Tag Archives: crimefighting

Detective work in ninth-century Córdoba

The next thing in my stack of things to blog about is the 2019 International Medieval Congress; but I just did a conference report, and this is basically a good day, so rather than put that task into it – you can wait till next week for that – I’m going to jump slightly ahead, to something that I read and decided to blog about while on the holiday I went on straight after the IMC. The holiday itself will generate a few posts of photos, but we’ll get there in something more like due course. For the time being, all you need to know for this was that I went on holiday with some academic reading off our shelves that I was determined just to read for fun, without taking notes. The lucky selection was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (very interesting, but hard to track an argument through), the collected works of Liudprand of Cremona (always good, but I’d never read them all through before), and the translation by David James of the History of al-Andalus by Ibn al-Qūṭīyah.1 And it’s in the last of those, in the section on Emir ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II of Córdoba (ruled 822-852 CE) that I found the story below, which I’ll transcribe from James’s English.2 If you ever find yourself in one of those arguments where someone is maintaining that we’re just smarter now than people in the ‘dark ages’ could have been, it’s a good counter-example.

One of the things told about ‘Abd al-Raḥmān: So many complaints were made against successive civil governors (wulāt al-madīna) of Cordova that he swore that he would never appoint another person from among the inhabitants of the capital. He searched for some one suitable among his clients who were inhabitants of the provinces. One, Muḥammad ibn Sālim was brought to his notice, who – it was said – had made the Pilgrimage, and was a clever but modest man. So he sent for him and appointed him.
“On the first day after his appointment, while riding to the palace, some one told him, ‘A dead body has been found in a straw basket in the al-Qaṣṣābīn [Street or Quarter of the Butchers]. ‘Let us be taken to it!’ he replied. Now, when it was before him, he ordered that the body be exposed on the quay (raṣīf), in case a passer-by might recognise the dead man. Then he ordered that the basket be brought to him, and upon seeing that it was a new one, said, ‘Let all in the straw trade (ḥaṣṣārūn) be brought to me – merchants and workers alike!’
“When they were before him, he took the leaders aside and said, ‘Are baskets and panniers all alike; or can you tell the work of individual makers apart?’ They said, ‘Yes, of course, you can tell them apart; and you can tell the work of those in the provinces from those of Cordova.’
“So he commanded that the basket be brought to them, and they told him, ‘This is the work of so-and-so, who is in the group waiting here.’ Muḥammad ordered that the man be brought to him, which was done. He showed him the basket and he said, ‘Yes this basket was bought from me yesterday by a servant (fatā) in royal uniform’; and he described him. Then the police and vendors said, ‘This is the description of one of the al-akhras, ‘the dumb ones’ [those who do not speak Arabic] who lives at Ruṣāfa!’ They went off to search for him. Some of the clothes of the murdered man were found in his possession.
“Now, when ‘Abd al-Raḥmān heard this, he ordered that Muḥammad be made a minister as well as civil governor; and when he entered the chamber of ministers (bayt al-wuzarā’) all paid attention to his opinion.”

So there you have it, a tenthninth-century Islamic impromptu detective inspector! This said, of course there are some things worth drawing out. Firstly, this obviously wasn’t in any way usual: not only is the reward for cracking the case an indication that this was well above and beyond usual intellectual application to such things, but also the foreign slave soldier (for that’s what the ‘dumb ones’ usually were) obviously didn’t expect anyone to try following his trail, so I suspect on both of those counts that actual investigation of murders in Córdoba of this time was a bit above and beyond. On the other hand, there was a police force, and someone did report the crime to the magistrate-equivalent; it’s not a million miles from French police procedure even if there wasn’t much of a crime-scene investigation or establishment of motive. (I imagine there also wasn’t much of a trial…) But it’s still a forensic resolution of a hidden murder by a man in his second day in a job, and as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells it, they had the murderer identified even before they knew who the victim was. Beat that, Maigret!

The Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir in Córdoba, Spain

One of the few bits of Córdoba that’s still roughly as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah would have known it, bar the lighting at least, the Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir looking onto the mosque-cathedral, image from Farhana Nitol, ‘Once Upon a Time Europe Had Its Very Own Flourishing Islamic City’, Mvslim, 25th April 2016, linked through

It’s also worth asking why Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells the tale, of course. He was writing in the time of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s great-grandson of the same name, the one who would claim the caliphate, so some of it is surely the glorification of an ancestor of the current ruler. On the other hand, it’s also plainly a tale of his own streets, even if seventy years before he was born; the numerous local place-names that go unglossed (except by James, thankfully) expect a Cordoban audience who knew they were listening to a Cordoban author. But the message is also clear: appoint your subordinates from wherever good people can be found and reward the ones who deserve it, never mind existing power interests. For a writer at that point claiming descent from the displaced Visigothic kings of two centuries before, that might have been an important message to sneak through in such a genealogical compliment.3 But it isn’t as if the ruler himself was going to turn up to Ibn al-Qūṭīyah’s mosque to hear him teach (which is thought to be how this text was assembled4); the beneficiaries of this message were presumably those who might hope to be appointed, not the ones appointing. And even Muḥammad ibn Sālim was a client of the emir, though it doesn’t sound as if the emir himself knew that, and the audience for this story was in Córdoba while he was not. The most plausible role for the audience’s members might in fact be the anonymous people who made the link between the distant client and the emir by telling the latter about the former, and who presumably also profited from their contact’s sudden and lofty advancement. Oh, and we’re also presumably supposed to be unsurprised that non-Arabic-speaking foreigners are suspect and violent, they’ll murder you for the clothes on your back most of them so watch out, and so on. But for all that the story has messages in it and meanings that lurk below the text, the actual text is still really interesting as a picture from an age we might so easily characterise as incapable of producing it.


1. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350‒550 AD (Princeton NJ 2013); The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here; and Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

2. Ibid. p. 103.

3. On him and his social position see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 158-183, or eadem, “How the Royal House of Witiza Survived the Islamic Conquest of Spain” in Walter Pohl and Maximilian Diesenberger (eds), Integration und Herrschaft: ethnische Identitäten und soziale Organisation im Frühmittelalter, Denkschriften der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 301 (Wien 2002), pp. 233–246.

4. James, Early Islamic Spain, pp. 8-19.

In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)


1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.