Tag Archives: Chris Wickham

Seminar CCLXXI: feudalism beats capitalism for most of history

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019, photograph by your author

Well, I am back and I made a promise, and so here is the post which was promised, in which as has happened here a few times before I sing Chris Wickham’s praises. This is not musing on the his classic works of the 1980s or even 1990s, however, because this post is reporting on the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, on 14th May 2019, which was given by Chris and which had the title, “How did Feudalism Work? The Economic Logic of Medieval Societies”. I was there—and it was a little odd to be back in my alma mater as a guest rather than as a student—and I took extensive and enthusiastic notes, but the lecture has since emerged as an article, under a slightly different title, in Past & Present for May 2021.1 So I’ve checked the article against my notes on the lecture, but I think having done so that a report on the lecture gets you the substance of the article without misrepresenting it; so, here goes.

To start with we have (of course) to define what we mean by ‘feudal’. Chris was addressing the term in the strictly Marxist sense, as an economic ‘mode’, in which the productive class, for the Middle Ages the peasantry, have more or less full direction of their own labour, but do not get to keep the proceeds, or at least are subjected to rent, levy, tribute, pre-emption or whatever else one might call it by the governing class, whose lifestyle and endeavours, including of course all government, are made possible by their right or ability to appropriate that peasant surplus. We’re not talking feudalism as in knight service, fiefs and vassals, arbitrary violence and private justice or anything like that, though those things might also have been present in some of the societies concerned, but just the economic relationship between producers and governors.2 Now, for most commentators this is a restrictive system, with no room for growth, because it rests fundamentally on the basis of peasant farming, and that can only be ratcheted up so far and only so much surplus extracted from it before peasants can’t survive; other than extract more from them, the only obvious means of growth for such an economy is to farm more land with more people, and there are usually effective limits on that too. For those same commentators, Marx was right that the game-changing phenomenon was industrialisation, which enabled the development of capitalism, in which the ruling class control the productive class’s labour directly, take all the proceeds and then pay the proletariat thus created for that labour. Marxist dialectic sees the end of the Ancien Régime and the Age of Revolutions as the messy and difficult transition of European society from the ‘feudal’ to the ‘capitalist’ mode, and from aristocratic land-owning ruling classes to bourgeois, commercial ones.

OK, so far, so much Marxism 101. But despite the Middle Ages usually being characterised as ‘feudal’ in this sense, it’s pretty easy to point to things like factory-scale industrial production of textiles in Flanders and Florence, plantation sugar cultivation in Sicily, day-labourers in England and many other places, extensive peasant access to markets and commercial goods, banking and credit and of course the rise of the middle class, a phenomenon which as someone I didn’t know once said at a paper I was at is one of those that seems to have happened in every age that anyone studies, and which then propelled the development of self-governing towns and so on. Quite a lot of this looks capitalistic, even if it really only seems to be visible after 1100, and it has led to angry if sterile debates about whether the profit motive was known in the Middle Ages, how rational an economic actor the medieval peasant was, and so on.3 And, whatever its mysterious cause, the medieval economy did manage a quite substantial amount of growth, punctuated by some dramatic but not total collapses. Probably no-one would disagree that the number of people and average standard of living, if what we mean by that is availability of market goods, was vastly higher in 1450 than in 550 despite the Black Death intervening (though, to be fair, 550 was also a plague period).4 So if this was a feudal economy, how did it contain all that?

Chris Wickham's Eric Hobsbawm Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, May 2019

To this, a question which Chris himself had raised, his answer was brilliant and simple. Firstly, probably no society ever has been entirely formed around a single Marxian mode of production; we’re only ever talking about the dominant one. England didn’t become instantly capitalist the minute the first factory started operation, and the Middle Ages could accommodate a few textile manufactories without needing reclassifying, because so much more of the overall economy than that, even than Florence, was economically constructed on the ‘feudal’ basis. But the second part of the argument was for me the winner: actually, historically speaking, feudal economies could be very complex, could expand, and could do so quite a lot. Indeed, since the Middle Ages show that they could, by Chris’s argument, the real question is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’, and to that Chris said firstly that evidently, normally, peasants could amass a surplus of their own and were thus consumers and an economic force on the market alongside the lords who had the first claim on their stuff; the proportionally less the lords took, the more peasant action on the market there could be and the more market-based the economy could get. But peasants were not themselves dependent on that access to the market, because they were in control of production; if they didn’t get to keep enough to feed themselves, the whole economy stopped, but if there was difficulty, obviously the first thing peasants would do was look after themselves and withdraw from the wider economy. These capitalist-looking super-phenomena would then shrink or disappear. Because of this basic safety valve in a feudal system, it would never reach conversion point and become capitalist without some other factor developing. Such an economy could be stable, large and complex, even slightly industrialised, and remain feudal.

This didn’t meet much opposition in questions; instead, there was a small slew of people asking ‘do you think such-and-such-a-place fits or doesn’t?’, to which Chris naturally enough said that they all fitted if you looked at it right; someone asking about wage labour, which Chris thought was never very important, since seasonal labourers must still also have fitted into the economy some other way the rest of the year; and Caroline Goodson, suggesting the importance of at least Islamic states as economic drivers, to which Chris argued that as long as it was taxing peasants without telling them how and what to farm, the state was just a big lord in economic terms and his classification was safe. I didn’t get to ask my question in the session, but did get to catch Chris a bit later, and what I wanted to know was, what doesn’t fit into a feudal classification like this? Wouldn’t the whole ancient world, except the very few bits and times of it which really did run on plantation slavery, be ‘feudal’ in these terms? And if so, what did this mean for Chris’s early work, still much cited, on the transition from the ancient to feudal modes in late antiquity?5 And Chris said, yes, it pretty much would, and what this meant was that he’d been wrong. This actually rocked my thought-world a bit, not just because of someone with Chris’s stature disavowing some of his most influential writing but also because I still find ‘The Other Transition’ and ‘Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce’ intellectually compelling and explanatory. But so did I this. It has taken me some effort to prune the old work from my reading lists since then, and I’m still not sure it’s pruned from my own picture of fourth- to eighth-century European and Mediterranean change, despite the pretty major mounting block presented by Chris’s work in between.6 So for me at least, the way I used to understand about a thousand years of European history and indeed focus on about five hundred of them has changed because of this lecture, which is the power a really brilliant bit of work can have. But since the print version is very much the same paper, that is an experience you too can have, and I do recommend it!


1. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40. It probably is worth mentioning that Chris reckons this article a partner to his earlier “Productive Forces and the Economic Logic of the Feudal Mode of Production” in Historical Materialism Vol. 16 (Leiden 2008), pp. 3–22, which I haven’t read, and should therefore mention so that you can.

2. My checkpoint for these distinctions remains Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), 2 vols, I, pp. 15–51, but there is a quick run-through in Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work?”, pp. 8-10.

3. For the latter, see Cliff T. Bekar and Clyde G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308–325, ridiculed at the post linked. We might also note the weird branch of this scholarship which sees the Church as the only capitalist force of the Middle Ages, and thus essentially assumes, as do all those who like to bash the corruption and cynicism of the medieval Church, that everyone who believed was actually outside the organisation which mediated belief; for the one see Robert B. Ekelund, Robert D. Tollison, Gary M. Anderson, Robert F. Hébert and Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (Oxford 1996) and for the latter Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London 2005).

4. On the plague of c. 550 see Peter Sarris, “The Justinianic Plague: origins and effects” in Continuity and Change Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2002), pp. 169–182, though just lately a rook of exciting new work on it and its consequences has emerged that I haven’t yet followed up, beginning with Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai, “The Justinianic Plague: an interdisciplinary review” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 43 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 156–180. We still lack a general economic history of the medieval period that I’d trust: Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn, (London 1994) is OK in a traditional mould, but that’s kind of it. However, the last time I spoke to Chris Wickham, only a few weeks ago, he referred to an ‘economy book’ that he’d just sent to the press, and I wonder if that will prove to be the thing we need…

5. This work is collected and revised in Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), but includes especially idem, “The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism” in Past & Present No. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 7-42, and idem, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 183–193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Of course John Haldon, a long-ago colleague of Chris, was arguing even then that ancient and medieval states worked in fundamentally the same way in Marxist terms, and wanted rid of both ‘ancient’ and ‘feudal’ modes in favour of a more capacious ‘tributary’ mode: see John Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London 1993).

6. Most obviously Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), to which cf. Historical Materialism Vol. 19 no. 1, Symposium on Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Leiden 2011).

From Ankara to al-Masāq in eighteen months or so

Right, let’s see about that post I promised. I promised some account of the conference which had taken me to Ankara in February 2018, but given that a decent part of it emerged as a journal issue about which you’ve already heard, and that I already blogged much of the conference elsewhere long ago, I thought it might be more interesting to do this post as a story of how academic ideas becomes a publication at the moment.1 This will be old news to some of my readership, I know, but I’ll load it with enough stuff that didn’t get as far as the journal issue or into the other blog post to keep you interested as well, I hope. So here goes.

Dr Luca Zavagno at the entrance of Ankara Castle

Luca Zavagno, standing outside the walls of Ankara Castle on this very occasion

As I said in the last proper post, my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had found himself with more of a grant he held with me left than we’d expected, and thus upscaled from what had been meant to be a single workshop at Bilkent Universitesi to a small but complete international conference with a few ancillary events, because he could. The whole program stretched over three days in the end. On the first of these and second of these the relevant events were public lectures held in the afternoon, and then the conference proper happened on the third day. In between times we climbed on castles, taught master-classes to the Bilkent students like visiting celebrities (which, I suppose I have to admit, we sort of were) and tried to make sure our papers would be OK. There were also, I admit, a few meals out. I have some pictures of parts of this academic jamboree, but I think I might be discreetly murdered if I posted them, so you will have to manage without. Instead, have some food for the mind in the form of the running order.

21 February 2018

  • Public lecture: Rebecca Darley, “Speaking in Many Voices: Roman and Byzantine coins in South India as sources for maritime and inland histories”

22 February 2018

23 February 2018

    Workshop: Islands at the Frontier of Empires in the Middle Ages

  • Elif Denel introducing the American Research Institute in Turkey
  • Lutgarde Vandeput introducing the British Institute at Ankara
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Piercing the Cultural Frontier: images of the Virgin in insular churches and the Byzantine heartland”
  • Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: a frontier in the centre of the sea?”
  • Luca Zavagno, “‘I Don’t Know Why I Go to Extremes’: the Balearics and Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Is an Island always a Hub? Sokotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”
  • Chris Wickham, “Looking Back at the Eighth Century from the Eleventh”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates:The Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”
  • Francisco J. Moreno Martín, “Archaeology of Iberian ‘Ecclesiastical Frontiers’ between 6th and 10th centuries”
  • Round Table

Now, if you are as keen a reader of my work as I wish I somewhere had, you will have maybe noticed that there is a lot more there than got into the eventual publication, and indeed that one article there isn’t here. This is the story of how the moment becomes the monument that I alluded to at the beginning, really. Luca had thrown this together quite quickly; thus, some people had brought stuff that was directly related to the topic, some had fortuitously had something tangentially related presentable, and one or two papers slipped in because they were what the speaker could offer. In particular, it was only a very few days before that Luca had discovered that one of his planned speakers would not be able to make it (and this being before we all adapted to Zoom, that was considered prohibitive), so Francisco wound up stepping in with literally days notice, and the paper was definitely never expected to be more than work in progress. So it goes.

Of the ones that didn’t get published, therefore, I’ll say a little on content as well as process. Rebecca’s public lecture looked at the distribution of Roman and Byzantine coin finds in India as compared to local coinage systems and as compared to temple sites, pursuing a connection she had by this time already suggested in print.2 There seem to be some sharp differentiations; Roman silver, gold and even copper is sometimes found in most areas south of the Deccan, but Byzantine coin only much further south (and only in gold), and both Roman and Byzantine stuff often appears slashed, cut up or imitated using gold foil round base-metal cores, none of which happened to local coinages. The former Rebecca suggested might be to do with the emergence of the Vakataka Empire during the late Roman era, across whose borders Byzantine coin seems not have got (and which ran no coin of its own as far as we know); the latter is where the temples might come in, if the damage to the coins was somehow part of the ritual in which they were given to such institutions (some of whose treasuries are even now objects of mystery and speculation). This didn’t go into the journal issue mainly becaue Rebecca was still working out what these things might mean, but also because it was nowhere near that issue’s topic, however interesting, and so it was left for her to pursue further elsewhere.3

Francisco Moreno Martín and Rebecca Darley conferring before the latter's public lecture at the University of Bilkent in 2018

Francisco and Rebecca conferring before Rebecca’s lecture, Professor Paul Latimer at right about to do the introductions

The next day Francisco took us through some of the different ways in which Spanish nationalist politics had looked at and used the Visigothic period in their thought and propaganda. As the only period in which the whole Iberian peninsula has been under one autonomous rule, between 624 and 711 except during the numerous civil wars, and under a Catholic autonomous rule to boot, you can see how this would be useful to such agendas, and indeed it was seen so in the ninetheenth century by such historians as Lafuente and Amador de Rios, but initially at least it did not form a big part of the propaganda of the Franco era, the Generalissimo seeing himself (and having himself shown) more in the mould of a Crusader or hero of the Reconquista, but his state more like the Roman Empire (like most right-wing states of the period, one might observe). The alliance with Nazi Germany however brought a shift in emphasis away from the Romans towards the supposedly shared Germanic background of the Goths, and a chance to grab border territory off defeated France in 1941 was framed as revenge for several occasions on which the Franks of French had underhandedly defeated the Goths or Spanish. This powered some new archæology of ‘Germanic’ burials but, when Germany lost the war, Franco had to fall back on the Church, always his support and now the only apparent explanation for why his far-right government alone survived, and started paying more attention to the Reconquista and the Asturian kings again. This was an object lesson in how political preoccupations can drive not just propaganda but the research behind it, but it was also one that Francisco was largely reprising from the work of people he’d edited rather than being something of his to offer, as well as being nowhere near the theme of the workshop, so it too did not get included.4

When it came to the actual workshop, the first two papers were never intended to be more than advertisements for two scholarly institutes in the neighbourhood and the facilities they could offer scholars working on the area, which are indeed worth knowing about, but which were obviously not publications. Leslie Brubaker’s paper was closely related to the one she gave at that year’s Spoleto conference, which was printed as part of that, but her version of it for this workshop included some reflections on how, if you looked at the right way everything could be considered a frontier, and on how islands, our actual theme, were so rarely self-sufficient as for their coasts to constitute boundaries that were ‘meant to be breached’, and I wish we could have found some way to include those alongside what we did.5 Matthew’s, Luca’s and Rebecca’s papers did all go into the publication, so I’ll not say more about them here as I’ve already written them up once; they are all very good, however!6 Chris’s paper was about state-economy interactions across the three-century period of his title, and concluded that the eleventh-century world was economically busier but more broken up, making a tax-driven state harder to maintain and in some part, thus explaining a shift of economic basis; and from here, I can see that this was all work going towards his eventual (and amazing) article ‘How Did the Feudal Economy Work?’ As it was, it was still work in progress as far as he was concerned, and admittedly not even slightly about islands, and so we couldn’t really prevail upon him to let us have it.7 And then there was me, and I’ve already mentioned how Francisco had stepped into the breach.

So, in the weeks subsequent to all this when Luca, Rebecca and I worked this out, what this mean we had was Matthew, Luca, me and Rebecca’s workshop paper, and we also actually had the promise of a version of the paper which had been cancelled, by Nikolas Bakirtzis and a collaborator of his, Xenophon Moniaros. Five chapters is too few for a book, but it’s about right for a journal issue, so we looked around for likely venues and lit upon al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean. They turned out to be a more or less ideal venue except in one particular, which was that they could give us a choice of being published either three years down the line or in eighteen months; the former was too far away but the deadlines for the latter meant a lot of work squeezed in between teaching. In particular, as editors of the issue, it fell to us to find reviewers for each article. Since we were between us three-fifths of the authors who were being reviewed, and some of our expertises were pretty identifiable as well, this got a little surreal, though I did not know either of the people who reviewed mine and got a slightly rough ride from one of them, which did make it a better article but required work I really struggled to do in the time available (mainly reading about Balearic archaeology). I guess the article now provides quite a good state of the question on late antique settlement in the Balearics…

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

But, on the other hand, it ran through editing and proofs very easily, partly I’d like to say because of the excellent editing work we’d done ourselves, but also because of very good type-setting by the publishers, working with a bewildering number of Mediterranean languages and some fairly scientific archaeology to boot, and the whole thing existed within eighteen months of our first having the idea, which was extremely convenient for us all, I think. Had I had world enough and time I would have done more work on mine—I’m not sure if there’s anything I’ve ever published bar my first article on which I might not, ideally, have done more work and of course my book then had to modify that first article extensively…—but as it was, it was one of those things which seemed impossible but, because there were three of us doing it and no-one wanted to disappoint the others was in the end possible anyway, and we are all (still) quite proud of it. But I’m not sure I foresaw that in Ankara in February 2018!


1. The journal issue being, of course, Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 no. 2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129-241.

2. Rebecca Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman coins in south India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A.D.)” in H. P. Ray (ed.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History (London 2015), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.4324/9780429274169-4.

3. Already in Rebecca Darley, “罗马-拜占庭钱币的流入与印度次大陆的社会变迁”, transl. Wang Baixu in 古代文明 Vol. 14 no. 3 (Changchun 2020), pp. 43–50, and soon to appear in English.

4. Francisco Moreno Martín (ed.), El franquismo y la apropiación del pasado: El uso de la historia, de la arqueología y de la historia del arte para la legitimación de la dictadura (Madrid 2016).

5. Leslie Brubaker, “The Migrations of the Mother of God: Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, and the Blachernai in Constantinople” in Le migrazioni nell’Alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 66 Pt. 2 (Spoleto 2019), pp. 1003-1020.

6. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea?” in Zavagno, Darley & Jarrett, ‘Not the Final Frontier’, pp. 158–170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System”, ibid., pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

7. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present no. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtaa018, which was really never going to be published anywhere else given his long connection with the journal.

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

The last thing I promised I’d write about from the quarter-slice of 2017 through which this blog’s backlog is presently proceeding was the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, from 25th to 27th March of that year. There are plenty of stories that could be told about this conference, starting with the whole story of the Spring Symposium, which has, as that title suggests, been happening for 50 years, rotating away from and back to Birmingham like a short-duration comet; or one could tell the story of its founder, Anthony Bryer, who had died the previous year and so was being extensively commemorated here; or how it had fallen in this year upon Professor Leslie Brubaker and my two erstwhile Barber Institute collaborators, Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds, to organise it (which earns one the title of ‘Symposiarch’); but for me the chief story is probably always going to be how I arrived as a guest and was converted to presenter at twenty minutes’ notice and still more or less got away with it. So if that intrigues you, or if an international conference on Byzantine Studies does indeed, read on, and for the rest of you, since this post is long, I shall simply set out the running order of what I saw, then stick a cut in and expound at greater length beyond it. So! Here we go.

By now-ancient tradition, the organisation of the Spring Symposium wherever it is held is two-level, with keynote lectures and plenary sessions to which the whole gathering can go at one level, and at the other ‘communications’, these being shorter papers which run in parallel strands. On this occasion there was also a third part, in the form of a postgraduate workshop following the main proceedings. All this together means that my academic itinerary through the conference went like this:

    25th March

  • Michael Whitby, “Welcome”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “What is Global Byzantium?”
  • Catherine Holmes, “Global Byzantium: a Whirlwind Romance or Fundamental Paradigm Shift?”
  • Coffee break

  • Rebecca Darley, “India in the Byzantine Worldview”
  • Antony Eastmond, “Constantinople: Local Centre and Global Peripheries”
  • Francesca dell’Acqua, “What about Greek(s) in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Italy?”
  • Lunch

  • Matthew Kinloch, “Historiographies of Reconquest: Constantinople, Iberia and the Danelaw”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Clerical Marriage in Comparative Perspective”
  • Kristian Hansen-Schmidt, “Constantine’s Μονοχυλα: Canoe or Viking Ship?”
  • Lauren Wainwright, “Import, Export: the Global Impact of Byzantine Marriage Alliances during the 10th Century”
  • Jeffrey Brubaker, “What is Byzantine about ‘Byzantine Diplomacy’?”
  • Adrián Elías Negro Cortes, “Tributes Linked to Military Actions in Both Ends of the Mediterranean: from Byzantium to Spain”
  • Tea

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Forgotten Africa and the Global Middle Ages”
  • Tim Greenwood, “Composing History at the Margins of Empire: Armenian Chronicles in Comparative Perspective”
  • John Haldon, “A ‘Global’ Empire: the Structures of East Roman Longevity”
  • Robin Milner-Gulland, “Ultimate Russia – Ultimate Byzantium”
  • Champagne Bus and Conference Dinner1

    26th March

  • Liz James, “Byzantine Art – A Global Art? Looking beyond Byzantium”
  • Hugh Kennedy, “The State as an Econmic Actor in Byzantium and the Caliphate c. 650-c. 950: A Cross-Cultural Comparison”
  • Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “‘Maniera Greca’ and Renaissance Europe: More Than Meets the Eye”
  • Henry Maguire, “Magical Signs in Byzantium and Islam: A Global Language”
  • Coffee

  • Julia Galliker, “Silk in the Byzantine World: Transmission and Technology”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Attracting Poles: Byzantium, al-Andalus and the Shaping of the Mediterranean in the 10th Century”
  • Lunch and Auction

  • Claudia Rapp, “Secluded Place or Global Magnet? The Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai and its Manuscript Collection”
  • Robert Ousterhout, “The ‘Helladic Paradigm’ in a Global Perspective”
  • Arietta Papaconstantinou, “Spice Odysseys: Exotic ‘Stuff’ and its Imaginary”
  • Tea

  • Hajnalka Herold, “How Byzantine was 9th-Century Moravia? An Archaeological Perspective”
  • Nik Matheou, “New Rome & Caucasia, c. 900-1100: Empire, Elitedom and Identity in a Global Perspective”
  • Alexandra Vukovich, “A Facet of Byzantium’s Ideological Reach: the Case of Byzantine Imitation Coins”
  • Andrew Small, “‘From the Halls of Tadmakka to the Shores of Sicily’: Byzantine Italy and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 11th century”, read by Nik Matheou
  • Flavia Vanni, “Transferring Skills and Techniques across the Mediterranean: Some Preliminary Remarks on Stucco in Italy and Byzantium”
  • Wine Reception

    27th March

  • Peter Sarris, “Centre or Periphery? Constantinople and the Eurasian Trading System at the End of Antiquity”
  • Linda Safran, “Teaching Byzantine Art in China: Some Thoughts on Global Reception”
  • Daniel Reynolds, “Jerusalem and the Fabrication of a Global City”
  • Coffee, then a closing round table session as follows:

  • Fotini Kondyli, “Material Culture”
  • Margaret Mullett, “Global Literature”
  • Joanna Story, “The View from… the West”
  • Scott Redford, “Byzantium and the Islamic World: Global Perspectives?”
  • Naomi Standen, “East Asia”
  • Chris Wickham, “Final Remarks”

That’s exhausting even to have typed out, and I certainly can’t come up with something to say about every paper at three years’ remove without basically repeating my already-somewhat illegible notes, so instead I’ll try to pull some general trends out of that list and then focus particularly on the theme and people’s approaches to it. What with me not really being a Byzantinist, that may mean a slightly odd selection, but you’re used to that, I know. Everybody involved deserves a better press than this will give them, but there just isn’t sensible space.2 In any case, now you can see what the rest of the post may look like, this is a good place for the cut and then the deeply interested can continue at their leisure. Continue reading

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

Can Open Access be done right?

Shortly before I wrote my last post about open access, I was given a copy of a very recent British Academy publication about open-access journals, and you may even remember that I cited it there.1 I had, however, only looked at it briefly then and planned at that stage to write a sequel post using it to look at ways in which open access, which you will hopefully remember I don’t think has yet been developed as a working idea, might be. This is that post, but I can’t promise much by way of optimism…

Front cover of Darley, Reynolds & Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science

The front cover

The book had an explicit brief from the British Academy, which was to evaluate how far any UK government or quasi-NGO policy on open access as a requirement for funding needed to vary across disciplines and what effect it would have on the UK academy to impose it (or, in the case of Research Councils UK, continue imposing the current one). All of this was more or less intended to settle some of the questions raised by a previous British Academy volume, and this one was explicitly focused on the situation in the UK. Though occasionally it looks across the Atlantic to the place where the results of the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 told the authors UK academics mostly publish when they don’t in the UK, and indeed compares [edit: the publication system] to the old Soviet Union on one occasion (note the third author), the conclusions and the dataset it presents on which those conclusions [edit: rest] only really apply in the country where I write.2 There is an issue there which I’ll come on to but it’s an understandable restriction, and maybe it shows the way evaluations could go elsewhere.3

The other limit of the debate is that one of the main questions is taken as already settled out of court, that being the question of what type of open access we are debating. The last time I wrote about this I was cross about what has come to be called ‘gold’ open access, in which the publisher compensates for their loss of a product to sell by charging the author to publish with them, a charge (APC, article processing charge) that is usually thought will be supplied by the research’s supporting funding. At that point various voices were saying that for humanities research, often done without grants and equally often with very small ones, this was pernicious and would hit poorer institutions and younger students disproportionately. This is a position that the British Academy apparently took to be obvious and of which Research Councils UK has since come to be persuaded, and the result is that that is accepted as a model that only works for the sciences and perhaps only medicine (a position that the figures presented here justify) and that what we are actually studying here is ‘green’ open access, and exactly how to implement it.4 Obviously elsewhere that debate is not so finished, but this again may be something that this work could transmit to such fora.

The way that ‘green’ open access works, or is supposed to work, is that rather than charge the author, the publisher accepts that after a while it will put the work online for free, but it will not do this straight away, so that people who need the information as soon as possible will continue to buy the journal. They may also, when it finally goes online, only put the author’s submitted version online, which will not reflect subsequent changes or, obviously, correct page numbers, so it effectively can’t be cited. (Again, medicine has less of a problem with citing pre-prints, and I suspect that we will see more and more of this in the humanities, but for now it’s part of what gives journal publishers any hope and it has to be said (and is in this book, with figures) that basically almost no-one in the humanities actually puts up pre-print versions on the web anyway, Academia.edu or even personal web-pages not withstanding.5 Even I don’t, because how could you cite it? And so on.)

So with that accepted or assumed, the question becomes how long should the embargo period before the article is released to the world be? This is where the book is doing most of its work. In the first place, they show by an analysis of usage half-lives (a complex formula, given its own appendix, which tells you the median age of the content that made up half a journal’s downloads over a given period, and makes a reasonable index of comparison) that in general, the humanities do happily use content that’s older than medicine, but that actually, so does physics and most of the other sciences; medicine is just out by itself in its need to have the most immediate content straight away (and even there, the half-life figure was about six months on average).6 As they say several times, “the boundary does not lie between STEM (science, technology and medicine) and HSS (humanities and social sciences); rather, it lies between HSS plus Physical Sciences on one side and Medicine on the other”.7 The actual embargo periods being proposed as compulsory for humanities research funded by RCUK seem reasonable to them in the light of this, however, and so that ends there, and they go on to what is perhaps a more interesting set of questions about academic publishing more widely.

This is the point where I think there might actually be the sign of a set of answers emerging, at least for the time being, and it’s interesting. In the first place, they establish by means of a just-about-significant survey (Edit: 12% response rate! What can you do, though?) that librarians, who it is who actually buy journals, don’t pay any real attention to embargo periods when doing so and thus argue that publishers have nothing to fear from reducing them; and then they go on a two-chapter excursus about how journal publishing can and should be paid for, and this is one of my big questions about all such initiatives as you know so it made me read avidly.8 They don’t really have an answer, but what they show, by the same kind of back-of-the-envelope maths that I was using to disprove the possibility of crowdfunded higher education, is that it must be paid for, that only the smallest of journals can be run with no staff and no print costs and that as soon as one attracts any kind of following it needs an organisation that more or less amounts to a publisher. And since publishers need at the very least to pay for themselves, money has to come into the system somewhere, and whence is more or less an ethical debate depending on whom you think benefits most: the author, the academy or the world? And we might like to think it was the last, really, but the chances of any new tax revenue being put aside to fund open-access publication, as the authors here say, does seem fairly small.9 So we’re stuck in the middle with publishers and the only thing that matters, until that be solved, is how much libraries can afford to pay for journals and what publishers will charge for them. So I like this, obviously, because it more or less justifies my stance that even when the current academic labour of publication is uncosted, we can’t do this for free and have to answer the money question. What that means, in effect, is that whatever one’s ethical stance on open access may be, it is more or less irrelevant until we can come up with a better solution for academic publication than the current one, and that is a bigger problem than even three such sharp writers as these could be expected to solve in a 106-page volume, but it really needs solving.

Not Open Access logo graphic

I will permit myself just one of the various logos the open access movement has scattered across the Internet because I like the double signification of this one, it goes well with the post…

There are also some other important qualifications about coverage and inclusion here. Firstly and most obviously, this whole argument can only apply where publication is online. For the sciences that’s a no-brainer but looking over my own CV, of twenty-six outputs and seven reviews I could count over my career thus far, although six are virtual exhibitions and thus not only basically unimportant for research evaluations but self-evidently online, five of the reviews but only ten of the remaining twenty outputs are online automatically, seven of them behind paywalls, and three more are online because I put them there myself, not having signed any copyright away. My book is partly visible in Google Preview. The rest, ironically including quite a lot of the work about putting things on the Internet, is only available in hard copy, so remains very definitely closed. This is an issue the authors are aware of, substantially expressed as an awareness that electronic publication of actual books has a long way to go before it’s anywhere near general and that for most parts of the humanities, and especially the creative arts, that’s where most or much work goes.10 On the one hand this means that the figures and answers the authors come up with here are truer for psychology than any other HSS subject and affect, say, history, relatively little, but on the other hand means that if the less affected disciplines were suddenly required to make most or all of their research open access their publication plans would have to radically alter and would probably become partly impossible.

The other problem, and one to which the authors are alive in some ways, is that this really is an Anglophone and indeed UK problem. They emphasise that whatever the successes of the open access movement in the USA in creating impressive logos and impassioned stances (I editorialise somewhat), very few US publishers are paying any attention to it. They see this as a sign that what RCUK was proposing could seriously hurt UK academics’ ability to publish abroad.11 I have tended to see it the other way, however, because of naturally looking at Europe. When I started my doctoral work basically no Catalan journal was online; now, almost all of them are, for free, open access. A goodly part of the French academic journal scene is also online via the Persée portal and there are German and Spanish equivalents too. Now it is certainly true that these are sometimes funded by the major state research organisations, because they publish most of the relevant journals; the fact still exists that the relevant state thought it worthwhile to fund that. In Catalonia, in fact, it isn’t even the state, but eighty-nine separate academic or learned institutions from museums and universities through to the Generalitat, which is funding it, but with the Generalitat one among many institutions contributing to it actually getting done. In these countries, someone did put aside tax revenue to present, organise and preserve academic research. Why we can’t, or won’t, do that, and why the justification of it is so much less obvious in the Anglophone world, not just to funders but to practitioners with our platitudinous explanations of the inherent worth of our subjects of study, is also quite an important research question, I’d say, even if not one I expect to see the British Academy funding however the results were published.


1. Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science: a British Academy research project (London 2014), and it is of course, as you’d expect, online free and open-access, here.

2. The previous volume was Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013); comparison to the USSR Darley, Reynolds & Wickham, Open Access Journals, p. 85.

3. It should be remembered, though, that a great deal of the starter data here came from the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise 2008, without which the book probably couldn’t have been written, and certainly, without that or an equivalent, any country trying this will need to do much much more data collection. Of course, even that data was six years out of date by the time this book was published, and this is a fast-moving field, but since the Research Excellence Framework was only then being completed and has only just been counted, what could they do?

4. Darley, Reynolds & Wickham, Open Access Journals, pp. 16-20.

5. Ibid., pp. 71-74.

6. Ibid., pp. 49-66.

7. Ibid., pp. 8, 61 & 92.

8. Ibid., pp. 67-87.

9. Ibid., p. 84: “a frankly unlikely scenario”.

10. Ibid., pp. 24-32.

11. Ibid., pp. 33-35 & 36-48.

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Seminar CLVI: mandarin vs. vizier

While I was there, and presumably still since, Oxford’s History Faculty was making a determined attempt to `go global’, and to its credit, this included what seems to me now an unusual amount of people who study non-European places coming to talk to people who study European ones, and possibly also vice versa though I didn’t check. On 21st January 2013, however, this took an unexpected turn in as much as I came directly from the Medieval Archaeology Seminar paper just mentioned to the Medieval History Seminar in order to hear none other than Professor Chris Wickham (who is seemingly never absent from this blog) present on the topic, “Administrators’ time: the social memory of the early medieval state in Iraq and China”. This is, you might think, somewhat off his usual patch, and he described it at the outset as ‘combining my ignorance’, but it was as you might also expect still very interesting.

The restored al-'Ashiq palace at Samarra

The restored al-‘Ashiq palace at Samarra, more or less familiar territory to one of this paper’s sources

In order to mount his comparison, Chris took a small body of writing from comparable people high in the administration of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and in the Tang and Song Empires. For Iraq this was a verbose administrator by the name of al-Tanūkhī who died in 994, for China it was a fellow named Ouyang Xiu who died in 1072 and one Wang Renyu from slightly later.1 The paper consisted basically in characterising these two samples and drawing out careful points of comparison. Al-Tanūkhī’s unstructured collection of anecdotes, as Chris told it, is mainly concerned with cleverness and the pursuit of money. By this stage of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the flow of money (bent by such things as the building of Samarra perhaps) was somewhat unofficial. Although al-Tanūkhī condemns corruption, it is clear that he also expected it to be happening on a massive scale, and so did the administration, which at the change of a régime or the retirement of a vizier would routinely torture the outgoing high functionaries to make them reveal where they had stashed the profits of peculation they were assumed to have amassed. This had reached the point where it was in fact prudent, in al-Tanūkhī’s lights at least, actually to have made sure to have been at least a bit corrupt so as to have something to hand over, and that of course raised the game to how much you could hope to hold onto beyond such a sacrificial restitution. Al-Tanūkhī was certain that this was immoral but was still amused and impressed by people who carried it off. Nothing of this occurs in the Chinese sources: if there was corruption in their administrations it certainly wasn’t a joking matter, indeed it wasn’t even mentionable. This was the aspect that got the most questions, but it also showed the value of comparison. Chris talked up al-Tanūkhī in terms we could perfectly understand, and it would have been all too easy to conclude, “well, that’s just how people are really isn’t it?” were it not for the fact of having a different situation explicitly put against it to show that this behaviour was not actually universal.

The Tang Dynasty's Da Ming Palace, Xi'an, China

The Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, Xi’an, China

That opened up other comparisons, of course. In the ‘Abbasid stories, the notable absence is the Caliph, who appears only at the appointment of viziers and not always then; his military role is acknowledged but the actual operation of the state seems to have little to do with it. By contrast the emperor is omni-present in the Chinese writers, despite having no less a military role; he makes or breaks administrators’ careers, even though the prospect of régime change was so much larger here that an administrator’s career could plausibly outlast a dynasty. On the other hand there were definitely similarities: a strong group identity within the writers’ classes, constituted by education (individual in Iraq, but literate, and quite standardised in China because of the entry examinations for the civil service though quite as literate even so), a great respect for competence that would excuse many other defects of conduct and, what had given Chris his title (though this was a riff on an earlier paper of his, too2) a strange absence of chronology: al-Tanūkhī’s stories are occasionally positioned in one reign or other but they don’t need to be, their point is moral or anecdotal, Ouyang Xiu’s official chronicling still more or less ignores anything any previous régime had done and Wang Renyu is more interested in astrology and good stories than any kind of historical perspective.

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t quite sure this made for a common feature here, but my ignorance of any of these sources is pretty much total and this was a while ago now, so I can only react to this summary of what we were told. Certainly, I suppose, there is implicit in a functional administration the belief that it works, that its system is therefore adequate and that its past or future are therefore of little relevance to its current operation, a feature of such systems that greatly annoys historians and long-established Oxford dons who want people to understand that things were not ever thus and that the old situation might have been better. That also brooks a comparison with our current culture where bureaucracy is automatically assumed by government to be (a) the answer to all problems and (b) to be wasteful and in need of regulation, and makes one wonder if we aren’t currently more comparable to the kind of paranoid state with no option but to escalate its correctives that Levi Roach has seen in the government of Æthelred the Unready2 But I digress. Chris’s points were from far less close to home!


1. Chris didn’t cite particular editions or translations, but I find the following with some quick searches: Abu ‘Alī al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī, The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, transl. D. S. Margouliouth, Oriental Translation Fund New Series 27-28 (London 1921-1922), 2 vols, of which there are a sad number of cruddy reprints available on the web it seems; Ouyang Xiu, Historical Record of the Five Dynasties, transl. Richard Davies, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York City 2004); and Wang Renyu, A Portrait of Five Dynasties China from the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956), transl. Glen Dudbridge, Oxford Oriental Monographs (Oxford 2013).

2. Chris Wickham, “Lawyers’ Time: history and memory in tenth- and eleventh-century Italy” in Henry Mayr-Harting & Robert I. Moore (edd.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis (London 1985), pp. 53-71, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 275-293; others of his works pretty obviously flying about in the intellectual æther during this paper were his “The Uniqueness of the East” in Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 12 (London 1985), pp. 166-196, repr. in T. J. Byres & Harbans Mukhia (edd.), Feudalism and Non-European Societies, Library of Peasant Studies 8 (London 1985), pp. 166-196 and rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 43-74 and James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford 1992).

3. Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258-276.

711 and All That (conference report)

Still months and months behind but by now more amused than regretful at my own dislocation from the present, I now bring you a report on a thing that happened in Oxford on 17th June this year, which was a mini-conference in the Institute of Archaeology entitled 711: reassessing the Arab conquest of Spain in its 1300th year. The organiser, Javier Martínez, who deserves all credit for organising this and letting me slip in having registered late, pointed out that to the best of his knowledge this was the only commemoration of that event worldwide, which seems rather strange, as we were all largely of the opinion that it was quite important. (Was he right? Surely not. Aha, here’s one for starters.) But, who were ‘we’, or rather, ‘they’, since I was only heckling? Well, here’s the program.

711: reassessing the Arab conquest of Spain in its 1300th anniversary year

Friday 17 June 2011
Lecture Room, Institute of Archaeology (36 Beaumont Street)

  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Arab conquest of Spain”
  • Nicola Clarke, “Caliphs and Conquerors: images of the Marwanids in the Islamic conquest of Spain”
  • Laura Carlson, “Negotiating the Borderlands: Frankish-Iberian relations in the wake of 711”
  • Graham Barrett, “Latin Letters under Arab Rule”
  • Javier Martínez, “Changing Urban Monumentality: Visigoths vs. Umayyads”
  • Erica Buchberger, “Gothic Identity before and after 711”
  • Rob Portass, “Galicia before and after 711”
  • Chris Wickham, “Economy and Trade after 711”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Response”
  • Javier Martínez, “Conclusions”

You would have to know the Oxford Hispanist establishment (though we do actually have one!) to know, but what we have here, small and perfectly formed which is just as well given that the Lecture Room in Beaumont Street is small and somewhat oppressive is basically two superstars bracketing a party of local research students. Now, some of these guys probably will themselves be superstars in due course and I already have to keep a close eye on Graham Barrett in case he ever starts wondering about Catalonia (local running joke, sorry), but I will confess that I had largely come to see Eduardo Manzano Moreno. He is one of the long string of people who set me to doing, directly or indirectly, what I now do. I know I’ve blamed a lot of people for this but one of them, David Abulafia, set me two of Professor Manzano’s articles when I was studying under him, and then I liked them so much that I came up with a Catalonia-focussed mini-project while studying under another of these people, Rosamond McKitterick, and that became the core of my doctoral proposal, so there you are. The two articles plus his first book more or less said everything you could usefully say at that time about the Christian-Muslim frontier, and I quickly found there was little to add to them, but it started me off.1 So I’ve always wanted to meet him, and apart from the fact that he insists all his old work is rubbish and outdated—which as you can see doesn’t stop me citing it—it was an absolute pleasure. He broke down the questions of 711 into a set of issues, which were roughly as follows:

  1. The Arab conquest of Spain is not the weird one—we have lots of parallels where a rapid military assault knocks over a failing political order, including the Arab conquests in the Middle East—but it’s not like the immediately-preceding Arab conquest of Africa, where resistance is stiffer and collapse much slower.
  2. Although later stories of it make it a chance venture that got really really lucky, it plainly wasn’t: the attacks were coordinated, they had mints set up striking hybrid coin within weeks, governors appointed and generally an infrastructure plan was ready to roll.
  3. The armies of conquest were organised on tribal lines but they were not established thus, other things like lineages or territories were more important. (Here he clashed explicitly with Pierre Guichard‘s work on this, and there was a lot of scepticism about this point in questions.2)
  4. The conquest is usually seen as ‘pactual’, but the pacts have two very different outcomes: some local aristocracies are integrated into an Arabic one, but others are left in place for a while, until the ninth-century rebellions that effectively end their limited independence. Al-Andalus was not, in other words, a unified hierarchical polity until surprisingly long after its formation.
  5. Relatedly, that is when most of the writing about the conquest comes from, when its results were being remodelled. That shouldn’t surprise us, really, but it is something that is often not thought about.
  6. The continuity versus rupture debate is impossible to answer from a position equipped with hindsight; we need to think instead about when change comes and how people react in the circumstances of the day, not as if someone was working towards a goal of a new caliphate already in 715. 711 is the biggest of many points of change that eventually lead to that point.

This was an odd presentation in as much as it seemed to be an attempt to start six separate arguments rather than substantiate one. In fact, that’s exactly what it was, and Chris Wickham joined in happily at the end, with various hecklers asking ‘stimulating’ questions when agreement seemed too near. Between the two, however, we had Nicola Clarke, picking up in a way on point five of Manzano’s paper with reference to the way that the portrayal of the actual conquerors, Mūsā ibn Nusayr and Tarīq ibn Zayīd, changed in historical writing from the quasi-independents they probably were to loyal or disloyal servants of the Umayyad Caliphs, in sources of course written under Umayyad rule in Spain. We had Laura Carlson, flying some tentative kites about diplomatic contacts between Carolingians and Arab rulers in Spain, and reminding us that from an eighth-century Frankish perspective the Arabs were not the only problem people on that border, and that the centre was not necessarily the point they need to negotiate with.3 We had Graham Barrett, being as interesting as ever and this time about the few bits of evidence for Latin document-writing under Arab rule, all three of them, two of which relate to Catalonia so obviously I had to discourage him in questions, but I didn’t know about the third, which is from Portugal.4 And we had Javier Martínez taking a brief moment in the spotlight, or at least the projector glare, talking about the change from polis to madina, as Hugh Kennedy put it long ago, as perpetrated upon the Visigothic attempt to shore up Roman building traditions and even spread them between the fifth and eighth centuries, seeing between the two sets of projects a difference in audiences, from the civic public to the governing élites; this was a very subtle paper and full of impressive illustration that actually made up part of the argument.5 Then we got Erica Buchberger, talking about the political value of the Gothic ethnicity in Spain and arguing more or less that, despite the name of the chronicler Ibn al-Qutīya (`son of the Gothic woman’), politically it was the Visigoths that killed Gothicness and that only where Toledo had had least impact, i. e. the far north, did this seem like what the identity of the fallen kingdom had been. And we got Rob Portass, addressing the supposed isolation of Galicia and arguing that it was in fact more isolated from its neighbours by both geography and politics than from the old and new centres of power further south, but that the Arabs didn’t really ever try to integrate it because the perceived worth of doing so was so low.

Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), obverse Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), reverse

Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), with Arabic obverse and Latin reverse

And then there was Chris Wickham, who talked about ceramic distributions and where the gaps in our knowledge of economic change in this period are: in so doing he argued as strongly as he does in Framing of the Early Middle Ages for an Iberian peninsula broken into regions where things happen almost disconnectedly, so that the far north could carry on making and using fine pottery long after the economy along the west coast of what’s now Spain had broken down to the most basic regional level, that the area where the Muslims centred their government was somehow better connected to Mediterranean trade even when they did so and revived complexity quicker but didn’t necessarily spread this till much later, and various other things.6 In the course of this he offhandedly denied that al-Andalus had a functioning tax system, however, and here he met some opposition, not least from Professor Manzano but from others too; the position eventually reached was that tax, too, was probably regional and may only have worked in the west. (I have notes here that paraphrase the argument as, “WICKHAM: It’s not much of a tax system. MANZANO: Yes it is!” We were nearly at that level, but all good-humouredly, it was good fun to watch.) In his response Professor Manzano repeatedly stressed that it was the ninth century that we needed to watch, when cities that had collapsed revived (though not all of the same ones!), when tax is spread more thoroughly, when rule is tightened and enclaves closed down. 711 is only the start of a long process, and we jump to the parts of Andalusi history that we can see clearly much too easily; in fact, as Javier Martínez said in summing up, despite its reputation as a polity of tolerance, enlightenment and scholarship, al-Andalus emerges almost fully-formed from something quite like a Dark Age as far as our knowledge is concerned, and that Dark Age includes 711 and its aftermath, rather than ending with it.7


1. E. Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading 1994), pp. 83-96; Manzano, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); idem, “The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, eighth to twelfth centuries” in Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 32-52. The extensive coverage and erudition of those didn’t stop me adding my “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127, of course, and if I could squeeze in there may yet be more room, but I cannot at the moment see where it is.

2. Guichard’s work most famously encapsulated in his Al-Andalus: estructura antropológica de una sociedad islámica en Occidente, Archivum 53 (Barcelona 1976), transl. as Structures sociales « orientales » et « occidentales » dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris 1977), but he has kept busy since then.

3. It is very strange that really very little has been published on this since F. W. Buckler’s Harun al-Rashid and Charles the Great (Cambridge MA 1931), but because he is an old friend I must at least mention Thomas Kitchen’s “The Muslim World in Western European Diplomacy from the Rise of Islam to the death of Louis the Pious” (unpublished M. Phil. thesis, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge 2004), which last I heard was still under review somewhere or other but which is the kind of careful work we would want done on this.

4. Both the Catalan ones, oddly, have been discussed separately by Roger Collins, one in his “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), VI, with text and translation in the original (and maybe in the reprint), and the other in his “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism, XVI, with facsimile in the original if I remember correctly.

5. The Kennedy article his “From Polis to Madina: urban change in late Antique and Early Islamic Syria” in Past and Present no. 106 (Oxford 1985), pp. 3-27, repr. in Colin Chant & David Goodman (edd.), Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology (London 1999), pp. 94-98 and in Kennedy, The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East, Variorum Collected Studies 860 (Aldershot 2006), I.

6. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 488-495, 656-665 & 741-758.

7. And then we all went to the pub and gossiped nineteen to the dozen, but none of that needs reporting here really. Encouraging, though!

Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

Sometimes the best way to realise what you think is to hear or read a view from someone that presents you with difficulties. Once you’ve worked out what the difficulties are, you know more about what you think. (This is like the internal monologue version of the way to get an answer out of Usenet.1) This is another thing that has happened to me as a result of continuing on with Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages.

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Put shortly, ideas of agency are very strong in my work. I’ve worked on authority and power pretty much as long as I’ve been researching but one of the things that comes along with that is the idea that the people who have this property can act in ways that change things. (There are probably good and obvious Freudian reasons for why I have a fascination with the ability to change things, but let’s not go there on this blog. Suffice to say that this is a political fascination now, even if it wasn’t to start with; the state of UK politics has made it incredibly appealing as an idea.) This kind of historical agency is actually not as much of a given as it seems: a deterministic enough view of historical events might make it seem as if it’s hard for even those in power to change the direction of societies sometimes, and various social theories that involve large-scale dialectical processes, most obviously Marxism I suppose, would seem to give humans little choice in their affairs.

My work tends to argue against this. Two books into my hypothetical future career is a proper study of Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, a man who lived at a time when big social forces seem to have been burgeoning.2 He wasn’t going to change the fact that the economy was booming, that the frontier was being settled, that al-Mansur had turned the Caliphal armies of al-Andalus onto all the principalities of Northern Spain (not with Borrell’s war record, anyway) or a great number of other things, but the ways he chose to meet the demands of his time meant that the lives of the people he ruled worked out slightly differently than they might otherwise have done so (with better-educated judges, for example, and a more trustworthy coinage, or if you prefer a negative emphasis, with far more of their relatives captive in Córdoba and a much greater likelihood of an independently-minded castellan ruling their local roost).3 He was not a typical aristocrat.

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400, ironically therefore as a typical aristocrat (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now Chris is quite big on the historical importance of aristocrats (“I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognize their importance”, he has written4) but they do tend to appear in his work as a homogenous class, all interested similarly in being and staying wealthy and powerful by whatever means necessary. This is hard to argue with, because people who weren’t so interested didn’t stay in that position versus people who did. Nice, considerate, light-handed aristocrats are hard to evidence. There was Gerald of Aurillac, of course, but if even half of what Odo of Cluny records about this lay saint is true to life, he was so very odd that he represents nothing except the possibilities of acting abnormally (though that is a real iceberg of a point, with huge hidden depths, to which I continually gravitate). I think, however, that Borrell II shows that there is more to aristocratic action than simply a single class ambition; some aristocrats worked to their ends differently from others, and indeed against each other.5

The fact that the third book I’d like to write next would make this point more fully probably has probably arisen in part from the increasing amount of debate I’ve had with Chris over the years. As a result of it, I would like to stress more that people’s differences had historically significant results. Chris knows this, too, of course, as his comparisons of different sorts of landowner in Framing, especially the Apions in the Oxyrynchos region of Egypt versus the slightly later Dioskoros of Aphroditō, makes clear, but to him, it seems to me from reading, they are important because they represent examples of a wider phenomenon, and therefore their differences exemplify disparity in scale of wealth and in their political times, whereas I am much more interested in the ways in which aristocrats deviated from pattern by choice.6 (This of course makes Chris much more able to write 820-page-long syntheses of the development of the entire Western world for four hundred years than I will ever be; he may be more able to do this than anyone, after all. But I persist in the belief that individual agency needs its part in historical explanation too, however much it may vie with generalisation.)

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

All this, albeit less worked out, is an argument I have actually had with Chris, and as you may have noticed from the above I’ve more or less agreed to differ. But what about peasants? This is what has brought it freshly to mind. You would think, initially, that with peasants such generalisations are much more justifiable. Firstly, there were vastly more early medieval peasants than early medieval aristocrats, so the individual dissenter from a phenomenon stands out much less and is statistically less significant. Also, the peasant just has less agency than the aristocrat. How many people’s lives can a peasant affect, without (or even with) going on a homebrew-induced billhook killing spree? Not as many as even the most minor person with power, one might argue, and this is probably true. And yet it seems to me that – perhaps precisely because it matters less to grand arguments? – Chris gives a lot more space to peasant choices than he does to aristocratic ones. In the section of the book where he constructs a fictional Anglo-Saxon village society (‘Malling’), to make up for the lack of adequate records from a single place that can balance his case studies from elsewhere, the rise of one patron family and the fall of another, more established one, are explained solely in terms of their political choices and ability.7 Of course these are not real instances, but that doesn’t make their theoretical importance the less striking. And of course, behind them are a raft of choices about which patron family to associate with on the part of their followers.

You can see, I’m sure, how that scales up easily to aristocrats, and quite a lot of the explanations of the way politics worked in the Carolingian Empire with which I’m most comfortable rely on the aristocrats themselves needing help in getting potential followers to make such choices.8 But there are other ways in which peasant decisions make political differences, even short of revolt, and this is especially clear with Catalonia, or any other society with an open frontier. Now is not the time to get into a massive debate with the ghost of Pierre Bonnassie and the thankfully very-much-alive Gaspar Feliu i Montfort about exactly how true the former’s picture of Catalonia as a zone of mainly-independent free peasants, presumably governing their own labour in much the way that Chris suggests was more possible in his period than later,9 but it is important to note that the reason for that contention, however true it may be, is usually that there was an open frontier, where authority was thin, settlement encouraged (as we shall see in two posts’ time) and opportunity available to make a fresh start. While that remained true, it has been argued (and not just by Bonnassie10), the Catalan peasant could never be entirely oppressed, because he or she might always escape. Such settlement, after all, clearly did happen, even if Gaspar Feliu thinks that it was mainly driven by lords even so.11 It is of course a large-scale social phenomenon, sure, but it is made of a whole patchwork of individual decisions. This is not just because I’m sure (and have written) that not every settler had upped sticks far away, bought all the livestock they could afford and moved on out hoping to make a new life far away—I think many of them were much more local, often ‘field-next-door’ local12—but because whatever was going on here and whatever choices were being made, they obviously weren’t made by the peasantry as a class. If the whole peasantry had wanted to move to the frontier the interior would have become denuded of labour. This didn’t happen, so some people obviously chose to stay put and take it. We could argue about different economic circumstances, but again it would be hard to show that local societies lost a whole socio-economic layer of themselves, and I think I’ve shown that such choices could vary widely even within families out here.13 (I doubt that’s exclusive to ‘out here’ but ‘out here’ is where I can show it.) Such choices, furthermore, varied a lot in methods: save up, sell up, or get support? If so from whom? Does making a new independent start preclude doing so under new lordship? and so on.

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

So this is the edge case, where a class fragments and a general answer has to take into account a lot of individuals making very difficult choices (and some rich proprietors making rather easier ones, of course). But from this edge I can see the space for more such people. I don’t want to accuse myself of being specially ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘individualist’ here. (After all, what can be more individualist than arguing that almost every other Marxist is wrong?) But I am made freshly conscious by Chris’s magisterial treatment of whole societies in their entire layers, however varied the layers may have been and however much societies differed between each other, that my historiography does not build from class down but from individuals up, and does so because I still want the individuals to be the ones who make the differences.


1. I realise that those old enough to even know what Usenet is/was won’t need the explanation, but the method probably has a more Hellenistic name given how Socratic it almost seems: it is, of course, to ask a question that presupposes something wrong or gets its facts wrong, on the basis that you are more likely to provoke a reaction from someone who can put you right if they can also tell you you’re wrong. On Usenet, classically, this worked far better than simply asking for help.

2. There weirdly isn’t one yet, beyond the standard nineteenth-century reference, Prosper de Bofarull y de Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), I pp. 139-196, though there is also Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “Dos comtes de Barcelona germans, Miró i Borrell” in Marie Grau & Olivier Poisson (edd.), Études roussillonnaises offertes à Pierre Ponsich. Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’histoire de l’art du Roussillon et de la Cerdagne (Perpignan 1987), pp. 145-162, but that isn’t very much. There is also a certain amount of stuff by Michel Zimmermann, which is as ever very clever and, I think, also wrong in detail. Till I get the book together, thus, I can best refer you to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 141-166.

3. On all this the best guide remains Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, though cf. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115. Specifically, on al-Mansur you could now see Philippe Sénac, Al-Mansûr : le fleau de l’an mil (Paris 2006), on the judges Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99 and on the coinage J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243; on the 985 sack of Barcelona you should now see G. Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here in PDF, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008. On feudalism, well, give me time

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 19-31, quote at p. 30.

5. I’ve already essayed something along these lines in what I hope will be my next-but-one paper, J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming), pp. 000-00, but it could obviously be done more broadly than that.

6. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 242-250 & 411-419.

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

8. That comfort comes most obviously from Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

9. Bonnassie: esp. his Catalogne, II pp. 781-829, handily translated by Jean Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242; Feliu in his “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41 (no, seriously, do, this is a really important article); Chris, classically in “Problems of comparing rural societies in early medieval western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (London 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in his Land and power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

10. E. g. also by Josep María Salrach i Marés in El procés de feudalització (segles III–XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987) and Paul Freedman in The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

11. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” & “Pagesia”, and the various works (which include the latter at pp. 93-110) in his first collected papers, La llarga nit feudal: Mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2010).

12. J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 57-66.