can really only tell us that at some point people started using Islamic-style ceramics and burying like Muslims, not when or why.5 For when or why the answers must for now come from texts. The terminus ante quem this time is 933 CE, by which time there was an Andalusī (i e. from al-Andalus, Muslim Iberia) fleet using Mallorca as a base for raiding Christian Francia, according at least to the chronicler Ibn Ḥayyān, who had access to some of the caliphal archives of Córdoba somehow and thus had reason to know.6 So the conquest was before that, but when? Excitingly, there are four different dates recorded, all in different sources, none of which seem to know the others’ stories. For dramatic reasons it’s most fun for me to go through them from latest date to earliest, which means that the first entrant is fourteenth-century CE polymath, bureaucrat, lawyer and underrated sociologist, but questionable historian, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn.

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria, image by Reda Kerbushown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldūn, who had excellent sources for the most part, including Ibn Ḥayyān, but notoriously scrambled them in his own work, offers the latest date for the conquest, placing it in 902/903 and explaining it as the result of an Andalusī pilgrim to the East having been stranded in the islands for a while and having thus learned their weak spots, and then offering to lead a conquest of them for the Emir of Córdoba, which succeeded.7 Opinions vary among the people who know this report as to whether the islands could possibly still have been Byzantine at so late a stage, or had been assimilated into the Carolingian sphere after an appeal to Charlemagne for help against pirates in 798, which was answered.8 That appeal is documented in the Carolingian court chronicle, the Royal Frankish Annals, but only in its early version, not its revision of 829, as if by then it was no longer a working claim. So if the Balearics did swing Carolingian, it may not have lasted long.9 Nonetheless, after 903, says Ibn Khaldūn, they were Islamic territory.

Approach to Puig d'Alaró, Mallorca

Approach to Puig d’Alaró, Mallorca

But! The twelfth-century Granadan geographer Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri has a different story. According to him, the conquest took place in the reign of “Muḥammad, son of the fifth Emir of al-Andalus”, and although it was mostly successful, the “Rūm” held out in one particular fort, Ḥisn Alarūn, almost certainly modern Alaró seen above, for a further eight years and five months before finally running out of supplies and surrendering.10 So for him Mallorca was definitely still Byzantine territory, but when? Muḥammad I ruled 852-886 CE, but the trouble is that he was the fifth Emir, and his son was called al-Mundhir (r. 886-888 CE). Professor Juan Signes Codoñer has suggested that the peculiar way in which the ruler is identified might be explained if the name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II had dropped out, supposing a correct text saying “Muḥammad son of [‘Abd al-Raḥmān], the fifth Emir…” and that looks like a good solution to me, but it’s still a 30-year window.11 Also, al-Zuhri said that he had heard this story told, not that it was a matter of record, and while he was nearer in time to the events than was Ibn Khaldūn, that distance was still four hundred years, so it’s not the best evidence.

But! Maybe we need neither of these, because the somewhat later Marrakech historian Abū al-ʽAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʽIḏārī has a different report again. He, frustratingly, doesn’t tell us when the conquest actually was, but notes that in 848/849, none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II sent a punitive naval expedition against Mallorca because its inhabitants had “broken their pact” and were harassing Islamic shipping in their waters. Some kind of blockade seems to have been imposed and next year Mallorca and Menorca both sent envoys begging for the renewal of the pact, though Ibn ʽIḏārī doesn’t say that they got it.12 Nonetheless, as far as he was concerned, subjection of the islands to Islam, even if not conquest by it, had happened by then.

Romantic modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Now it’s possible to reconcile that with either, but not both, of the previous two, and maybe even the Royal Frankish Annals, by saying that the Balearics, or at least Mallorca, had maybe been under a pact to the Muslim rulers in the Peninsula for some time but not actually conquered by them – this was also the case with Basque Pamplona, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented – and had perhaps flirted with a Carolingian alternative before being brought back into line by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.13 But! Now we reach the meat. Our earliest source for the conquest also gives the earliest date, or at least so it seems. If you look in the work of Juan Signes which I already mentioned, or that of Josep Amengual i Batle on which it often rests, you will find a report there that the tenth-century Sevillano lawyer and historian Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya dated the conquest of the islands to 707/708 CE, when ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the then-governor of Muslim North Africa, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, mounted a naval raid on Mallorca and Menorca and captured the “kings” (mulūk) who ruled there and sent them off to Damascus.14 I grant you that’s not quite the same as actual conquest, and it might even have led to the kind of pact subsequently reported by Ibn ʽIḏārī, but it is still quite surprising, not least because it’s a full four years before the actual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which Mūsā carried out in 711-712 CE. Now, that may just be presentism talking and it might have made more sense, before their permanent attachment (so far) to governments in the Peninsula in the thirteenth century, to see the islands as prone to African dependency, as under the Vandals and Byzantines, and not Iberian rule. But, this is also our factoid.

You see, when I first saw this report, in Signes I think, I was immediately struck by two things. One was how early it was, as I just said; but the other was that I really ought to have known about it because I own an English translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s History of the Conquest of al-Andalus.15 I’m not saying I’ve ever sat down and read it all through and made notes, but I have gone into it quite a lot for gobbets for my Special Subject at Leeds, and if I’d seen this bit I would have grabbed it because of what it implies about the conquest of the Peninsula following on naval raiding rather than being a spontaneous event.16 So I went and got my copy off the shelf, and this bit isn’t there.

Well, how odd, I thought. It seemed unlikely that Professor Signes had just made this up, so I looked up his reference, which was as I might have expected to the old Castilian translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya by Julián Ribera. And that was online then, so it was pretty easy to check that too and find that it’s not there either.17 But he gave a reference also to Josep Amengual’s two-volume history of the late Antique Balearics, and it was that which I arrived in Cambridge needing to check. And from that it became clear that the reference in question is in the Ribera volume after all.18 So for a moment it looked as if either David James had missed it out of his English translation, or it wasn’t in the manuscript of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that he’d used. BUT! Not so! There are actually two texts translated in that volume of Ribera’s, Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and a similar history under the name of Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba, and our factoid is in the latter, not the former. Well, at least I now had the source. And in some ways it should be a better source, because although based in Iraq, Ibn Qutayba was writing even earlier than Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and brings the gap between source and event, otherwise so large in this saga, down to a mere 150-odd years.

But.

Shamefully, I knew nothing about this Ibn Qutayba, so I did some rapid research. That told me that Reinhart Dozy had written about this very text in the 1880s.19 And this is the great virtue of the Cambridge UL: having found this out, within ten minutes I could sit down again with Dozy’s work before me, and it gave me pause. Dozy had spent some time with this Ahādith al-Imāma wa’l-siyāsa of Ibn Qutayba and in the end concluded that it was actually nothing of the kind, partly because no such work seemed to be attributed to that author by medieval biographers, partly because it claims to have had the Mallorca report from eye-witnesses but it had supposedly happened 134 years before, and mainly because there is a reference in it to Maroc, a city not founded until 1062 CE, difficult for a ninth-century CE author to have added. Dozy’s conclusion was that the whole thing is an Andalusī “romancing” of the work of Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb, with some extra Iberian material from who knows where, and that its unique content – of which the notice with which we’re concerned is part – is late eleventh-century at the earliest and probably without earlier basis. So, let’s stack all this up.

  1. Some time after 1062 CE, someone decided to write a history of Muslim Iberia, which they based on an earlier work but to which they added some of their own material, including our notice about a 707/708 Muslim attack on Mallorca, and put the whole thing out under a respectable, plausible, but false name. Well, goodness knows they weren’t the last to do that, but then what?
  2. In the 1870s, Reinhart Dozy, having got curious about this, went into it and discovered the forgery, and wrote the discovery up as one of about a dozen unconnected little studies in one of his less well-known works. Not many people seem to have noticed.
  3. Juan Ribera had noticed, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear thought that an earlier thought of Pascual de Gayangos that maybe this was more of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya still deserved to be taken seriously enough that the known text of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and this one should be translated together, and so he did that.
  4. Several people, including Josep Amengual, presumably searching quite rapidly for all references to Mallorca they could find, then found this one, but apparently did not realise that it was not actually within Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s text.
  5. Signes then presumably got the cite from Amengual, and repeated it even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to find it himself. And that paper, unlike Amengual’s book, went online and thus other people started to ‘know’ this thing as well. But unfortunately, it’s a dud…

Now, of course, this does not leave us with any kind of definitive answer. As I said in my article, you can even just about have it all: it could be that there was a 707/708 raid which sent the poor Mallorcan mulūk off to Syria, possibly even resulting in a pact to the then-governor of Ifrīqiya, which the islands then, finding that not keeping them safe, repudiated in favour of an approach to the Carolingians that didn’t last long, then went independent and possibly piratical for a bit before being reigned back in by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, but were not finally conquered till either the 850s-880s or 902/903.20 Or maybe those two dates are even for different islands in the archipelago and both true! It would be a bit weird that not one of our writers seems to have known other stories if they were all true, but they’re not actually incompatible, and even if the 707/708 story is from three hundred years later, that’s still closer to the supposed facts than Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn ʽIḏārī. But what that story is not is the work of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya. And that is a dead factoid, thankyou very much.


1. What that means, of course, is that if you’ve read Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, at pp. 199-209 and esp. 206-209, none of what follows is going to be new to you, sorry. But given firewalls and time, I’m betting that mostly you haven’t, and I can forgive you.

2. Covered ibid. pp. 198-212, but see also Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit, “The Early Byzantine Period in the Balearic Islands” in Demetrios Michaelides, Philippa Pergola and Enrico Zanini (eds), The Insular System of the Early Byzantine Mediterranean: Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2523 (Oxford 2013), pp. 31–45.

3. On the Santueri seals see Juan Nadal Cañellas, “Las bulas de plomo bizantinas del Castillo de Santueri” in Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lul·liana Vol. 72 (La Palma 2006), pp. 325–340; they are the only part of the evidence from an extensive archæological dig that has been made public.

4. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 199-204.

5. This is changing as radiocarbon dating begins to make a difference, as witness Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, M. Van Strondyck, M. Boudin, C. Mas Florit, J. S. Mestres, F. Cardona, E. Chávez-Álvarez & M. Orfila, “Christians in a Muslim World? Radiocarbon dating of the cemetery overlaying the forum of Pollentia (Mallorca, Balearic Islands)” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 9 (Cham 2017), pp. 1529–1538, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-016-0325-0, but as the title notes they had found Christian burials, not Islamic ones. The real problem is non-differentiation of pre- and post-conquest coarse-ware ceramics, which absent Islamic fine-wares makes it very hard to tell when a site stopped being used. Once this changes, it will probably no longer be viable to hypothesize non-occupation of any of the islands.

6. Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), &section;374; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207.

7. Juan Signes Codoñer, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares en los siglos VIII y IX” in Rafael Durán Tapia (ed.), Mallorca y Bizancio (Palma de Mallorca 2005), pp. 45–99 at pp. 84-85; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 208-209. The opinion of Ibn Khaldūn is mine, not Signes’s!

8. Basically, the Byzantinists see it as Byzantine till the last possible moment (as witness Signes), the Islamicists see it conquered as early as possible, and the Catalans see it as taken over by the Carolingians and thus effectively gathered into the future Catalonia with some unfortunate Islamic interludes that however serve to justify Aragonese ‘reconquest’. There are, admittedly, exceptions to this in every group except the Byzantinists.

9. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 205-206; the text is in English in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor 1972), online here, pp. 1-128, s a. 798.

10. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208.

11. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 85.

12. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208, accessible to me from Ibn Idari, Historias de al-Andalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n. d.), pp. 81-82.

13. On the situation of Pamplona see Juan José Larrea & Jesús Lorenzo, “Barbarians of Dâr al-Islâm: The Upper March of al-Andalus and the Pyrenees in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Guido Vannini & Michele Nucciotti (edd.), La Transgiordania nei secoli XII-XIII e le ‘frontiere’ del Mediterraneo medievale. Trans-Jordan in the 12th and 13th Centuries and the ‘Frontiers’ of the Medieval Mediterranean, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2386 (Oxford 2012), pp. 277–288.

14. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, pp. 46-54; Josep Amengual i Batle, Els orígens del cristianisme a les Balears i el seu desenvolupament fins a l’època musulmana, Els Trebals i els dies 36 & 37 (Palma de Mallorca 1991), 2 vols, vol. I pp. 441-453; there are other people I could cite, as well, but these notes are crowded enough and anyway I do at Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207 n. 64.

15. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

16. I have, in fact, sat down and read all of it, while in bed in Venice in fact, and it has many excellent stories in it one of which will be a future blog post; but I don’t have notes. Anyway, while I’m trailing future blog posts we might note that if this thing were in there it would not be the only evidence for early raiding preceding the invasion of Iberia, as I will later disclose, and that was why I didn’t initially think anything need be wrong with the idea.

17. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 93 n. 5, cites Julián Ribera (ed./transl.), Historia de la Conquista de España de Abenalcotía el Cordobés, seguida de fragmentos históricos de Abencotaiba, etc., Colección de obras arábigas de historia y geografía que publica el Real Academia de Historia 2 (Madrid 1926), online here as of 10th July 2016 but sadly no longer, but he gives no page reference, I suspect because he could not find the passage in question either.

18. Amengual, Orígens del cristianisme, vol. I pp. 442-443, citing Ribera, Historia de la Conquista de España, p. 122, which is correct.

19. R. Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3ème ed. (Paris 1881), 2 vols, vol. I, online here, pp. 21-40.

20. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 210.

Mistakes about Catalan viscounts

(In October 2018, somehow, I seem to have managed to claw back some reading time; I think this may have been the point at which I decided to read for research on the train to and from work on the grounds that at least that way I was reading something. One of the things I picked was a French volume about viscounts, which was germane to what I then thought I was working on, and it occasioned me to stub several posts for the blog. The following one, though, I originally wrote in one go on 17th October, apparently mainly out of outrage. I’ve now defanged it somewhat and post it in the spirit of 2022 as far as I can, rather than that of 2018.)

This is a post of reflection, prompted by my having read a piece of someone else’s work that made me cross. Long-term readers will remember this happening more in my younger days; I said some angry things in print or indeed here, feelings were hurt, and I now try not to do the destructive-mode thing for the most part. After all, it’s not as if my own work is magically free of all error. But sometimes, what gets me is that I can see how it could have been done better because I know the stuff too, and this is one of those cases.

The piece that prompts this is a short chapter about the viscounts of Cerdanya.1 I have been learning a lot about viscounts lately. I began looking for stuff about the viscounts of Narbonne, because a cousin of Borrell II, with whom he may have grown up, married into their family. (We know this because she left something in her will to him and his brother.2) But the book in which that chapter lay contained studies of many another area’s viscounts, and also the reflection that actually it was only fringe areas of France that developed semi-independent viscounts, really, mainly from the very late tenth century until the twelfth, when either the Albigensian Crusade or the Plantagenets rather shook them out of their trees.3 And among these things are two articles by French scholars on Catalan viscounts, one by Dr Élisabeth Bille.

Now, my reason to care is that there is a chapter in my book which has a section on the viscounts of Conflent, and despite the title of Dr Bille’s chapter, that is effectively who it is about: the two families conjoined in the mid-11th century and she doesn’t trace the Cerdanya side back before that, while the viscount of Cerdanya whom she does mention, Unifred, discussed below, is problematic. My chapter was based on a larger part of my thesis, but my thesis was finished in 2005, didn’t go online till 2007, this book came out in 2008 and seems to have been based on a conference that must have happened earlier, and I only submitted the text of my actual book to the press in 2008… So neither of us could have known about the other’s work, and indeed I only find hers now.4 But of course we’re working off the same sources, so ideally our work would find the same things. This is not what has happened. My quibbles, enumerated, are these.

  1. In passing, Bille refers to Count Ermengol I of Osona dying in battle in one of several engagements with his cousins the counts of Cerdanya, in 942.5 This has been said by several people, but there’s no actual basis for it; a twelfth-century text from the place where he was buried says he died at Baltarga, and people have deduced that it should have been a fight with Cerdanya because that’s where the place is, but firstly no other source says this, secondly that source doesn’t say whom he was fighting and thirdly for that reason someone else has argued that he died defending his country from Hungarian raiders, which also could have happened but for which there is no more proof.6 So while this doesn’t really affect the overall conclusion much it made me suspect that trouble lay ahead.
  2. It becomes clear where when Viscount Unifred of Cerdanya first turns up. This man is very little attested, but he appears between 913 and 928 as a fidelis of Count Miró II of Cerdanya; then the next (and last) mention we have of him is in 954, when the Counts of Cerdanya and Besalú, Miró’s sons, wrote to King Louis IV asking for permission to seize Unifred’s property because he had rebelled against them.7 For Bille this shows that the counts could still depose viscounts at this stage and disinherit their heirs, but for me it shows the absolute opposite: not only did they need royal permission, leading to them contacting a king for the first time in their or their father’s lives that we know of, but also given that this was forty years after Unifred’s first adult appearance, he was almost certainly dead by now. And, as it turns out, his children actually did inherit a decent chunk of his property.8 Bille knows the charter that shows that, but doesn’t read it my way, or know of other Catalan work that did.9 In fact, she doesn’t use much current Catalan work on Catalonia at all. And this does all matter, because her overall argument is that viscounts changed from being biddable subordinates of the count to territorially-entrenched independents over the eleventh century, whereas I’d say Unifred shows that they were already independents in the tenth and had probably always been, so the change must be otherwise described.9bis
  3. A further example of this is Viscount Bernat of Conflent, Unifred’s grandson as it happens, though Bille does not know this. He ruled Conflent between 971 and 1001, in which as far as Bille is concerned the viscounts were still the counts’ assistants. Actually, as she must know, having read the same documents I have, Bernat never appeared with a count in his lifetime. He must have known them – he even shared care of a castle with Borrell II at one point – but he ran things entirely separately from them as far as we can see, something which was made much more possible by the fact that first his brother then his son were successive bishops of Urgell, meaning that the family had someone else who could represent them to the counts.10 As it is, Bille mentions Bernat once and moves on without discussion of either his ancestry or how his career sits at complete variance to her discussion. She moves onto Bernat Sunifred of Cerdanya, from the next century, so quickly that it’s easy to think that the two were the same man.11
  4. Another part of Bille’s argument is that the viscounts did not have assigned property or territories before about the mid-11th century; for her, they were essentially floating officers of the count. How they were maintained she never discusses, but to support her basic contention she says that none of her viscounts are named as viscounts of a particular place or territory before 1050.12 To which I say, Bernat of Conflent was so named at the consecration of the new church of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 974, and the reason clearly is that two viscounts called Bernat were present so had to be distinguished, this one and one of Cerdanya (the latter, as far as we can tell, not a descendant of Unifred).13 It could be done, therefore; it just didn’t normally need to be said. Everyone at the time knew who the viscount was, after all. Now, when one goes and looks at the references Bille provides here (which is not easy, as they’re given on CD-ROM!14), she doesn’t know that document; but actually, she knows three others I didn’t in which viscounts of this family are named with territories prior to 1035!15 Yet in the chapter body she says that never happened, even though her reference is three cases where it did!
  5. Lastly and less importantly, Bille notes that this family managed to dominate the bishopric of Urgell for fifty years or so, till Bishop Ermengol, Bernat’s son, progressed himself to sainthood by falling off a bridge in 1035.16 After Bishop Eribau, who succeeded him, the counts managed to corner that see for themselves.17 Well, fair enough actually, except that unbeknownst to her Eribau was also a member of the same family, if not the exact same branch of it. Again, if she knew the relevant Catalan work she’d have known that.18

Now, with all that on one side of the balance, on the other I do understand how this sort of thing can happen. After all, if I go back and look at my thesis now I cringe in places at what I didn’t know and thought I did, and while this article was published four years after Dr Bille’s thesis it was presumably written much closer to it.19 If I were guessing what had happened here, it’s that by the time the editors got proofs back to her, she had perhaps found this extra stuff but they would only let her make changes to the digital section, not the print text, so correcting the references was all she could do. It’s also just hard to be up to date with literature in a country not your own. I’m always massively behind with the Catalan scholarship, because it’s so hard for me to find out what is being published and then get hold of it; the tricks I can perform in a UK environment of being present at enough events and conferences that I hear from active people and can use what they tell me to learn what I need to be aware of, I can’t do somewhere I don’t live (insert: as you can tell, a pre-Covid-19 perspective here). One winds up patching one’s ignorance with Google, and in 2005 that didn’t work as well as it does now. I’m acutely conscious of this just now because I am currently trying to work out how to do revisions on an article I unwisely wrote out of my normal area. Predictably, it has come back with reviewers’ comments indicating my ignorance, and setting me reading I will have to go to Cambridge, London and ideally Barcelona to do, because some of it isn’t available in the UK at all.20 In term-time, that is very difficult, and I will probably have cut some corners to answer these critiques by the time this post goes up.20bis Given that when that article comes out, someone could probably be just as cross about it, perhaps I should just recognise that sometimes this happens to people, forgive it and move on.

Except that… My mistakes have got caught by peer review; that is what’s supposed to happen. Bille’s got published. Moreover, however it happened, she ignores, sidelines or just plain misreads several documents that damage her argument seriously. Peer reviewers ought to have caught that—I would have caught it, even in 2006—but I don’t see how she cannot have known that the evidence conflicted with her argument. We’re supposed to do this right, after all; even if historians don’t believe we can actually know what happened, we have to be as careful as possible in trying to find out and as honest as possible about what we find. Without that, we have no claim to being experts, as opposed to opinion columnists, and without expertise there’s no justification for the profession at all. So I still think this needs pointing out. Probably it’s partly that it’s stuff I have written about, and therefore want to believe I got right, and she doesn’t agree. But I also think this shouldn’t have been published without being checked and fixed. So, this is the check. I cannot find any sign that Dr Bille has continued in the profession, so I guess that there will not be a fix; but at least if someone else is using the chapter, they can now see the problems too.


1. Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe) siècle” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008), pp. 143–155.

2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 346. The two brothers are the only distant kin or nobility mentioned, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that this implies some special memory of them from before she was packed off to Narbonne; such memories wpuld have to be childhood ones, when they would have been even younger than her. One could make a more realpolitikal argument that she was maintaining links with the counts beyond her neighbours, but if so this is the only one she tried doing like this, and I think that suggests that the personal link was determinative.

3. Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction” in eadem, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 7–19; for shaking from trees, see Mireille Mousnier, “Vicomtes de Gimois et de Terride : une difficile polarisation”, ibid., pp. 87–102, and Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, ibid., pp. 115–127.

4. The relevant bits of mine are Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141, developed from Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, London, 2005), online here, pp. 219-221.

5. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 144-145, referring to plural “heurts” between the kingroups; only one is known, and that was with Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. On it, see for now Josep Maria Salrach i Marès, “Política i moral: els comtes de Cerdanya-Besalú i la comunitat de monges benedictines de Sant Joan (segles IX-XI)” in Irene Brugués, Xavier Costa and Coloma Boada (eds), El monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019), pp. 225–257 at pp. 229-231, developing earlier work of Salrach’s which could have been available to Bille.

6. Salrach, “Política i moral”, p. 228; Albert Benet i Clarà, “La batalla de Balltarga. Epíleg de la incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals no. 9 (Barcelona 1983), pp. 639–640. The source is the Gesta Comitum Barcionensium, now best edited in Stefano Maria Cingolani (ed.), Les Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium (versió primitiva), la Brevis Historia i altres textos de Ripoll, Monuments d’Història de la Corona d’Aragó 4 (València 2012), pp. 9-160 at VI.2: “Ermengaudus vero frater eius, apud Baltargam bello interfectus, sine filio obiit.” And that’s all it says, in this single mention two hundred years later! So you’d think that as an idea it would have failed already, but since writing this post’s first version I have found Oliver Vergés Pons, “La batalla de Baltarga en el joc de la política comtal del segle X: la mort d’Ermengol d’Osona i la successió del comtat d’Urgell” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 48 (Barcelona 2018), pp. 901–923, online here, which returns to the Barcelona-Cerdanya theory and needs examination separately. The shortest version of my protest would be that none of the contemporary sources for his death mention the battle, but they do mention illness, and I think the battle was fictitious.

7. With Miró in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 119; overseeing Miró’s will in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum 8: Els comtats d’Urgell, Cerdanya i Berga, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 111 (Barcelona 2020), 2 vols, doc. no. 229 (but published elsewhere as long ago as 1838); having his lands confiscated in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2-3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, Particulars XL.

8. Pere Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum VI: Els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 70, (Barcelona 2006), 2 vols, doc. no. 490, first published in 1981; for the prosopography the relevant work needed here is Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Osona 1981), pp. 249–260, online here.

9. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe no. 43. On the complications of following up references in this volume, see n. 14 below.

9bis. In Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 144-147, indeed, I suggested that titles like ‘viscount’, ‘vicar’ and the like might indicate rewards issued to powerful independents for engagement with the comital power structure, rather than any actual office and responsibility, and I still think that was true in some cases, but one of the other posts I stub wrestles with this question separately.

10. Ibid., pp. 136-141.

11. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 149-150.

12. Ibid. p. 154.

13. Ordeig, Catalunya carolíngia 8, doc. no. 718, first published in 1979; Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 135 n. 31.

14. I do, sort of, understand why some supporting material for academic work is best viewed online. There are things that won’t fit on a page’s format, interactive datasets that can’t be rendered in print, images that need to be in colour or scaled in ways that the print book didn’t allow for, and all these might, just, justify the peculiar awkwardness of needing a computer to read your print book usefully. But this is just a PDF, effectively another 220 pages of the book, and while I see how they might have been expensive to add, in the first place not so many computers even have CD-ROM drives any more, especially not laptops, so you may not even be able to read this book on your own computer, and in the second place a lot of it is just footnotes that any normal press process would expect in academic work anyway. It’s hard to see why they didn’t just publish it digital-only, given how awkward this mish-mash of technologies is…

15. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe p. 133 n. 21.

16. On Bishop Ermengol, the beginning of whose career we have documented here in the past, see for now Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1–16.

17. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 150-151

18. Rovira, “Noves dades”.

19. My worst mistake in that was picked up in the viva, thankfully, and didn’t get to the version of record. There is a charter I’ve mentioned here before, in which a frontierswoman bequeaths some stuff to her deacon son, including what seem to be revenues from border-raiding. The Latin terms for these are ‘praedis et peccoribus’, and I had trouble translating the second term. William Whitaker’s invaluable Words program came up with the fairly hypothetical ‘little sins’, deriving it from ‘peccata’, and I ran with that and developed an argument that the scribe was imposing his moral view of this raiding onto the charter even though the transactors presumably thought it was cool. One of my markers pointed out, though, that ‘peccores’ would be a perfectly normal Latin word for ‘pigs’. That whole argument came out of the thesis as soon as I could bear to look at it again…

20. You may ask why I don’t inter-library loan it all. The answer is threefold: firstly, it would cost me ten pounds an item that I can’t charge to expenses, an ongoing argument; secondly, inter-library loan from Spain is really erratic and can take months to turn up if it comes at all; thirdly, it’s term-time, so if something does turn up quickly, and is restricted to the Library, and I also have marking due, I simply won’t be able to open it before it’s due back. Thus, I wind up taking the much more expensive option of going where it is at a time I choose, not least because that, I can charge to expenses without argument. But I’d rather be at home a few more weekends than this will all permit me, and of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to work in my own time to fulfil the requirements of a paid job, right? It just always, always is in academia. (Note: this whole note was written in 2018, but it does help explain why people might by now be frustrated enough to strike.)

20bis. Actually, in 2022, I haven’t, because I couldn’t get permission from work to go to the relevant library enough. I will finish the article when my managers care to make it possible for me to do so. Again, this is why we’re on strike.

An(other) peculiar choice of local hero

The blog backlog seems to be moving quite rapidly through 2018 now; there is a grave danger of currency some year soon… But right now you find my memory of my life academic in late March 2018, facing the reality that, because of that grant I had got the previous year to get people together to talk about frontiers, I was now going to have to come up with a paper to give in a few weeks at a conference in front of those people. I will write (again) about that conference, in which there were much more interesting papers than mine, shortly, but by way of a run-up I want first to write about a peculiarity of local historical memory about a little-known figure of the Muslim régime in the Iberian Peninsula (or to use its snappier Arabic name, al-Andalus), a guy known to us as ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī.

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā in Tudela

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā Ibn Qāsi in Tudela, by Arenillas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

To do this I want to start somewhere we’ve been before, Tudela in the time of the nearly-legendary frontier warlord Mūsā ibn Mūsā. You may remember (or may quickly surmise from the old blog post I just linked there) that this man was said in a Christian chronicle of his era to have called himself ‘the third king of Hispania‘, which for me raised the questions, firstly, who’s number 2, and secondly, why does no Muslim source say this?1 But more important than my answers to those questions (which, after all, are in that post) is the fact that at Tudela Mūsā is now a feature of public memorialization, as ‘el Rey de l’Ebro’, King of the Ebro Valley, presumably because he is the only person who ever ruled as a successful independent from Tudela, so is ‘theirs’ in some way despite having repeatedly conquered or been awarded the place from his actual base at Arnedo. And it transpires that that is not the only such story, except that this one has maybe even shakier a basis.

It’s not, I should say, that there is any doubt that al-Ŷillīqī (or indeed Mūsā) actually existed; they are both reasonably attested. Neither is it that al-Ŷillīqī wasn’t an interesting and indicative character; that was indeed why I was looking at him. His story is substantially told in the Ta’rikh iftitāḥ al-Andalus (History of the Conquest of al-Andalus) of Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya, which is now well-translated into English.2 It goes basically like this: he was the son of the governor of Mérida, from an originally-Christian family who had converted to Islam (which is probably why the likewise-descended Ibn al-Qūṭiyya, ‘son of the Gothic woman’, was interested in his story), and for reasons we know not (possibly not being allowed himself to become governor of Mérida?) rebelled against the Cordoban government of al-Andalus in 868.3 This coincided with a rebellion by another descendant of converts about whom we know much less, a guy called Sa’dūn ibn Fatḥ al-Surunbāqī, and the two of them teamed up and got help from the Christian north, at this time dominated by the aggressive and successful King Alfonso III of Asturias, as Ibn al-Qūṭiyya puts it, “causing huge disturbances throughout Islam, which would take too long to relate.” It was this connection to the Christian north, known in al-Andalus as Ŷillīyya from the same root that gives us modern Galicia, that got al-Ŷillīqī the by-name by which history now recalls him.

Anyway, this escalated, because the emir Muḥammad I sent his son with an army against the rebels, and the rebels won and captured the army’s commander, whom they gave to Alfonso III to ransom. This elevated al-Ŷillīqī’s standing on the frontier to the point where he was basically untouachable, and the terrible two began raiding much deeper into Cordoban territory. Muḥammad, apparently recognising that the situation could not be recovered, now entered negotiations, and Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s report of this is so great that I’ll just quote it.

“Now, when the emir had become sorely tired of Ibn Marwān, he sent an intermediary to him, who said, ‘Listen! We are tired of you and you of us, so make known your plans.’ He replied, ‘My plan is to have al-Basharnal [San Cristobal], to build it up, extend it and populate it. I will pay allegiance, but will make no tribute nor abeyance, nor will you make any prohibitions.’ This place, al-Basharnal, is opposite Baṭalyaws [Badajoz], with the river [the Guadiana] between. It was agreed that Badajoz should be fortified as far as the river, to protect the party of Islam, according to the conditions.”

So with that matters were temporarily arranged. The province was at least notionally no longer in rebellion and the frontier of al-Andalus technically extended to its edge, even if Córdoba had no real power there; one would like to know whether al-Ŷillīqī would have fought in the emiral army if Muḥammad I had summoned him, as Mūsā ibn Mūsā did when the Vikings came a generation before, but as far as we know this never came up. Nonetheless, the situation was embarrassing, and eventually the ransomed army commander, a guy named Hāshim, persuaded Muḥammad to let him have another go (with a different one of the emir’s sons in tow this time). They must have moved quite slowly, however, because apparently news of their move north reached al-Ŷillīqī in plenty of time for him to send a letter to Córdoba, which Ibn al-Qūṭiyya summarises as follows:

“‘I have heard that Hāshim is on his way west. I have no doubt that he is intent on revenge, now that I am staying in a secure fort. Well, by God! if he comes past Niebla, I will put Badajoz to the torch! Then I will return to my previous tactics with you.'”

The army must have stayed in Niebla for some time, because on receipt of this letter Muḥammad I was apparently able to send orders to it to halt, and Badajoz was not burned on this occasion. It’s all a fascinating story for my purposes, and I’ll talk about the conclusions I draw from it in the next post, but as far as either Ibn al-Qūṭiyya or any other writer is concerned that’s where the story ends. We know of two sons of al-Ŷillīqī and some descendant was in rebellion against ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (912-961 CE) in Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s own time, so the family probably stayed in charge in the area till at least then, but this is not part of any coherent account of anything except ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III.4 But it’s not where local memory of the man ended, or at least it has been revived, because look!

Statue of Ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī as founder of Badajoz, by Estanislao García, Badajoz, 2003

Statue of Ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī as founder of Badajoz, by Estanislao García, Badajoz, 2003; image by Gianni86Trabajo propio, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This was put up in Badajoz in 2003, and is the work of one Estanislao García. You can’t see the plaque on this public-domain image, but there are several very good copyright ones on another site here and they make it clear that the Wikimedia caption is actually what is on the plaque, in both Spanish and Arabic, “Ibn Marwán, fundador de Badajoz, año 875 / 261 AH” (Ibn Marwān, founder of Badajoz, 875 CE or 261 Hijri).

Now, for reasons that are probably obvious, this historian here finds these choices a bit peculiar. Let’s never mind that there is basically no date for any of al-Ŷillīqī’s actions after 868; the date they’ve chosen is indicative and might not even be wrong. I’m more puzzled by the choice of this figure at all and the rôle they’ve given him. Firstly, I guess it’s evident from the story as reported above that Badajoz already existed when al-Ŷillīqī first became a problem there, and indeed as you’d expect the archaeology supports that. This city website admits that but still argues that the city can be considered al-Ŷillīqī’s foundation, and attributes to him walls that were built around the city in 878; but we’ve seen from Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that those walls were most likely put up against him, “to protect the party of Islam.”5 The place that al-Ŷillīqī founded, or at least built up, was San Cristobal, which is now all gone as far as I can tell, and he did that primarily so as to be able to threaten the good people of Badajoz if state power looked like coming anywhere near him.

Yet the descendants of those good people have still paid for a statue of this man, who would have cheerfully burned their city and ancestors, and decided he should be the crucial figure of their local history. Part of me would like to know what the consultation and decision process, and indeed the available education about the city’s past, were that lay behind the commissioning of that statue; and part of me fears that the answers would give me unto despair for the usefulness of the historical profession. And I suppose the reply from a patriotic citizen might be, “if you can’t give us anything better but can only take away the one documented early mention of our town, you can get out of town yourself,” and I would understand that to a point. And I suppose it’s even possible from what Ibn al-Qūṭiyya says about it that San Cristobal is now in Badajoz, which now extends over both banks of the Guadiana, and so that in that sense there would be a part of the city which he founded. But even if so, he did that by turning the other half into his hostages, and I can’t help feeling that should make a difference to his memory!6


1. Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), Chronique d’Alphonse III s. a. 850. On the family and their position on the frontier see now Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011), where see pp. 118-119.

3. Not all of these details are in the text; Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, History, p. 127 n. 38 supplies them from Maria Isabel Fierro, “Familias en el Ta’rīj Iftitāḥ al-Andalus de Ibn al-Qūṭīyya” in Estudios Onomástico-Biográficos de al-Andalus vol. IV (Granada 1990), pp. 41-70, citing no. 67 & nn. 79-80, which I have not seen myself.

4. For the sons see ibid.; for the subsequent rebellion, Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, History, p. 140. The rebel lost this time, and that probably was the end of the family’s story.

5. See n. 2 above for the quote; “Historia”, Ajuntamiento de Badajoz, online here, says:

“La ciudad de Badajoz puede considerarse de fundación musulmana, a pesar de que las excavaciones realizadas en la Alcazaba, demuestran que ya en época prehistórica, en el calcolítico concretamente, existió un considerable núcleo de población. Esta población perdura en epoca protohistórica, pero no parece que existiera núcleo urbano durante el dominio romano de la península, aunque sí abundantes “villas” en sus proximidades.
“Tampoco ha quedado ninguna edificación visigoda, pero sabemos que debió tener cierta importancia este momento histórico a juzgar por la cantidad de restos encontrados como pilastras de mármol, capiteles, etc…
“Con los musulmanes, la ciudad adquiere notable importancia, siendo por dos veces capital de un reino independiente: la primera vez en tiempo del Valí Ibn Marwan (868) quien contruye las primeras murallas de adobe y tapial en el 878 y posteriormente al formarse los reinos de taifas y derrumbarse el califato cordobés en los primeros años del siglo XI.”

The key phrase here is pretty clearly “capital de un reino independiente”, capital of an independent kingdom, but to call Ibn Marwan walī, governor, or to accuse him of establishing that thing from that basis is surely to miss the context of his actions…

6. I should admit at this point that there is some relevant scholarship I haven’t been able to access, to wit, Christophe Picard, “La fondation de Badajoz par Abd al-Rahman Ibn Yunus al-Jalliki” in Revue des études islamiques Vol. 49 (Paris 1981), pp. 215–230, which nowhere I can easily reach has. I promise to check it before I try actually publishing anything involving al-Ŷillīqī, but it’s odd that Picard doesn’t even apparently agree about the guy’s filiation. Santiago Feijoo Martínez & Miguel Alba Calzado, “La decadencia de Mérida en el siglo IX” in Juan Zozaya Stabel-Hansen & Guillermo S. Kurtz Schaefer (edd.), Estudios sobre el Reino Aftasí, Bataliús 3 (Badajoz 2014), pp. 93–110, meanwhile, argue (p. 110) that the big event for Badajoz was the translocation of a decent part of the population of Mérida there in 875, for which they give no source; but if it happened, it was presumably another part of the state defence against al-Ŷillīqī, since we don’t think he controlled Mérida…

Burning the Law in Tenth-Century Castile

In today’s post I want to enlist the readership’s help in tracing a factoid. [Edit: and you have helped me find it! Thankyou to Psellos, whose help is now clear in comments. I've left the post as was otherwise, though.] This is something I came across in the book by Eugene Mendonsa I wrote about a few posts ago, which seemed to me most unlikely, and for which I then spent a little effort trying to trace to a source. I failed, but it’s not just my fault; I’ve run into many citational dead ends that shouldn’t be such, and since the effective source seems to be popular tradition, I wondered if anyone out there knows about it? Here is the quote from Mendonsa:1

“Reliance on written documentation to confirm repression was unique to Catalonia in Iberia. For instance, in neighboring Castile, Count Fernán González was so adamant in retaining traditional oral customs that he had all copies of the Liber Iudicum he could find in his country burned in the Cathedral of Burgos.”

As usual with Mendonsa’s book, as I said last time, there is no clear source for this,. The most likely thing in his chapter bibliography looks to be E. N. van Kleffens, Hispanic Law until the end of the Middle Ages, with a note on Continued Validity after the Fifteenth Century of Medieval Hispanic Legislation in Spain, the Americas, Asia, and Africa (Edinburgh 1968), but I don’t have access to that and Hathitrust’s search gives no instances of ‘burn’, so I’m not sure. There are obvious reasons to doubt such a claim, anyway. Here are the ones I could quickly think of:

  1. The Liber Iudicum, otherwise known as the Visigothic Law, was very much still in use in Castile in the thirteenth century, when it was translated by royal order into the text we now know as the Fuero Juzgo, so Fernán González’s Fahrenheit 451 episode couldn’t have been very effective.
  2. Almost anything written later on about things Fernán González did are shot through with legend, but those legends usually include him issuing a fuero of his own for Castile, the point being to separate it from royal legislation, not to reinforce orality.2
  3. The Forum Iudicum would have been older than any oral customs in Castile, since it predated the Muslim conquest of the Visigothic kingdom.
  4. The bishopric of Burgos was only revived in 1075, Castile was a county not a country, and we could go on, but I did this for Mendonsa once already and don’t need to again.

So instead I did some searching, and what I found can be grouped under two headings, writing that you’d think would mention this episode but significantly doesn’t, which is to say pretty much anything I could quickly open that mentions Fernán González in an actual tenth-century context but also works on actual law in medieval Castile, and then very venerable works that do mention this episode but only in passing. (There’s also an unreferenced mention in an almost unconnected Wikipedia article in Spanish whose English version omits it, just to complete the picture.) The most obvious of the first sort of works I’ve already referenced, but first of the second is nothing less than Amerigo Castro’s The Spaniards: An Introduction to their History, part of his side of the long-running polemic with that unfriendly but impressive figure, Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, about what the real nature of Spanishness was.3 In its English version, on p. 512, Castro was made to say:

“Whether it is based on actual tradition or mere legend, it is a significant fact that those Visigothic laws were burned in Burgos by the Castilians as a sign of protest against the kingdom of León to which they were subject.”

This is exactly the kind of statement that means I tend to prefer Sánchez-Albornoz to Castro despite the former’s own particular problems – “whether it is based on… tradition or… legend, it is a significant fact”! – but the main thing of relevance here is that there is no citation. But it didn’t entirely surprise me when I picked it up again in the work of those two’s mutual senior, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who in 1943 and 1944 wrote, in the same words both times:4

“Una tradición muy respetable cuenta que, al conseguir su autonomía los castellanos, reunieron todas las copias de ese Fuero Juzgo que pudieron hallar por su tierra y las quemaron en Burgos.”

As ever, my Castilian isn’t my strongest language, but I make that more or less:

“A very respectable tradition records that, in order to secure their autonomy, the Castilians gathered all the copies of this Fuero Juzgo that could be found in their land and burnt them in Burgos.”

Pretty much a match! So I guess that, while Menéndez Pidal wasn’t Mendonsa’s source, he was probably quoted by whatever that source actually was. But what was Menéndez Pidal’s source? “Una tradición muy respetable”, without reference, isn’t a lot to go on, and Menéndez Pidal is as far back I can trace it. So, over to you folks: does anyone else know this tradition, and if so, where it might have started?


1. Eugene L. Mendonsa, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham, NC, 2008), p. 130.

2. Two fairly modern examples: Michael P. McGlynn, “The Seven Laws of Fernán González: Castile’s Tenth-Century Legislative Beginnings” in Confluencia Vol. 25 (Greely 2009), pp. 93–100, where it would have been relevant almost anywhere, and María Angustias Alba Bueno and Manuel Rodríguez García, “La muerte en el Fuero Juzgo y tipos de enterramientos en el Reino Visigodo de Toledo” in Estudios sobre patrimonio, cultura y ciencias medievales Vol. 18 (Granada 2016), pp. 81–106, online here, where p. 82 runs quickly through the afterlife of the code with no mention of this.

3. Amerigo Castro, The Spaniards: an introduction to their history, transl. Willard F. King & Selma Margaretten (Berkeley, CA, 1971), translation of his España en su historia or La realidad histórica de España as it became in later editions. On the debate between him and Sáanchez-Albornoz a still-useful guide is Jocelyn N. Hillgarth, “Spanish Historiography and Iberian Reality” in History and Theory Vol. 24 (Oxford 1985), pp. 23-43.

4. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, “La Castilla de Fernán González” in Boletín de la Commisión Provincial de Monumentos de Burgos Vol. 22 (Burgos 1943), pp. 237-254, online here, at p. 242, and idem, “Caracter originario de Castilla” in Revista de estudios políticos Vol. 13-14 (Madrid 1944), pp. 383-408, online here, at p. 390, as I say in more or less the same words; I guess when you’re effectively writing for a Fascist dictator about how his province of birth was historically destined to provide the future rulers of Spain, you maybe cut a few editorial corners in favour of speed of production…

Is it him or is it me? Accuracy, disciplinary expectations and Borrell II

University and College Union pickets dispersing at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 29th November 2019

University and College Union pickets dispersing at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 29th November 2019

I know I’ve made this point by now, but because I, like many other UK academics, am still on strike today, you can have another blog post, because if I were working I could not do this and would have to squeeze time out of Sunday to blog instead. This is another thing I first wrote in mid-2016, when I still had time to read, and as you will see it promises further instalments. In fact, I never wrote those, because the experience I describe below did not improve, but I think it still raises some questions that are worth thinking about, not least, “what should I have been reading instead?” Anyway, here it is, in the unaltered voice of 2016.

Cover of Eugene Mendonsa, Scripting Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008)

Cover of Eugene Mendonsa, Scripting Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008)

I have read pretty much what there is to read on Count Borrell II of Barcelona by now, as anyone who has hung around this blog for a while would expect, but I have been trying while writing the story of his life to patch any gaps even so. Into this window of opportunity has wandered a book I first heard of when it must have been very new, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view, by Eugene L. Mendonsa.1 The preface to this was free on the web in 2009 or so, and I showed it to my anthropologist of resort to ask whether it seemed sensible to them. After all, I repeatedly talk down medieval historians for using outdated anthropology and ignoring newer stuff; if an anthropologist has written a book about exactly my study area and period, I should not be ignoring it! My referee thought that from what she could tell it seemed OK, and so eventually I found a copy at a price I didn’t mind, bought it and started reading it. This post was occasioned, as it will seem by the time it gets through the backlog to go up, by my reaction to the first substantive chapter.

It would be mean to say that the first chapter makes me wish I’d not spent the money, but it is surprising to me in a number of ways that are probably justifiable without being mean. The book sets out in the preface explicitly to use anthropological thinking to understand how élites in medieval Catalonia kept themselves that way by the social and symbolic structures they created to impose and to justify domination. You can see why this sounds exactly like something I need in my toolkit. However, to go about this the author does a really extensive recapitulation of the political and social history of the area of Catalonia, skimming the Roman, Visigothic and Carolingian periods and getting down to detail in the comital era and proceeding on to the civil wars of the fifteenth century, in three lengthy chapters. In the first chapter at least, no anthropology is cited at all, and while there is analysis along with the narrative it’s derived fairly straightforwardly from historians’ work. I can’t see from a quick skip ahead that this changes much in the subsequent two chapters either, and these three historical ones are together 165 pages of a 226-page book, all in.

So in some sense this is exactly what I wish people would now do, which is use the medieval period as material for new historical anthropology. On another level, however, it is not how we normally do history at all. Some of that is a matter of presentation. There are no footnotes or endnotes, for example, just a list of references at the end of each chapter. That might be OK, and all the things I’d expect to see there in English are there although far far fewer in Catalan or Castilian. However, the text is peppered with quotations, and there’s no way to link these quotations to the works in the reference lists. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard academic practice in any discipline.

Also, lots of it is just factually wrong. Some of that is by virtue of not knowing the disciplinary conventions, I admit, and some of it is because our author likes to come up with snappy phrases for things that might make handy shorthands to a lay audience while looking very odd to medievalists; he refers to ‘Sword Power’ a lot to mean rule by force, for example, which is dramatic to the point of oddness but not wrong in a factual sense. But there is factual error too. The bit that made me choke most was to see the phrase, “Charlemagne’s other son, Bernard of Septimania”; I have no idea what you have to read to get that impression but I very much doubt it was in any of the works in the reference list.2 But when he gets to the sack of 985, our author disappears into a fog of error:

The disaster hit during the reign of Count Ramon Borrell (948-992). Most of the inhabitants were either killed or enslaved. The count fled into the Pyrenees.

The failure of the Francian kings to help the count of Barcelona fight off the advance on the Marca Hispanica of Emir Al-Mansur caused the count to turn to the powerful Cluny Monastery for political support and then to become a vassal of the Holy See.

Al-Mansur died in 1002 and the threat passed. Nevertheless, ties to the Franks had been effectively severed and Count Borrell looked more to Rome during the remainder of his reign…”3

I’ll just knock these out:

  • Ramon Borrell ruled 990-1018.
  • We now think that casualties at Barcelona were serious but far from total, and that parts of the city defences were not even taken, but I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Professor Mendonsa to know that even if it was first suggested in 1982.4
  • Borrell II (945-993), who actually met this attack, did not as far as we know flee to the Pyrenees, though any record about what he did is some years later and only says that he fought al-Mansur’s army, lost and failed to defend the city.5
  • Al-Mansur was not an emir.
  • Neither Borrell nor Ramon Borrell his son had any contact with Cluny, but when the counts of Barcelona did it did not bring them political support in any material fashion.6
  • I’m pretty sure no count of Barcelona was ever a vassal of the Holy See; was that even a thing that happened before Gregory VII?7
  • Borrell did go to Rome, but in 970, well before the attack of 985; that actually seems to have put him personally back in touch with the kings of the Franks.8

The real pedant in me also wants to point out that Borrell II ruled from 945 to 993, but that might again be unfair; most books you could find that even mention him don’t realise that the date of his death has been corrected in local scholarship, and fewer still date from his documented first use of the comital title rather than the death of his father.9 However, since Professor Mendonsa also gives his dates as as 954-992 later on, when he talks of him issuing the first known charter in Catalonia (he means franchise charter, which is almost OK) and then has him in a genealogical table as “Ramon Borrell II, 966-992”, the date apparently because of his brother Miró dying in 966 but the rest hard to explain, it’s really not just lack of currency with local scholarship that’s the problem here.10 The big question is going to be: can an argument emerge, in the twenty-seven pages of the book dedicated so to doing, that still works when the historical foundation it’s set upon is so full of holes? How much about events does one have to know to be able correctly to diagnose social processes? If Professor Mendonsa does in fact have insights that seem good to me, will they be in any way safe to use, given not least that a historian going back to this book from my citation will likely be just as horrified by these errors as I am? These are questions which I suppose I can only answer by finishing the book, and I will, but I’m not sure, all the same, that this is a fair reflection of what anthropological approaches could do with this material…


1. Eugene L. Mendonsa, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008).

2. Ibid. p. 9.

3. Ibid. pp. 10-11.

4. Gaspar Feliu, “Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat” in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 49–54, online here; more broadly, Feliu, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

5. Feliu, Presa, pp. 18-19.

6. The obvious place to go when Professor Mendonsa was researching this might still have been the various papers on Cluny in Spain collected in Charles Julian Bishko, Spanish and Portuguese monastic history, 600 – 1300 (London 1984) or even, if one were inclined to look at local literature first, Anscari M. Mundó, “Moissac, Cluny et les mouvements monastiques de l’est des Pyrénées du Xe au XIIe siècle” in Annales du Midi Vol. 63 (Toulouse 1963), pp. 551-573, online here, but given recent comments on the blog I can hardly fail also to mention Lucy K. Pick, “Rethinking Cluny in Spain” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 5 (Abingdon 2013), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2012.758443 or indeed Karen Stöber, “Cluny in Catalonia”, ibid. Vol. 9 (2017), pp. 241–260, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2017.1292426. Professor Mendonsa, of course, couldn’t have used these latter two.

7. Ian S. Robinson, “Gregory VII and the Soldiers of Christ”, History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 169-192.

8. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535, again obviously not available when Professor Mendonsa wrote, but it’s not as if I was using unknown evidence.

9. Cebrià Baraut, “La data i el lloc de la mort del comte Borrell II de Barcelona-Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 10 (Montserrat 1990), pp. 469–472.

10. Mendonsa, Scripting of Domination, pp. 15 & 21.

Really, I expect better of these guys

There was no blog post yesterday because I was largely on the road back from seeing Hawkwind’s 50th anniversary tour, which practically counts as medieval history itself. Today, however, like quite a lot of the UK academy, I am on strike, and so I have time to make up for that omission. Indeed, if I do it right, I should have time to do some serious blog catch-up work, though if you are in the Leeds area, you may be interested to know that, with my colleague Dr Francesca Petrizzo, I am participating in the local University and College Union’s teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane on the 28th November, at 14:00-15:00, and that is open to the public, so you could come along and learn from us about ‘The Medieval Mediterranean: Race and Religion’. Maybe see you there! But if not, here is a blog post of a more normal kind, and more will hopefully follow.

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

So this post got stubbed while I was redrafting the article which became ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’ back in May 2016.1 I have written here before about the footnote that you have slaved over, that has grown far too big because it is really a tangent from the article or chapter and, in the final redraft, even as you edit it you know will, in the end, have to be cut. This is one of those. In the end, it did survive in a form, but much truncated.2 The problem of the article, as you may already have seen, is that people have generally misapplied the few numbers we have for agricultural productivity in the early Middle Ages, and that the person who did this with most success, in as much as he has been replicated all over the place, was Georges Duby. But he was not alone in doing bad maths with agricultural figures, and that’s where we come in… (The footnotes I have added; I don’t go quite as far as having footnotes in my footnotes. Not yet.)

“Of course, not everything that has been badly calculated about early medieval crop yields can be placed at the door of Georges Duby. Just as there is good reason to doubt his figures on the basis of experiments in Catalonia, so also there are Catalan attempts at such arithmetic that likewise fail to be justifiable.3 In a study of the ninth-century foundation and refoundation of the Pyrenean monastery of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada and then Sant Miquel de Cuixà, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals noticed in the will of the monastery’s major patron, Protasi, a bequest of all the cereals in the monastery compound, enumerated as 365 modios.4 Courageously, he assumed that this was close to or actually the yield from the probably-recent harvest, and then combined these figures with an earlier donation of an estate by Protasi where annual renders are given, ‘4 houses and a courtyard and 6 orchards and 12 vineyards, and the 30 quinales of wine that go out from there and there are 8 tonnae and 30 modii of corn’. Using this to establish a basic render figure of 7.5 modii of corn per house, Abadal then used the monastery total figure to estimate the house’s total landed endowment. This ingenious operation involved not just the assumption about proximity to the harvest and a myriad of other assumptions, some silent and some supplied in a lengthy footnote, about how much grain was needed to sow a modiata of land and the yield a modiata should produce, all supplied by late nineteenth-century figures from the same area based on a modern calculation of the area of a modiata (‘a little less than half a hectare’). Even if one cared to accept all these assumptions and patches, the essential uselessness of the figures thus obtained should have been apparent to Abadal’s readers when he explained, halfway through the sums, ‘Since we must think, however, that an important part of the harvest relating to these 365 modios of wheat should have corresponded to the direct cultivation of the monastery and not to that of its tenants, if we compute that part at a half…’ For this guess, immediately halving Abadal’s result, there is not even an anonymous nineteenth-century basis and it shows us, again, quite how much needs to be known, when performing such arithmetic, but is not.

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812, probably closer to the situation that Abadal described than the ninth-century one. Image by ClaudefàTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Abadal, however, did not use these numbers to achieve a crop yield ratio: how could he have, when he had already supplied that part of the sum from his unnamed nineteenth-century source? This did not, however, stop Manuel Riu i Riu, in an article about metrology and terms for units, referring to this study as if it contained ninth-century figures for both seed sown and crop yielded.5 The former he based on the equation between the land unit modiata and the modius supposedly required to sow it; the latter he got from Abadal’s own figures, not apparently noticing that these were modern patches for the data lacking in the documents. As it happens, the figures that he gave provide a healthy yield figure of 6.25:1, but they are, of course, founded on absolutely nothing of meaning.”

Now, this is not the first time that we have caught Manuel Riu, superb archaeologist and excellent builder of the scholarly community of medievalists in Catalonia but not always quite as critical in his reading of texts as he needed to be, in a slip, but he was famous for his quantitative work and study of medieval units and measures, and he knew Abadal well, and I’d have hoped that he would read him more carefully; but then I’d also have hoped that Abadal wouldn’t have been quite so creative in his invention of his own data. The whole thing is further proof that if you invent numbers in historiography, people will quote them whatever they rest upon, even when they really shouldn’t. I don’t hope to change that as a whole trend, but it would be nice if I could make people more careful about it in this specific area…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. Ibid., pp. 20-21 n. 77.

3. For the Catalan reasons to doubt Duby, see my older blog post or indeed Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, pp. 22-25.

4. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337 at pp. 160-161, is the relevant source; the reprint in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484, doesn’t have the documentary appendix so lacks this bit.

5. Manuel Riu, “Pesos, mides i mesures a la Catalunya del segle XIII: Aportació al seu estudi” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 825–37, reprinted in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera and Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994: arqueològia experimental. Aplicació a l’agricultura medieval mediterrània (DGICYT PB90-0430) (Barcelona 1998), pp. 77–82.

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.

Mistakes not to make

Teaching resumed on Monday, and who knows how long I can keep up blogging under one of my heavier loads so far in this post? But I have one post ready, which I put into draft in the beginning of April 2016, when I was clearing messages off an old phone. Some of the messages came from a period when I was marking exam scripts by first-year undergraduates completely new to medieval history—not at my current institution I should point out, but long in the past—and as anonymous to me then as they are to you now. I evidently had to share the pain with someone, and now it seems wrong not to disperse it more fully before they pass into oblivion. I mean, each one is a gem in its way. I have grouped them by their particular sort of failing. All spellings were authentic and hopefully still are. I hope I didn’t teach any of them and wish them all well in their current lives.

Sadly not really getting it

These are probably our fault as teachers, really, but we certainly had help.

“Christainity often faced mass persecution in early medieval era. In 64 AD the first account of Christain persecution took place as Christains were blamed for the Great Fire of Rome.”

“Without the Silk Roads, the development of the world may not have been so fast.”

Words that sound about right

“There is evidence of this available from primary sources such as Byzantium coins being found in areas of China during the Confucian dynasty…”

Yes, Confucian is what this smells of to me too.

Unhelpful caution

I don’t think these were our fault, though, I think these were students being afraid of us marking them wrong.

“The emergence of Christianity would have been a great change as many places had been pagan prior to their conversion.”

Almost all, really!

Of Muhammad:

“… arguably the most important prophet of Islam…”

It’s hard to think of one more so!

“It is possible that in the eighth century there was a different view on what was true.”

That is indeed a problem we face.

Not what you meant

Here, if anyone is to blame, it’s whoever taught the writers writing.

“Muslim women had a great hurdle in overcoming their participation in the intellectual and political institutions of Islam…”

Some of them, indeed, never managed it. And this one is my favourite of all.

“Buddhists were not large enough to cause mass conversions.”

No comment needed.

What do you mean?

“The advent of Muslim women’s success in overcoming their challenges was hindered at the advent of Prostitution and that it was widespread in Provincal cities that had monitered brothels.”

I understand most of where this came from, except how the Muslims got back to Provence so quietly, but I don’t understand where it was trying to go.

“With a long-lasting peak of 1600 years, the Silk Routes, or Silk Roads, are heavily attributed for their ability to connect the unknown world.”

Good to know. I think.

Over time, I have developed a reputation as a tough marker. I offer these, then, as partial explanation of how I might have got that way and ask for the ones that weren’t funny enough to quote also to be taken into consideration…