Tag Archives: funding

Universities Are Not… Really Supposed to Make Money

So here we go with the first of my analyses, for whatever they’re worth, of the negative characteristics of the current English university that help explain why their operations and staffing seem to have come to such a complete impasse just now. Let me start by saying that I don’t mean, by the title of this post, that I consider it illegitimate for a university to make a profit on its business. Rather, I mean that the current UK system has been set up in such a way as to make it almost impossible for a university to do that. This post is for explaining that contention, which underpins the logic of the subsequent posts and helps explain why the current strike action is achieving so little despite its continuing escalation. (Executive intransigence has got to take some of the blame as well, of course, and there are plenty of things that could be done that are more than the current nothing, but I think there is an economic explanation for why we are seeing so little exploration of that possibility.) I should say again before I begin that these are my own views and do not represent those of my exployers and that they’re only true for the UK, and to be honest, for England and Wales within the UK, though Scotland will, on present trajectory, end up here too.1

So. There are three main sources of income for a UK university: ‘home’ student fees, research grants and international student fees, plus a certain amount of block funding from the government known as QR. The last is allocated by ranking in the infamous Research Excellence Framework, an eight-yearly count-up and grading of research outputs.2 We also have to do a painstaking annual account of all our activity called TRAC (Transparent Resource Allocation and Costing) to be allowed to receive it, so the administrative burden of receiving this money is really quite high, and some have argued that it doesn’t in fact pay for itself. This must be truer at universities which win less of that funding than the ones who are ranked higher in the whole process, but has been argued even at Oxford, which is usually at or close to the top.3 So this is a difficult income to value, and the first three I mentioned are pretty clearly more important. Some, older, places, also reap quite a lot out of estate and investment revenues and there is an increasing role for alumni donations, but for most universities the big three streams are the ones I’ve outlined.

The trouble is that these streams are limited and don’t actually cover the costs towards which they are paid. At this time, tuition fees in the UK are capped at £9,250 per (undergraduate) student per year. That hasn’t changed since late on in David Cameron’s rule (remember him?). But a report by KPMG in 2019 established that the average cost of teaching a degree to the institution was just over £10,372 per student per year.4 Some subjects were on average a little cheaper than the fees – including history – but many were not; more than two-thirds of students were enrolled on courses which cost more than the fees. And of course, some universities put more money than others into their provision – Oxford, while I was there nearly a decade before, estimated its costs per student per year as more like £15,000, and the History Faculty sold its own library building to offset the deficit rather than adjust its teaching methods. Most places find themselves in difficulties that are different from that one. But the basic point is that universities can’t charge what their provision costs actually are, because the fees are capped, expressly to stop them from making too much money. And every now and then the government talks about reducing them, which when they’re half the sector’s income, obviously throws every financial officer in a university into a panic and people on precarious contracts lose their jobs.

As far as research goes, we’ve already seen that there are questions about whether the QR funding that supports general research activity is actually worth the cost of receipt. Of course there are external grants, and in some fields they pay for most research activity. But a report by Oxford thinktank HEPI in 2017 set out a good basis for believing that research grants don’t in fact offset the full cost of research.5 That is not least because they are almost never awarded with money in hand for administration, but whether the recipient university ‘top-slices’ it (thus defunding the project by that amount, and making it impossible for the researchers to do it without working partly unpaid) or not, that management cost is still being paid. Most universities are thus subsiding their research activity, presumably because they need it to look credible, but it doesn’t make them money, and no funding body is going to increase their grants to help with universities’ running costs, because they want, understandably, only to pay for the research.6 Once again, the university is not supposed to make money here.

Postgraduate student fees, I should add, don’t really help here unless the student is privately funded. If the funding comes from a project, it’s really research funding and works like the above. If the student obtains a scholarship, that is money the university already has, or has had allocated to it by means of what is now called a doctoral training partnership or centre for doctoral training. In these arrangements, a block of money is assigned to a group of supposedly-collaborating universities who then have to fight for it with each other on the basis of whose students look like the best prospects. It’s a microcosm of the ugly way that funding shortage turns universities into competitors, and has to be administered through a whole system of committees and meetings which chew up hours of staff time that is not, of course, paid for by the actual scholarships, which are only supposed to pay for the students’ tuition and maintenance. So even those lose universities money overall and they would actually make more by not awarding them and earning interest off the capital, except that then of course that would be taken away, because universities are not supposed to make money.

This only leaves international student fees, therefore, which because they are not a matter of public concern for the UK government can be whatever the institution likes. As a result, that HEPI report reckoned that each international student in the UK was probably subsidising research activity to the tune of £8,000 each.7 But Covid has obviously wrecked that market, and while it probably also for a while saved universities a load of infrastructure costs (as long as their IT set-up was ready for a challenge), that bonus is now gone and the international student market has not fully recovered.8 And of course, international students do not arrive equally distributed; some places have many, on certain courses at least, and some places hardly any, so even when it was fully operational this survival strategy was open only to some universities.

This, then, is the context for the proposed cuts to pensions provision, the persistent below-inflation pay offers and the refusal to acknowledge problems like workload, casualisation and the gender pay-gap. English universities struggle to pay for themselves at the best of times, because they’re not supposed to make money. One of their main sources of income has been frozen against inflation for six years (and now, in the course of writing these posts, for a further two), so the money they’re not making has got smaller, while research awards have also been cut back, especially with a whole year of inaccessibility of European funding. That revenue source is also shrinking. And none of this is secure: tuition fees have been under threat of revision downwards for years now (and still are despite the freeze), grants are obviously not guaranteed, QR funding was cut away from the arts and humanities only last year. No-one can plan more than two years ahead, let alone five, so from the top the only sensible strategy looks like accumulating a safety cushion and stockpiling revenue. But all the ways of doing that are shrinking relative to costs. With international student fees also now fewer, savings therefore have to be found somewhere, especially with the financial exhaustion of the pandemic. And since usually between half and two-thirds of a university’s budget is staff costs, the biggest savings can be made there. And saving there, of course, means paying staff less. And so we find ourselves here.

In the next of these posts I’ll argue that not only do UK universities not have very much flexibility in their income, but that the constituencies whom they serve most are not the ones who pay for their existence. That post and this present critical problems for the frequent analogy between universities and businesses, and from that other implications follow. Stay tuned!

1. Though for the complexities of the differences between English and Scottish funding régimes, see The Comparative Funding of Higher Education Teaching in Scotland and England: A Step by Step Calculation, ELC 03-01–34 ELC (Edinburgh 2003), online here. I do realise that was a while ago but I bet it hasn’t got simpler.

2. Most thoroughly condemned in Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF, SAGE Swifts (New York City NY 2015), online here.

3. For example, Anne-Wil Harzing, “Running the REF on a rainy Sunday afternoon: Do metrics match peer review?”, White Paper in Harzing.com: Research in International Management, 2017, online here; Dorothy Bishop, “Is the benefit of the REF really worth the cost?” in Times Higher Education (THE) 28th April 2021, online here, and for Oxford, Tim Horder, “Performance Indicators” in Oxford Magazine Noughth Week, Michaelmas Term 2012, pp. 1–3. It should probably be noted that the government do have TRAC and its burdens under review.

4. Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education, KPMG LLP, Costing study report (London 2019), online here; the figures I’ve given are not themselves in the report, but can be calculated from the figures they give per subject on p. 18.

5. How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, by Vicky Olive, HEPI Reports 100 (Oxford 2017), online here.

6. Though, it should be said, while they existed the Higher Education Funding Council for England seem to have accepted that top-slicing would happen to their awards and to have been fine with it, because they saw their business as keeping the whole system of universities running: see A Review of QR Funding in English HEIs: Process and Impact. Report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) by PACEC Public and Corporate Economic Consultants and Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, by Barry Moore, by Nil Djan Tackey, by Rod Spires, by Alan Hughes and by Alberto García Mogollón (London 2014), online here, with interested references to the different approaches taken by different universities almost throughout. Of course, now HEFCE is gone, so they proved less sustainable than the institutions they aimed to sustain.

7. Olive, How much is too much?.

8. I have to admit that the most recent figures I can find suggest that actually, the pandemic has made much less difference to student choices and enrolments than anyone expected: see Lucy Van Essen-Fishman, “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020/21 Student data” in HESA, 25th January 2022, online here, but that is only comparing with 2019/20 data, which had already been hit pretty badly by Brexit and tension with China, neither of which have gone away.

Fomenting New Islands Ideas

Staying where it was relatively safe in mid-2017, the workshop I’ve just described was only the first of three days’ funded activity, which Dr Luca Zavagno and I had scheduled to allow him to do everything we’d been given money for him to do in the UK in a single trip. Whereas the previous day’s work had been on my Frontiers project, we now turned to Luca’s one, The World of Byzantine Islands. Here we’d planned two things in Leeds, the first being a kind of consultation workshop with the most obviously interested medievalists on Leeds’s staff, and the second being a graduate seminar the day after. Actually, in retrospect, I think we might better have planned to do these the other way round, as the way the latter worked was that Luca effectively presented his project in a twenty-minute paper and then invited discussion, whereas in the former the presentation was much quicker, as for peers; I think that in theory he’d have got better discussion for the staff having had the extra day to think about his project having seen the fuller presentation. However, I say only in theory, because actually we got very little take-up for the graduate seminar – my own fault for late publicity as much as anything – and so it became an extension of the already-active discussion from the previous day. So maybe it all went as well as it could have done. Anyway, to write about it now probably means reprising Luca’s project brief, and then picking up on the same kind of points of interest as I did in the previous Frontiers post. There is inevitably some overlap, because several of the same people were involved and thinking with what they’d done the previous day, but I don’t think that was a bad thing either…

So, Luca has of course written about his own project and you can see the brief for it here. Plus which, we have subsequently published on it, together even, and you could also read that.1 Because of all that I’ll be ultra-short here. Basically, Luca is contending with an established historiography that sees the islands of the Mediterranean as a frontier zone of the Byzantine Empire, and that largely in the sense of a defensive bulwark, peripheral, cut off and generally hostile, both to outsiders to the empire and, sometimes, to outsiders from within the empire.2 Luca, whose research in this area started on Cyprus and has now spread, is however aware of an increasingly busy amount of archaeology which suggests that most of the Mediterranean islands remained quite vibrant, both in terms of their connection with the wider empire and of their own ecologies, economies and political self-determination within the imperial sphere.3 Where this leaves Luca is arguing that the islands, and particularly Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics, maybe also Crete and Malta, all of which were Byzantine long after the land-ward coastlines that would be lost to Islam had been, were not an edge or somehow a central part of a landward territory but a kind of third space, whose characteristics he is now trying to define.4

View of the Mediterranean from the Castell de Santueri, Felanitx, Mallorca

View of the Mediterranean from the part-Byzantine Castell de Santueri (not this part, I suspect), in Felanitx, Mallorca, once a seat of Byzantine island government; image from Mallorca Tourist Guide, no copyright stated

So in the first of these workshops, as I say, Luca gave us less of this than he would in the graduate seminar the next day, I think because he didn’t want to exclude any approaches. As a result, he found himself in the midst of a kind of all-comers ideas tennis, in which the other players, apart from myself, were my colleagues Dr Alan Murray, who had been in on the previous day’s session too and who knew Luca independently, and Professor Emilia Jamroziak, then-Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds, as well as Dr Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London, who is an affiliate of the IMS but was also the third partner in Luca’s project. (Alan and Rebecca also came along to the graduate seminar the next day, but I’m going to concentrate here on the workshop, because it’s there that, going back over my notes, I can see the roots of a lot of things the project ended up generating, and it thus helps to explain a bit what it is that we academics actually get out of the travelling to talk to each other that we’ve largely had to give up this year. I’m not sure if we could have got the same results though video-conferencing, I will admit…)

So. Because Luca had left relatively little defined, we spent the first part of the discussion trying to establish what made good parameters for the project. The high medievalists wanted to know what it was about Luca’s 7th- to 9th-century timeframe that made sense, which is of course the Byzantine-Islamic transition in the islands; but that meant working out what that transition was for the islands and when it happened to them. Even the conquest dates of some of them are not very clear, but there were arguably bigger, slower changes afoot anyway. Rebecca, for example, argued (following Chris Wickham) that the critical change in the government of the Mediterranean in late Antiquity was not that of Islam but of the Vandal capture of North Africa in the early 5th century and the Persian one of Egypt in the very early 7th, both of which broke tax spines that maintained Roman capitals (Rome and Constantinople respectively) and ended the Roman mare nostrum.5 Luca pointed out that the islands didn’t necessarily fall out of imperial orbits when the coastlines did, not least because of their role as naval bases, which tended to maintain other features of control too.6 Nonetheless, we coalesced around the idea that cultural change might have been happening at different times and in different directions from place to place, or even the same things happening for different reasons, such as settlement moving off the coasts, which could be either because fewer people were coming to these places across the sea, making trade less viable a living and port cities less useful (as may have happened in Malta) or contrarily because more people were coming by sea and they were dangerous (as is supposed to have happened in the Balearics—but see my subsequent article on that…).7

The citadel of Mdina, Malta

The citadel of Mdina, Malta, another erstwhile site of Byzantine island government, image by 5-five-5, copyright not stated, linked through

With the idea of variation sort of established, I tried to apply that favourite intellectual jemmy of mine, scale, to try and group the variations and thus be able still to say something general about the change.8 It seemed to me that not all the Mediterranean islands could have had the same range of options in the period: some were too small to defend themselves, and some too big to be closed off from seaward access. I still think this is important, but in fact in the subsequent publication, it was Rebecca who really took this point and made it useful, whereas I kind of dropped it, so I’m not sure how much credit I can take.9 Still, it is interesting to review the notes and see the sharing of ideas that generated those papers which became articles; as I say, it maybe justifies the whole endeavour…

Perhaps the most interesting idea, though, at least for me, came from none of the project partners but from Professor Jamroziak, who rightly said that none of the categories by which we seemed to want to define ‘islands’ managed to include all Luca’s test cases terribly well and that we seemed to need a new definition or category. If not, he might have to deal with the possibility that things which were not, geographically, islands, still shared all the important characteristics of them. This really sparked thoughts for me, as I started coming with Byzantine landward fringe settlements that might fit. I should have thought of the various city-states down the Adriatic coast, like Ragusa or Dubrovnik, which was still basically an independent town in the tenth century as Emperor Constantine VII records, but what I actually thought of was Byzantium’s Crimean outpost at Cherson and the Islamic military colony at la Garde-Freinet, near modern Saint-Tropez.10 And you can see that this sank deep from what I ended up writing for the project.11 I don’t think I really gave Emilia the credit she was due for that thought in that piece, though; so, belatedly, I do so now. She started that hare, and my thanks to her!

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, site of Byzantine coastal government but for a long time linked to Byzantium only by sea; ‘island’? Image by Diego Delso, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By the end of this workshop, then, we’d all more or less prevailed upon Luca to develop a more variegated model of change in his study area, to reconsider his chronological scope and to rethink his optimistic view of connectivity as always being sufficient to have much effect on society or, if it did, always being positive. This last argument was still going on in the publication, indeed, but the use of the workshop was pretty clear and when Luca’s book on all this emerges you’ll be able to see where we were any help!12 This was not by any means what we spent most of that grant money on—in fact, we weren’t even able to spend all we’d got and had to give some back—but if I’ve shown you how it might have been usefully spent even so, then my purpose here is achieved, for today anyway…

1. Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley and Jonathan Jarrett, “Editorial” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–139, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

2. Perhaps centred upon Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, Byzantina Sorbonensia 8 & 9 (Paris 1988), 2 vols.

3. For Luca’s work on Cyprus see Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017).

4. See for an early take on these issues Luca Zavagno, “‘Islands in the stream’: toward a new history of the large islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages ca. 600 – ca. 800” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 33 (Abingdon 2018), pp. 149–177, DOI: 10.1080/09518967.2018.1535393; now see Zavagno, “‘No Island is an Island’: The Byzantine Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages (600s-850s)”, The Legends Journal of European History Studies, Supplement 1 (Tokat 2020), pp. 57-80, DOI: 10.29228/legends.44375, and between the two one can set Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375.

5. Based on Chris Wickham, ‘The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism’ in Past & Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, DOI: 10.1093/past/103.1.3, revised in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), pp. 7–42.

6. On the navy in the period see most obviously Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II and the Byzantine navy” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 100 (Berlin 2008), pp. 577-603, DOI: 10.1515/BYZS.2008.577.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101 at pp. 199-204 for the Balearics and pp. 218-220 for Malta, largely based on Nathaniel Cutajar, Core & Periphery: Mdina and Ħal Safi in the 9th and 10th Centuries, ed. Godwin Vella, Medieval Malta 1 (Valletta 2018), for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. My tools here come from Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: A Scale-Based Approach” in Julio Escalona and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9–30, DOI: 10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4766.

9. See Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930 at pp. 239-241.

10. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, rev. edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967; reprinted 1993 and 2008), cap. 29 (pp. 122-139) covers the various cities of the Dalmatian coast, including Ragusa, and for what it’s worth cap. 53 (pp. 259-287) gives an extensive and mostly legendary account of Cherson.

11. Jarrett, “‘Nests of Pirates’?”, pp. 212-218.

12. It should be coming out pretty soon as Luca Zavagno, The Byzantine Insular World: beyond the periphery (Amsterdam forthcoming).

Name in Print XX: crop yields at last

Spelt growing ready for harvest

Spelt growing ready for harvest, by böhringer friedrichOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.5

This post has been a long time coming! It’s been a while since my last announcement of work in print, but there is a bunch coming and the first piece out this year is one that has a history going a very long way back and starting, dear readers, with this blog. For in late 2007, already, after having done a lecture on the medieval economy at Kings College London for Jinty Nelson and having had the good fortune to talk it over with her a while afterwards, I first got the idea that there might be something wrong with the standard literature on the productivity of the agricultural economy of the early Middle Ages. It wasn’t my field, but something in what I’d read didn’t add up. Then in late 2009 I was reviewing a textbook of medieval history and found the same clichés again, so wondered where they’d come from, and the answer turned out to be the work of Georges Duby.1 But at about the same time I also read some exciting experimental archaeology about crop yields done at my favourite Catalan fortress site, l’Esquerda, that seemed to show that he should have been completely wrong.2 So then I went digging into the sources for Duby’s claim, and the first one turned out to have been seriously misread. And I posted about it here, had a very helpful debate with Magistra (to whom many thanks, if she’s still reading, and I owe you an offprint) and thought that’s where it would end.

British Academy logo

But then later that year I decided, for reasons I now forget—quite possibly professional desperation after my fifth year of job-hunting—that I needed to go to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, which I basically can’t do these days because of teaching. I had nothing else ready and thought that maybe this idea deserved a better outing, and because I was on a small wage back then I put in for a Foreign Travel Grant from the British Academy, a thing they still did then, and got it, which paid for most of my plane fare and made the whole thing possible (wherefore their logo above). And I gave that paper in May 2011, had a splendid time and got some good advice from the Medieval History Geek (to whom I also now owe an offprint I think) and began to wonder if this should actually get written up.

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance, by OzeyeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The trouble with that was firstly, that I was by now very busy because I had a teaching job, and secondly, that the source I’d already rubbished Duby’s treatment of wasn’t the only one he had used, and the others were largely Italian, plus which there was a decent amount of up-to-date French work I hadn’t used about the first one. I seemed to have Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque vol. I (did vol. II ever emerge?) on reserve in the Bodleian Library for a very long time, and I’m not sure I actually started on the Italian material till I got to Birmingham in late 2013; it was just never my first priority.3 By then, however, I’d shown an early draft to Chris Wickham, who knows that kind of thing (and is definitely also owed an offprint) and he’d come up with several other things I ought to think about and read, and the result was that this was one of the articles I agreed to complete for my probation when I arrived at Leeds, by now late 2015. How the time did rush past! Now, the story of my probation can probably some day be told but today is not that day; suffice to say that finally, finally, and with significant help just in being comprehensible from Rebecca Darley, to whom even more thanks and an offprint already in her possession, the article went in with all sources dealt with, to the venerable and honourable Agricultural History Review. And, although their reviewers (whose identity is still a mystery to me) had some useful but laborious suggestions for modification (which needed a day in the Institute of Historical Research reading Yoshiki Morimoto and a day in the British Library reading I forget whom, also no longer easy4, it was finally accepted. And that was in October 2018, and now it is in print.5

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

In case you would like to know what it says, here is at least the abstract:

Despite numerous studies that stand against it, there remains a textbook consensus that agriculture in the early Middle Ages was unusually low in productive capacity compared to the Roman and high medieval periods. The persistence of this view of early medieval agriculture can in part be explained by the requirement of a progress narrative in medieval economic history for a before to its after, but is also attributable to the ongoing effect of the 1960s work of Georges Duby. Duby’s view rested on repeated incorrect or inadequate readings of his source materials, however, which this article deconstructs. Better figures for early medieval crop yields are available which remove any evidential basis for a belief that early medieval agriculture was poorer in yield than that of later eras. The cliché of low early medieval yields must therefore be abandoned and a different basis for later economic development be sought.

Not small claims, you may say, and this is true. If I’m right—and of course I think I am—this may be the most important thing I’ve ever written, and though I hope I will beat it I’m not yet sure how. So how do you read the rest? Well, in two years it will be online for free, gods bless the Society, but in the meantime, it can be got through Ingenta Connect as a PDF if you have subscription access, and I guess it’s possible just to buy the journal as a thing made of paper if you so desire! These are mostly your options, because I seem to have given out or promised most of my offprints already…

Offprint of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Here’s one now!

So statistics, we always like the statistics here, yes, this has had a really long gestation but that’s not the press’s fault, that’s all me and my employment. There were six drafts in all, seven if you count the blog post: Kalamazoo, a 2016 version incorporating the Italian material, a 2017 one adding in what Chris Wickham suggested, and a 2018 one I finished under probational shadow, almost immediately revised into another thanks to Rebecca. Then the last one dealt with the journal comments in December 2018, and from there to print has been more or less six months, which is really not bad at all and involved one of the best copy-editors I’ve so far worked with in such circumstances. It’s certainly much better than my average. But the same is also true of the article, I think, and so I hope you want to know about it, because I certainly want you to! And so, now you do…

1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz and Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 & 223, with Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974), in the bibliography, and of which pp. 26-29 carry the relevant material.

2. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona and María Ocaña i Subirana, “From the Granary to the Field; Archaeobotany and Experimental Archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 85–92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0.

3. Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque : VIe – IXe siècles, 2 vols (Paris: Belin, 2003), I, though Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdal, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, DOI: 10.1484/M.RES-EB.5.108034, now gets you a lot of the same stuff shorter, in English and updated.

4. Yoshiki Morimoto, Études sur l’économie rurale du haut Moyen Âge : historiographie, régime domanial, polyptyques carolingiens, Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge 25 (Bruxelles 2008) is his collected papers, and very useful if you can locate a copy.

5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28!

I got given money for studying frontiers

I would, of course, be catching up on my backlog quicker if I weren’t alternating posts from it with differently-backlogged notices of my various achievements. But what am I supposed to do, either stop achieving things or stop reporting on them? I’m running a blog, the choice against false modesty or even politely refraining from self-publicity was made a very long time ago now. So, here is another achievement post, and it will not be the last such, either. I hope you can cope!

A view from the platform of the Castell de Gurb, Osona, Catalonia

A view from the platform of the Castell de Gurb down the erstwhile frontier of the Riu Ter

All that said, we are still in the past here, and the relevant markers in the past are October 2016 and April 2017. As even fairly short-term readers here will know, since about 2012 I’ve been thinking that the next big thing I’d like to do research-wise, alongside my general refinement of the world’s understanding of tenth-century power and authority as seen from Catalonia, is to get people thinking about frontiers using medieval evidence. I’ve organised conference sessions about this and I’ve even started publishing on it, against some odds (long story, near-future post).1 But I have also been planning a bigger project to do this. It was one of the things I promised, as part of my numerous probation obligations at the University of Leeds, that I would apply for funding for, and the two markers are, therefore, when the bid went in and when I got notice that I had in fact received the money. None of that would have been possible without the support of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (as it then was), to whom I owe considerable collective thanks for guiding me in my first ‘big’ bid (and to then-Director Professor Greg Radick for scaling it down to a more-likely-successful size from my original aspirations), but obviously the main people who are owed thanks here are the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, one of whose Small Research Grants paid for what followed. So this is where I express my gratitude to them all: thankyou folks, I think you chose wisely but I’m very glad you chose me.

Logo of the British Academy

A logo from my sponsor…

Now, the obvious question now is what did I do with the money, indeed what did we do, because this was a network project involving several other fine scholars of such matters. But actually, one of the answers to that was, “start another blog“, which was one of the reasons I was editing here rather infrequently during 2017, when this was all coming off. So, rather than write it all out again here, I will direct you to it on the project website (also my own work) if you’re interested, saying here only that it covers the genesis of the project, its historiographical and methodological bases, a workshop, some connected activity, a triumphant conference (there are pictures), a related conference run by someone else and some of our future plans. If frontiers are your thing, and you didn’t somehow hear about this at the time, you might want to have a look. And if for some reason you just like reading my writing about what I’ve been doing, well, there is another missing chapter of it over there for you. Thankyou, as ever, for the attention and feedback!

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia, 718–1031” in Javier Muñoz-Bassols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40.

Funding the study of medieval islands

It is by now long custom that I start my posts here with an apology for delay, and on bad days also some kind of explanation for it. Today I’ll keep that to, “I think the problem is establishing ownership of my weekends”, and muse on it in a footnote, but at the top I should just get on with it, I think.1 At the moment there are four kinds of post I want to be putting up here: firstly ones in the declared Chronicle series where I just tell you what was happening in my academic life in the period under discussion, secondly posts stubbed long ago during those actual periods which I should finish and get up here, thirdly posts arising from those Chronicle posts where there were just things that needed more explanation, and fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, out-of-sequence announcements of my various and brilliant successes! Only you may also remember that I have got backlogged even with those

So, this post is one of the self-publicity ones, and I’ll follow it with one of the stubbed relics, all of which is largely because I’m not enjoying the prospect of writing up the International Numismatic Congress in a single post. But why am I apologising? Surely the whole point of blogging is to make yourself more famous, right? So look, here’s something I’m proud of: in April 2017 I got given about £5,000 to fund a collaboration with a colleague in Turkey on a project called ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands.

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, looking very cheerful for reasons that are about to be explained!

The backstory to this is quite happenstance, which is so often the best way for things like this to happen. Dr Luca Zavagno is a historian of the late antique Mediterranean who had at the time of writing lately been given a permanent job at Bilkent University, at Ankara in Turkey, but his Ph.D. is from Birmingham’s Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, in association with which I had worked between 2014 and 2015. We also have important people in common, and I can’t actually remember right now how we met, but Birmingham seems likely to explain it somehow or other. Luca, with a ridiculous amount of publication already behind him, was then (and is now) writing a book about how scholars have misunderstood the active rôle played by Mediterranean island communities in the Byzantine Empire after the emergence of Islam, and how we need to put them back on the map, as a kind of third space next to the Anatolian plateau and Ægean seaboard that have otherwise been determined as its major zones.2 And because Luca is a cautious scholar, he decided he needed help getting this right. That was precondition one.

The Newton Fund logo

Precondition no. 2

Precondition two was the existence of Newton Mobility Grants. These are run together by the British Academy, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and are fundamentally about establishing links from the academy in Britain with scholars further afield than our usual spheres of collaboration. At the momemt, they’re focused particularly upon China, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey. You can see where this is going…

So it was Luca’s idea really, but we put in together for a three-part extravaganza, in which first of all Luca would come to Leeds and meet people there and run a graduate seminar, then to Birkbeck in London where our most important mutual friend, Rebecca Darley, is based, for similar activities, at each stage honing Luca’s project agenda and identifying its key areas of importance and difficulty, and finally ending up with a workshop for us all in Ankara. It was surprisingly easy to get, though I’m not going to say that without making all due obeisance to Rebecca and to the Leeds Humanities Research Institute for making the application better and easier, respectively, without whom I doubt we would have been as successful. But nonetheless, successful we were, and actually that was already so long ago that we have now done all the activities we promised. Indeed, you can see some of the details on our dedicated website, which is all the work of Luca and his excellent intern Harun and for which I can take no credit.

So, how did it all go? Well, Leeds went OK; we wound up doing it at such short notice that attendance at the events, especially the graduate seminar, was not what it could have been, but it did what was needed, which was to get Luca project feedback from many different levels and interest people here in his project. Learning from this, the London events were constructed more ambitiously and were more about Luca leading other people through his learning, and I wasn’t there but understand they went excellently. Somehow, however, none of this had cost as much as we’d expected. Once I had convinced Luca that this was actually a bad thing, due to the weird perversity of UK grant economics, he stepped up with a will and the Ankara workshop suddenly inflated from being just a project meeting to being a small but fully-fledged international conference! I will talk about that in its due season, but the programme details are visible here.

Now in theory it could have ended there, as we’d really done all that we promised, but we were so pleased by how the conference had gone that Luca was determined to do something with it, and the obvious thing to do with a seven-paper conference seemed to be a themed journal issue that we co-edited. And that is what we’re doing! Now, this is a publication in process, and I am always superstitiously worried about talking about those until they come out—what if they get rejected after I’ve told you all about them?—but we have had two of the eventual six articles accepted already, so probably something is going to happen. Mine isn’t yet one of them, though, so I still won’t tell you what or where, just that as you can tell the timing for that to all have happened so soon was really quite tight, and I had to put aside or postpone a number of other important things to get it done on time. It is also my first time co-editing a journal, and managing the peer review has been a weird experience, though doubtless very useful. For anyone other than Luca I might not have put myself through all this; but as it is, gods willing, it’s an extra article and co-written intro that may be out next year that I wouldn’t otherwise have, on stuff I’d never otherwise have looked at, all because Luca thought we could do some good trying to get money to make his book better. I’m rather proud of it all. See how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

1. What do I mean? Well, in the great work crisis of 2016-17, I was basically working every weekend to stay afloat, just on the stuff that needed to happen next week, let alone research. At that point blogging was a long way out of the realm of possibility, but when things got easier, as they now are, it was still hard to see where it fitted. There was still, and likely always will be, more to be done than would fit in any reasonable time, but I’d begun to realise the importance of taking time off as well. (Yes, I was late to that party, I know.) The trouble since then has been finding where blogging can fit. It’s not that I think my bosses would get angry at my blogging on work time, but I certainly don’t think they’d see it as a core task. As it is, I have a work triage list: blogging sits at no. 10 on it and so far, in the entire history of my employment at Leeds, I have not made it below no. 9, and in an ordinary week even out of term won’t usually see no. 7. So it has to be done outside work time, but I struggle to allocate that, and usually succeed only by going out or doing something entirely non-academic. If I’m in and have a computer up, I’m probably working. Today, I made a deliberate decision to blog instead of whatever my other tasks might be, but that’s what it has taken. The problem is that blogging is no longer a habit for me, and there isn’t really room for it to recover that status. I will work it out, but I’m not there yet. Saying to myself, ‘it’s Saturday and nothing’s in crisis; today they don’t own me’, is a start, however.

2. Key texts here might be Telemachos Lounghis, Byzantium in the Eastern Mediterranean: Safeguarding East Roman Identity (407–1204) (Nicosia 2010); Filippo Burgarella, “Bisanzio e le Isole” in Paola Corrias (ed.), Forme e caratteri della presenza bizantina nel Mediterraneo occidentale: la Sardegna (secoli VI-XI) (Cagliari 2012), pp. 33‒42; Dominique Valérien, “The Medieval Mediterranean” in Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita (edd.), A Companion to Mediterranean History (Chichester 2014), pp. 77‒90; and most of all, Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, 2 vols (Paris 1988). For the two zones of Byzantium see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400‒800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 29‒37, though the idea didn’t start with Chris. Luca’s own answers begin to be set out in Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600–800): An Island in Transition (London: Routledge, 2017) and Luca Zavagno, “Islands: not the Last Frontier: Insular Model in Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, c. 650-c. 850″, in Giuseppe D’Angelo and Jorge Martins Ribeiro (edd.), Borders and Conflicts in the Mediterranean Basin, Mediterranean, Knowledge, Culture and Heritage 2 (Fisciano 2016), pp. 37‒50, and more is coming, evident not least in the fact that I have stolen all these references from draft versions of it!

A Collector’s Cabinet

Sorry for the gap in posting, as so often; marking and a professional need to finish up some publications have coincided in an awkward way. But another one is now off to readers so I can manage a quick post, and the one that is up next is the one where I explain what I did with the discovery mentioned a couple of posts ago that the University of Leeds has its own coin collection with which, when I arrived in post in late 2015, no-one was doing anything much. As explained there, for various reasons I couldn’t just start doing it myself, but I could try to get money for someone else to do it, and that is indeed what happened.

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

One of the coins from the collection I’ve used, a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066 (as it would have to have been); here the obverse…

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

… and here the reverse, hopefully but inaccurately proclaiming PAX, ‘peace’! The coin is published as SCBI 21 1105.1

There were various funding sources I considered for this, but the one that eventually looked like the best bet was a scheme that is now spread to quite a few universities, the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarships. These are a bit more than your normal involve-the-undergraduates-in-a-research project affairs: though that is the core of them, they aim help people who otherwise could not get to the top of society, to create new educated critically-thinking leaders for the future from all levels of society. To that end, as well as the research project, there is also a whole set of leadership training activities designed to ensure that the lucky recipients would be able to take charge of any situation in which they should find themselves with all the wit and intelligence that the best undergraduate educations should imbue. It’s a powerful mission, and one which, in this iteration, involved a range of activities under the heading of ‘cultural capital’, visits to things like theatre, opera, wine-tastings and so on that were meant to equip the person who has never experienced those things with the familiarity that will prevent those who have, and think they’re important markers of education and distinction, from dismissing these new leaders; in short, to give them the tools to level with elitist snobs. I’m not sure whether this is to reinforce or to undermine the British class system, but as someone with many stories of such exclusion, some even my own, I see its power. It’s also fascinating that the language we have for it has to come from 1980s French anthropology, too; we ourselves couldn’t look at it that closely, it seems.2 Now, for better or for worse, that seems to have been dropped from these scholarships in favour of an international component, which may be better directed toward the future I suppose. But, dear reader, I digress.

The Winchester coin cabinet, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Cabinet, in the strongroom of the Brotherton Library, in all its slightly wonky eighteenth-century glory (the cabinet, not the strongroom)

Whatever the wider social intent of this scheme, then, the core of it is still a research project, on which it will pay a student to work for twelve weeks spread over two years. So, all the way back in January 2016, I looked at the coin collection, for something that was a self-contained unit that could fill that much work but still produce something, and I lit upon the Winchester Cabinet, which is a rather fancy thing to have in a collection. It is actually a single big coin cabinet, complete with about three thousand coins, which were amassed and put in this same cabinet by one William Eyre in the late eighteenth century. At his death the cabinet was bequeathed to Winchester Cathedral, where he had apparently been a lay canon; they tinkered only minimally with it for nearly two centuries and then in 1954 decided to sell it the University of Leeds.3 So we have not just the coins but a collection, self-contained and almost closed since 1780 or so, of known provenance and association, whose collector could himself be an intriguing subject of study. Knowing that collectors are the hot thing in museums at the moment, and putting aside for a moment my reservations about privileging more or less modern human beings and their interests over the actual historical things we physically immediately have and what they might tell us, I decided that this was our hook, and so I wrote a proposal for a project called “Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet” and sent it in to see who would bite. And it got selected, so quite quickly I wound up interviewing several eager students all of whom wanted in on this opportunity, all of which was quite flattering but rather unexpected.

Laidlaw Undergraduate Research Leadership Scholar Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the Winchester Cabinet project

Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the scheme with, as her Twitter feed explains, the aid of Emperor Antoninus Pius, and whose better could there be?

Well, the successful applicant was one Emma Herbert-Davies, who has been exactly the kind of star we rather expected she would be; she has put in far more work on this collection than we could ever have paid her for and become quite the face of the Leeds coin collection, leaving me as the kind of scheming Brian Wilson in the background (which is fine by me). She’s catalogued quite a chunk of the cabinet, including many different numismatic cultures and areas, and I don’t know how many papers she’s given on this now but I know that it’s more numismatics papers than I have. Emma is not the first person I’ve trained up from zero as a numismatist, and I bet she won’t be the last, but she’s certainly the one who’s so far become best known in numismatic circles and here, again, the student may well have outstripped the teacher. So, I will not steal her thunder here, I will just point you to her work, which is what all the money and study went towards. Firstly, there has been since October 2017, should you be in Leeds and willing to negotiate your way into the Brotherton Library, an actual physical display of some of the coins, mostly with Emma’s captions and selections but also with two of my own; I’ll post something else about this soon when I have better photos, but meanwhile here is one of Emma’s.

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and your humble author, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

But, in case you are not in Leeds or have no such library card, there is also a virtual exhibition, with more material in it, which showcases not just Emma’s grasp of the general interest of the coins but also our Library’s rather good digitization; it looks pretty smart and you can zoom in to an almost silly degree. So if you have some time and like coins, do click through and give Emma your web-traffic! I am very pleased with what we have, and by that I mainly mean she, has been able to do here.

1. Which, for those of you not fluent in UK numismatist, is Elizabeth Pirie (ed.), Coins in Yorkshire Collections: Part I, Coins from Northumbrian Mints, c. 895–1279; Part II, Ancient British Issues and Later Coins from other English, Irish, and Scottish Mints to 1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London 1975), no. 1105.

2. The originator being Pierre Bourdieu, as in his “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed.), Soziale Ungleichheiten, Soziale Welt Sonderheft 2 (Göttingen 1983), pp. 183-198, trans. Richard Nice as “The Forms of Capital” in John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City NY 1986), pp. 241–258, whence online here.

3. We have (and again I mainly mean Emma Herbert-Davies has) found out quite a lot about the cabinet, its original owner and its subsequent history, but I have to admit that why this happened no-one has been able to tell us.

15,000 more coins to play with

This post is a step or two out of order; I originally stubbed it in December 2015 and would, if everything were normal, have intended it for seven or eight posts down the line. But it occurred to me that I had also referred to various successes with publications and grants that I probably ought to mention while they’re still even near fresh, rather than queue them out of my usual dogged commitment to chronology; and then I totted up the grants and realised that the ones I had to start with were to do with the Brotherton Library Coin Collection, and that without this post you, dear readers, would have no idea what that was. So here we are!

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers, photo from Leeds’s website

So obviously you will remember, because I am still writing about it, that between 2014 and 2015 I was Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which involved me doing exhibitions, outreach and general work with a collection of just over 15,000 coins and items of paranumismatica. But I put all that behind me, excepting lagging publication commitments, when I came to the University of Leeds, who had hired me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, not as a numismatist. Admittedly, I had tried to set up an undergraduate module using the coin collection in Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, but due to staff shortage there that was never possible. But just as I thought I might be through with numismatics again, someone here asked me, “has anyone told you about the coin collection in the Library?” And it turned out, wouldn’t you know, there is a collection here of just over 15,000 coins and paranumismatica, just waiting for someone to do exhibitions, outreach and general work with…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued; obverse…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

… and reverse, photographed by me for teaching last year

Now in some respects the timing of this was perfect: not only did it mean that I could in fact run that module the next and indeed this year on local resources alone, it also came a short while after the collection, which had for a long time been without a clear place in the University’s organisation, had been definitively placed in the care of the University’s Special Collections team. But they had no numismatics expertise in-house, and then there came I, a man who had quite literally written the book(let) on the care of coin collections (with really quite a lot of uncredited help).1 And so, while I couldn’t do much for the Library myself, not alongside my other responsibilities, one thing I could do was apply for money for someone else to do that work.

A copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries

I think this is an unusual one, a copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here the obverse, fairly normal but a bit blocky and unclear of identification…

Copper-alloy forty-nummi struck during the Persian occupation of Syria 615-27

…and reverse, unobjectionable except for a jumbled mint-mark that just can’t be Byzantine. Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, no. not available to me but it does have one now. This is one of the cases where I’ve been able to improve on a previous identification. There aren’t many!

Now, I will talk about that in a future post, but first, how come the University has an orphaned coin collection at all, and what’s in it? Well, it’s not quite unknown: expert diggers in databases could already find out something of its history and the early British and English portions have even been published, although more was acquired after that was done.2 And in fact the history is composite, as these things so often are; while Lord Brotherton himself, the man behind our oldest library and the extremely significant collections therein, did not dally with coins, in 1918 the then-Department of Latin acquired itself a small set for teaching purposes, in 1949 the Yorkshire Archaeological Society presaged the eventual donation here of all its collections with a Roman coin collection, and in 1954 the rather fabulous Winchester Collection, which is where the funding story will come in, arrived here. Substantial anonymous gifts followed thereafter but the real difference was made by Mr Paul Thackray, of the same Thackrays as our local Medical Museum, who added 11,000 or so coins to our holdings in the early 1990s. Now, probably two-third, maybe even three-quarters, of all this is Roman, and almost all base-metal, although it’s an extremely good collection as far as that goes, with lots of varieties. There are also good representations of Chinese coins, including some genuinely rare items I am told, and of local merchants’ tokens, and a good set of modern world coins I want to convince my modernist colleagues to start using too. But there is also a small but precious selection of medieval and Byzantine items, and on them I have built my course. There is, indeed, more than I have fully discovered and some very interesting Eastern and Indian stuff, all of which is out of my competence, and two cabinets of Roman Provincial, which should definitely interest somebody, even if not me.3 Thankfully, even now we have actual hired help in place for cataloguing, though they won’t be able to do it all. But the potential is definitely here for people to do lots more with it, and it is a potential on which, as I shall describe in that near-future post, we have already started to deliver…

1. Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: their care and use (Cambridge 2009), now sadly out of print and unobtainable but obtained, thankfully, by Leeds just before that became true.

2. In Elizabeth Pirie, Ancient British and later coins to 1279 in the Yorkshire Museum, York, the City Museum Leeds and the University of Leeds, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

3. That Roman Provincial coinage should be interesting more people has recently become clear partly because of the ever-growing database of it at the Ashmolean Museum but also because George Watson, “The system of coin production in Roman Asia Minor: new thoughts on an old problem”, in Maria Caltabiano et al. (edd.), XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Messina 2018), pp. not yet known to me, has started to make it clear that there are systems to its production about which we had previously not suspected, making it a key to the administration of the Roman East we didn’t know we had. So I want someone to do something with our boxes of it… Any would-be research students, do get in touch


Ein schlechter Tag für Europa


Leaving my own politics out of it, I wake this morning to the likelihoods that two funding bids I’m involved in will now collapse, that all our current European doctoral students are now going to have to rush to finish before the conditions of their residency in the UK change in unpredictable fashion, that working in Catalonia, Spain or France is shortly to get more expensive and hostile and that my chosen sector of employment will now see yet another shrinkage of income, with presumably resultant cuts in jobs. I am also going to have completely respin the next lecture I give on Charlemagne. The longer-term consequences… who knows?

Seminar CCXXVIII: a new method for analysing Mediterranean connectivity

The seminar report backlog now takes us back to Birmingham, where on the 5th February 2015 Dr Matthew Harpster was addressing the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Matthew is one of the friends I hope to keep from Birmingham; we had friends in common when I arrived and then someone gave me the office opposite him, so I had quite a lot of contact with him, but still I didn’t actually see him talk about his stuff until I was working at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. This then was that occasion, and it sparked off quite a lot of subsequent thought and action. His title was “Refashioning a Maritime Past in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996; it probably isn’t Matthew in that wetsuit, but it could be!

It had been Matthew’s doing that this same seminar had earlier been addressed by Rebecca Ingram on the subject of shipwrecks, because Matthew too is a maritime archæologist who once worked at the Theodosian Harbour in Istanbul with her, and like her he also had a particular shipwreck with which he was concerned, a ninth-century one off Turkey.1 This seems likely to have been a Byzantine one but as Matthew had poked at this he had become less and less sure that we have any solid methodology for making such judgements: does one go from the cargo, the personal effects of the crew, the location, the building style, or some or all of these? All of these things could easily be out of place as we understand them. Matthew had gone so far as to assemble all the 254 attempts to identify shipwrecks in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology from 1972 to 2012 as he counted them, and found no consistent practice.2 At that point his project became the one that then brought him to Birmingham, to database as many shipwrecks as possible from the ancient world and try and pattern-spot in such a way as might underpin such a consistent methodology for identification.

Cover of Parker's Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

Cover of Matthew’s foundational text, Parker’s Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

There is at least an easy place to start, an inventory of 730 ancient shipwrecks assembled in the early 1990s to which Matthew was able to add 120 more; the standard of record is of course variable but it’s a start.3 From there Matthew had used the cargo, fittings and personal items recorded for each wreck to work out route profiles for each vessel, assigning each of its items a point of origin and using those points as plots for a polygon that represented that shipwreck’s notional catchment area. Of course, this relies on others’ identifications of the goods and archæology being able to assign them correctly to places of origin, and as Morn Capper (present) pointed out, it is also tracking the finds, not the ships, and if those finds had moved in several ships in turn, not one all the way, the polygon of the one that actually sank would be considerably larger than that ship’s own sea area.

Map of ancient shipwrecks from the Benthos project

This is, sadly, not Matthew’s work but someone else’s attempt to do something similar, mapping the ancient Mediterranean’s nautical archæology, but only where it now rests, not where it had come from… The project concerned is called Benthos, and looks interesting but doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond its preliminary phase as of three years ago, alas.

But, this is something that one can do, it’s still telling one about a species of connection and the results are impressive, the more so because of the work Matthew had done with Dr Henry Chapman to load them into GIS and process them. I wish I could show you one of the resulting visualisations, as they are not only fascinating but things of psychedelic beauty, but Matthew seems not to have put any of them on the web where I can steal them, goshdarnit. In any case, in so far as what they show can be summarised, that summary might be:

  1. The weight of maritime activity shifted eastwards in the Mediterranean between the fourth century B. C. and the fourth century A. D., with more and more material travelling in the eastern half of the Mediterranean and less in the western one.
  2. Throughout that period, however, there is a visible separation of the two halves, either side of a zone including Sicily, Malta and the northern tip of Africa, which seems to have been a zone busy with transshipment but across the whole of which relatively little passed without stopping.
  3. In the fifth century A. D. this trend changes, with the Eastern Mediterranean dropping off in importance and goods from the West beginning to travel much further. Pirenne would have been worried!
  4. Pirenne would, however, probably have taken refuge in the fact that there is much less data from the late period, and in fact almost nothing for the eighth to tenth centuries, but the real peak is in the first centuries B. C. and A. D., not as one might have expected the height of the Roman Empire, and any conclusions for what was going on outside that period are based on dangerously small samples. Was sailing just safer under Hadrian or something? In any case, moving on… 

Matthew’s main point was that, within the limits of the evidence, his method could be used to measure and display change over time in the much-vaunted connectivity of the Mediterranean, but in discussion, predictably, the gathering set to trying to work out what else it told us or might do if extended.4 Archie Dunn wondered how journeys recorded in texts would map using such a method, Rebecca Darley offered military campaigns, as well as coins of course, and I wondered about inscriptions and diplomatic formulae. It seemed to me, and I said out loud, that all these things might well map out differently and result in an even more complex and textured picture of how people moved around the Mediterranean. And at that point Professor Leslie Brubaker said, “Funding bid!” and well, somehow from this seminar came a research proposal involving seven people, including myself, Rebecca, Matthew, Henry and Leslie, and it’s currently under review after making it to the second round of the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant competition, so I guess we shall see what a great fire a little matter may yet kindle; I’m still quite excited about the prospects it raises. But whatever comes of it, Matthew started it, by giving this excellent paper to an audience who thought of useful questions, and that is really how all this is supposed to work, isn’t it?

Divers over an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Sicily

Who knows what we may find? Though I at least won’t have to get wet for my portion of the material if it all comes together… This is a recent excavation off the coast of Sicily of a ‘2,000-year-old ship’ about which I can tell you no more, but it’s a good image to close with!

1. And indeed he has published on it: see M. Harpster, “Designing the 9th-Century-AD Vessel from Bozburun, Turkey” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 38 (Oxford 2009), pp. 297-313, DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2009.00226.x.

2. See Harpster, “Shipwreck Identity, Methodology, and Nautical Archaeology” in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory Vol. 20 (Heidelberg 2013), pp. 588-622, DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9131-x.

3. A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 580 (Oxford 1992).

4. The vaunting is primarily to be found in Peregrine Horden & Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history (Oxford 2000), on which see Paolo Squatriti, “Mohammed, the Early Medieval Mediterranean, and Charlemagne” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2003), pp. 263-279, DOI: 10.1046/j.0963-9462.2002.00111.x.

Models for a public academy

Student protests in London 2011 behind book-cover shields

At least some people still believe the humanities can defend themselves…

This is another post that represents a long thought process, and not a very conclusive one. Towards the end of 2012 I was becoming gloomy about the state of the academy, probably not least because of grave doubts over my future place in it, but also because of the various UK government initiatives that seemed set to make life in it harder and less honest, about which there’s been better commentary than mine would be. In Oxford, where I then still was, this was for many taking the form of wondering if the university might be able to go it alone, partly out of frustration at what the pressure to meet and manage targets was doing to the size of the administrative establishment even as money for teaching and research was being cut, but also out of the ability of some commentators to come up with costings that made it look as if even Oxford was unlikely to get back in research money as determined by the REF what it had put in in staff time and effort and lost research time. And if not Oxford, then who? And so on. And it all had me thinking if there might be a way to envisage a future university which did not have the reins held by government money in this way.

I am now further out of this bubble than I was in December 2012, though you can see that even much later I was still smarting with this kind of logic, but back then I was reflecting on the double-edged sword of the problems history has generating the kind of ‘impact’ on public policy now demanded by the government for its money and the continually steady recruitment this supposedly useless degree manages in so many places. History is, as Magistra put it in a different context, a cash cow, even if it’s still probably not possible to teach it at university level as a money-making enterprise except to the very rich. Still, it is usually facilities-light (no labs) and student-heavy, and this tells us surely that we are not without impact, that people think history can be useful to them (for, for example, stopping people believing rubbish) or is just interesting, and this is also suggested by the fact that books on it sell, even books with footnotes. Book sales and student recruitment are of course not counted as measures of impact, which is vexing because it is the most obvious impact we have, on people’s minds and memories.

The obvious conclusion I was being led to in December 2012 was that it might be possible, then, to operate academic history research on some kind of broad-based public subscription model. Kickstarter had just started operating in the UK, too, so some kind of model for how it might be done now existed: a plea passed around blogs and Twitter, per project. You’d have to be good at explaining why it was interesting and what your project would find out, and you’d hope to get conventional publication out of it (of which free copies would need to be available for some of the subscribers I guess), but the primary communication of progress and results would be online, with people who genuinely cared and had the best reason so to do. It might be really quite energising, if also probably exhausting, and it would escape the national constraints of so much current funding.

But after a while I realised that what it could not be is big. It would have to meet the salary and travel costs of each researcher; a year’s work probably costs £40,000, then, living fairly cheaply (because of course, unless this is still happening inside the university, you have a lot of costs for access to published materials, for the reasons we’ve just discussed). Kickstarter currently has about £190,000,000 pledged to it (says Wikipedia as of today, with conversion from dollars by UCC), and while that’s obviously not the same as money actually paid, let’s just assume for a second that that is a reasonable sum to think this initiative could raise, after the same sort of growth period. That is a university sector, a whole international university sector, sciences and all, of 4,750 researchers. The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency says that there are currently 185,535 academics employed in the UK alone, and while I’ve no idea whom they count in or out, it is still two orders of magnitude bigger than all that Kickstarter money could fund.

In any case, Kickstarter’s median funding level is in the four figures of dollars (says Wikipedia again), so pursuing that analogy means that we’re looking at maybe funding two months’ of work, not a year’s. That means six times as many individual projects but the £190,000,000 was Kickstarter’s sum for the year, not two months, so that’s the same people doing six projects a year to stay afloat. There are all kinds of bits of this comparison that don’t join up but it’s not at all encouraging. It seems more than likely that any academy that operated thus, in direct service of public pockets, would have to be dramatically smaller than the one we currently possess, or else funded substantially by commercial interests. So we are not going to get free this way.

This was my conclusion when I happened across one of Eileen Joy’s many manifestos for the university outside the university that she has herself started creating. Because of her willingness to put her lack of money where her mouth is in this respect, I take Eileen’s vision seriously: if she can live by it, so may others be able to. Despite this, she and I have never seen eye-to-eye about the scalability of such alternatives, and finding myself at the end of the same thread of apparently-inexorable arithmetic, I wrote a long comment. It was so long that I decided it was in fact part of this post, and so here it is:

“The numbers game is the problem, of course. In at least one Utopia the university is a social and economic organisation that permits scholars to focus on the production of, well, let’s not say knowledge but insight, without having to hustle for a living first and foremost. I’m going to claim that teaching is part of that process, too, though it mires us in awkward ethical positions about trying to reproduce ourselves or create structures that make our education ‘vocational’ by making spaces for our pupils, many of whom are as worthy of them as we are. When the numbers don’t add up any more to make the ideal possible, though (and to be honest I’m not clear how they ever did, or how any government ever accepted the Haldane Principle), that lack of trammeling of our work and thought is first to go, of course. At that point, and especially at this point, abandoning the structure looks like the useful and ethical thing to do. But we will still have to hustle to pay to do our work on the outside. Even if we run as vagabond scholars living on publishing and generosity, we are still selling to live and that means someone is buyer. Who’s free to think, then?”

What a cheerful man, eh? And this is all damn discouraging, but what I have also been noticing is that not everyone is being discouraged even so. Eileen is obviously the most encouraged and encouraging, but the search for direct access to the public purse to solve the problems of dealing with its appointed guardians has still been happening. The first link I had for this is now half-invisible behind a paywall, so I can no longer see what the exact basis for the headline “Crowdsourcing the search for some missing royalty” is, and I think it may be labour rather than funding. Still, it’s a way, and it seems to have done fairly well for what is now the Irish Archaeology field School. And then there was this:

Section of the PHD Comics cartoon for 6th May 2013

Section of a PHD Comics cartoon on just this issue

Again, that’s science, but in the public marketplace the two cultures punch much more equally, I think. And yet all the same the numbers are what the numbers are and I don’t feel that I’ve given up hope prematurely. This may be the way a small bit of the sector now goes. It may at least prevent us from returning to a Victorian academy where privately-funded scholars do most of the interesting, but often problematic because unchecked, work and propagate it via learned societies, but the academy it enables will still be very painfully shrunk. And yet larger alternatives still fail to be imagined