Tag Archives: coins

Name in Print XVIII

The chronology of the content in these posts is a struggle for me to follow, so I dread to think what it’s like for you, dear reader, but despite that, having now shown you more photos of medieval places from late 2015, I now want to bring you forward to April 2017, when somewhat to my surprise, a new publication of mine I’d more or less entirely forgotten about suddenly turned up in my pigeonhole at work.

Cover of Richard Verdi, Sarah Beattie, Jonathan Jarrett, Nicola Kalinsky and Robert Wenley, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts (London 2017).

Cover of Richard Verdi, Sarah Beattie, Jonathan Jarrett, Nicola Kalinsky and Robert Wenley, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts (London 2017).

You see, in the final frantic days at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, in which I had been counting all the coins, trying to ensure that my two dissertation pupils had what they were due from me and that the office would be usable by my successor, as well as maintaining a cheerful and helpful demeanour in the face of unexpected requests from members of the actual museum-going public, I also got asked to make some contributions to an update of the Barber’s introductory guide to its collections. These are mainly what you’d call ‘fine art’, but the old one had had coins in and it was thought best that these be updated in the light of what we now knew about the collection as a result of my tenure there. I did that quite quickly, though of course professionally, signed it all off in the last month I was there and forgot about it, and then 20 months later there it was in a pigeonhole in Leeds with me listed as one of the co-authors.1

Title page of Richard Verdi, Sarah Beattie, Jonathan Jarrett, Nicola Kalinsky and Robert Wenley, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts (London 2017).

Title page, including my own name

It is perhaps a sign of the way that the world of museums works that of the five named authors, only two still worked at the Barber by the time it came out—we’d noticed the same churn in the All That Glitters project, where all the remaining participants were in different jobs by the time we finished—but I felt especially flattered by my name appearing there, because my entire contribution to this book on which I am named is three of the six coin entries, probably a total of about 500 words. (The others, like a lot of the text, remain from the previous edition.) So this is a very generous, and probably undeserved, co-authorship, but I was of course inordinately pleased by it anyway. And as ever with museums versus academia, more people will probably read those entries than any of my actual academic work!

Silver denarius of Emperor Claudius I, struck at Rome in 41-42 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R0943

Silver denarius of Emperor Claudius I, struck at Rome in 41-42 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R0943

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Shapur II struck at an uncertain mint in 309-379, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0078

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Shapur II struck at an uncertain mint in 309-379, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0078

Gold ducat of Pierre d'Aubusson struck at Rhodes 1476-1503, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR0037

Gold ducat of Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson struck at Rhodes 1476-1500, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR0037

The actual coins that got the benefit of my attention were these, a denarius of the Roman Emperor Claudius showing Nemesis (because we had to replace the previous Roman coin entry), a drachm of Shahanshah Shapur II (because the Barber has a really good collection of Sasanian coins that wasn’t even mentioned before and I insisted), and a ducat of the Knights of the Hospital of St John struck at Rhodes, because it’s unexpectedly flashy, one of those dissertation students had helped me identify it not long before, and because I was determined to get some of our medieval in there as well.2 (The other coins in the catalogue are a tetradrachm of Lysimachus I, a solidus of Emperor Leo VI and a sovereign of Mary Tudor.) So I did those things (including getting the coins online, where they are), and they can thus be seen! And now you know.

Statistics, as long as we’re counting: obviously, this work was never presented, and it went through only one draft, as I’ve described. What that also means, of course, is that it ran a pretty standard year and eight months from first submission to print, stretching that average out just that bit further, but in a volume with this many moving parts that is perhaps not too surprising, and I’m completely happy with how it came out, which is maybe more surprising by now!


1. Full citation, as above, Richard Verdi, with Sarah Beattie, Jonathan Jarrett, Nicola Kalinsky and Robert Wenley, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts (London 2017).

2. My contributions appear respectively ibid. pp. 18, 19 & 20.

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Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

[This post originally went up on the 9th February, and I’ve now reached the point in my backlog where I first stubbed it as a draft so it can be set free to join the stream of posts. But! It has also lately been decided to extend the exhibition, which will now run until February 3rd 2015, it’s that successful. So if you haven’t already gone and seen, you still have time to do so. And who knows but what I may be behind the doors at the end of the gallery…]

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 3 February 2015

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014 beginning of February 2015.

Uniting the uniters: electronic resource corpora and competition

I am now back from Kalamazoo in safety, but very very short of sleep, so if this makes no sense I apologise and may redact later. I will write about Kalamazoo eventually, but the short version would be that it was great. I wanted to clear some more backlog, though, and I had to do something fairly simple because on the morning of the day I flew back overnight, I had to stay awake until David Ganz had finished delivering his second Lowe Lecture in Palæography, which I went to. So, here’s a thing. A little while ago News for Medievalists did their characteristic content-scrape of an article from a site called Science News Western Australia, which reports on a new initiative being run by the Australian Research Council Network for Early European Research.

Basically, they wanted to build a ‘medieval manuscript commons’ on the web. (I use the past tense because, what you would not realise from News for Medievalists’ 2011 version, this was being reported on in 2009, and the aforenamed Network ceased to be funded in late 2010. So this initiative actually never came to pass and never will, but that actually doesn’t hurt either my point or, it would seem, News for Medievalists’s ethic of business.) The responsible party, one Dr Toby Burrows, had just completed a project to digitise and webify information about medieval manuscripts in Australian collections, a thing called Europa Inventa that does exist and which you can look at, and was reported as explaining:

“What we’re proposing will use semantic web technologies to link up all the information about medieval manuscripts on the many databases and web sites around the world.

“It will be a meta-framework which sits over the top of all the existing data, but is not intended to replace that data,” he says of the service which is likely to be hosted in Europe and be free.

UWA is funding Dr Burrows’ research with a UWA Collaborative Research Award of $8000.

So, I imagine that he was fairly happy even if the project never actually completed. Now, this project might sound a bit vampiric, basically being paid to siphon traffic to your site on the basis of others’ content (much like Medievalists.net, in fact) but I think we can agree it would be useful to have a global repository of this kind of information. It’s almost surprising no-one’s thought of it before, isn’t it? And yes, you’ve guessed no doubt, of course they have and we’ve reported on it here before, Columbia University’s Digital Scriptorium. It seems clear that the Commons one would have rendered the Scriptorium redundant, or vice versa; the aim is the same and they would have competed, however useful either might have been.

Columbia, University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections, Fragmenta Manuscripta 003, recto

Columbia, University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections, Fragmenta Manuscripta 003, recto, highlight of the collection when I visited the website for this post

My point is that we really only need one global service of this kind, and in fact that if there are two then both of them directly attack each other’s raison d’être. And yet we see this repeatedly not just here but in other fields too, and usually funded as here on the alleged basis that no such service exists. For example, you may remember that a long time ago I worked on such a project at the Fitzwilliam Museum about just how we would go about uniting disparate databases of coin information for sharing across the web.1 This was the first wave of semantic web stuff and looked quite powerful, though money to take it further than proof-of-concept has not, I believe, been forthcoming. But very shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone else who’d had the same idea and wanted to do it slightly differently but also, naturally enough, wanted to make use of data that others had already catalogued. That gap is still there, so presumably there’s room for a third of these databases but as we’ve just seen, the fact that something already exists to do one of these jobs doesn’t necessarily preclude others arising, all trying to be the one ring to bind them all. It feels as if the web, with its amazing searchability, on which these endeavours are all intended to sail, ought to prevent this happening; if not earlier, the funding bodies all ought to be capable of operating a FWSE and finding the older projects themselves and then at least asking, “Is this really new?” But since we’ve reported here before on people getting vast awards to allow them basically to reinvent hyperlinking, I suppose I’m not surprised this doesn’t work.

Screenshot of the COINS-MT software created by the COINS Project

Screenshot of the COINS-MT software created by the COINS Project

Less cynically, though, these endeavours can’t be as useful as their founders and funders presumably did all recognise they could be as long as they have competition. I realise that’s not very free-market but these are supposed to be public services, not profit-makers, and so they won’t follow capitalist rules. We really wanted, on the COINS Project, to set it up so that anyone who’d digitised a numismatic collection could dump that data into the central repository we didn’t get to set up and someone, with a bare minimum of crunching code, could suck it in in fields people could find things with consistently. This, like Monasterium.net or other such repositories, required people to be willing to do that. A small digitisation project probably will, but these big umbrella projects presumably can’t or they lose their `market space’. And I’m just not sure this actually helps us, in the long run. Perhaps the answer is just to wait for semantic web stuff to advance far enough that our home computers will be able to identify correct mapping of such data automatically. And meanwhile, as Magistra pointed out a while back in a different context, someone who has such information that they really want to be out there has got to pass it to everyone who’s subsequently going to work on it. But until funding is all international (and until funding committees can do a websearch, perhaps) this separation of endeavours is going to continue to be a problem I fear.


1. Any minute now the paper talking about this project as a whole will be out as Jonathan Jarrett, Achille Felicetti, Reinhold Hüber-Mork and Sebastian Zambanini, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe forthcoming), pp. 000-00. Any minute.

Name in print II

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: Care and Use

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: Care and Use

It’s only 48 pages, it’s not peer-reviewed (though it’s been repeatedly gone over by local experts) and I won’t be putting it on my academic C. V. because I look enough like a numismatist already on paper; but, this now exists. I’ve held it, I’ve given copies to people and, since the Museum and the project of which this was part gave 650 copies away at the recent International Numismatic Congress, I’ll likely be giving more away yet; it’s extremely doubtful that any of the print run will be be charged for. Do you have curatorial responsibility for a coin collection, or want to work somewhere where you might? Speak up, you can have one; it’s a best-practice guide for such people and we are quite literally giving ’em away. This will probably accumulate a large readership than anything else I ever write (elsewhere than here…).

As long as I’m taking credit I ought to give some too: Mark Blackburn is behind much more of the text than he wishes to acknowledge (ha!), Klaus Vondrovec in Vienna and Achille Felicetti in Florence both contributed a lot of material that I recycled, and the classy-looking design is entirely down to Ayshea Carter. You all rock. Now, back to medieval history…

Cat and dog anthropomorphism from centuries 13 to 17

Well out of my period and I had forgotten I even meant to write about this, but in the Thomas Bisson Festschrift there is an article by Alan Friedlander about notaries’ symbols in 13th-century Languedoc. I am academically fascinated by individualised documentary practices anyway, but had I not been I think I would have been sold on the work by this first page:

fonties_sig

I love this stuff. The goat is in fact the authentication sign used by the notary public of Lésignan-la-Cèbe who wrote the transfer charter, Maitre Raimond André de Fontiès, who used this sign so that his work could be recognised. All the notaries public of the area had their own signs like this, though not usually quite so cute. Friedlander goes on to give some careful thought and evidence about how this system worked and what people used it for but mainly he is having fun showing drawings by people being funny, or symbolic, and sometimes both. And fair enough. It’s just that, from four hundred years later, I recognised one of the jokes. See this:

catala_sig

This is, as he says, the mark of Pierre Catala de Pézenas, and maybe it’s just my mind that finds it perfectly natural that he’d have come up against the homonymy before and decided to react against it rather than with. On the other hand, when I saw this I was immediately reminded of something else, an English seventeenth-century token issued by a man with a name like Doggett, bearing a cat on the obverse side. I have to guess, because I can’t find it in our catalogue, which mystifies me as I can only have seen it here; but it’s not here, and so if I only read about it, or dreamt it which given how many of these things I was once dealing with is quite possible, I don’t have an image to give you. (Should a numismatist who knows the piece I mean stumble across this page in a websearch, please let me know I wasn’t dreaming it.) Instead, here is another such token with what I suspect is a similar process going on.

Halfpenny token of Peter Sammon, Kensington, London, 1667, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.BI.1051-R

Halfpenny token of Peter Sammon, Kensington, London, 1667, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.BI.1051-R

What I take to be going on here is that again, a man whose name contained an obvious icon opted to twit it, perhaps with some rationalisation like, “and what liketh a Sammon better than a catte?” I mean, okay, maybe he just had a cat and this was well known in his street. Maybe Pierre Catala had a dog. I think it’s probably the same thing going on. This is all too late to prove what I would like it to prove, or rather disprove, the idea that individuality began in the eleventh century, but I like being able to show that the same small joke occurred to two people of no particularly special status or achievements beyond being well-to-do and trusted (no point in issuing tokens if you weren’t) across four hundred years and rather more miles. Helps one remember that one’s studying human beings with whom, were time travel and one’s languages good enough (remember: we already travel in time, it’s just changing direction that’s proving tricky), one could talk, and whom one might like or dislike but who would not be the same as any other person you might meet. Each one a missing person to recover. We are going to return to this theme, oh yes.


The article is, as you can see above, Alan Friedlander, “Signum mei apposui: Notaries and their Signs in Medieval Languedoc” in Robert F. Berkhofer III, Alan Cooper & Adam Kosto (edd.), The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350: essays in honor of Thomas N. Bisson (Aldershot 2005), pp. 94-117, reproductions here of pp. 94 & 101. The discovery of the individual hypothesis can be found in Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (London 1972) or Aaron Gurevich, The Origins of European Individualism, transl. K. Judelson (Oxford 1995), and it is contested by Caroline Walker Bynum, “Did The Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 31 (1980), pp. 1-17, with a reply by Morris, “Individualism in Twelfth-Century Religion: some further reflections”, ibid. pp. 195-206, and complicated by Michael Clanchy, “Documenting the self: Abelard and the individual in history” in Historical Research Vol. 76 (2003), pp. 293-309. Make what you can…

`Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round’ Virtual Exhibition

Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1903-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1903-2007, De Wit Collection

It was now a considerable time ago that Nicola Griffith posted a notice at Gemæcca expressing her excitement about the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I earn my crust, entitled Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round. That exhibition opened on 23rd May 2008, and its purpose was to celebrate the fact that we’d just been able to get hold of a stunning collection of early Anglo-Saxon pennies (also known as sceattas, though we deprecate this term). It ran till September 2008 and was fairly well-received. I did the enlargements which, because of the tiny size of the coins, were a big feature of it, and I also did the virtual exhibition to go alongside it, using the text from the physical case labels and so forth to try and mimic the physical layout on the web.

A Merovingian gold tremissis struck in the Toul area, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.10720, Grierson Collection

A Merovingian gold tremissis struck in the Toul area, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.10720, Grierson Collection

You will have noticed that I didn’t mention the virtual exhibition here. This was partly because it wasn’t finished when the physical exhibition opened because someone sent me to Madrid at short notice; but it was finished a week after that. All the same, you can see that I was still promising it to Michelle of Heavenfield just after Christmas that year. It still wasn’t live by the time we closed the physical exhibition and packed it off to Norwich Castle Museum. In January 2009 they too dismantled it and sent it to Ipswich Town Hall Galleries, where it is on display till September 2009. For all of this time what I can only describe as circumstances beyond my control have kept our virtual companion to the physical displays offline. We did at least have a podcast by my boss put up, which has now been linked into the virtual exhibition. At last, however, all has been finalised and sent live to the web, and I would be very pleased if you found time to give it a look. It’s quite informative and full of pictures of wild and wonderful early Saxon art in metal. I hope you like it. (Michelle, our Oswald’s Raven or whatever it is is on the third page.) Go on. Cheer this fellow up!

Silver early penny, series Z, c. 715-20, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1614-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, series Z, c. 715-20, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1614-2007, De Wit Collection

N. B. coins not to scale…

Unmillennial issues

Despite the day-job, it’s been a while since I put any numismatic content here apart from that exhibition notice. I don’t usually have much dealing with the medieval parts of the collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but this record had a mistake in it that needed fixing and the coin just struck me.

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.1192

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.1192


Reverse of the same coin

Reverse of the same coin

Quite apart from the fact that it’s rather splendid (though in its 22mm-wide, 4 gram actual size maybe less so than it looks here), this coin is an unwitting anchor point for a whole range of historical changes. For us, perhaps, the first thing that sticks out is the date: it’s a coin of the Millennium, about which we are sometimes asked to believe most of Western Christianity was in a ferment at the time when this coin was struck. But that piece of chronology is of course only a Christian fixation and this is a Muslim coin, struck in the name of one of the various claimants of the time to the succession to Muhammad’s leadership of all Muslims. Nonetheless, that claimant, Hishām ibn al-Hakām al-Mucayad, is something of a millennial figure in the colloquial sense, because it was under him that the Caliphate of al-Andalus, in whose name the coin is struck (al-Andalus, Spain itself, which we believe to have been the signature of the Córdoba mint but which may have been used in several places), shattered, never to recover.

Hishām, though the grandson of perhaps the most powerful Spanish Muslim ruler of all, ruled as a puppet, the real government being in the hands of his hājib (roughly, first minister), Abu Āmir Muhammad ibn Abdullah Ibn Abi Āmir, better known as al-Mansur. For twenty years or more al-Mansur had most of Northern Spain cowering in fear of his armies, and of course it was in Hishām’s name that Barcelona was sacked by those armies in 985, but by the time this coin was struck he was facing an alliance of the northern principalities under King García Sanches II of Navarre, and by 1002 he was dead. His son cAbd al-Malik proved less able, and anyway died in 1008. He managed before that to get Hishām, who had no children (having never been provided with a wife), to make his son cAbd al-Rahmān (‘Sanchuelo’, because he was son of García Sanches’s sister Sancha) the recognised heir. So recognised, however, Sanchuelo mounted a coup and took over, having his father killed; the populace of Córdoba then rose against him and the caliph under one Muhammad II al-Mahdi, who was not only of the blood royal but as you can see from his byname claimed to be the Mahdi, the mythical figure who is prophesied to redeem Islam. Muhammad was not the first person to make such a claim by any means, and he will surely not be the last, but it’s that Millennial theme again all the same.

By then, al-Andalus was in full-scale civil war between military commanders of slave troops or mercenary contingents, with the old nobility and their private, dare I say, feudal, levies getting involved in various ways too. So despite his Messianic claims al-Mahdi was deposed within the year by Sulaiman V al-Mustacīn, another royal claimant backed by the Berber factions. Al-Mahdi therefore got fled to Toledo and got help, from none other than Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona and his brother Count Ermengol I of Urgell, the two sons of my pet count Borrell II, and they gathered a very large army, negotiated a very large pay contract and marched on Córdoba itself. Sulaiman had meanwhile enlisted help from Castile (why no, the Catalans weren’t part of that Northern alliance I mentioned, now that you ask) and the two armies met outside the Andalusi capital, at the time perhaps the largest city in Europe, and although the Catalans took very heavy losses (including Ermengol and two bishops, another dying on the way back) Sulaiman broke first, leaving the Catalans to plunder the city in pursuit of their defaulted pay (and simple looting of course). Almost as soon as they were gone however the Slavic troops of the Caliphate broke good old Hishām out of prison in what was left of Córdoba and put him back on the throne again, perhaps eager for his first real chance at power albeit under the protection of the Slav general al-Wahdid. Sulaiman didn’t give in, however, and in 1013 his Berber troops followed the Catalan suit and plundered the capital; Hishām was killed in the sack, and Sulaiman succeeded again, but to a state whose integrity was already ruined, the various leaders having been joined by a host of local princes setting up on their own, to become what we now call the Taifas, the `party’ kings. So ended mighty al-Andalus.

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra, during the rule of Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra', during the rule of 'Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

The coin doesn’t really have much of all that in it. When it was struck Hishām was a respected if powerless figure, and his coinage would continue to circulate through not just Islamic but Christian Spain; from the 970s onwards Barcelona documents are increasingly full of mentions of “mancuses” which are nothing more than Arabic dinars substituting in high-value transactions for the low-value silver deniers of the day. This is one of those coins, and it’s entirely traditional in design, weight and fabric. Coins like this had been being made in Spain for probably forty years and in the Middle East, to a slightly heavier and older weight standard, for centuries. Islamic Spain, now plugged into Saharan Africa and its gold trade, was an economic powerhouse, not least because of having one of the few functional tax systems of early medieval Europe which made these coins and their silver counterparts a necessity. It was a military power greatly to be feared, too, but it was also a state where top-down power was crystallised around a very few people and large armies served them as they saw fit. whether its fall was inevitable or really can be blamed on a few bad rulers, or somewhere between the two, is a question for someone else; I just like the way that the date on this splendid gold coin unwittingly prefigures the collapse soon to follow it, but only to a Western Christian (yet Arabic-reading) mind. It’s little straws of paradox like this that make the human disaster implicit in such events navigable don’t you think?


There isn’t really reading you can do that would cover this all in one go. Not the smallest reason for this is that the Catalan-Castilian battle at Córdoba gets elided from one side or the other in almost all historical writing about it, the Catalans omitting the Castilians and the Castilians the Catalans so as to better preserve their own myth of triumphant reconquest from the rather sordid tang of mercenary fratricide. This in turn affects English-language writing about it, which tends to have been raised in one or other school; for example, Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), pp. 49-51, omits the Catalans, and you won’t find any mentions of the Castilians in any of the places where Paul Freedman’s work touches 1010 as far as I know. You also get pro-Muslim work from the Arabists that tries to miss out the sack entirely. It’s crazy. On the coin, however, some day you’ll be able to see Anna M. Balaguer & Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge forthcoming), Chapter 3, and given the partisan state of the historical discourse, that may even be the best guide in English to these events outside of Wikipedia. Sometimes we historians could really do better…