Tag Archives: Gregory the Great

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

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Seminar CXCIX: the importance of being eloquent in the Italian Church

I seem to have emerged from a hole somewhat in March 2014, suddenly going to lots of seminars after some time on rations. I put this partly down to the welcome presence of Another Damned Medievalist in London, which gave me a good extra reason to be in town, but also the new course I had been running that term was mostly unrolled and the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had several things on the programme that interested me, of which one was when Giorgia Vocino gave a paper on the 19th March called “Bishops in the Mirror: literary portraits and episcopal self-fashioning in early medieval Italy”.

Mosiac portrait of Saint Ambrose of Milan

Mosaic portrait of bishop no. 1 for this paper, Saint Ambrose of Milan. “AmbroseOfMilan“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Dottora Vocino as a face from Leeds but had never met her or her work, so this was valuable context. Her paper was about the standing of bishops in the early medieval world, and she took a complex and interesting approach to the question, taking several well-documented bishops and asking, respectively, how they presented themselves in their writings, how contemporaries report them and what their posthumous reputation was like. Her examples came from quite a chronological range: the earliest was Saint Ambrose of Milan (ruled 374-397) and the others were Pope Gregory the Great (ruled 590-604), Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileia (ruled 787-802×804) and Bishop Atto of Vercelli († 960), so perhaps it was not surprising that their own self-presentations, as Dottora Vocino characterised them, differed widely: Ambrose, despite his chiding emperors and leading mobs (this is my editorialising) presented himself primarily as a teacher of Scripture; Gregory saw the bishop as more active in the world, a shepherd more than a teacher (though a teacher too); Paulinus was most concerned with soldiering for Christ against the enemies of God, as befits one of the key scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance perhaps, by means of prayer, teaching and preaching but still more confrontational than the previous two; and Atto’s most revealing writing, a thing called the Perpendiculum is an anonymous prophetic condemnation of those who would depose kings, though it too got reused as a teaching text. Nonetheless, though they all taught only Ambrose seems really to have thought this definitional of his office, which evokes comparisons to the modern Academy that might be unkind but occur all the same.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It may then be that while those who have a quality in abundance don’t need to shout about it, those who do the same job without it still envy them, because what all of these bishops seem to have been remembered and praised (or even sometimes dispraised) for is none of the above, but instead their eloquence as speakers. Saint Augustine actually saw Ambrose speak and thought him amazing. Gregory was supposedly given his eloquence by the Holy Spirit (his senatorial education presumably assisting that gift somewhat), and although Gregory of Tours thought of his namesake as a scholar and the Liber Pontificalis remembers him mainly for building, as let’s face it it does every pope who didn’t get deposed violently, Isidore of Seville, whose brother knew Gregory, praised him mainly for public speaking. Paulinus is written up as having been preternaturally eloquent from infancy, and although we have no outside witness texts for Atto his own writings take trouble to refute charges of over-eloquence that had apparently been raised against him. This ars loquendi, art of speaking, is apparently the thing that Italian bishops got remembered for, whether they wanted that or not. Miracles, public works, and their own shared emphasis, instruction, all take a back seat to how they came over when they stood up in front of people.

Carolingian-period sculptural panel on a baptismal font ion the church of Cividale

I can’t find an illustration of Paulinus of Aquileia from earlier than 1790 but here at least is something he is believed to have had made, a panel from the baptismal font in the church of Cividale. Sailko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was some debate about why this should be. Dottora Vocino emphasised the politics that whirled around the writing of these bishops’ lives, and suggested that while miracles were a good way of indicating divine favour for the past bishops they might have been a tall order for the living ones who needed comparison to their predecessors; eloquence, on the other hand, could be presented as a divine inspiration but could also be performed by the current incumbents. Susan Reynolds wisely asked if any bishops were ever condemned for being bad speakers, but apparently there are some so it’s not just generic, however common. Alice Rio and Caroline Goodson both asked questions about regionality, seeing little of this emphasis in bishops’ lives from Francia and Southern Italy. Dottora Vocino thought that some comparisons in Francia could be found, but I think this is in some ways to be expected; she pointed out that the transmission of these famae, reputations or fames, probably needed schools, and I would add also audiences outside the schoolroom among whom such portrayals could be deployed, and both of these imply cathedral cities with urban populations, for which Northern Italy is about the most likely zone, though the South’s non-participation is still odd. It would be interesting to take the comparison across to the Byzantine world and see if the cities of Greece or Asia Minor thought of their bishops similarly. But the takeaway point for me was an old one, that people write history or similar for a reason; what someone did may not be as important for their memory as what someone later needed to do with it. Whether or not all these bishops were really talented orators we probably can’t tell, though Ambrose at least seems likely; what we can say is that while there was more to them than that, it was what served the interests of their successors to remember (perhaps because all other comparisons would have been unfavourable). As ever, it behoves us to think about what our sources did not need or want to mention before we decide what they knew.


I would have to do a lot of digging to pull together references to these various bishops works and the texts that Dottora Vocino was using, and it seems easier simply to refer you to her subsequent related publication, G. Vocino, “Under the aegis of the saints: hagiography and power in early Carolingian northern Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 26-52, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12037, and hope that that will do. Sorry!

Seminars LXXX & LXXXI: two takes on really big changes

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

Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

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

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

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obligatory toiling peasants illustration, from about the right period too

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminary LXIII: that’s not in the canon, is it?

To my disquiet, I find that I am already going to this term’s seminars without having written up all of last term’s yet. In my defence: editors! Kalamazoo! And, to distract you further, this term’s IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar schedule is here. However, if you’re still demanding to know where the missing content is, I suppose I’d better tell you about Roy Flechner‘s presentation to that same seminar last term, on 10th March, when he spoke to the title, “What can canon law tell us about the Gregorian mission to Kent?”

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

[Edit: a source I obviously misunderstood Roy’s presentation of is pinned down in comments by the elusive Two-Fingered Typist, which has meant fairly coarse editing of some of what follows; I apologise to the other commentators who responded to the initial version. I’ve enclosed what I’ve changed in square brackets.]

Roy’s basic pitch was that, since we know that Gregory the Great was a dab hand with the Church canons, he must have taken time to think, when he plotted the mission to the English (in response, [Gregory tells us, to a local request after a failure to get religion from unspecified ‘neighbours’]) what the legal implications of it would be. Not least, he had a plan to set up twelve new bishoprics, but Britain had had bishops before, indeed apparently still did as St Augustine met with them to famous failure, and so there were sees notionally there that would have to be over-ruled and replaced. Roy pointed out that good precedents existed for this after the end of the Donatist Schism in Africa, where numerous parallel bishoprics and their properties had to be merged. This was regulated by the Council of Carthage in 418, which would certainly have been known to Gregory. Roy also argued that Gregory’s involvement of as many Frankish bishops as possible through letters showed an attempt to proceed in a quasi-conciliar fashion, to provide a better legal backing for the massive abrogation of existing rights (and rites) he was about to order. This he did rather than do what he might have done and declare the British Church heretical for Quartodecimianism; after all, as Roy pointed out, some of the Frankish bishops of the day thought the Irish missionary saint Columbanus was a heretic for this and other reasons, and the two churches seem to have been of one calendar on this.

Portrait of St Augustine from the St Petersburg manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Portrait of St Augustine from the St Petersburg manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History (from Wikimedia Commons)

For me this was one of those seminars where I am asked to think about a topic I’ve not really considered deeply before, and then having done so I come away with a very different view from that of the person presenting. I thought there was a substantial elephant in the room here, and it was the Franks. Not only, as Roy admitted, has Ian Wood among others argued that the Franks exercised some kind of hegemony over Southern England at this time, the turn of the fifth to sixth centuries, so that not just the conciliar approach in which many Frankish bishops were involved but also the request from the vicini to assist their ongoing mission in England could be viewed in that context; but most of all, there is the rider of the aforesaid elephant, Bishop Liudhard who is supposed to have come to England with King Æthelberht of Kent’s Frankish wife. Roy didn’t mention him but for me he is a much more plausible explanation of the peculiarities Roy was mentioning. We know [that ‘neighbours’ of the English had been approached to provide Christianity, or at least we know that Gregory claimed this:] Roy favoured the British, but Bede outright denies this, though it has been suggested that he had to for his scheme of Anglian unity through conversion to work. Furthermore, the closest functioning British sees we know of at this time were Bangor and Carlislethere are arguments to be made for Chester too—none of which are exactly ‘neighbours’ to Kent. Meanwhile, there’s an actual Frankish bishop restoring churches [at Canterbury]! Occam’s Razor… Also, this [could help] explain why Gregory planned the southern metropolitan to be London, not Canterbury; there was already a bishop in Canterbury! [Though, as I was forced to admit in comments, the actual chronology of the sources does seem to stop this idea working.] But Æthelberht seems to have had his own reasons for getting rid of Liudhard; we never hear of him again, Augustine moved in on his see [if see it e’er was] and London is never metropolitan, at least not in ecclesiastical terms. Then Gregory had to rearrange the situation, which may explain why, as Roy also admitted, he didn’t actually follow the template of Carthage in dealing with the British Church; things were already out of his hands, and the British may not have been the problem he had most immediately in mind.

St Martin's Canterbury, the church restored for use by Bishop Liudhard

St Martin's Canterbury, the church restored for use by Bishop Liudhard, from Stephen Bax's booklet on the church

So although I’m glad Roy asked all these questions, I don’t think I agree with him about many of the answers. That said, he’s perfectly right to make us think about Gregory would have thought about this whole venture, and what groundwork he had to arrange to make it happen, and he’s certainly right to stress that this kind of source material has something to contribute to this question. I guess I just have to be different…


The obvious source material for Gregory’s intents on the mission has always been the letters between him and Augustine that Bede incorporated into his Ecclesiastical History, which is in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook as well as in your edition of choice, but Roy added Gregory’s letters into the mix and much of what he had to tell us that wasn’t widely known came from a close reading of them; they are edited in Dag L. Norberg (ed.), S. Gregorii Magni Registrum epistularum (Turnhout 1982). Ian Wood’s arguments are most fully set out in an annoyingly unobtainable pamphlet, his The Merovingian North Sea, Occasional Papers on Medieval Topics 1 (Alingsås 1983), but there is also some coverage in his The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751 (London 1994).