Tag Archives: climate change

Crusading and a Non-Deterministic Climate

The marking ebbs, and the ability to blog reappears… And for once it is clear what I should blog about, because I said I would pass over Conor Kostick‘s long-ago paper to the Digital Humanities Seminar in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (which, as every sub-university-level academic organisation must every few years, has since changed its name), and then Dr Kostick himself cropped up in comments encouraging me not to, and so it seems rude to refuse. I admit that part of my initial reservation was that I might have to be rude, but now that I review my notes, even though the paper was called, “Digital Linguistics and Climate Change: a Revolution in the Digitisation of Sources since 2000”, which you can imagine annoying me in several ways I’m sure, I find less to be annoyed about than I remembered, but also less that one might call, well, conclusive.

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v, image copyright not stated

Dr Kostick’s research at this time had arrived at the central theme of his paper from a circuitous direction. Starting with the study of the Crusades, he’d got into digital humanities as a lexicographical way of working out what medieval authors most probably meant by the words they used, which were of course changing as they used them. His example here, an interesting one, was that Archbishop William of Tyre, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem already, may have been the first author to use the Latin word classis, classically meaning ‘fleet’, to mean ‘class’, as in first- and second-class, which are ways he divided up the nobility of Jerusalem in terms of tax liability. That wouldn’t have been clear without being able to find all the places he uses and all the places other people do and thus being sure that his is the usage that seems to begin it. This kind of technology lets us get further than the grand old lexicographers of old such as Charles Du Fresne Du Cange; as Dr Kostick put it, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants, with big binoculars”.

Charles Du Fresne Du Cange, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19

Du Cange himself, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From here, however, he had gone via an investigation of crusade preaching and had wound up at medieval climate data, not an obvious transition you might think, but several paths lead there. One is the kind of work that has been, let’s say examined, here before, attempting to correlate major political and social upheavals with climate events; another is the fact that at least one historian of the First Crusade, Ekkehard of Aurach, actually made the association for us, saying that the massive participation in that Crusade was at least partly down to a bad harvest, famine and ‘plague’ (perhaps ergotism, suggested Dr Kostick) in France that meant people with no other hope were willing to sign up with someone with a poorly-realised plan and take their ill-informed chances.1 The problem with many such analyses looking for other correlations, apart from the basic logical one of the difference between correlation and causation, has been poor focus of data, using, for example, tree growth in Greenland as a proxy for harvests in continental Europe, and this Dr Kostick avoided by taking as wide a range of sample evidence as possible. He started with chronicles, especially, using the same text-mining techniques as already mentioned, counting entries mentioning famine, plague and strange weather; added tree-ring data from a range of different areas (assembled by Francis Ludlow); and used ice-core data from Iceland and Denmark for finer dating. It’s a pretty good sample, as these things go, and this obviated many of the objections to such work I’d gone in with. So having done that, what do we then know? Well, the texts make it clear that both in 1095 and 1146, i. e. just before the First and Second Crusades, there were outbreaks of disease, which the tree-ring data suggests often coincided roughly with years of poor tree-growth, and the ice-core data sometimes allowed one to associate these and other such peaks with volcanic eruptions.

(I went looking for a climate data graph to put in here but the amount of short-sighted nature-blaming one quickly finds just made me angry so you’ll have to manage without an illustration between these paragraphs.2)

So case proven? Well, sometimes. It’s certainly possible, especially in the light of Ekkehard, to imagine how such a causal chain could fit together: a ‘year of no sun‘, poor crop yields, famine, destitution, desperate mobility, a convenient casus belli or particularly effective preacher, and suddenly what was meant to be a few thousand carefully-picked troops heading East, probably on the expectation of campaigning on an imperial salary for a few months, has become a horribly underplanned mass movement that winds up changing the world.3 The problem is that the chain doesn’t always work the same way. That works very well for the First Crusade, but in the Second Crusade, the popular participation was nothing like as large, though it was certainly large enough for Odo of Deuil to lament, I’ll admit; still, it was provoked by the fall of Crusader Edessa in 1144, and preparations were well underway by 1146 so I’d have thought that popular uptake is all that the bad year could have affected. Meanwhile, there was another significant peak between these two Crusades (not at 1101, at 1130 or so) which correlates with no such action, and there was no such peak before the Third or Fourth Crusades. Hey, maybe that’s why the Fourth Crusade couldn’t raise enough men, right? But the Third still presents problems.

A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from  David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r

An unexpected result of a bad harvest? Probably not, eh? A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r, says Wikimedia Commons where this image is public-domain

Obviously, this paper was never meant to present a thesis as simple and obviously falsifiable as ‘volcanic eruptions caused the Crusades’, but without that, what do we learn from it? Our chroniclers already told us that plague and famine powered recruitment for some of the Crusades, and we didn’t need text-mining to see that. We might, now, understand better where that plague and famine had come from in these cases, but as with my earlier critique of Michael McCormick’s similar deductions about volcanoes, the problem lies in the volcanic eruptions that did not cause crusades, the famines and plagues that were not caused or strengthened by climate events, the crusades that did not correlate with bad weather or famines, and so on.4 No general rules could be extracted from this sort of causation, and neither was Dr Kostick out to present some, but without some such finding, it seemed like a very laborious way to conclude that a couple of our sources were maybe more right than we sometimes reckon. There seemed no question that Dr Kostick and his team had been more careful with data and correlations and even with causation than previous studies, but naturally enough perhaps, that had also limited what they could conclude.

That was my feeling as Dr Kostick wound up, anyway, but questions revealed other doubts and issues among the audience, many of which I thought he actually had good answers to. One of my colleagues argued that climate event references in chronicles are often wrong, to which Dr Kostick wisely observed that this was a good reason to correlate them with scientific data. Other questions focused more justly on causation: Graham Loud has in the past argued, apparently, that a famine which preceded the Third Crusade actually limited response from Germany, and here again Dr Kostick argued that while local responses to stimuli would obviously have varied, the bigger correlations still need explanation when they occur. True enough, but that seems to have been very rare… Well, I certainly don’t have better answers, and if Dr Kostick had been unwise enough to try and push his data further than it would go I imagine I’d have had bigger issues with that, but my feeling remains on this revisiting that his admirable caution robbed the paper of its potential power. The success of McCormick et al. suggest that, sadly, the route to publication of such work is not to care about such things but to push the deductive boat out well beyond sensible recovery, and maybe that’s why this one didn’t (yet?) achieve wider dissemination; it just wasn’t crazy enough!

1. F.-J. Schmale and I. Schmale-Ott (edd.), Frutolfi et Ekkehardi Chronica necnon Anonymi Chronica Imperatorum: Frutolfs und Ekkehards Chroniken und die Anonyme Kaiserchronik, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Darmstadt 1972), pp. 19-38 (commentary) & 123-309 (text), cap. 13/40, pp. 124-127, the relevant section transl. J. H. Robinson in Readings in European History Vol. I (Boston 1904), pp. 316-318, online ed. P. Halsall as “Medieval Sourcebook: Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade”, online here.

2. I should clarify that the thing I think is stupidest in these arguments is neither that there is dispute over climate change at all, which I find explicable if dangerous, nor that there is argument over its causation, which is predictable really, but the conclusion that some people who believe climate change now is not anthropogenic reach that therefore we need do nothing about it because it’s natural. I imagine these people largely do not live in the areas most affected.

3. This interpretation of events largely rests on my old piece linked off this very blog, but is similar to that put forward in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012).

4. My target here is of course Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and P. A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950”, Speculum, Vol. 84 (Cambrudge MA 2007), pp. 869–895, online here.

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 1

It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, this backlog, but yet it does reduce, and as a result I am now into the veritable height of the European medievalist’s conference season, the International Medieval Congress at what is now my home base at the University of Leeds. Now, in fact on this first day of the Congress there was a lot of sorting out of that ‘home’ aspect, so I missed the keynote lectures and the first session of papers, but finally arriving during the Monday lunchbreak, I was able to begin the academic day like this:

233. The Early Islamic World, II: Provinces and Frontiers – Syria and the West

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Berbers and Borderlands: frontier society in North Africa”
  • Anna Leone, Marco Nebbia, Ralf Bockmann, Hafed Abdouli, Moftah Haddad and Ahmed Masud, “Changing Landscape in the 8th Century to the 10th Century: the case of the Jebel Nefiya and Tripolitania”
  • Denis Genequand, “Elites in the Countryside: recent research on the Umayyad ‘desert castles’
  • I went to this session partly because of knowing Corisande, partly because of a vague fascination with the Umayyad desert palaces that has occasionally shown itself here and mainly because Corisande had waved the words ‘frontier’ and ‘borderlands’ at us, usually guaranteed to catch my interest. Certainly the area she was looking at challenges our usual ideas of borders, since the vast area of Africa taken over in the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century was so huge as for the presence of the notional occupiers to have to be very sporadic and consequently very concentrated, which leaves a distinct archæological profile marked off by garrison architecture, mosques, a greater range of foodstuffs and, most of all, coins from military pay, and beyond it, really very little presence. For me this paper was problematised by an assumption that Corisande verbalised in questions, that new buildings mean new people; if there were in fact assimilation of local populations into these fortress settlements going on, you could not detect it that way. Still, the extremity of the social division was a point well put.

    Remains of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Ironically, the best images I can find from the sites named in this paper are of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Of the other two papers, the former was the more peculiar, as only one of the authors had in fact been advertised on the program and she had been unable to come, so the paper was read by Andrew Marsham and had a title that was also different from that advertised. Nonetheless, it was interesting: the team in question have been carrying out a survey of mosques over much of the old province of Tripolitania in what is now Libya and were now proceeding to join this up to a survey of settlements. Oddly, the mosques are not all at the settlements, which tend to cluster on hilltops in defensively-clustered fashion at distances of 5-7 kilometres from each other, whereas the mosques could often be in the wilds between them. Dating all this is the next problem, since some of the settlements began in the fourth or fifth centuries and some are Ottoman, with pretty much everything in between too, so the changing landscape had yet to become visible but the possibilities were considerable.
    The fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

    Also, the architecture is amazing. This is thirteenth-century, apparently, but I don’t care; it is the fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa, about which you can read slightly more here

    Lastly Dr Genequand took an overall survey of the various buildings in Syria that have been classed as Umayyad ‘desert palaces’, although he tried to avoid both of the words ‘palace’ and ‘castle’ because the variety between the 38 such sites is such as to make generalisations like that difficult; they are more normally estate centres, with areas around them irrigated for intensive farming and produce collection facilities in the complex, and while some are luxurious, with their own baths and mosque complex and so on, and some are fortified and a few are both, and they seem to have grown and changed over time, they are still probably more like really big desert villas than either palace or castle, if you have to find a single word at all.
    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad 'palace' of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan

    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad ‘palace’ of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan, image from Museum With no Frontiers

Then tea and a chance to see an old colleague kick up some fuss, as follows.

325. Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy and Power – Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

  • Mark Whittow, “Byzantium and Global History: towards a new determinism?”
  • Adam Izdebski, “The Middle Byzantine Revival from an Environmental Perspective: a return to antique models”
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Topography, Ecology and (Byzantine) Power un Early Medieval Eastern Anatolia and Armenia, 750-1000”
  • Myrto Veikou, “A Concerted ‘Discourse’: interplay between environment and human agency in the area of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in the 13th century CE”
  • This session had gathered a much bigger crowd than would fit into the tiny room it had been allocated to, which is a lesson about the revival of interest in Byzantium more generally in medieval studies, I think. Mark, coming very visibly from his involvement with the Global Middle Ages project, accordingly set out a manifesto for a new medieval European history in which the continuing Byzantine Empire was the default comparator, not the weird remnant, a sign of what ‘should’ have happened everywhere. This would, he then further defined, need to include the perspective that in the Middle Bzyantine period prosperity became rural rather than urban, a phenomenon that we also see in other places and which Mark bravely suggested might have something to with climate. The obvious point of reference here was Ronnie Ellenblum’s work, which Mark hoped one might be less deterministic than, but mainly I wonder how once you have scaled up to the level of climate one can make any single place central to a hypothesis, however big it was.1 The other papers tried to make such connections more explicit, nonetheless, Dr Izdebski comparing coin circulation and pollen patterns across central Greece (the only place where adequate survey evidence exists, he said) and determining two very similar-looking phases of expansion in the fourth to sixth centuries and the first half of the second millennium, but the coins and the pollen don’t agree about when the latter was and neither make a great deal of sense next to the supposed climate profile. Dr Preiser-Kapeller, meanwhile, ran us very summarily through the history of Armenia from the seventh to tenth centuries and concluded that while the fragile local ecology would impact the two surviving noble houses’ grip on power in the area after the year 1000, up till that point military conquest by Persians and Arabs was a far better explanation of how the area wound up with only two such houses from fourteen than was anything environmental. The point of Ms Veikou’s paper, lastly, was mainly to put the URL of her project before us, a project that as far that URL now shows had by then already wound up and has produced no further publications since it did. So no points from me for that, I’m afraid.

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia, from which lake Johannes’s climate evidence was largely coming, and fair enough

    I found the three actual papers in this session a paradoxical combination, and this came out in discussion. All three speakers were attracted by the idea that large-scale survey that factored in changes in the ecological sphere alongside more material evidence of human usage could tell us something, but when approached on what had to admit either that the data was not yet collected (as in Cappadocia, where much is visible but very little dated or interpreted, or that when it had been it had made sense only on a regional basis and not compared well with anywhere else or the global pattern (as at Lake Van or Miletus in Greece). The effect was to leave the audience, and indeed one at least of the speakers, much more sceptical that this was a useful approach than they had been when we all entered the room, as if Ellenblum’s book, like the first Velvet Underground album, has made every one of its readers determined to have a go too and then discover that trying to be less erratic and offhand than Lou Reed somehow doesn’t produce better rock and roll. I suppose the real point for us to work on here is the junction between macro-scale and micro-scale pictures; if at a local level one can entirely escape what is apparently the global trend one has to ask what difference the global trend really made to people, a problem that we have of course been seeing with generating concern about the current global ecological situation since, well, as long as I can remember really.

Presumably there was then food, as my conference program is pretty much marked up with receptions for the evening so there wouldn’t have been time later. Between the food and the wine, however, came one final academic event for the day.

401. Early Medieval Europe Lecture

    Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The modern state of the abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The annual Early Medieval Europe lecture was this year given by none other than Professor Mayke de Jong, speaking with the title “Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate”, so as you might expect I went. Mayke was speaking about a difficult text on which she has been working for a long time, the Epitaphium Arsenii of Paschasius Radbertus. This is an anonymised critique of the policies of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious written in the form of a dialoguic account of the life of one of his relatives, Abbot Wala of Corbie (as he ended his earthly career).2 Just explaining what it is isn’t simple, therefore, but Mayke is one of three people who have recently written about it, all coming into the field (as she explained) with different historiographical demons to slay.3 The particular one she tackled here was the idea that the early Middle Ages was an era in which there was no public sphere and the ancient tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ died off, in which rulers were influenced not by the voices of the crowd but a closed circle of advisors. Texts like the Epitaphium show that this is not true, at least if Mayke’s right that its much more polemical second book was intended for an audience beyond the monastery at Corbie where it was written. The whole text rests on the idea that it was not just all right but morally necessary to try to correct the emperor about his mistakes, after all, and that this could be done by this kind of literary device. Mayke had other examples of people rewriting events in literary fashion to put their view across, but it now strikes me after teaching it for a term again that another obvious one of these texts is Einhard’s Vita Karoli, because whatever its date and purpose was it’s certainly using praise of Charlemagne in the reign of his successor to do something. The whole lecture was full of wry wit and sharp observations about the way that people’s intellectual traditions have constructed their opinions, and she was quite right that if we as scholars of the early Middle Ages want to get our field away from the old idea of the Dark Ages we need better to understand why people find it useful to put it there.4 But her final point, that the Carolingian religious sphere was a public one that included laymen, shows how far our categories are crumbling as we better understand what authors like Paschasius were doing with their texts.

And so that wound up the first day of the IMC of 2015, and I will alternate the reports on the remaining three with shorter and more discursive content but I will, by my blogger’s pledge, get it done, and then continue onwards!

1. Ellenblum’s work referred to here is R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: climate change and the decline of the East, 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012), to which at some point I am also going to have to pay attention I suppose. On issues of scale, it always seems worth my citing Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

2. It is available in a deprecated but still unique translation for the English-speaker as Allen Cabaniss (trans.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalard and Wala (Syracuse NY 1967).

3. Referring to M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Cambridge 2010), but also to Courtney M. Booker, Past Convictions: the penance of Louis the Pious and the decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009) and some unnamed work by Steffen Patzold that I don’t know, but which might be (or be referred to in) his “Consensus – Concordia – Unitas: Überlegungen zu einem politisch-religiösen Ideal der Karolingerzeit” in Nikolaus Staubach (ed.), Exemplaris imago: Ideale in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, Tradition, Reform, Innovation 15 (Frankfurt 2012), pp. 31-56 (non vidi).

4. Mayke cited, among other things, Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), and I might add, with my original cautions as linked, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2006).

Towards a Global Middle Ages I: going global in the first place

The backlog decreases at last; I arrive in September 2014 and am therefore now less than a year behind again. This seems like an achievement! What was I doing in September 2014, you may ask, and the answer seems mainly to be settling into a new job, but also turning a blog post into an article, negotiating carefully with the Abadia de Montserrat over long-desired facsimiles, sending off proofs of imminent publications and reading an old article of Philip Grierson’s about the Brevium Exempla.1 However, in the middle of that time I was also hanging out at the edge of a weekend meeting of a group called the Global Middle Ages Network, and this left me with thoughts that I reckoned worth blogging.

A game of chess, pictured in the Tratado de Ajedrez

One thing at least that did travel between various medieval cultures, the game of chess, pictured for that purpose from the Tratado de Ajedrez by the Oxford Centre for Global history webpages

Global history is of course all the rage right now, as being present at Oxford for the creation of their Centre for Global History had impressed upon me, and that shiny new institution contributes a number of the players to this group. It is as befits its name more widely spread, however, and there are also participants based in London, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick, Norwich, Manchester, Leicester, Edinburgh, Reading, Liverpool, Leiden, York and even Cambridge, as well as most relevantly the University of Birmingham, where pretty much all the medievalists seem to be involved and one of whom invited me along. The group’s general aim is to bring the Middle Ages into debates about global history and ensure that years before 1492 don’t get relegated to the sidelines as this new bandwagon gets rolling, but their specific aim at this time was to thrash out the writing of a volume of essays which is due out in 2017. Accordingly, various participants—Catherine Holmes, Naomi Standen, Mark Whittow, Conrad Leyser, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Simon Yarrow, Anne Haour, Ian Forrest, John Watts, Monica White, Jonathan Shepard and Scott Ashley, along with various people brought in to provide feedback and balance, most notably the Oxford modernists Alan Strathern and John Darwin but also such non-contributors as Chris Wickham, Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, Rebecca Darley and my humble self, as well as others whom my notes no longer decode—convened at Winterbourne House and explained what they thought their chapters would look like and what questions and issues they were confronting. Some had advanced their chapters a lot further than others, and because everything was very clearly subject to at least some change, I don’t think I should try to summarise their presentations here. Instead, I want to try and formulate some of the issues that the two days of discussions made me think about, and set them out so that you too can think about them.

Poster for a publication workshop of th Global Middle Ages Network held in Birmingham in September 2014

The poster for the workshop

It seemed to me in the wake of this workshop that there was material for three posts here, and the first is on the concept of a global Middle Ages at all and what falls within it. This was something that was very much debated in the workshop, not least because decisions had already had to be made about what could be included with the available expertise. Thus, Europe was most definitely in, because what’s medieval if Europe is not? Byzantium was reasonably covered, Egypt and the middle eastern coast of Africa (though not Ethiopia or the Red Sea) was covered, although not really in the workshop; China is well covered (but Japan is not); and North Africa also gets some attention, as, encouragingly, will Meso-America. Although that therefore has some claim to globality, there was much lament about the lack of coverage of other areas: I have mentioned two that one might have wished for but for which the group just didn’t have the expertise, everyone wondered what was going on in sub-Saharan Africa but the truth is that we just don’t know (though Dr Fernando did point out that we know more than people think, and I wondered about Benin and Mali given that one of the words that kept coming up was ’empire’).2 Arezou Azad, present, made a plea for the importance of Afghanistan and its area, Arabia was generally felt to be somewhat lacking and India was most conspicuous of all by its absence from both plans and discussion, as it seems generally to be from global history projects the more of them I meet; we will hear more on this. But the group has the people it has and the first book is already too advanced to put more into it, so I guess that those who think these omissions serious must hope for a second.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's An Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

The second issue here is what a global history of this period can aim to achieve. You might think that it was somewhat late to be examining such questions but it came up, not because of a lack of reflection on the issue but because different participants continued to favour different answers. I want to muse more on this apropos of something else I went on to read, but essentially the division was between those who wanted to write an actual history, more or less diachronic, of phenomena that occurred worldwide, and those who instead wanted to write comparative thematic history. Since the book was to be multi-author, the former would be very difficult to coordinate, although there was general agreement that current attempts at it consider the Middle Ages a very poor sibling that can be left out of the new inheritance, roughly what this group is looking to change.3 The book structure will be thematic anyway, so this was at best a rearguard action, but it raised the issue of what framework a diachronic global medieval history could address anyway. As the two modernists pointed out, the work that dismisses global connectivity for the Middle Ages is not just uneducated: there is a difference between our period, when oceanic sea travel was basically accidental, and a period when a dip in silver mining in Peru could affect prices in markets in Vienna the month after. Global historians of a later period can write their narrative mainly around trade, war and disease, even if fewer do so than work in terms of ideas, but the connections between the areas of the globe in the period roughly 500-1500 (and that period is an issue in itself, for which the next post must do) were so thin and occasional that they can bear no such causality.4 Although I thought that someone probably could write an interesting book about the years 800-1400 as a period of long-range diasporas, Viking, Arab, Polynesian and perhaps overland migrations in the Americas, in which the world was pre-connected prior to the European ‘Golden Age of Sail’, it would still be hard work to assert that those links changed anything very much back at the points of origin of any of those diasporas, excepting the Vikings.5

Map of recorded voyages of Polynesian travellers in the Pacific Ocean

I realise that there are some problems dating all of this to within the Middle Ages as we count them in the West, and long-term readers will know how controversial the date for human arrival in New Zealand is, but nonetheless, this is quite a big web…

So although the whole concept of global history seems to invoke the idea that everything can be seen as connected, medievalists wishing to join in have to face the fact that this was not how the people they study experienced the world. A few people brought the idea of climate into discussion as a global factor, but one of the things that we should by now appreciate about climate, as Britain just about shakes a summer out of an otherwise dismally wet year for the third or fourth year running while elsewhere deserts spread and seas rise, is that it is locally variable to an almost chaotic degree.6 Anyone saying, “one thing that we can say is that the globe got warmer,” may well be right in aggregate but is missing any kind of relevance to what that would have meant for the globe’s various, and separated, inhabitants. Scale therefore becomes a major issue with this cope, as it always is of course, but here the problem is how to scale down from the global without losing any overall thesis in regional variation.

The map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi

A genuinely medieval view of the world, the map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi, deficient in some crucial respects (like continents); image from Wikimedia Commons

The harsh critic might say that this simply shows that the Middle Ages was not a global-scale phenomenon, but naturally the group was not going to just give up and disband because of that possibility, so the other major area of discussion was what could in fact be compared. Mark Whittow wisely argued that no-one can understand anything about such a book without there first being a comparison of sources, which is one place where the massive variation of the world record for the period is actually explanatory, because it explains what it is possible for historians of different areas to expect and to attempt, thus explaining how the different essays in the book would vary. All those essays are being written by teams of authors working on different areas, however, so comparison should be built in from the ground up. This process had already isolated cosmologies, religious structures and beliefs, value systems both economic and non-economic, power structures and the apparatus of social mediation (including things like family, patronage and abstracts like trust), movement of people and networks of communications as things that could be compared across a wide frame, even if they didn’t necessarily (or even necessarily didn’t) join up. As with all comparative history done right, we would learn more by the exposure of any given understanding of things to an alternative.7

Map of world civilisation with historical timeline c. 979

It is all a bit much to cover in its full complexity…

This opens up the paradoxical possibility that even a negative result of the overall enquiry, in which in the end the participants are forced more or less willingly to admit that the ‘global Middle Ages’ is a fiction, could still be a useful contribution, because the essence of such a conclusion would, it now seemed, not be merely, “the set is empty” but rather, “it’s complicated”. Usually that’s a cop-out but here it could have an impact: simply by showing that there is enough that we can point to and compare from the period that our comparisons fail due to the complexity of trans-regional variation would demand a recognition that the set is populated and that stuff was in fact happening all over the world in our period and needs to be included in long-term pictures wherever those pictures depict. The question then becomes: what stuff is happening, and is any of it at all characteristic of a so-called medieval period? And it’s that latter I’ll pick up in the next one of these posts.

1. P. Grierson, “The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales”” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 18 (Bruxelles 1939), pp. 437-461, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1939.1300.

2. I sort of felt that Benin should have been on the locals’ minds because the cover of R. E. Bradbury, Benin Studies, ed. Peter Morton-Williams (London 1974), has been displayed on the wall in the School of History and Cultures on the way to the kitchen for who knows how many years, but a more useful cite for the period in question would be Natalie Sandomirsky, “Benin, Empire: origins and growth of city-state” in Keith Shillington (ed.), Encylopedia of African History (London 2013), 3 vols, I, pp. 132-133 and further refs there.

3. The Network web-page includes a reading list, where the most useful works of this type might be Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge 1986) or Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (Oxford 1989), but the one that came up in discussion most is not there, that being Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford 1993). Of course, as the image implies, I reckon one could enjoy starting with H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), 2 vols…

4. Indeed, historians of an earlier or at least much longer period already do write in such big-phenomenon terms, if we will accept Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), as a work of history. At the very least, it demonstrates that the scale can be written within.

5. On them, see Lesley Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; it is worth noting that Lesley is herself a member of the Global Middle Ages Network.

6. When I have to cite something for this I tend to cite Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805721105.

7. My guide here is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and lo, he is also a member of the Network…

Volcanoes probably don’t explain everything

I have mirrored on my various computers a huge directory called ‘toread’, in which get stuffed willy-nilly the various PDFs of academic writing that I come across while out and about the net, and every now and then I make a short-lived assault on it. At the time of writing this had just brought me into contact with an unusual article from Speculum of 2007, in which notable medievalists Michael McCormick and Paul Edward Dutton team up with a climate scientist by the name of Paul Mayewski and ask, more or less, can we achieve anything like precision in assessing how the weather and changes in it affected the societies of the early Middle Ages?1 And this is a thing I care about, sort of, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I read this with a sharp eye and have an opinion about it.

The Icelandic volcano system of Eldgjá

The Icelandic volcano [Edit: system] of Eldgjá, blamed here for an eruption c. 939 on the basis of tephra analysis. “Eldgja” by Andreas TilleOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly it needs to be stressed that this is not an article about climate change, per se, though there is a certain amount of that in it as background. Cautious work I’ve seen on climate change has stressed that while it deals in overall trends of up or down a degree or two, the actual experience of this would have been far less comprehensible because of a huge range of local and chronological variation. If, for example, the winter temperatures where you are range from -18° Celsius to 13° Celsius over ten years, when a century earlier it had been -13 to 18, then yes, the median drop is already pretty severe but perceiving the actual pattern in any of those ten-year slots is going to have been pretty difficult given that maybe one January all the rivers froze and then maybe four years later your vines grew a second harvest because it was so sunny.2 And this article is interested in that short-range variation, the experience of individual years.

Ice core SO4+ and Cl- time series covering the period A. D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950

“Ice core SO44+ and Cl time series covering the period A.D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950″, they say on p. 877

The way they take this on is relatively simple, though it must have required a lot of work: McCormick and Dutton, both of whom have pedigree in this kind of question, separately compiled lists from documents of especially extreme winters in the years 750-1000, while Mayewski pulled a huge dataset from a Greenland ice core extracted in the 1980s and went through it looking for spikes in the deposition of chemicals associated with volcanic eruptions, whose aerosol effects in blocking out sunlight and lowering temparatures the authors work hard to show are widely accepted in meteorology.3 Then they compared their findings, chucked out anything that wasn’t certain and still had nine episodes where the dates for bad winters in the documents married up closely with dates for volcanic deposits.

For me, a historian, the best parts of this article are the documentary extracts that make it clear what kind of consequences such weather could have and just how bad it could be. For example, read this, their summary of two probably-related chronicles from Constantinople about the winter of 763 to 764:4

“Some 2,000 kilometers to the southeast, a well-informed observer at Constantinople recorded that great and extremely bitter cold settled on the Byzantine Empire and the lands to the north, west… and east. The north coast of the Black Sea froze solid 100 Byzantine miles out from shore (157.4 km). The ice was reported to be 30 Byzantine ‘cubits’ deep, and people and animals could walk on it as on dry land. Drawing on the same lost written source, another contemporary, the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, emphasized that it particularly affected the ‘hyperborean and northerly regions,’ as well as the many great rivers that lay north of the Black Sea. Twenty cubits of snow accumulated on top of the ice, making it very difficult to discern where land stopped and sea began, and the Black Sea became unnavigable. In February the ice began to break up and flow into the Bosporus, entirely blocking it. Theophanes’ account recalls how, as a child, the author (or his source’s author) went out on the ice with thirty other children and played on it and that some of his pets and other animals died. It was possible to walk all over the Bosporus around Constantinople and even cross to Asia on the ice. One huge iceberg crushed the wharf at the Acropolis, close to the tip of Constantinople’s peninsula, and another extremely large one hit the city wall, shaking it and the houses on the other side, before breaking into three large pieces; it was higher than the city walls. The terrified Constantinopolitans wondered what it could possibly portend.”

As well they might! And of course, all this matters a very great deal in a society where the principal source of wealth and indeed subsistence is agriculture. Firewood can’t be gathered, new crops can’t be planted or are blighted by the temperature, animals die, wine freezes in barrels and is ruined, famine is grimly sure to follow.5 There certainly should have been big consequences of this kind of climatic variation.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style ‘miles christi’, by Hraban Maur, not visibly taking any responsibility for the climate. “Ludwik I Pobożny“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The first problem, though, is that it’s very hard to determine these consequences in any consistent way. The article opens with the suggestion that the harsh winter of 763 caused King Pippin III of the Franks to suspend his campaign against Aquitaine; it very nearly closes by suggesting that the run of bad winters and harvests from 821 to 824 helped plunge the Frankish Empire into war. So hang on: are wars more or less likely when the winter’s bad? Presumably it depends on other factors. And so on. The one thing that seems pretty certain is that people would have read the bad weather as divine punishment for someone’s misdeeds, but recent work on Louis the Pious makes it more than clear that that could be seized on and used to political advantage; we just can’t agree on whose advantage it was to…6

Causation is one of the problems I have with this article, and in fact I sense that the authors did too. There are a lot of ideas put forth then qualified in the concluding section, as if one or other author was happier to hypothesize than their counterparts. They note that the Roman Empire suffered very few of these events till its closing centuries, but then immediately say, “few would maintain that volcanically caused climate anomalies determined the course of empires and civilization”. Much larger jumps out and back are visible here:7

“A child born in 765 could die at the ripe old age of fifty-five without having lived through such a winter. One born in 820 would experience five such crises in the same span. Charlemagne was more than vigorous and smart: he was, with respect to volcanic aerosols and rapid climate change, a very lucky ruler.  Not so his son Louis the Pious, who, perhaps not entirely  coincidentally, in August 822, after the terrible winter of 821–22, ostentatiously expiated before his assembled magnates his and his father’s sins. Unfortunately, his act of public  penance would have little effect on the volcanic aerosol that produced yet another terrible winter, famine, and disruption but a year later. The reigns of his sons Louis the German and Charles the Bald would suffer from three such bad climate years each; in between two of them, Louis invaded Charles’s kingdom.”

If I’d submitted that to a journal like this I’d almost have expected it to come back stamped with “CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION” and indeed, if this had gone to a science journal I feel sure this would have been redacted. “Perhaps not entirely coincidentally”? Come on… This doesn’t diminish the factuality of their observations, but it certainly does need to be carefully considered just what this data explains.

The paragraph quoted also exposes another problem with the method adopted. In terms of volcanic aerosols, yes, Charlemagne may have been lucky, but the ruler who lived through the famines of 792-793 and 806 might have been surprised to be told so.8 If volcanoes caused bad weather, they certainly didn’t cause all of it, nor even perhaps the worst of it. This is something the authors of this article willingly admit, not least because their proxy for volcanic activity is located to the west of the most likely volcanoes, in Iceland, and the area they’re studying is to the east, though the Gulf Stream makes that much less of an objection than it sounds.9 Nonetheless, when the recent ash-cloud closed the Atlantic to air travel, I personally didn’t notice any shortfall in local autumn apples in the UK, did you? And so on.

Map of volcanically-linked climate anomalies of the Frankish period with dates

Map of relevant events with dates from their p. 875

When one looks more closely at the chronology, in fact, this gets rather odder. There are acknowledged problems with the chronology here; the texts, though subjective, are at least reasonably chronologically precise, and it’s useful to see it all together, because it means that even when things with chronology as shaky as the Irish Annals are being deployed, they’re being correlated with unconnected texts that give one some confidence in the dates. Not so the ice-core, unfortunately; that was sampled every two and a half years and the possible error of each sample is somewhere between one and six years.10 When one notices, then, that the volcanic deposition evidence that correlates with the 763-4 ‘event’ came from the slice for 767, obviously that possible error is important; either the sample’s dating must be emended, or the bad weather was well in force before the volcano did its stuff. The authors seem too comfortable about this for my liking and I agree with them very much that it would be nice to get a new core with the more precise dating that is now possible.11 That would also refine cases like bad winters in 855-856 and 859-860 which correlate with deposition spikes in 854, 856 and 858. It does fit quite nicely but whether or not, as the authors prefer, this was one long volcanic event, the fact that it apparently got better in the middle again monkeys with any simple causation from volcanic eruption to economic and climatic distress. I do think this article shows that something was going on here that deserves to be considered, and I am myself still very much of the persuasion that such factors do need to be considered as explanations for social change, but despite the extra precision attempted here I still don’t think we have anything as simple as A causes B causes C here, and I don’t honestly see how we get it, however much the technology may improve.

1. Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton & Paul A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950” in Speculum Vol. 84 (Cambridge MA 2007), pp. 865-895.

2. There’s lots of examples of freezing rivers (and occasionally seas!) in the article; the second harvest of grapes is something that repeatedly comes up in Gregory of Tours’s Histories, though it’s never good: see Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints), VII.11 or IX.5.

3. McCormick’s and Dutton’s work on such matters is in fact encapsulated in the same volume, in the forms of M. McCormick, “Molecular Middle ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century” and Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, both in Jennifer R. Davis & McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 83-97 & 167-180 respectively. On the methodology, see McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, pp. 867-878 and esp. 876-878.

4. Ibid. pp. 880-881, citing “The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, A.D. 284–813, trans. Cyril A. Mango, Roger Scott, and Geoffrey Greatrex (Oxford, 1997), pp. 600–601″ and “Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, Short History 74, ed. and trans. Cyril Mango, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 13 (Washington, D.C., 1990), pp. 144–49, here pp. 144, lines 1–16, and 147″, along with full edition refs for Theophanes and some discussion of the connection between the sources.

5. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, and their refs at e. g. pp. 879 (blight), 882 (impossibility of planting), 883 (death of beasts), 885 (more blight and death of beasts, also freezing wine).

6. Ibid. p. 867 (“that surely explains the suspension of the major effort by the king to conquer Aquitaine the following summer”) cf. p. 892, quoted below; on debate over Louis the Pious see Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977) or François-Louis Ganshof, “Louis the Pious reconsidered” in his The Carolingian Empire and the Frankish Monarchy (London 1971), pp. 261-272, versus the various studies in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on Louis the Pious (London 1990), especially Stuart Airlie’s and Janet Nelson’s.

7. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 892.

8. Adriaan Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge 2002), pp. 123-124.

9. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 869:

“Those same complexities mean that not every volcanic deposit in Greenland will translate directly into climate impact on the European continent, for instance, if an eruption occurred on Iceland at a moment when atypical atmospheric circulation conditions carried the aerosol westward toward Greenland.”

10. Ibid. pp. 869-870, inc. p. 869, authors’ emphasis:

“The maximum possible absolute dating error for our period in this core is approximately six years. However, within any section of the core, say 100–200 years, the relative internal error is much less, since absolute error accumulates with depth. The closer the annual layer is to a securely identified volcanic event, the more likely the error is zero.”

11. Expressed ibid. p. 891. I discovered after first drafting this a newer paper by one of the same authors and a bunch of others, Francis Ludlow, Alexander R. Stine, Paul Leahy, Enda Murphy, Paul A. Mayewski, David Taylor, James Killen, Michael G. L. Baillie, Mark Hennessy and Gerard Kiely, “Medieval Irish chronicles reveal persistent volcanic forcing of severe winter cold events, 431–1649 CE”, in Environment Research Letters Vol. 8 (Bristol 2013), pp. 24-35, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024035, which takes the same essential data over a longer range, using however only the Irish Annals, excluding ‘unreliable’ events but not engaging at all with the difficulties of their year-by-year chronologies, and winds up essentially using those to add precision to dating of events from the same Greenland ice-core sample. I haven’t read this in detail, nor have I read much of the recent work by McCarthy on the Annals that they cite, but their approach to the texts makes me wince pre-emptively even so. Anyway, the article is Open access and can be found here, and it is picked up by the BBC here, bless them linking to the actual article unlike some, whence it was reported by via David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe where I read it, and to whom therefore a tip of the hat!

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.

1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Seminars LXXX & LXXXI: two takes on really big changes

Okay, it’s been a while since last post. I’m not going to apologise, this term has just been a lot higher-pressure than last one and many of you know what that’s like. I do regret it, but what profits it you to know that? So I’ll write when I can and here I am doing it. My load is at least slightly lightened by the fact that the first seminar in my to-blog pile, Julia Smith speaking to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar with the title, “Rethinking relics in the medieval west: evidence and approaches c. 700-c. 1200″, which was excellent, has already been excellently written up by Magistra et Mater and so I shall direct you there for that and move on to stuff more local and, at last, less related to dead bodies. Do have a look, though. [Edit: light editing below to close up unfinished sentences, correct typoes and add the final missing footnote, and then one big and obvious edit to patch a mistake in my recollection, with thanks to Mark Handley for querying it!]

Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

Postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne, possibly the second most famous Belgian

Instead, I can offer brief reports on a couple of truly macro-scale papers that I heard in Oxford in the early part of the year, and first of these was the inestimable Dr Mark Whittow, who at rather short notice had to draft himself in to address the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 17th January, and did so with the title, “Pirenne, Mohammed and Bohemond: before Orientalism”. You will immediately observe that this is a title implying a fairly broad sweep of knowledge and a deliberately provoking argument, and so it was. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll do it the hopefully venal injustice of a short summary. Mark asserted that in some fundamental ways the famous Pirenne thesis, originated by the gent on the stamp above and arguing that the ancient world’s economic arrangement persisted long after Rome’s fall and was only really broken up by the Muslim conquests that separated Africa from the Christian territories on the north of the Mediterranean, has now more or less been proven by archæological finds (such as the occupation at the Crypta Balbi in Rome and Pella in Jordan, which stopped receiving imports from across the Mediterranean only in the eighth century), as well as a cursory reading of the letters of the trans-Mediterranean traveller Pope Gregory the Great.1 Whether or not the territories of the West belonged to it in any direct sense, they all belonged to the political context and mental world of the Empire still.

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

After the Muslim conquests, however, the conquered lands were fundamentally reoriented, quite literally, in both commercial and mentality terms, eastwards, and those Christian territories lined up against them were similarly so. But, argued Mark, though the East may have forgotten the West, the West did not forget the East, the source of the Christianity even then making its way among new peoples whose fascination with the Holy Land and knowledge of its ancient state soon far outstripped their knowledge of their much nearer neighbours. Around the Irish Sea, for example, there were works about the Holy Places circulating but no contact, for example, with Spain (at least not since the British diaspora, I might condition).2 Everywhere in the West you could find relics of the Holy Land, bits of it that people had got hold of or brought home. In some ways the East remained the spiritual home of Western Christians, and this fascination was played upon to the ultimate effect when the First Crusade was called, and may explain the massive response to Emperor Alexius’s call for help, [Edit: here’s what the above deletion should have said…] a response, we may note, which was far larger for the Holy Land than for similar calls to action in Spain and Italy at earlier points. [You see how this makes more sense. Sorry Mark!] What followed, however, was a rapid disenchantment as the East, in all its manifold divisions, proved less accepting of the West than had been assumed it would and the West found itself not among brothers but among all manner of difference, leading the Crusader kingdoms’ élites to keep themselves Latinately separate from their subjects and Europe to redefine itself against this finally-noticed Other.3

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries (from English Wikipedia)

This is of course a powerfully explanatory thesis, and I’m certainly not equipped to critique it all, nor, given how massively helpful Mark has been to me since I arrived, do I really feel like doing so. At the time, this seemed almost insuperably convincing and questions mainly centred on whether Pirenne’s picture could be called right given what we know of the alternative networks developing, in the North Sea and through the Caucasus and Baltic regions, which drain focus from the Mediterranean economy anyway. Chris Wickham also pointed out a long tradition of dismissing the East which predates the First Crusade, visible for example in Western responses to Iconoclasm, which Mark suggested came from the Roman tradition of sneering at the Greeks. It does seem to me, however, that to stand up fully the broader thesis requires that we accept arguments from silence about networks and connections in the West, which someone like Martin Carver might question,4 while at the same time dismissing such arguments in the central Mediterranean in the light of recent finds. New finds might obviously also mess with the picture in the West. Likewise, the quantity of evidence feels important. The ending of Roman grain shipments from Africa to Rome, and then to Constantinople, must have reduced the weight of trade across those routes.5 If the contacts were already attenuating before the Muslim advent, and it was the Muslim conquests that finally caused them to drop off completely, the effects that Mark was arguing for would have been under way before the Muslim conquests and Pirenne’s thesis would be right, perhaps, but lose much of its explanatory value. Michael Bentley did also ask if there was any evidence that would actually disprove a theory so based in a subjective reading of patchy manuscript preservation. This, in as much as it amounted to demanding the proof of a negative, seemed a bit unfair, but the question of falsifiability does still lurk. We may never be able to prove Mark wrong if he decides to run with this, but it will also be very hard to be sure that he’s right. History is fun like that, isn’t it?

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Harder to understand, but (if I did) much less disputable was a paper the very next day, 18th January, given by Professor Bruce Campbell to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar in Oxford under the title, “Population, Disease and Environmental Change in the Fourteenth Century”. This was a paper about the Black Death, except that it was not about the disease itself or its spread, about which indeed there have been lots of recent new discoveries largely covered by Michelle of Heavenfield at her Contagions blog, if you’re interested. Instead, it took in a huge range of climate evidence, taken from all over Europe, and sourced from lake cores, tree rings, stalactite build-up, and all manner of different things to build up a very complicated picture of global climate over the central Middle Ages. This was of course different all round the globe: one of the biggest problems with doing palæoclimatology, as I’ve said here before, is that people generalise from Greenland to Barcelona quite happily when actually Lake Geneva gives you a different story, and so on. Campbell was fully emphasising this variation across the globe, and conditioning almost all his general trends with local or micro-level exceptions. This made it all the more powerful that he was able to emphasise, from all his sorts of evidence, almost all of which you can check out yourself at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Paleoclimatology Data website if you choose, that all over the globe climate was in violent flux over the course of the fourteenth century. It was not simply getting warmer or getting colder, it was all over the shop everywhere, with different overall trends in different places—in Western Europe passing eventually from the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (as I now sort of understand why we have to call it, seeing as ‘warm’ is a bit subjective) to the Little Ice Age—but such serious variation in the period between that big freezes, droughts and, consequently, serious agricultural disruption dominated most of the period 1250-1450. This doesn’t explain the Black Death, at least not directly; the unusual travel of rats is still not understood and it seems unlikely that the archæology will ever be there. What it may well explain, however, is the incredible gravity of the plague’s effects, especially since they came on the back of an under-explored wave of cattle disease which meant that much of the affected area, in East and West, was already running very short on meat and milk, in turn messing with population replacement rates. Everywhere was short of resource and resistance. The results, catastrophe (and a quasi-Malthusian fat time for the survivors, though it was not Malthusian crisis that had thinned things out previously).6

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Obligatory toiling peasants illustration, from about the right period too

This was powerful stuff. I was mainly excited because of the variety of subtle ways in and the massive source of free data with which I might now reconsider the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, and others there were more interested in knowing if they could use this sort of techniques to look at other plagues (and suspicious that it doesn’t seem to work half so well for the Justinianic plague). To this Campbell was keen to emphasise, as he had throughout, that he was looking here at an incredibly complex set of environmental systems, with almost-chaotic looking interrelations. Changes in, for example, the Pacific Ocean’s oscillation, as we are seeing even today, have complex causes and affect climate all over the world, but depending on what else climate is doing in each area, and a dozen or more other factors, the results are very different on the micro-scale. (Failure to appreciate this leads to Daily Express stories ‘disproving’ global warming because of huge snowfall in Britain as the Guardian runs stories about historically-unparalleled droughts in Kenya at about the same time.) For the current debates over climate, only the big trends are truly significant, but for our sort of researches, the local variation is immensely important, and there are some ways here to approach it at the same time as the big trends that make up its background. This applies to more than just climate, as a way of thinking… For the second time in two days I’d been thrown into some really big thoughts about changes affecting the whole world that I study and had to come away thinking myself quite lucky just to be where I am when I am, in this way at least.7

1. Some quick web-digging finds the Crypta Balbi excavations reported in Daniele Manacorda, Crypta Balbi. Archeologia e storia di un paesaggio urbano (Rome 2001) and Gregory’s letters are now all translated in John R. C. Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great (Toronto 2004). I don’t have a reference for Pella.

2. The obvious one is Adomnán of Iona’s De locis sanctis, ed. & transl. Denis Meehan as Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Dublin 1958) though you could if you liked find an older translation online here. Bede like Admonán’s work so much he wrote his own, and you can find that translated online here, transl. A. van der Nat as “Regarding the Holy Places, by the Venerable Bede”, from the edition of Paul Geyer of it as “Bædae Liber de locis sanctis” in idem (ed.), Itinera Hierosolymitana, sæculi IIII-VIII, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiae latinorum XXXVIIII (Vienna 1898).

3. On which a quick study might be Jonathan Phillips, “The Latin East, 1098-1291” in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford 1995), pp. 112-140.

4. A suspicion I have mainly on the scale of connections I’ve heard him attribute to monastic centres in Pictland, as for example in his “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St Andrews House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40, but shared by a number of the contributors to Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998).

5. My cite of resort for this remains Chris Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98, and of course that does mean I’m twenty years out of date and new evidence may very well have changed the picture. I know what the answer to this is, of course, and it’s now quite close to the top of the to-read pile but as ever other stuff is more immediately urgent.

6. Professor Campbell’s paper was loaded with references, which he displayed by adding them onto the relevant presentation slide as he wound up each point. This was very stylish but left one little time to copy them down. However, I bet most of them are in what seems to be a related publication, B. M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della “Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi” 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32 and online as PDF here. Meanwhile, the damn handy graph I’ve used as illustration is from Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105 and otherwise online unpaginated here.

7. Not, of course, that I’m happy about living in the era where this is a sudden and urgent political concern that the reigning world-system is completely unequipped to tackle. I have a son, after all, I’m not really happy about the world I’m bequeathing to him.

I’m sorry, I meant ‘Medieval Climatic Anomaly’

Temparature reconstruction plot from the IPCC's 2007 report

It took me a little while of thinking to work out why I don’t like the term ‘medieval climatic anomaly’, which I stumbled across following this notice at News for Medievalists (before that furore broke) about a new book, Herb Maschner, Owen Mason and Robert McGhee (edd.), The Northern World, AD 900-1400 (Salt Lake City 2009). It’s not that I’m immediately down on the book; firstly it looks quite important in its way (though why do so many of our climate proxies have to come from Greenland, which we already have reason to suspect may have been different? This has caused to me to wonder if there was sediment core work done on, say, Lake Geneva, and it turns out that such work is older than I am, so really, I ought to read more before sounding off. Anyway!) and secondly I haven’t read it yet and can’t tell exactly where between science and anthropology it falls and how much of either I might be able to follow. But there is this term, for what I know as the Medieval Warm Period, and it bothers me.

After a short while pondering it seems to me that it defuses the controversy of the term ‘Medieval Warm Period‘, of which after all we have seen enough just round these parts lately, but not necessarily in helpful directions. To call the warm peak an ‘anomaly’ suggests that it’s odd, ignorable, not significant, whereas what little I understand of these things suggests that these changes of graph are either cyclical or caused, what they aren’t is random. On the other hand, one of the battles over this (for all the wrong reason, it seems to me, but you know this) is whether any current change in our climate is ‘anomalous’, so maybe this is actually a stronger term. I’m just not sure it reads that way. Then the other thing is the abandonment of the descriptive adjective ‘warm’. The result is that someone who hadn’t met the term before wouldn’t easily see why it might matter. Now is that a crazy-filter, or a strange attempt to avoid courting persecution by activist sceptics by not ‘prejudging’ the issue? I hope not the latter, because that leads to Bad Science (as does that link) but the former is a bit objectionable too. Surely what needs to happen with this debate is that it reaches more people, not fewer? On the other hand, only a few months ago I was arguing that the material of this book shouldn’t be allowed to be influenced by that debate or be part of it…

As you can tell, I am a bit conflicted about how to discuss this whole issue. Not least because, if it should turn out on investigation that, actually, this here ‘medieval climatic anomaly’ wasn’t as important in Western Europe in the tenth century as has sometimes been preached, I lose my principal handle on social change in that period. And dammit, I like that handle.

Links of coolness (mainly featuring death or actual cold, but some brighter)

Well, I’ve been busy for so long that quite a lot of exciting stuff has come out of the ground or otherwise appeared on the web. First and foremost, it would seem that some of the stuff presented at that Bristol conference that I said I wasn’t allowed to talk about has now been released.

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

At the conference they had video from a microcamera intruded into the coffin of this man, who was once Barbarossa’s Chancellor, but hadn’t yet opened it. Now they have, which I learn from this article on The Times‘s website, in case your German’s not up to that first one, and I found the Times one because of this post by Michelle Moran at her History Buff blog. In case you can’t see, he is holding a chalice and a book. Go and look at the pictures! Rarely is a dead body so amazing.

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

So, I said I’d tell you and so I have. But of course just lately most of the focus has been on another set of dead bodies, the fifty-one apparently-Vikings at Weybridge, Dorset. A quick sken at the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog reveals ten separate articles just on the front page and I seem to remember that there were more. Here I think I should give the palm of coverage to my colleague Rory Naismith who has covered it for the Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic’s blog here. If you want an expert’s take, there is one, albeit suitably cautious.

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

One more set of dead bodies with no images as yet, but in some ways more interesting, is a group of female burials that have been found at Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, in Devon. The archæologist in charge, Sam Turner, is saying that this suggests there was a nunnery on the site. I see the reasoning, but I wonder, because of the dating, which from the article in the South Devon Herald Express to which David Beard linked at Archaeology in Europe, which continues invaluable, they say only that the site is at least 1000 years old. I think, reading between the lines, that this is because they have found a church underlying the current ruins, which are Norman (and only this ruined because of a fire in 1992, worse luck), and since those are Norman these must be Saxon. What the relation of the burials to either church is not clear from the short notes in the papers, or whether the bodies themselves have yet been dated, and I’d very much appreciate any further information anyone might have. The reason I’m cautious is that in 1018 there was a monastery, Buckfast Abbey, founded just down the hill from this sight, and so the dating is kind of crucial to work out whether the abbey was replacing a nunnery, moving in alongside, or merely a resumption of monastic life in male reform style on a site where female religious observance had ceased long before. Or, whether they’ve just struck a bit of the graveyard where women were, as these are not the first burials recovered from the churchyard (as you’d expect). So, cart before the archæological horse? Or genuinely archæological evidence of a very late Saxon double monastery? Apart from anything else, I note that in 2005 Andrew Reynolds and Dr Turner published this site as a monastery, so I’d very much like to know what the earlier evidence was, and will keep my eyes and ears open.1 Hey Andrew, you’re not reading are you? (Worth a try…)

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Away from bodies, but back to Vikings, and also relating to arguments that have been had here about our favourite bone of contention, it should be noted if you didn’t—I got it from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe again—that a new temperature index for medieval Greenland has been compiled from sea-shells pulled out of sediment cores, and shows a fairly severe collapse in the temperature in that area in the decades after the settlement of Iceland in c. 890. Of course, I’m more interested in the bit where they say, “winter temperature variability increased between 990 and 1120, a time when written records suggest that crops occasionally failed. By 1250, things heated up again and summer temperatures reached 10 degrees Celsius, possibly the highest in three centuries. Within decades, though, temperatures began to plunge again”, but the reminder that all our temperature data (and this is still true now) is local data first and foremost is salutary, because this is not really what we see in mainland Europe.

Mosaic floor from the Umayyad palace at al-Sinnabra

Likewise about things coming out of the ground, although in a very different area and of very different size (though possibly less significance: think on that, ye mighty…) is this summer palace of the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya that Israeli archæologists have located at al-Sinnabra on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. I learn this from News for Medievalists, and I haven’t missed the recent controversy over their content, but this one links to the press release I’ve just linked, so I see no problem with tipping the hat here.2

Then, I’d also like to notice two things that are about texts rather than objects, firstly this excellent article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times about how to archive Salman Rushdie’s computer files, which taps into so much stuff I’ve written here before about digital decay and the need for truly long-term digital preservation strategies, which I was pointed at from Cliopatria, and which contemplates, among other things, preserving the hardware on which the files were used so as to replicate the author’s mise-en-page, which is a wonderful idea. They make mention of a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device at Stanford University, basically a really advanced data recovery machine, and I’m quite glad there is one of those but I think we’ll need more…

And of course, as has correctly been observed by Goblinpaladin at Opinions of a Reformed Dropout, this is approximately the most brilliant thing in the world, a chap called Jackson Crawford who has taken it upon himself to rewrite the story of Star Wars as Old Norse saga, Tattúínárdœla saga. My Old Norse is basically non-existent, and he has provided English translations only reluctantly, but the actual effort of reimagining the characters and storyline into a Viking Age setting is a considerable part of his achievement. I’d say go read it but since he speaks of having 8,000 visitors per day I’d guess you probably already are. Nevertheless, just in case… Ah me how I love the Internet.

1. Andrew Reynolds & Sam Turner, “Discovery of a late Anglo-Saxon monastic site in Devon: Holy Trinity church, Buckfastleigh” in Archaeology International Vol. 5 no. 8 (London 2005), pp. 22-25.

2. I confess to some slight bemusement at the extent of this. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met its operators, but I never thought Medievalists.net was anything other than self-promoting journalism. The selection of articles and the coverage given to fiction has always left that impression on me, and the choice of digitised scholarly work they choose to host also seems to embrace availability rather than discrimination. At least they are now consistently giving links. The whole thing has made me think a lot more carefully about how I use hot-linking, though. It’s always seemed to me a way to pass traffic to a deserving site and notify them that I’d borrowed their image, and the bandwidth implications had never struck me. They probably don’t arise with the number of visitors I get here, but all the same, and because often hot-linked images disappear, I should rethink that. Any thoughts from people I’ve linked to?

Darn climate sceptics! get out of my field!

The recent fracas over e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has a surprising medieval relevance, and I just wanted to add a few pennyworth of annoyance. The keywords here would be “medieval warm period“. Now if you Google that, it takes a long time before you get down to results that are actually about the Middle Ages. But it mattered for the Middle Ages and it’s immensely aggravating to me to have this phenomenon politicised, minimised, kicked around or diminished because of current political debates.

Why does it matter to me, you ask? Well, as a historian, because as close as I have to an answer about what caused the now-legendary ‘feudal transformation’, or at least the bundle of slow or not-so-slow changes that we have at times piled under that name, starts with it. Between about 700 and 1200, it seems fairly safe to say, the climate in Western Europe got warmer by, say, one or two degrees. Maybe more, but that’s all I need to be able to say that rainfall would have decreased, crop yields would have increased, there would have been fewer famines (and that bit we can check from other records and it has been done and checks out, as far as what records we have can demonstrate something from silence), and more surplus. More surplus means more wealth being accumulated, mostly at the top but not all of it, means more resources available for cultural reproduction and patronage, means the economy will support more people which means demographic growth which in turn means increased land use, more production, therefore even more surplus and so on again round the circle like a generator for the high Middle Ages. Technology doesn’t leap at the right point, breaking social structures can really only be an effect of economic growth or so we would imagine at least, and generally I have not yet hit on anything else that explains this. So, the fact that people working on it are largely doing so as part of a different enquiry that is not, per se about the Middle Ages, is vexing, because even if they’re right that it occurred—which I believe they are because, as I say, I don’t see another explanation for everything else that follows from it—they will not be taken seriously enough, because of the kind of opposition that cause reputable researchers to try and massage data so that the opposition can’t use it against them.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

There is, in fact, plausible anecdotal evidence for these changes in that period apart from the Norse in Greenland. One thing that struck me very forcefully was a recent piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian, a photo essay depicting those whose livelihoods have been affected by climatic change (or at least, deforestation, salination or acidification of water, increased water uptake, etc.) One of the less ambiguous ones, in scientific terms at least but not morally, was the current chairman of the Torres vinery, Miguel Torres, in what to me is far frontier Catalonia. They are buying land in the Pyrenees where grapes have not been grown for a long time because the lowlands vineyards are drying up. The wine is pretty good, apparently. And hey: you know when those hills were last used for viticulture? You got it. The charters and records of the eleventh and twelfth centuries reveal vines being sold and given that were at altitudes where in the 1950s, as Ramon d’Abadal reported, it was thought that vines could not be grown. He didn’t know what this showed, except that Catalan peasants in the Pyrenees were under serious economic pressure. But now, I think we do know and it’s happening again. So this is my medieval angle.

Vines in the Priorat area of Catalonia

Vines in the Priorat area of Catalonia

The other reason that this annoys me however is not historical at all, but just one about rationality. It really gets to me that the argument against action on climate change makes so much of this. The argument being that, if the medieval warm period is ‘true’ and there really were Vikings farming now ice-bound lands on Greenland (irrespective of what the rest of the world may have been getting weather-wise…) then the military-industrial complex ™ hasn’t necessarily caused the current climate rise and so our lifestyle needn’t change hurrah! This is so stupid it makes me want to twist necks, but it is a mainstream idea, as shown by another, rather different UK newspaper, the Daily Express, which a few days after I first drafted this conveniently led with a full-page headline, “100 reasons why global warming is natural“, and is now taking a similar line on the current snow in the UK. This, I tell you, gives me unto despair for my people (whoever the goshdarn heck they might be). It is stupid for several big reasons.

  1. Firstly, it assumes that plural causes of climate change do not operate simultaneously, which obviously need not be true. If the greenhouse effect is demonstrable, then to claim that that is not what is going on with our near-global temperature rise is at the very least questionable, even if other things are also going on. (Of course, the Express claim that the greenhouse effect is unproven. The worrying thing is that this is not a fringe paper, yet, it has more market share than the Times or the Guardian.)
  2. Secondly, it’s not just climate change that urges a lifestyle change (even though I agree with prominent voices that this is a lot bigger than individual lifestyle habits and that action must be government-led); when we hit peak oil, if that hasn’t already happened, it is going to hurt.
  3. Thirdly, and much more importantly, it doesn’t flaming well matter what’s causing the temperature rise, it’s still happening. Even if it is not that we have just burnt too much stuff and instead that Mother Sun is getting a little more angry in her middle years, the oceans will still rise, the Nile Delta will still continue to flood and before long there will be nowhere left to grow good coffee, and that’s probably the point at which these people will notice. Unless you actually deny that the temperature of the globe is going up, which can be made to look surprisingly rational but is at the very least a minority view, you still have to admit that things will be bad unless we do something so really, where the Vikings (or the Spanish Marchers) farmed does not matter to you right now.

In short, the medieval warm period makes no political difference to thinking people concerned with climate change. It may tell them something about how the Earth behaves climatically over long periods, which would be great (although if you take a long enough view we’re all going to bake or sink anyway), but it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t need to cut emissions, carbon or otherwise, combat overfarming, deforestation and salination, come up with alternative energy sources good and fast and start in on the synthetic food. It really affects none of these necessities. But it did affect my subject population, or so it seems, really quite a lot. So dammit, you kids, get out of my yard.

(Noted in the last stages of drafting this, an op-ed by one of the UEA professors whose mail was leaked, though he has nothing at all to say about whether they were massaging figures or not, just about the problems science has getting itself heard in policy. Hat tip to Fourcultures. Please note also that this essay is cross-posted at Cliopatria, where I linked a post of Richard Scott Nokes’s that seemed relevant and useful, but the good Professor has subsequently read that post in a way I hadn’t realised was possible and was not at all my intent, though he was still good enough to link to it, and so I’ve removed that link in this version.)

For the actual debate about the actual medieval phenomenon you could try: Malcolm K. Hughes & Henry F. Diaz (edd.), The Medieval Warm Period (Dordrecht 1994), repr. from Climatic Change Vol. 26 (1994), nos 2-3, though of course the science has accumulated a lot since then. For the wine stuff, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya Carolíngia III. Els Comtats de Pallars i Ribagorça, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica 14 & 15 (Barcelona 1955), I p. 50, and now C. Arbués & J. Oliver, “Vinyes que ja no hi són. Per una arqueològia agrària del domini feudal del treball pagès: les vinyes de Sorre, Montardit (el Pallars Sobirà) i Musser (la Cerdanya)” in I. Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 321-337. For famines try now P. Benito i Monclús, “Fams atroces a la Catalunya de l’any mil”, ibid., pp. 189-206, and more widely, troublesome though it is in some other respects, Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive (London 2005)

Know ye not that we shall judge politicians? (New Cliopatria post)

Just a note to say that, as promised, I have a new, and lengthy, essay up on Cliopatria asking what, exactly, the world wants its historians to do at this time of, well, global, difficulty. More than you might expect, less than we do, and not what we want to do, is roughly my conclusion. You may like to read…