Tag Archives: ethnicity

The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this… Continue reading

Seminar CLXXIII: blended Burgundians

Continuing to fight the backlog, let me tell you all about the time I went to hear Erica Buchberger, now well out of Oxford, present a paper to the After Rome seminar there on 25th April 2013, a paper entitled “Romans, Barbarians and Burgundians in Early Burgundian Law”. Erica’s work at that point was, and probably still is, to clarify what it was that the ethnic terms beloved of early medieval sources actually meant, and on this occasion she was working through the two Burgundian lawcodes, the Lex romana Burgundionum and the Liber constitutionum or Lex Burgundionum, to see what they do with the three terms of her title.

The title-list of a tenth-century copy of the Lex Burgundionum in Paris, Bibliotheèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 10753

The title-list of a tenth-century copy of the Lex Burgundionum in Paris, Bibliotheèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 10753

The short answer seems to have been that these texts don’t much help: while the separation of the two texts seems to indicate a category distinction between Romans in Burgundy and Burgundians, the number of circumstances in which one’s sort of law could be chosen, associated with property or even sold with property makes a rapid nonsense of the idea that these were categories of birth. In fact, almost all the invocations of the ideas of ethnicity come up, in either lawcode, where landed property is concerned. I suppose, as I think from my notes did Erica, that this is because in land, claims of inheritance were more important than they were in everyday cases of affray or disagreement, so that one’s ancestry, from people who perhaps felt and expressed their identity as Roman or Burgundian more sharply as the two groups first interacted, would be more relevant. In that case, as Erica certainly did say, the laws are testifying silently to the ongoing collapse of the distinction, and show us many ways in which they could be crossed or avoided. She also argued that the laws were a tool working towards that combination of peoples, and there I’m less clear what the basis of her argument was: perhaps, though, that the two laws should not be seen as alternatives but as complements, applying Roman and ‘barbarian’ solutions respectively to a population who were increasingly able to see themselves as both. There were lots of questions, but almost all about the details of accommodation or case-law, and what I got from that is that Erica knows her stuff, by now not a surprise. It was good to attend this paper, as it represented the hoped-for outcome of many a piece of research: even though research ineluctably initially reveals that the question is too complex to answer simply, at the end one needs to have some answers that do help us understand better. This, now-Dr Buchberger certainly provided!


The standard editions of the Burgundian laws are the MGH ones, Friedrich Blühme (ed.), “Leges Burgundionum” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum quingentesimum Legum III (Hannover 1863), online here, pp. 497-630, or Ludwig Rudolf de Salis (ed.), Leges Burgundionum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Leges Nationum Germanicarum II.1 (Hannover 1892), online here, and there’s a translation of the Lex Burgundionum in Katherine Fischer Drew (transl.), The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad; additional enactments (Philadelphia 1972). The Lex Romana Burgundionum isn’t published in translation yet, but I know that a masters student at Kings College London has done a translation, so, who knows… ?

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Seminar CXLV: Gregory of Tour’s F-word

I’m sorry it is taking so long to get momentum up again here. The arrival of Internet at home only occurred quite recently and all my teaching is on new courses so weekly maintenance of them is taking a while. There’s also an issue about exactly what to update with: I’m a year behind with seminars or very nearly, and they’re none of them advertisements for where I now work because I didn’t go to any here in that year, and my non-seminar blogging is even further behind, though that doesn’t date so badly. Obviously one thing that makes no sense to do is to blog papers on which others have already reported, and yet here I am doing just that. The paper in question is one by an ex-colleague, someone else who since got a job, Dr Erica Buchberger, and on the 10th October last year she was speaking at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title “Romans in a Frankish World: Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and Ethnic Identities”, and Magistra already covered this at Magistra et Mater, but I have some things I want to add, what can I say, so here we are a year in the past. What’s a year when we’re discussing the sixth century, after all?

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of what even the Bibliothèque nationale de France call the History of the Franks, from Wikimedia Commons

As Magistra says, the issue at issue here was why Gregory, our foremost source for the early Frankish kingdoms, does not mention Romans among the population of the Frankish kingdoms, and Erica was arguing that because he still thought of everyone in his area as being Roman really, the word never needed to come up, especially as in broad terms it meant much less than an identity based on city and family or origin. In arguing this she has to deal with the fact that Gregory’s contemporary Venantius Fortunatus is quite happy to call people Romans, but as she observed, they are writing very different kinds of text, Gregory’s Histories in a Church tradition and apparently for a small private Church readership, and Venantius public praise poetry of a kind where ancient referents were just a lot more likely to have traction. And I’m fine with that, to an extent, and certainly the bit about Venantius.

I had, however, when this paper was given lately been re-reading Gregory, and I find it harder to be sure whom he meant by `Franks’. The Histories are translated as History of the Franks and for us it’s what they’ve become, but Gregory’s own titles appears just to have been Ten Books of Histories; even here there was no ethnicity.1 It’s not as if Franks don’t come up a lot but I have to say that it seems to me, not having done a proper count or anything, that the places are few, very few, where you could not replace the word `Frank’ with `warrior’ and have it do basically the same job. The Franks, as a group, is most often the army, or so it seems to me. Self-evidently Gregory thought descent and family was important, he praises many a person for the family they belonged to, and sneaks a great many of his own relatives on to stage without giving that away, and some of the people he praises for this nobility of birth are even Franks, in as much as they are in the military or civil government, have Germanic not Latin names and hang out at court. But single Franks identified as such are rare in the narrative, and where they do turn up they’re usually carrying weapons.

Museum display of supposedly-Frankish arms

‘Frankish’ arms, including the axe known for this reason as a ‘francisca’, in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, image from Wikimedia Commons

Obviously there are reasons why I read it like this, and they are principally that I have been using this as a test reading for early medieval texts that seem to be talking about ethnicity for a long time, ever since I read an article a while back that suggested that by the ninth century `Goth’ might be more or less a professional category.2 I also find it possible to get to this point by extrapolation from work like Guy Halsall’s suggesting that `barbarian’ units in the late Roman army might have been as ethnically Roman as they were barbarian, if either category really means much in a world already mixing; an analogy would be football teams like the Washington Redskins, who are not, I believe it is safe to say, native Americans or whatever the correct term is for `people who got here before the people we think we are did’ (to pick a topical example).3 I suspect that Professor Halsall wouldn’t go as far as this but you can see how one could get from there to a position where “Join the Army! Be a Frank!” doesn’t seem like a completely stupid slogan to imagine, especially given that what `Frank’ means etymologically is no more than `free man’. And, as was noted in questions, it’s not as if even Gregory is perfectly clean here; almost all his relatives whom he names are churchmen and have good Latin names, and the exception is a maternal uncle, Gundulf, who is a count. If Gregory didn’t say that man was his relative, I’m sure we’d largely assume he was a Frank. And I suspect he was, in the terms of the time, but I don’t think that has to mean Gregory thought he himself was one. One might even argue that, since families mix all the time and the upper nobility was quite presumably blended between immigrants and locals in most of the Gaulish cities by now, anyone who went into either civil administration or Church probably had both immigrant forebears and local ones and could duly emphasise whichever strand of ancestry he chose as his career developed. But I do wonder if even that much attempt to preserve an idea of ethnic descent is necessary to understand these texts and the time.

Besides: if you want to query Gregory for identities, wouldn’t it also make sense to look at how he uses the word `Gaul’… ?


1. The two translations usually used are The History of the Franks, transl. Oliver M. Dalton (New York 1927) and The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints). They’re both good but that’s not what the title is! The rest of this post would be more rigorous with book and chapter citations, but they would mean me slowly going through the whole work clocking ethnicity terms, duplicating Erica’s work in fact. I didn’t do that when re-reading and I shan’t do it now, so my impressions remain impressionistic; if someone feels they’re wrong and wants to substantiate that I’m more than happy to indicate as much in additions to the post or whatever.

2. Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), II pp. 35-74.

3. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 189-194.

Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford

The title is true of the present and the past, for I continue very busy even now that term has stopped. We will not speak of job applications, but even without that and purely domestic affairs, over the last week I have:

What I have not done is written blog, as you have noticed and may also now understand. So, let me change that by giving an unfairly rapid account of four Oxford seminars from last May, connected by nothing more than their location and my interest but perhaps also yours!

Scylla and Charybdis

On the 7th May 2012, the speaker at the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was Dr Paul Oldfield, now of Manchester, and his title was: “A Bridge to Salvation or Entrance to the Underworld? Southern Italy and International Pilgrimage”. This picked up and played with the facts that as pilgrimage to the Holy Land grew more and more important from roughly 1000 onwards, Italy became equally crucial to it as a point of embarkation for those going by sea, which was most people going, but that this enlarged transient population also bred an alternative economy of banditry and ransoming. Pilgrimage was of course supposed to involve suffering, though maybe not quite like that, and this seems to have bred stories that also greatly exaggerated its natural dangers, especially concentrated around the very busy and notoriously tricky Straits of Messina but also, for example, Vesuvius (3 known eruptions 1000-1200) and Etna (probably rather more). Classical literature that plays with these places as gateways to the bowels of the Earth was well-known to the kind of people who would write about these things. The result was, argued Dr Oldfield, that one might wind up unexpectedly meeting one’s Maker en route (and dying on pilgrimage was reckoned a pretty good way to go, in terms of one’s likely destination) but some of the things that might kill you were gates to Hell, at least as they were talked about, making Southern Italy an uncertain and liminal zone that reflected the status, decontextualised, uprooted and vagrant, of those among whom these stories circulated. This was all good fun and of course anything involving Italy always has splendid pictures, here especially of the pilgrim-favoured church San Nicola di Bari, so here it is for you below.

Basilica of San Nicola di Bari

First-world problems

Next, on the 9th, Paul Harvey, emeritus of Durham I understand, came to the Medieval Social and Economic Seminar to talk to the title, “How to Manage Your Landed Estate in the Eleventh Century”. That sounded as if it should interest me, so along I went. Professor Harvey was looking for the kind of problems that manorial surveys indicate big English landowners were meeting before the end of the twelfth century, and observed several in them some considerable difficulty with actually defining demesne in terms of how its labour or revenues were organised differently from anywhere else. He wound up arguing that in England demesne land was really a late eleventh-century invention, and that the surveys’ expectations were all quite new. On the other hand, that doesn’t appear to have been a time of great change in land organisation or settlement nucleation, or so says Professor Harvey, and what might really have been happening is simply that the choice between direct extraction and leasing was made on the basis of what was convenient given the existing settlement patterns, but that the surveys themselves might be changing things by defining more closely who was responsible for what renders. In either case, using them as windows on earlier land use is probably dodgy! This mainly seemed to meet with people’s approval but it seemed to me that this must, if it’s happening, also be the point at which the Anglo-Saxon hide ceased to be a useful land-measure, as it was based on a standard yield. Land that could produce that yield was a hide; if yield went up, the hide got smaller. You can’t easily measure land like that, especially if you’re trying to change the obligations of a hide. When I raised this Ros Faith pointed out that Domesday Book uses plough-teams anyway, so I suppose it was kind of an obvious point, but I was glad to have thought it out anyway.

Buildings of opposition

The church and/or palace of Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo

The next week, speaker to the Medieval History Seminar was Isaac Sastre Diego, developing the work on which he’d presented earlier that year to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar. Here he took a group of Asturian monumental churches, Santa Maria del Naranco (above), San Miguel de Lillo, Santa Cristina de Lena and one or two others, that have distinct royal connections. The first and third have been called palaces, the former by modern historians and the latter in the seventeenth century when it’s first documented, but Isaac argued that they need to be seen as exclusive royal chapels in which perhaps the king himself was officiant, since the two `palaces’ both have altars in but no clear separation of space for the clergy. Isaac saw this as a deliberately new kind of display initiated by King Ramiro I (who is named in an inscription on the altar at Naranco) to deal with the similarly new monumentality of the rule of Emir ‘Abd al-Rahman II in Córdoba, perhaps also the Carolingians and most of all their probable candidate for the throne whom Ramiro had defeated, Nepotian (whom as we know would later be recorded as a lord of wizards). Isaac sees these sites as buildings of opposition, in which an explicit differentiation was made between the new r´gime and its competition both in the past and at the time. Discussion, especially with Rob Portass, brought out the extra dimension that at Oviedo, where the first two of these sites are, they would have been in explicit distinction to the cathedral and royal place of King Alfonso II, which were in the city while these still perch on the hills above. Chris Wickham suggested that San Vicenzo al Volturno might be seen as another such opposition building, which works for me. I had expected not to get much out of this seminar because of the earlier related one and in fact it was really thought-provoking, so I hope it gets published where I can easily find it.

Twelfth-century monastic xenophobia

Last in this batch, the same place a week later was graced by Professor Rod Thomson, with a paper called, “‘The Dane broke off his continuous drinking bouts, the Norwegian left his diet or raw fish': William of Malmesbury on the Scandinavians”, which is hard to beat as is much of William’s work, which of course has mostly been edited by Professor Thomson. William was here talking about the Scandinavian response to the Crusades, where he gets unusually ethnographic, but as you see not necessarily without an agenda. As far as William was concerned these nations were still barbarian, and would be that way till they learnt civilisation, however orthodox and devout their Christian beliefs might be. This was a communicable disease, too, barbarians being more resistant to acculturation than those among whom they came to live! Most of the paper was however an exegesis of William’s method of using his sources, which was neither uncritical nor reverent but highly intelligent. There was even a suggestion that William might have had access to some saga material. This raised various intelligent questions, one obvious one being what he thought he was himself in ethnic terms, to which the answer seemed to be `the best of both English and Norman and thus neither’, and another being that of how far his sources and his audiences shaped his attitudes, which there wasn’t really time to resolve. It’s always impressive to hear someone who’s really lived inside a text without turning into an apologist speak about it, though, and Professor Thomson got points for this and also for being almost 100% unlike what I expected him to be like from his writing alone, all of which only goes to show that it’s not just the cover of a book one can’t judge by, both for William and his editor…

Right, that should do for this time; next time, much more than you probably want to read about mills, with footnotes sufficient for anyone who’s been wondering where they’ve been these last two posts! À bientôt!

Leeds 2011 report 1, with bonus apology

I have to start by saying sorry for the long silence here. It’s no shortage of stuff to say, but shortage of time to write. The end of term has been more punishing than it should be, as we gear up for admissions interviews next week as well as trying to get reports done and send everyone off with revision instructions. I drafted this with only one essay left to mark this term and one tutorial to give on it, these now done with great relief and now there’s nothing but hect for a few days and then wondering why nothing is organised for the holiday. (Actually something is, but not all the way.) And as you may have gathered, there’s a paper I’m supposed to have written by now and just had to beg an extension on, albeit from myself and collaborators. Obviously things could be worse; but squeezing in those visits to the library to collect the data I need has resulted in a great many small-hours bedtimes and the pressing need, every time I get as far as the blog editor window, to admit that there just isn’t time today. And this took several goes, too, but it’s done. I am still reporting on Leeds, a mere four months ago, and dammit, I may be briefer than usual but I will do it. So herewith the first day.

The Stables pub, Weetwood Hall, University of Leeds

The Stables pub, location of the occasional pint during the Congress

Actually I think I ought to start with the previous evening, when I arrived back from Lastingham and very shortly afterwards actually met she who is the Naked Philologist, who was more clothed and less immediately philological than advertised but still a splendid person and one whom it has been great to get to know then and subsequently. She was entirely surrounded by fellow female research students, and when I broke away from this gathering, to go find food or something, I got accused by a senior male colleague at the next table of departing “my harem”. My harem? My harem? Damn heteronormativity everywhere. Anyway; not very academic but it got the drinking started in good order and the academia followed next day. As to that, I skipped on the keynote lecture, which I’d already heard a version of one half of when Robin Fleming gave it at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and in the other half of which I wasn’t for some reason very interested (not sure why, as Sam Cohn is always interesting), but if you are, Magistra was there and wrote a blog post about it. Thus, the day started with this.

108. Small Worlds, Wide Horizons: local powers in the early Middle Ages

If there was a theme to this Leeds for me, other than always being among friends new and old, which I was and which was great, it was “sessions that felt like part of the Texts and Identities strand but weren’t”. Instead, this session was the extension, I think, of a conversation between Carine van Rhijn, Wendy Davies and myself at Leeds in 2009 about probably actually having the material to say something about local priests and their role in organising their communities in our respective areas. This was not that work, but it was in the same vein, and the people who were participating had all been in Texts and Identities at some point I think, though two also in my charters sessions of yore, so obviously I had to be there. The running order was:

  • Steffen Patzold, “Priests and Local Power Brokers, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Bernhard Zeller, “Of the Lives of Centenarii and Related Local Powers in Early Medieval Alemannia, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Wendy Davies, “How Local was the Power of the Saio in Northern Iberia around 1000?”

This was all really interesting regional comparisons. Steffen had several pieces of evidence that appeared to show Bavarian and Italian cases of local communities effectively appointing their priests, and used this to vary the picture of the sorts of priests we could have found in Carolingian localities, appointed by people, princes or several kinds of power in between. Bernhard was looking at a layer of local officials in the St Gallen charters he knows so well who have titles like “centenarius”, “vicarius” and “centurius”, which as you’ll understand from last post interested me considerably. The last he only sees around Zürich, and they seem to be quite junior, whereas vicars were more serious contenders than anything less than the counts; Bernhard figured that these guys’ small range probably suggested they belonged to localities rather than being put there by the counts. This is not much like what I see but then where I see any of these terms but vicarius it’s where there aren’t really counts, and when they’re about to be the last ones using the word, so this may give me some idea of what an early Carolingian local administration looks like before you take its lid off and bake it for a century or so. Wendy, meanwhile, who as usual explicitly excepted Catalonia from her remarks, was looking at the closest early medieval Spain had to policemen, though a more accurate simile might be court bailiffs; she found saiones working for all sorts of judicial officials, from kings downwards, far from the Gothic origins of the title as armed followers, and all over the north of Spain, confined to areas of no more than 40km2, or at least, not appearing outside those areas using their title. This gave me a lot of context for my own limited observations about saiones in Vallfogona.1 All of this was right up my street, down my alley and in my grills, as it were, so I thought I’d started well.

221. Gift-Giving: gift-giving and objects

I then followed a sense of obligation; I used to work with Rory Naismith, and have somehow never managed to catch one of his papers at Leeds, so now that he was on alongside Stuart Airlie I wasn’t going to miss it. Here, however, Magistra has beaten me to the blogging (not hard) so I shall save some catch-up time by referring you to her post again. The running order, though, was:

  • Irene Barbiera, “Offering Brooches to the Dead: the changing gendered value of a gift between Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”
  • Rory Naismith, “Making the World Go Round? Coinage and Gift in Early Medieval England and Francia (c. 675-900)”
  • Stuart Airlie, “The Star Cloak of Henry II”

The only thing I’ll add to what Magistra says is that I was pleased to see Rory finding a way to respectfully step round Philip Grierson’s venerable article, “Commerce in the Dark Ages”, that I love so much, without losing its essential point, which was that coins are not enough to prove trading links because they can travel in other ways too.2 Now, as Rory pointed out, we have incredible amounts more finds evidence than Grierson did in 1959, so we have to give more space to trade than he did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about the alternatives. Rory then went on to note various coinages and references to coinage that make more sense viewed as gifts than as currency. With the other two papers I think I have nothing to say that Magistra didn’t already so I’ll move on.

308. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman World and its Neighbours in late Antiquity, II – Changing Minds?

This strand looked, from the outside, like another Texts and Identities strand under new colours, though somehow including Guy Halsall, but a closer look revealed that something more challenging was going on; Guy had organised a strand with some real heavy-hitters on to ask serious and sometimes dangerous questions about how we as historians should deal with the supposed barbarian invasions that have for so long been supposed to bring about the end of the Roman Empire in the West, given the loads of work there has been suggesting that this is too simple, or even outright wrong. So either way it was a must-see, and in the first one I made it to I saw this.

  • Walter Pohl, “Ethnicity and its Discontents”
  • This paper was substantially a pained but wry self-defence against what Professor Pohl felt was misrepresentation of his work by Walter Goffart in a recent publication, and misunderstanding of it in exactly the opposite direction by Marco Valenti; he therefore disclaimed belief in stable ethnic groups, the shared common cores of élite traditions proposed by Reinhard Wenskus, the culturally-constructed imaginary communities that extreme dissolutionists hold to (which Professor Pohl would accept if it were allowed that they can be actively created by people), and groups with no self-identification. Instead he argued for groups of persons that felt and acted with common interests, however recently-created, entry to which was to an extent governed by an in-group and recognised by out-groups, as a necessary basis for a self-identification. I understand how this concept is misunderstood; it kinds of slips from one’s hands when you try to press it to explain historical events, but that isn’t, I think, what Professor Pohl holds it for; he holds it as a working account of ethnicity. That is quite an important thing to have, if we can get one…

  • Tommaso Leso, “Shifting Identities and Marriage in Ostrogothic Italy”
  • This drew out the various categories of marriage choice for the women of the Ostrogothic royal family and went through them in detail. This was one of those ones where if you want to know about it, you want to know more than I can tell you, but if it matters and you can’t get in touch with Signor Leso I’m happy to type out my notes in an e-mail.

  • Roland Steinacher, “Response”
  • In the absence of one of the originally-planned papers, Herr Steinacher gave a response, and observed that political correctness makes the necessary argument difficult to have here; these things still really matter to people, and some writers are selling to those people without due care for the facts or opinions of their peers. He named names but I won’t, not here; he was far from the last to do so in these sessions, and I’ll say more about that in the second day’s report.

It’s hard for me to take a position in these debates that are about both the field and the people in it, especially on the open Internet, but you may deduce something if you choose from the fact that now I knew where the action was I stayed in these sessions till they ran out. More on this, therefore, as soon as I can. Presumably I did something in the evening; I remember that whatever it was kept me away from the Early Medieval Europe reception until all their wine had run out, so it must have been good, and probably involved good people and average alcohol. If you were one of the people, I’m sorry four months have blurred you out of my memory of the day but trust me, I remember you out of context…


1. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 42-43.

2. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Collected Studies 96 (Aldershot 1979), II.

3. Here my notes suggest he named Guy, but I don’t think this can be right!

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.