Tag Archives: bad history

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…

Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

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

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

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

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

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

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

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

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

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

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

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

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

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

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The kind of maths we should not do

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

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. The reason we assume that the document, which is a vast parchment recording the names of people who swore that Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll had been given the valley to settle by her father Count guifré after he expelled the Saracens from it, records households is because about half of its signatories are female, and mostly appear with a male partner. This looks like an attempt to implicate all the conjugal pairs of the valley in what was in fact a political fiction (see Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x), but since there are others who aren’t in pairs, it must also be more than that. Hence, households seems likely. The argument is made most thoroughly in Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Sant Joan de les Abadesses: algunes precisions sobre l’acta judicial del 913 i el poblament de la vall” in S. Claramunt and M. T. Ferrer i Mallol (edd.), Homenatge a la memòria del Prof. Dr. Emilio Sáez: aplecs d’estudis dels seus deixebles i collaboradors (Barcelona 1989), pp. 421-434. The count of these households I just redid from a spreadsheet I constructed when writing the thesis that lies behind Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Tenth-Century Catalonia: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), where you can find more detail at pp. 35-51. The area I estimate from the map in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat d’Osona (798-993) (Barcelona 2001), pp. 94-95 at p. 94. Thus my doubtless inaccurate estimation is already one basic source of error!

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

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

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

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

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

7. Ibid. p. 339.

A problem of concavity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby

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

Santia Giulia di Brescia from the air

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

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

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

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

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

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