Tag Archives: historians and politics

From Ankara to al-Masāq in eighteen months or so

Right, let’s see about that post I promised. I promised some account of the conference which had taken me to Ankara in February 2018, but given that a decent part of it emerged as a journal issue about which you’ve already heard, and that I already blogged much of the conference elsewhere long ago, I thought it might be more interesting to do this post as a story of how academic ideas becomes a publication at the moment.1 This will be old news to some of my readership, I know, but I’ll load it with enough stuff that didn’t get as far as the journal issue or into the other blog post to keep you interested as well, I hope. So here goes.

Dr Luca Zavagno at the entrance of Ankara Castle

Luca Zavagno, standing outside the walls of Ankara Castle on this very occasion

As I said in the last proper post, my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had found himself with more of a grant he held with me left than we’d expected, and thus upscaled from what had been meant to be a single workshop at Bilkent Universitesi to a small but complete international conference with a few ancillary events, because he could. The whole program stretched over three days in the end. On the first of these and second of these the relevant events were public lectures held in the afternoon, and then the conference proper happened on the third day. In between times we climbed on castles, taught master-classes to the Bilkent students like visiting celebrities (which, I suppose I have to admit, we sort of were) and tried to make sure our papers would be OK. There were also, I admit, a few meals out. I have some pictures of parts of this academic jamboree, but I think I might be discreetly murdered if I posted them, so you will have to manage without. Instead, have some food for the mind in the form of the running order.

21 February 2018

  • Public lecture: Rebecca Darley, “Speaking in Many Voices: Roman and Byzantine coins in South India as sources for maritime and inland histories”

22 February 2018

23 February 2018

    Workshop: Islands at the Frontier of Empires in the Middle Ages

  • Elif Denel introducing the American Research Institute in Turkey
  • Lutgarde Vandeput introducing the British Institute at Ankara
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Piercing the Cultural Frontier: images of the Virgin in insular churches and the Byzantine heartland”
  • Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: a frontier in the centre of the sea?”
  • Luca Zavagno, “‘I Don’t Know Why I Go to Extremes’: the Balearics and Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Is an Island always a Hub? Sokotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”
  • Chris Wickham, “Looking Back at the Eighth Century from the Eleventh”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates:The Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”
  • Francisco J. Moreno Martín, “Archaeology of Iberian ‘Ecclesiastical Frontiers’ between 6th and 10th centuries”
  • Round Table

Now, if you are as keen a reader of my work as I wish I somewhere had, you will have maybe noticed that there is a lot more there than got into the eventual publication, and indeed that one article there isn’t here. This is the story of how the moment becomes the monument that I alluded to at the beginning, really. Luca had thrown this together quite quickly; thus, some people had brought stuff that was directly related to the topic, some had fortuitously had something tangentially related presentable, and one or two papers slipped in because they were what the speaker could offer. In particular, it was only a very few days before that Luca had discovered that one of his planned speakers would not be able to make it (and this being before we all adapted to Zoom, that was considered prohibitive), so Francisco wound up stepping in with literally days notice, and the paper was definitely never expected to be more than work in progress. So it goes.

Of the ones that didn’t get published, therefore, I’ll say a little on content as well as process. Rebecca’s public lecture looked at the distribution of Roman and Byzantine coin finds in India as compared to local coinage systems and as compared to temple sites, pursuing a connection she had by this time already suggested in print.2 There seem to be some sharp differentiations; Roman silver, gold and even copper is sometimes found in most areas south of the Deccan, but Byzantine coin only much further south (and only in gold), and both Roman and Byzantine stuff often appears slashed, cut up or imitated using gold foil round base-metal cores, none of which happened to local coinages. The former Rebecca suggested might be to do with the emergence of the Vakataka Empire during the late Roman era, across whose borders Byzantine coin seems not have got (and which ran no coin of its own as far as we know); the latter is where the temples might come in, if the damage to the coins was somehow part of the ritual in which they were given to such institutions (some of whose treasuries are even now objects of mystery and speculation). This didn’t go into the journal issue mainly becaue Rebecca was still working out what these things might mean, but also because it was nowhere near that issue’s topic, however interesting, and so it was left for her to pursue further elsewhere.3

Francisco Moreno Martín and Rebecca Darley conferring before the latter's public lecture at the University of Bilkent in 2018

Francisco and Rebecca conferring before Rebecca’s lecture, Professor Paul Latimer at right about to do the introductions

The next day Francisco took us through some of the different ways in which Spanish nationalist politics had looked at and used the Visigothic period in their thought and propaganda. As the only period in which the whole Iberian peninsula has been under one autonomous rule, between 624 and 711 except during the numerous civil wars, and under a Catholic autonomous rule to boot, you can see how this would be useful to such agendas, and indeed it was seen so in the ninetheenth century by such historians as Lafuente and Amador de Rios, but initially at least it did not form a big part of the propaganda of the Franco era, the Generalissimo seeing himself (and having himself shown) more in the mould of a Crusader or hero of the Reconquista, but his state more like the Roman Empire (like most right-wing states of the period, one might observe). The alliance with Nazi Germany however brought a shift in emphasis away from the Romans towards the supposedly shared Germanic background of the Goths, and a chance to grab border territory off defeated France in 1941 was framed as revenge for several occasions on which the Franks of French had underhandedly defeated the Goths or Spanish. This powered some new archæology of ‘Germanic’ burials but, when Germany lost the war, Franco had to fall back on the Church, always his support and now the only apparent explanation for why his far-right government alone survived, and started paying more attention to the Reconquista and the Asturian kings again. This was an object lesson in how political preoccupations can drive not just propaganda but the research behind it, but it was also one that Francisco was largely reprising from the work of people he’d edited rather than being something of his to offer, as well as being nowhere near the theme of the workshop, so it too did not get included.4

When it came to the actual workshop, the first two papers were never intended to be more than advertisements for two scholarly institutes in the neighbourhood and the facilities they could offer scholars working on the area, which are indeed worth knowing about, but which were obviously not publications. Leslie Brubaker’s paper was closely related to the one she gave at that year’s Spoleto conference, which was printed as part of that, but her version of it for this workshop included some reflections on how, if you looked at the right way everything could be considered a frontier, and on how islands, our actual theme, were so rarely self-sufficient as for their coasts to constitute boundaries that were ‘meant to be breached’, and I wish we could have found some way to include those alongside what we did.5 Matthew’s, Luca’s and Rebecca’s papers did all go into the publication, so I’ll not say more about them here as I’ve already written them up once; they are all very good, however!6 Chris’s paper was about state-economy interactions across the three-century period of his title, and concluded that the eleventh-century world was economically busier but more broken up, making a tax-driven state harder to maintain and in some part, thus explaining a shift of economic basis; and from here, I can see that this was all work going towards his eventual (and amazing) article ‘How Did the Feudal Economy Work?’ As it was, it was still work in progress as far as he was concerned, and admittedly not even slightly about islands, and so we couldn’t really prevail upon him to let us have it.7 And then there was me, and I’ve already mentioned how Francisco had stepped into the breach.

So, in the weeks subsequent to all this when Luca, Rebecca and I worked this out, what this mean we had was Matthew, Luca, me and Rebecca’s workshop paper, and we also actually had the promise of a version of the paper which had been cancelled, by Nikolas Bakirtzis and a collaborator of his, Xenophon Moniaros. Five chapters is too few for a book, but it’s about right for a journal issue, so we looked around for likely venues and lit upon al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean. They turned out to be a more or less ideal venue except in one particular, which was that they could give us a choice of being published either three years down the line or in eighteen months; the former was too far away but the deadlines for the latter meant a lot of work squeezed in between teaching. In particular, as editors of the issue, it fell to us to find reviewers for each article. Since we were between us three-fifths of the authors who were being reviewed, and some of our expertises were pretty identifiable as well, this got a little surreal, though I did not know either of the people who reviewed mine and got a slightly rough ride from one of them, which did make it a better article but required work I really struggled to do in the time available (mainly reading about Balearic archaeology). I guess the article now provides quite a good state of the question on late antique settlement in the Balearics…

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

But, on the other hand, it ran through editing and proofs very easily, partly I’d like to say because of the excellent editing work we’d done ourselves, but also because of very good type-setting by the publishers, working with a bewildering number of Mediterranean languages and some fairly scientific archaeology to boot, and the whole thing existed within eighteen months of our first having the idea, which was extremely convenient for us all, I think. Had I had world enough and time I would have done more work on mine—I’m not sure if there’s anything I’ve ever published bar my first article on which I might not, ideally, have done more work and of course my book then had to modify that first article extensively…—but as it was, it was one of those things which seemed impossible but, because there were three of us doing it and no-one wanted to disappoint the others was in the end possible anyway, and we are all (still) quite proud of it. But I’m not sure I foresaw that in Ankara in February 2018!

1. The journal issue being, of course, Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 no. 2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129-241.

2. Rebecca Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman coins in south India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A.D.)” in H. P. Ray (ed.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History (London 2015), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.4324/9780429274169-4.

3. Already in Rebecca Darley, “罗马-拜占庭钱币的流入与印度次大陆的社会变迁”, transl. Wang Baixu in 古代文明 Vol. 14 no. 3 (Changchun 2020), pp. 43–50, and soon to appear in English.

4. Francisco Moreno Martín (ed.), El franquismo y la apropiación del pasado: El uso de la historia, de la arqueología y de la historia del arte para la legitimación de la dictadura (Madrid 2016).

5. Leslie Brubaker, “The Migrations of the Mother of God: Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, and the Blachernai in Constantinople” in Le migrazioni nell’Alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 66 Pt. 2 (Spoleto 2019), pp. 1003-1020.

6. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea?” in Zavagno, Darley & Jarrett, ‘Not the Final Frontier’, pp. 158–170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System”, ibid., pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

7. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present no. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtaa018, which was really never going to be published anywhere else given his long connection with the journal.

Periodical Coincidences

Here’s something a bit more light-hearted this week, or if you prefer, trivial. This builds on a very old realisation of mine of something basically meaningless, when during building up a list of things I hoped to read for my MA dissertation I clocked that the journals Viator and Britannia started in the same year, with their first issue in 1970.1 Both Latin titles, too, but different sides of the Atlantic and basically different, though overlapping, period focuses, so it’s hard to do anything with that fact other than notice it. And there that idea rested until some way into my doctoral research, which I approached fresh from employment which had given me the dangerous idea that you could solve almost any information management problem with an Access database, as long as you didn’t mind solving it badly. And we have already seen since long ago that my instincts in these directions are rarely sanely guided

So, what I wanted was a database into which I could transcribe my old paper lists of things I hope to read (present tense because by and large I still do hope to…) along with the somewhat crazy system I had devised of clocking their apparent importance and the number of times I’d seen them cited (which is also a measure of importance, however bad), basically an accumulating set of marginal sigla.2 Well, that could be turned into a numerical score and apart from the fact that this system inevitably privileged stuff that was ancient, it was a functional way of building reading lists as far as it went. That wasn’t very far, though, really, because my old paper lists, in an effort to keep things one line long only, had only ever recorded the volume-level location of articles and chapters, not their actual titles, which might have been invaluable as keyword. Without them, however, I just new that, for example, there were lots of things I apparently needed to read in the 1986 volume of Annales but without raw memory or going and looking at it, I’d no idea what they were.3 Not my best piece of diversionary work, all told, but there we go; you don’t go building bibliographical databases by yourself in every developer’s least favourite database software if you’re a completely sensible person, do you?

Screenshot of Jonathan Jarrett's custom bibliographical database

Screenshot of the madness

Anyway, all this does have a point, honest. Because I didn’t have article and chapter titles in the database, when I came across what might be a new journal article, the easiest way for me to find if I had it recorded was not to search for the author’s name or the journal’s title, but to search for the combination of volume and year, which in theory should be close-to-unique. So, for that issue of Annales I’d have searched for ’41 (1986)’. But doing so reveals that also in their 41st volume that year were, probably among others, the Deutsches Archiv of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie.4 Now, obviously, this isn’t really surprising: there’s hundreds and thousands of academic journals, even just in the arts and humanities, and only a couple of hundred years of journal-issuing academia in which for them all to have existed. Most of them will be crowding the newer end of that timeframe, too.5 Coincidences are obviously inevitable. But there are an awful lot, once you start noticing them.

Now, I am a pattern-spotting animal and, like man as a species, perhaps so evolved for it that I spot patterns that aren’t really there too easily. This leads one to start asking those always-dangerous questions that begin, “Can it be a coincidence that… ?” For example, Cambridge’s Anglo-Saxon England (not then meant to be controversial…) and the Deutsche historische Institut in Paris’s Francia (perhaps never to be controversial) both seeing first light in 1972 could be coincidence, but could also be certain constituencies of academia all feeling that their interests, perhaps looking a bit fringe in the wake of Vietnam, the hippy movement and its disintegration (remember all those campus occupations…), needed a new forum for their mutual recognition. Was there a cross-channel medievalist moment happening there?6 Or am I spinning hay?

Anyway, whether or not this is crazy pattern spotting, I notice two really boom years, in which I don’t see what any plausible connection could be across so wide a range of journals but something feels like it was going on. The weaker of these is 1975, in which year it seems clear that several academic networks had decided that existing fora for their kind of work were inadequate, as a result of which in one year you get Birmingham’s Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, the Jahrbuch für westdeutsche Landesgeschichte and things like Islamochristiana, Critical Inquiry, Journal of Historical Geography and Journal of Medieval History, as well as the Royal Numismatic Society’s briefly separate list of Coin Hoards. One can work towards reasons for some of these: there’s a Marxist thread linking some of those journals, and if I dug enough into their histories and first editorial boards I might find people who had bounced ideas off each other, but while you might adduce something about the general state of growth of, especially, UK academia in the 1970s, it’s hard to explain why 1975 rather than 1974 or 1976, and of course if I were interested in different journals or different fields perhaps those years would show up instead…

Still. We already drew attention to the student riots and general academic upheaval of 1968, and I can’t help wondering if something really did rattle a lot of cages at that point because the real bumper year shown up by this utterly unscientific and useless sampling method is 1970, when as well as Britannia and Viator already mentioned, the academic world was given, in no particular order:

I can’t help but feel that something was going on, and of course, something had been. Almost certainly it is only coincidence, of course. But let me ask you: can all these coincidences really just be coincidence… ?

1. The former for Herwig Wolfram, “The Shaping of the Early Medieval Kingdom” in Viator Vol. 1 (Berkeley CA 1970) pp. 11-20; the latter, apparently, for A. L. F. Rivet and Kenneth Jackson, “The British Section of the Antonine Itinerary” in Britannia Vol. 1 (London 1970) pp. 34-82 and Anne Robertson, “Roman Finds from Non-Roman Sites in Scotland: More Roman ‘Drift’ in Caledonia”, ibid. pp. 198-226.

2. Ironically, partly because I now actually do use better software, I can now easily produce citations on how useless citation counting is, such as Michelle L. Dion, Jane Lawrence Sumner and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, “Gendered Citation Patterns across Political Science and Social Science Methodology Fields” in Political Analysis Vol. 26 (Cambridge 2018), pp. 312–327, DOI: 10.1017/pan.2018.12; Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, “Authorship and citation manipulation in academic research”, ed. Lutz Bornmann in Public Library of Science One Vol. 12 (San Francisco CA 2017), e0187394, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0187394; or Jack Grove, “Quarter of citations in top journals ‘wrong or misleading'” in Times Higher Education, 16th October 2020, online here.

3. Actually, they were Dominique Iogna-Prat, “Le « baptême » du schéma des trois ordres fonctionnels : L’apport de l’école d’Auxerre dans la seconde moitié du IXe siècle” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 41 (Paris 1986), pp. 101-126; Michel Rouche, “La crise de l’Europe au cours de la deuxièèe moitié du VIIe siècle et la naissance des régionalismes”, ibid. pp. 347-360; Stéphane Lebecq, “Dans l’Europe du Nord des VIIe-IXe siècles : commerce frison ou commerce franco-frison?”, ibid. pp. 361-377; Bailey K. Young, “Exemple aristocratique et mode funéraire dans la Gaule mérovingienne”, ibid. pp. 379-407; Patrick Geary, “Vivre en conflit dans une France sans État : typologie des mécanismes de règlement des conflits (1050-1200)”, trans. Jacqueline Falquvert, ibid. pp. 1107-1133 and Robert Bartlett, “Technique militaire et pouvoir politique, 900-1300”, trans. Falquevert, ibid. pp. 1135-1159. Crikey, when Annales still meant something…

4. For, respectively: Hartmut Hoffmann, “Kirche und Sklaverei im frühen Mittelalter” in Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters Vol. 42 (oops)(Hannover 1986), pp. 1-24, and Kenneth H. Jackson, “The date of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick” in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie Vol. 41 (Amsterdam 1986), pp. 5-45.

5. If the whole format of the academic journal is a bit strange to you at this point, here’s a confirmation that you’re not daft, it is strange, at least now: Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 19–24, online here. However, it is arguable that it did make sense once: see for a lightweight intro Bonnie Swoger, “The (mostly true) origins of the scientific journal” in Scientific American 27th July 2012, online here.

6. I’m conscious that I tend to tell the history of culture in the 1960s and 1970s largely on the basis of my music collection, but I could also cite Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (London 1968) as an intimately involved primary source.

How Soon is ‘Too Soon’?

My apologies for the lack of a post last week; a combination of dispiritment at the state of the world and a lot to do on the Monday that wasn’t possible to get ready except at the weekend are my excuses. Let me make up for it somewhat with something hopefully a bit more thought-provoking, which I stubbed to think about in April 2017 but still seems worth exploring a bit. It sort of starts here.

LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship

LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship that you can buy and assemble

I come not to criticise LEGO‘s historicity, you understand; we could go a long way into the difference between the mythic and the historical image of the Viking before we got to a conclusion about whether it is OK that those helmets are horned. But they exemplify something that came to my mind after, in April 2017, my department had an external review, during which one of the reviewers talked about using LEGO as a teaching aid.1 At the time, I confess to thinking this a bit infantile; since then, I must say, I have seen it done well and been converted. A class of first-years in groups each given a small bundle of LEGO pieces and told to build something in ten minutes that expressed chivalry brought out a good few knights on horseback, yes, but also, because of people wanting to use all the pieces or acknowledge that not everyone in the age of chivalry actually was a knight, some quite multi-layered symbolism piled up on those models. In general, it got them putting stuff they’d read into action in a way I don’t think talking would have done by itself, and I only wish I’d had the idea myself.2 So I’m not against the technique, just to make that clear, but a colleague who works on much more modern violence, racism and atrocity felt then that it would be really tasteless and impolitic to try and model anything they taught in LEGO, and it got me thinking.

The thought was, is there a line in history on one side of which this kind of modelling becomes inappropriate or insensitive? When I was a child, this wasn’t a question one would have had to ask, because LEGO basically didn’t do violence: I, a Star Wars fan of early vintage, was always a bit disappointed that their various spaceships and moon exploration sets, fancy or functional, did not feature laser guns. But even then, they did knights and castles sets (though right now they do not, as the last range apparently didn’t sell…), and as we see above it wasn’t long before they embarked on pirates. Again, I am not out to critique LEGO’s choices here, not even the fact that since then they have also done ninja and Viking ranges. But I wonder if we have a cut-off? As far as I can see, pirates is about as modern as they get with anything that’s not current film or TV properties like superheroes, and pirates are almost timeless in the popular imagination anyway, though very much a live concern that happens to people in some seas even so. Obviously there are some non-LEGO toy ranges that come closer to the modern violent than this: Action Man is the most obvious survivor from my childhood, but when I was a child I had (in fact, have recently had to reclaim from my mother’s attic, so now have again, I admit) a lot of farm toys made by a company called Britains who also did toy soldiers. The two aspects of the company now seem to have diverged and split across the Atlantic, but I notice that neither is doing one thing they used to do, cowboys and Indians. So perhaps that has become unacceptable (though somewhat to my horror, the toy soldier section of the company now also has a Vikings range…).

Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen

Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen

So OK, pirates in popular culture are basically ahistorical, fine, and I suppose one could make the same kind of argument for Vikings, and at least with the Vikings we have contemporary literature of that culture which suggests that many Vikings would have been more or less fine with the idea that their exploits of seafaring, skulduggery (and skull-drinkery) and superviolence would be re-enacted by children with a variety of toys nine to eleven centuries after they were committed.3 Perhaps that’s even true of Western European knights to an extent: the Chanson de Roland and Bertran de Born could be enlisted to support it.4 But I don’t imagine any of these companies are going to start making toys of seventh-century Arab soldiers just because there’s some really powerful early Arabic war poetry; that would be a bit too close to the bone still somehow, wouldn’t it? Likewise, discussions here long past suggest that the fact that New Zealand’s rugby team still do a haka before their matches would not make it OK, or even successful, to produce a range of figures from the Maori wars for children to play with.5

So where’s the threshold? It’s evidently not about time: it’s about relevance. But to whom? Lindesfarne was sacked in 793, as long-term readers of this blog will remember all too well, and apparently England is over that. But we’ve had angry comments on this blog before now about the Battle of Yarmuk a century and a half before, Battle of Manzikert, only three centuries later, and about Byzantine campaigns against the Bulgars and the attitude of the historiography surrounding them to the Bulgarians, and I almost don’t like to remember what else. A lot of this stuff still matters to people in relevant places. How do the average Kalinago person, or any of the people who haven’t made it on a voyage through the Gulf of Aden in recent years, feel about LEGO pirate sets? Slaughters of the past still matter in many peoples’ presents, and I wonder what it says about the European West that it has managed so cheerfully to internalise its medieval ones. Perhaps it’s another case of Kathleen Davis’s arguments in Periodization and Sovereignty, in which we have set such a big barrier between ‘We, the Moderns’, and the past we drag round with us, that everyone on the other side can be reduced to caricatures and mini-figures.6

But they weren’t, you know; for some people that still matters, and I’m not sure the reasons it doesn’t for others are good ones.

1. I should explain that in the UK English I know LEGO is a brand name and the bits they make are LEGO bricks or pieces. LEGOs meaning the bricks is perhaps an Americanism? and has spread, but I, stuck in my childish ways, resist it, so it won’t be appearing elsewhere in this post.

2. Given the which, I should give credit where it is due and it is due to Dr Claudia Rogers, of my current local parish, and from watching whose teaching I have evidently learnt something for my own.

3. Try, for example, the Saga of Burnt Njal, which you can get in Penguin as Robert Cook (transl.), Njal’s Saga (London 2001) or online in an older translation here. It is not shy about bloodshed!

4. Glyn Burgess (transl.), The Song of Roland (London 1990), in Penguin, or again an older translation online, John O’Hagan (transl.), The Song of Roland, translated into English verse (London 1880), online here. There doesn’t seem to be a current English translation of Bertran de Born’s works, but you can find a couple, including the most relevant, on De Re Militari here.

5. I admit that I am rather horrified to find that W. Britain, the original and continuing model soldier side of the Britains business, still make an Anglo-Zulu war range, including a set called ‘Clearing the Yard’ including redcoats carrying away dead Zulu warriors. There are matching ones of redcoats falling under Zulu attack, Zulus looting British bodies and indeed of Zulus attacking a field ambulance, so it’s not as if the violence or indeed the victory is all one way, though the balance of depiction could be interrogated, but aside from that and a smaller range from the Anglo-Egyptian Wars, they seem to have given up on colonial-era figures. Anyway, I digress but I am very surprised to see this still on sale at the same time as we are being so urgently reminded that black lives matter, and it makes me feel a bit queasy about my old toy tractors.7

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008), which every time I cite I am stuck afresh with regret about the lousy review I gave it a decade ago.

7. Addendum: it turns out that hiding under the name ‘Clash of Empires’ is in fact a range that includes Native Americans and settlers, though more eighteenth-century than nineteenth- and not featuring cowboys. “The historical appearance of European soldiers and settlers and the native people are accurately rendered in every detail.” Now, at $72 a pop, these are not children’s toys any more. People are presumably modelling this stuff, at really quite considerable cost. What leads one to do that, do you suppose?

Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?

1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063–1088, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

Every now and then most medieval historians must get told that their discipline is ‘useless’. Usually this is being done by politicians out to shrink budgets, and they think we’re an easy target, though as Charles Clark found out, sometimes we are better armed for that combat than they expect. (Much better therefore just to cut funding in secret, as Australia’s former education minister Simon Birmingham chose to! Although as far as I know medieval historians were not among the victims that time.) Nonetheless, history can get into trouble when it preaches its utility; perhaps that’s why the best such preach was by America’s finest news source, The Onion, rather than by an academic historian. Usually, though, the problems that history is called upon to address are much more current affairs than the medievalists can easily get purchase on. But an obvious exception was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it’s easy to find people calling ‘medieval’ without looking terribly hard. If this was a return of the Middle Ages to the world, what did medievalists have to say about it? In early 2016, as I mentioned, I got to hear two attempts, and they’re worth comparing, especially in the hindsight we now just about enjoy.1

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

First of these was by Professor Hugh Kennedy, at that stage just finishing up writing the above.2 He was keen to stress that there certainly were ways in which ISIS was medieval, not just because Islamic thought doesn’t necessarily impose the division of medieval from modern that Western thought does (on which more below), but because of conscious medievalism on the parts of the terrorists’ public image manufactory and even its deeper theology. The Qu’ran, after all, was written down in the (early) Middle Ages; most of the thought about it that ISIS used was also medieval hadith (in the western periodization in all cases), and its political claim to a caliphate, which regarded pretty much all other branches of Islam, as murtadis (apostates) or Rafidis (ISIS’s term for Shi’ites), required it to strike its root as early as possible in the succession to the Prophet, before those divisions had arisen; that first unity was what they professed to renew. Very few later heroic figures or thinkers therefore got into their theology, as those figures themselves were suspect. Now, that would place ISIS’s historical reference point somewhere around AD 650, but their visual imagery was very often taken from a century or two later, being pretty consciously ‘Abbasid.

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

Perhaps this doesn’t look that medieval to the outsider, but let me quote to you a story supposedly told by the first Umayyad Emir of Spain, of the time when he was feeling to Africa from the Middle East after his family had largely been exterminated by the ‘Abbasid rebellion of AD 750:

“As I was on a certain day sitting under cover of my tent, to shelter myself from the rain, which fell heavily, and watching my eldest son Sulaiman, then about four years old, who was playing in front of it, I saw him suddenly enter the door, crying violently; and, soon after, he ran towards me and clung to my bosom for protection. Not knowing what he meant, I pushed him away; but the child clung still more to me, as one seized with violent fear, and began uttering such exclamations as children are wont to utter when they are frightened. I then left the tent, that I might see what caused his fear; when lo ! I saw the whole village in confusion, and the inhabitants running to and fro in great consternation. I went a little further on, and saw the black banners fluttering in the wind. At sight of these a younger brother of mine, who had also rushed out of the tent, and was with me at the time, began to fly at the top of his speed, saying, ‘Away, away with thee, O brother! for yonder black banners are the banners of the sons of ‘Abbas.’ Hearing this, I hastily grasped some dinars which I had just at hand, and fled precipitately out of the village with my child and my younger brother.”3

You can read the rest of it yourself if you like, but suffice it to say, the brother doesn’t make it to the next scene. So this has resonance, and the people who set it up knew that. But more subtle than that, argued Hugh, was the vision put forward by ISIS’s erstwhile magazine, Dabiq. The name itself was a clue: it is a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, as I guess we now know because of the efforts ISIS made to take it, but it’s important to them because it was, according to one prophecy, where the final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ (i. e. Byzantium, in its original context, but for ISIS basically the West) was to take place. Not many people knew that when the magazine started, I think, and this is apparently far from the only such reference, to apocalyptic lore or particular theological slurs or just plain Islamic knowledge.4 Hugh said that he had struggled to place some of them, and you’d think he would be well qualified. Now of course this raises the question: if an expert in Islamic history isn’t catching their full drift, who is the audience for this kind of highly erudite theology? Well, doubtless there were (and are) people who were drawn in by the theology itself, but what may also have been happening here was a performance of superior Islamic knowledge; the normal reader didn’t always know what they meant but he or she could see that the writers know their Islam a lot better than the reader, average or indeed expert… So this is medievalism put to work, whether we like it or not.

Seminar poster for Julia McClure, «A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity", presented at the Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3 February 2016

A western view was more in evidence at Leeds on 3rd February 2016, however, when Julia McClure of the University of Warwick (then, anyway) came to address the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “A New Politics of Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”.5 ISIS were only one of her examples of the ways in which modern political agendas appropriate the Middle Ages as a seat of all that was barbaric, cruel, irrational and so on. Despite my anciently mixed feelings about it I still think Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty has the best explanation of this I’ve read, suggesting that progress narratives work best if you’re pejorative about the state before and emphasise how far you’ve come and that winds up putting a barrier of transition between you and the past which it would be barbaric, irrational and undeveloped to breach. Then you can start applying the category to other places and taking them over because they’re not really politically grown up like what we are; sound familiar?6 Anyway, this was not where Dr McClure went with it, or with ISIS; instead she invoked the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, weakening the idea that our way of being modern is definitive and attempts by different competitors to claim the pinnacle from others; and we should admit that some modernities (for her, Marxism) have failed.7 Having done that, however—and for me this was where I felt a skip in the logic—we should choose to emphasise not the violence and conflict with which agencies like ISIS want to populate the medieval past and thus modernity, but the contact, inter-cultural transmission and general getting along between cultures that the Middle Ages can also exemplify, and let that be our message for those who would make the Middle Ages in their chosen anti-image.8

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, by Ingo Mehlingown work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Much of this was therefore familiar to me, but some of her examples were truly ill-chosen. Above, for example, we have some of the inside of the once-Mosque of Córdoba, which Dr McClure invoked as an example of cultural fusion. And in as much as there is Islamic-style architecture justly lauded in what is now a cathedral, yes, there is fusion there; but given that it was first converted into a mosque by coercion then recaptured by violence for Christianity some centuries later, soon after which all Muslims in the relevant country were given a choice between conversion or expulsion, I do think the context should change how we read this monument! And indeed, Dr McClure said it showed how even in periods of conflict cultures still interpenetrate, showing the power of contact to survive conflict, but, as Michael Berube once said Auerbach said, “Ew ew ew ew ew!” Is it then OK to conquer people and nick their stuff as long as it’s a cultural growth experience? This was a building repeatedly established by the assertion of domination over one group by another and it is exactly the sort of thing that ISIS used and use to make their audiences angry at the ‘Crusaders’.9 Other examples included the adoption of Byzantine modes of decoration in the Church of il Redentore in Venice borrowed from the Hagia Sophia in what’s now Istanbul; that’s true but the fact that the Venetians also sacked and took over the city from which they got the idea again spoils it as a multicultural example for me, you know?10

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

The Chiesa del Redentore, monument to successful colonialism! By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (talk) – Il_Redentore.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The problem here for me is not that Dr McClure’s paper was inaccurate, therefore. It’s that to follow her lead would be simply to choose another dominant modernity, or medievalism indeed, which would trump what anyone else sees as important. It’s not ‘multiple’ at all and neither does it seem to me decolonised; it’s still the western liberal philosophy being rolled out as a model to elsewhere. Of course, I am myself an exponent and a beneficiary of that western liberal philosophy but my problem with the strategy, if we were supposed to be applying this to an entity like ISIS, is that they simply wouldn’t have cared. Even if they did, they had a good enough grasp of the history to assert their own dominant medievalism, and their version of history arguably involved less special pleading…

As I see it, the basic problem actually just comes down to a clash of two maxims. I am a big believer in the basic philosophy “do what thou wilt, an it harm none”, and not just because of the subjunctive in it, but it sometimes runs up hard against one I’ve seen attributed to Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson but have never been able to trace properly, which runs, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes”.11 What do you do when the other party doesn’t care about harming none? We could, I suppose, have tried to have video-conference debates with ISIS-inclined imams where we posed the western alternative and the virtues of inter-cultural tolerance and contact, and it would just have made it clearer how effective blowing up Palmyra would be in getting ‘Rome’ to commit forces for the final conflict. ISIS never wanted peace. Given that starting position, why would the ‘Crusader’ gospel of tolerance ever have been interesting to their potential supporters?

So the medievalists of 2016 didn’t really have the answers, it seems. I’ve explained why I think Dr McClure’s suggestions ineffective already, but even Hugh, famous for his knowledge in the field, had few suggestions to offer about how to contain ISIS beyond that we needed to understand what they were doing and that it was smart. That may, I suppose, have helped us avoid mistakes (like having white professionals preaching capitalist multi-culturalism to alienated near-jihadis) if taken up, but I don’t think even Hugh had a better proposal than ‘know your enemy’. I don’t think that’s quite what an attentive Onion reader would have hoped we might deliver. The question could of course be asked whether we should be expected to solve the world’s problems with our research, and I am of course on record with other reasons we might want historians, but the trouble is that the reply of our funding bodies, our lobbying groups and, indeed, our employers, would be a resounding yes; it’s all over their publicity and their themes of interest that solving the world’s problems is what academics are for. This was an obvious problem when the USA started recruiting anthropologist advisors to serve with the military, the weaselly-named Human Terrain System, but that pressure to help with what’s visibly wrong now is the same sort of thing, in as much as it channels our work towards contemporary political problems by throttling funding for anything else. But however you feel about the morality of it, I’m not always sure about the possibility of it, and I think these two papers showed that the closer one gets to trying to do it, the weaker one’s position becomes.

1. Of course some people have disagreed: see David M. Perry, “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS”, News in CNN, 16 October 2016, online here, or Jason T. Roche, “Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take” in The Conversation, 12 July 2017, online here.

2. Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth 2016), repr. as Caliphate: history of an idea (London 2016); there now exists a rival text in the form of David Wasserstein, Black Banners of ISIS: the roots of the new caliphate (New Haven 2017).

3. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, extracted from the Nafhu-t-tíb min ghosni-l-Andalusi-r-rattíb wa táríkh lisánu-d-dín Ibni-l-Khattíb, trans. by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 vols (London 1840), II, online here, p. 59. Al-Maqqari is thankfully not the earliest historian to quote this story, given his eight-hundred-year distance from the events, but it’s almost certainly not contemporary; I think it does have to date to the Umayyad period in Spain, however, because why would you invent the story once the dynastic hero was no longer relevant?

4. By the time it fell, however, the legend was sufficiently well-known that it was left to Islamic troops—no ‘Crusaders’ or ‘Rumi’—to take the place.

5. This was, acknowledgedly, a presentation of an article that was by then in print, so you can see for yourself in Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity” in History Compass Vol. 13 (Oxford 2015), pp. 610–619, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12280.

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008), where pp. 62-74 show exactly this rhetoric being deployed by the English crown and the East India Company as they started their conquest of India, including invocations of ‘feudalism’.

7. McClure’s cite for the ‘multiple modernities’ idea is Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism” in European Journal of Social Theory Vol. 6 (New York City 2003), pp. 275–292, DOI: 10.1177/13684310030063001), but in his defence, Dirlik warns against exactly the position I think Dr McClure reached.

8. Here, obviously, I would cite Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty or specifically for ISIS, Kennedy, Caliphate; Dr McClure’s cite was Michael Cook, Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective (Princeton 2014), which I admit I’ve not read.

9. A good essay on the symbolisms, and indeed chronology, of the building’s various existences is Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century” in Muqarnas Vol. 13 (Leiden 1996), pp. 80–98. If you prefer a more contemporary take, though, well, there’s me

10. And for a quick guide to this cultural aggressors’ church, there’s Deborah Howard, “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 62 (Berkeley 2003), pp. 306–325.

11. I think, maybe, that I read it as a quote at the head of a chapter in a book by Gerald Durrell, in which case it is not impossible that he himself was the source. But I can’t find it, either way.

A disconcerting realisation about my past (and perhaps yours)

As I got set up, in early 2016, for teaching the high Roman Empire for the first time as described three posts ago, I obviously had to do a lot of reading, and in the course of that I came up ineluctably against the name and ideas of Edward N. Luttwak. Since Luttwak has been writing for a long lifetime and has probably not even finished, I’m not by any means going to attempt a summary of his impact on the field of Roman, Byzantine and indeed world history here; suffice to say it’s considerable. But both because of teaching the third-century crisis and because of my own interest in frontiers and how early medieval polities (and thus, often, late antique ones) managed them, the work that did keep coming up was his [Edit:]oldestfirst venture into history, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.1

Cover of Edward Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Cover of Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the First Century A.D. to the Third (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

Now this is a work that has spawned a slew of refutations, and again that is a debate I don’t want to try and reprise here.2 But while I was reading other things around the issue, I came across something that made me suddenly feel decidedly uncomfortable, as follows:3

“Luttwak gave scientific precision to the theory of defensive imperialism, arguing that the ‘escalation dominance’ of the legions (that is, their perceived efficacy as a weapon of last resort) would serve to deter any large-scale attack without their actually having to be used. Meanwhile a ring of satellite states (client kingdoms) was expected to cope with ‘low-intensity threats’ beyond the borders of the Roman provinces; and the territory of the satellite states could be used as the battle-ground if the legions had to be deployed. Needless to say, this made extremely uncomfortable reading in Europe during the 1970s, and particularly in the 1980s under President Reagan, whose leading security adviser was none other than Edward N. Luttwak.”

In short, Luttwak is where the idea that Rome maintained a range of barbarian ‘buffer states’ about its borders as first-line protection came from, but it was an idea as much from his now as the Roman then. Now, you will not know this about me, could not know this about me unless you are the one sometime commentator here who goes this far back with me, but I was schooled at a place really quite close to the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. The Navy base there used our playing fields. Every now and then a helicopter landed there to shuffle some dignitary outside the M25 more easily than a motorcade would. We were pretty clear, therefore, in the last days of the Cold War, before even Gorbachev had begun to defrost things, that when the four-minute warning went, we probably wouldn’t get four minutes (and no-one ever told us if there was a bunker). In short, we were in the firing line. We weren’t really into the full-on, “who cares, man? The bomb may drop tomorrow” disengagement; this was the era of Thatcher as well as Reagan, after all, and most of us would wind up yuppies not hippies (and as far as I know no yippies). But still, we had a certain bitter consciousness that the absolute best we could do for our futures could, still, be totally extinguished any minute by a decision that was utterly out of our hands, and we wouldn’t even know till it happened. And well, how that paragraph above takes me back.

Cover of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome?

Cover of Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I love this as a teaching example.

Of course it’s not surprising that any state that gets big enough to push others around, and which sees its roots in the Graeco-Roman intellectual complex, begins to see the similarities between itself and its own archetype of super-state, the Roman Empire; it can’t be escaped, and one can only hope that people are conscious of the fact that there are important differences between then and now, or of the fact that they’re drawing those parallels.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934. Not sure how fully this was thought out…

Some of the lessons drawn from the comparison can be good, some can be bad, but they can all be instructive if handled well; that’s fine. It’s just that, perhaps especially since I grew up in a state that still sees itself in those terms really, I had not till I saw those words above ever realised that from some points of view, I and my fellow countrymen were just expendable barbarians whose strategic purpose was to keep the real new empire safe. And Edward N. Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire helped make us so.

It’s probably safe to say that the current US régime, whose exalted leader has indeed just left my homeland, doesn’t think much on Luttwak’s work by now. Maybe I’m wrong, and as all the reviews one can find of it admit, it’s not as if it’s not good, well-historicised, amply-supported work. But it’s not often you read academic work that could have helped get you killed, and as you can tell even some years later I’m not quite sure how to process it yet…

1. Now available as Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third, 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore 2016). For the crisis of which I speak, a quick introduction to the debates is Lukas de Blois, “The Crisis of the Third Century A. D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?” in idem and John Rich (edd.), The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (Leiden 2002), pp. 204–217.

2. I believe a good place to start is C. R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore 1994), but Glenn Bowersock, “Rules of Battle” in London Review of Books Vol. 32 no. 3 (London 2010), pp. 17-18, online here, brings you more up to date in one direction at least.

3. Tim Cornell, “The End of Roman Imperial Expansion” in John Rich and Graham Shipley (edd.), War and Society in the Roman World (London 1993), pp. 139-170 at p. 143.

Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Some time ago someone got me a copy of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History: 152 popular myths exploded, 2nd edn. (Stroud 2009), as a present. Their reasoning was that as a historian I ought to enjoy it, and eventually I read it and my reactions were sufficiently mixed that I thought a review might be in order. That is, after all, a form of appreciation of a gift, right? It’s made me think…

I have to make some kind of disclosure beforehand, which is that the authors tackle nothing earlier than the eighteenth century and mostly British and European episodes, with some US ones and recent global politics salted over the meat. That despite, I don’t think I’m just ragging on them here from the perspective of the ignored medievalist; they picked that period and area because it’s the one they know, they say early on (p. xv), and indeed their currency with the debates seems pretty clear (though of course, I’m a medievalist, so they could probably fool me pretty easily). And they have a reasonable preface about the different ways in which people can be wrong about history: factual error, uncritical adoption of myth or legend (the one without historical foundation, the other with) and controversy of interpretation leading to an as yet unjustified opinion. At the least, this is thinking work, and I’m not unfriendly to such books, as my occasional mentions of the key medievalist one will have shown.

One does have to wonder about the title, though. As far as I can see, the authors have chosen their particular misapprehensions to combat largely by meeting them as school or college examiners (p. xv), and fair enough, but very few of them meet their own definition of ‘myth’; indeed, ‘Popular Misunderstandings’ is only one of the thirteen chapters, while in the case of some topics like the Carbonari, the Tonypandy Massacre, the Speenhamland system, Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in 1967, the origins of the word ‘dole’ (which they get wrong, because of not knowing their ancient history) or the Ems Telegram, I doubt that there is any really ‘popular’ opinion to correct; some of these things were unknown to me, and I am a historian who tries to talk to his modernist colleagues every now and then and so on. Probably only someone who has examined history A-Levels in the UK for a long time is familiar with everything in this book. Neither, often, do these ‘popular myths’ wind up ‘exploded’; some of them are sustained, most of them are conditioned or qualified and a few outright rejected, but even in those cases the reasons that people have understood incorrectly are also usually set out and seem reasonable in their own terms. So I think the publishers probably have some blame to bear for deciding what would be on the cover of this book and how little relation it might bear to the contents. This is not History debunked: this is, I think, two experienced teachers claiming a right to decide what History is.1

Despite that, the contents often seem pretty good, though not always and the bad cases are worrisome as we’ll see. The balance is about forty-sixty between cases where the authors think that the jury must remain out (so that the ‘popular’ misapprehension is that there is an accepted answer) and cases where there is an answer and it’s not the one the authors think is popularly held. Each controversy is set up with a short summary rubric then the facts as we know them are set out and the changes in historians’ interpretations or the reasons for popular misapprehension exposed. It’s usually clearly and pithily written and it sounds authoritative, though it would take a lot of work to dig up the evidence on which they base their conclusions; there is a decent-looking bibliography (pp. 437-441), thematically organised (and mostly recent) and separated into a reading list and a reference list, the latter apparently being the support for the authors’ judgements but hard to link back to them. Despite that, the book would make a good update for someone who studied modern history a generation ago, I think, though that person might then want to read more than or differently from what he or she is set here.

That reader would need to be more neutral than the authors, indeed, whose own prejudices and interests sometimes loom very large in their writing. This is in part evident in the selection: one or both of them clearly have interests in military history and there is an awful lot of ‘great men’ stuff. But again, I don’t mind that. More problematic are the judgements made in such cases. Is it really a historian’s job to answer such questions as “Talleyrand: was he guided by principle or personal advantage?” (pp. 41-43: the latter, so no explosion here), “The Last Tsar: a vicious tyrant?” (pp. 53-56: thoughtless more than vicious), “How Deserved was the Reputation of President Reagan?” (pp. 205-208: undeserved but deliberately promoted), “Edwardian England: a golden age?” (pp. 179-181: not for anyone below gentry level), “Hitler: dictator or dreamer?” (pp. 319-322: a man without workable plans or the brains to realise that but with the will and opportunity to oppress those who threatened his attempts to bring them about anyway, so, both?), “Disraeli: the father of modern Conservatism?” (pp. 376-379: no!), “The Papacy: was it soft on Fascism and Nazism?” (pp. 398-402: yes but for the sake of survival) or, most of all, “Did Tony Blair betray British Socialism?” (pp. 420-426: socialism already long dead in Britain, sez they)? I could pick many more, and they’re all matters of opinion, as if a historian’s proper job is to guide society’s moral verdict on its architects or attackers. We do, of course, exist partly to make people feel better about things, I admit that, even if another part of our point is to make people question everything, but these potted verdicts are so inherently subjective that I would expect any reader who can follow them to realise that there’s nothing authoritative about them and that one really doesn’t need a historian to reach them.

This is especially worrisome when the authors’ own prejudices come out. They are in general pro-Britain although only in the twentieth century, where all its politicians have apparently done the best they can with limited information except maybe Blair (an absurd topic to include, given that we have only heard most of the evidence while this post has been in draft, six years after the book was even revised)! One of the authors at least, however, is acutely contemptuous of the USA, and this comes out especially in another of these worrying subjective verdict cases, “‘McCarthyism’: did the end justify the means?” (pp. 66-70). Here I’ll quote the most egregious bit (p. 69):

“Could the same phenomenon recur in American affairs? There is little doubt it could. The political leadership of the USA and the bulk of the American nation remain intensely patriotic in their feelings. They are starry-eyed to the point of mawkishness in their love of their homeland, whether or not the ideal qualities for which they regularly lay their hands on their hearts are as evident in their lives as they imagine. It is their firm belief that foreign states are deplorably feeble and cynical in not sharing their shining patriotic vision. To them, a clear-sighted grasp of America’s national interests, a single-mindedness in their country’s interests and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country are absolute imperatives, producing the same gut impulse to ‘save America’ as it did fifty years ago against communism. In this sense the McCarthyite spirit lives on, whatever may the ‘unseen enemy’ that seems to threaten thair sanctified vision of themselves.”

Now this is not history-writing; it’s not even journalism. It’s just defamation, and directed against an individual it would be actionable. What is it doing between covers of a book written by people who believe they are correcting misapprehensions with empirical expertise, and who can write in that same book (p. xi):

“… the borderline between error and deliberate misrepresentation is uncertain and often blurred. Sometimes what originated as a simple error has achieved a certain permanence in people’s minds because it seems appropriate – a myth perhaps even more appropriate than the truth…”?

One wants to use phrases involving words like “mote” and “beam” here, but perhaps the good old Wikimedian protest is still the best one:

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007, http://xkcd.com/285/

1. The book’s cover and online blurb both say, “Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley are history professors and authors of history textbooks.” The latter is easy to substantiate, but I can’t get anything out of the web to show the former. Odd?

Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

It is a time of weighty decisions in this part of the world right now. I don’t just mean in the Academy, although today and tomorrow much of the UK one is on strike because of pay that has not kept pace with inflation for some years and personally I am in the middle of quite a lot of marking, some of which will affect people’s fates in ways I can’t foresee but can still worry about. No, I mean that on June 23rd the UK will be turning out to express its opinion about whether it should be in the European Union any longer, even on the rather specialised terms we currently enjoy. As with every political issue these days this has become a matter of men in suits insulting each other and making up random stuff to frighten their electorates, and in some cases other people’s electorates: the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Canada have both weighed in effectively to threaten Britain, apparently not realising how much of the ‘Leave’ campaign is being driven exactly by a resentment at other countries seemingly intervening in Britain’s decisions. Perhaps they’re actually trying to make sure the ‘Leave’ vote wins. In any case, it all has me wondering what perspective a historian can take on it all. Sheffield’s excellent History Matters blog has a Brexit category but so far only one post under it, and I feel as if more can be said.

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

It seems to me that this is one of the rare episodes where the most relevant parallels are from the early Middle Ages, because there is really only one point prior to the twentieth century when Europe could be considered a single political entity and, importantly, its ruler had not declared an intent to add the British Isles to that (as in the times of Carausius, Napoleon or the guy with the moustache and the painting qualification). That time is the period of the Carolingian Empire, albeit with some pre-echoes under the Carolingians’ Merovingian predecessors, and actually there are some thought-provoking parallels. There’s nothing really new in what follows except its application to now, but I still think that’s worth doing.1

A silver penny of King Offa

Obverse of a silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, struck in London by Ethelwald around 785

For a start, we can look at English-European relations in a time of breakdown here and see what happened. In around 796 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans, had a letter sent to King Offa of Mercia.2 At this point in time Offa was pretty much number one king in England; not only did his Midland kingdom stretch from the Welsh border and the Hwicce (around Gloucestershire) to Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire) but he also held control over Essex, East Anglia (just about), the south-eastern Home Counties and the city of London and had marriage alliances with both King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Æthelred of Northumbria.3 This put him in charge of quite a chunk of the Channel coast and its ports, and whether either side liked it or not that put him in contact with Charlemagne.

A Mayen quernstone

A Mayen quernstone, of the sort that Charlemagne probably refers to in his letter to Offa

In that letter Charlemagne was responding to one of Offa’s that we no longer have, and had a number of queries to answer. The letter is thus very revealing about the kind of things that kings dealt with in this era: the free movement of pilgrims from England through Francia, and how to distinguish them from merchants who disguised themselves as pilgrims to escape paying toll; the proper treatment of merchants who admitted as much, and should be protected by the Frankish king according to an old agreement; a renegade priest whom Offa feared had come to Charlemagne to spread accusations about Offa at the Frankish court, but whom Charlemagne had sent on to the pope at Rome; and black quernstones which had until recently been imported into England and which would now be again, as long as Offa would make sure that those exporting English wool cloaks to Francia made them at the old, full length rather than a new shorter one that the Franks didn’t like.4 Charlemagne also sent ceremonial clothing to both Offa and Æthelred with which their churchmen could hold memorial services for the recently-deceased Pope Hadrian I, whose death had, we know, grieved Charlemagne deeply.5

Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, on display in San Pietro di Roma

More black stone, Charlemagne’s epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, still on display in San Pietro di Roma

A lot of this doesn’t seem too far from the modern day, suggesting that some issues keep coming up: we have a kind of Schengen Agreement for certain kinds of travellers, but not those with goods to declare; a certain sort of acceptance of responsibility for foreign nationals; some controversy over appeals to the European court system (here manifest as the king and the pope, but still); and fine-detailed specifications of goods with which, just like the fabled EU regulations on the curvature of certain vegetables, one is surprised and even dismayed to see the European world’s top legislators wasting their time when warfare, migrants and agricultural crisis all needed dealing with.6 We know from other letters that Offa and Charlemagne had at one point been sufficiently at odds for Charlemagne actually to close the Frankish Channel ports to traders from Offa’s territories, which will hopefully remain unparalleled whatever happens but reminds us that access is not guaranteed, and Offa was also persistently bothered about Charlemagne playing host to powerful exiles from England, either from Kent or from Northumbria (where King Æthelred would be killed later in 796, making Charlemagne extremely cross with the Northumbrians).7 Offa himself would die later that year, indeed, which reminds us that the people who make such treaties tend not to last as long as the consequences, but if you remember the furore about Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London you can probably understand that people being protected from vengeance by foreign powers is not a phenomenon that’s stopped nowadays.

Map of England in the time of Offa's rule, c. 795

Map of England in the time of Offa’s rule, c. 795; I think we could argue about Sussex, but it gives you the idea…

There are also plenty of things that damage the comparison, of course. One of the other things that Offa and Charlemagne seem to have argued about was a possible marriage pact between their children, in which the problem was which side got the other’s daughter for their son.8 The UK still has its royalty, of course, but if one of them married into a European royal line (if they could find one with whom they aren’t already consanguineous) it would no longer make a massive difference to the UK’s relations with Europe. That should serve to remind us that whatever the things the early medieval situation shares with the current one, democracy was not one of them; not only would Offa and Charlemagne both have been bewildered by the concept of a referendum, but once you’d explained it they would have thought it subversive and dangerous, and maybe even illegal, and there the modern parallel is really elsewhere in Europe. There’s also important differences in the scale of trade revenue involved, which for our kings might have been significant but was still only a tiny part of their kingdoms’ economy.9 And finally, of course, among many other objections that could be raised, the England of Offa was a patchwork of uncomfortably allied rival kingdoms of varying size and strength, all of whom could negotiate with the Franks separately as our letters show, and so is almost more like the European Union of now in structure than like the unified, monarchic and hardly-devolved kingdom of Charlemagne, despite the rough territorial match.

So does the parallel I’ve set up actually tell us anything about the current situation? I think that it does, at least, bring some particular aspects of the situation out that are perhaps not as obvious as they should be. The first of these has already been mentioned, that whatever the outcome is on June 23rd it’s hard to believe the arrangement it sets up will last for long before being modified; all the people who made it will be out of power before very long, and the new lot will have a choice about how much continuity they want. The UK has tinkered with its relationship to Europe every few years for as long as I can remember, after all. The second thing we might take from all this is the reminder that even if the UK does leave the EU, relations with Europe will not just stop dead; the migrant crisis, the continuing importance of NATO, and the simple fact of Europe’s being right there and linked to the UK by a tunnel and high-speed rail link all mean that some kind of relationship between the UK and most of the Continental European states must continue. The referendum will help decide what kind of relationship that will be, but it won’t end it any more than Charlemagne closing the Channel ports ended trade relations between the two powers. That did, however, apparently make quernstones impossible to get for a few years and some parallel to that is very easy to imagine. What European foods do you currently eat you’d be sorry to go without?

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

My personal candidate: looks horrible, tastes magnificent. By Luigi VersaggiFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397091.

But the last thing we might not think of without this prompt is the rôle of Northumbria. Obviously, now that’s part of England, but Scotland is not, and while in Charlemagne’s time the Picts were a whole separate quantity (albeit also in contact with the Continent) now we might be reminded by Offa’s rival kings that Scotland may yet be in a position to reach its own agreements with Europe, when the current alliance falls apart as did that between Mercia and Northumbria and the campaign for secession heats up again.10 What would that mean? When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there to benefit from various more friendly aspects of its fiscal system and so on; if the UK left the EU and then a subsequently separated Scotland rejoined, I think a lot of businesses might look to relocate, and Scotland’s economic case for devolution start to look a lot more survivable. I can’t quite imagine it doing to England what Wessex eventually did to Mercia, but this, and the other points above, might all serve to remind the uncertain voter that there are more voices in this dispute than just UK voters and Brussels.11 Whatever your own priorities are, it might be worth thinking before you vote about Offa, Charlemagne, pilgrims, exiles and even quernstones, and considering just which bits of history we’re about to repeat.

1. There are two obvious books that cover this theme, Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures, 1943 (Oxford 1946) and Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot 2003); both of them offer much more context for all of what follows than I can give here.

2. The letter was probably written by the Northumbrian cleric and teacher Alcuin, since it survives in collections of his other letters, but it went out in Charlemagne’s name. It is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae” in Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae in quarto) IV (Berlin 1895, repr. Hannover 1994), online here, pp. 1-481 at no. 100, and translated in Steven Allott (transl.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804: his life and letters (York 1974), ep. 100, and in Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 197.

3. For background on Offa see most quickly Simon Keynes, “The kingdom of the Mercians in the eighth century” in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (edd.), Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon studies, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 1-26.

4. On the black stones, see Meinrad Pohl, “Quern-Stones and Tuff as Indicators of Medieval European Trade Patterns” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology Vol. 20 (London 2010), pp. 148-153, DOI: 10.5334/pia.348, whence the illustration (fig. 1).

5. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us of the king’s grief at this event in his Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), online here, trans. David Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, III.19. I’m not sure where the memorial is edited, but it is translated in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2005), no. 9.4.

6. Admittedly, the obvious migrants, the Vikings, hadn’t really started migrating as yet, though as we have seen here they were a danger; as to the agricultural crisis, 792 and 793 had been famine years in the Carolingian Empire, as is recorded in the Royal Frankish Annals, printed as Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), online here, transl. in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), online here, pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa 792 & 793.

7. In addition to the works in n. 1 above see here Janet L. Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Ann Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (London 2001), pp. 126-143.

8. The source here is the Gesta Abbatum Fontellanensium, printed as Fernand Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1936), but I don’t have a detailed cite, only the knowledge that the relevant extract is translated in Whitelock, English Historical Documents doc. no. 20.

9. Opinions differ here, of course: see Chris Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand” in Inge Lyse Hansen & Wickham (edd.), The Long Eighth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 11 (Leiden 2000), pp. 345-377.

10. On Scotland’s connections to Europe in this era see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Edward James, “The Continental Context” in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St. Andrews sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 240-249.

11. Simon Keynes, “Mercia and Wessex in the ninth century” in Brown & Farr, Mercia, pp. 310-328.

Collecting from Cliopatria

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Long-term readers may know that I used to be a contributor to a group blog at the Humanities News Network site, which was called Cliopatria. Cliopatria was kind of a lead singer and his backing band; Ralph Luker, the editor, did most of the posting and various other people chimed in every now and then, and from 2009 to the blog’s closure in 2012 I was one of those people. I always found Cliopatria a difficult audience to pitch for; I had been asked to contribute as a medievalist, but despite my efforts and those of the two East Asian studies people also contributing the bulk of both posting and commenting was modern-US-centric. I therefore wound up focusing my activity there either on things about scholarship on the Middle Ages I thought would interest other fields or, and here I had company, on the state of the Academy. Some of that material also appeared here, and I generally mentioned here when I’d got something up there, but I did try and make sure that I was writing distinctly for each blog.

Despite that, in general my posts went uncommented and in fact, it was then usual for me to get more comments and feedback here than anyone ever got on Cliopatria, so I posted there only rarely. Then, somewhere in 2011 I think, HNN had a redesign that changed their stylesheet and effectively wrecked anything that anyone had previously done with HTML tags; quotations ceased to be distinguishable from paragraph text, for example, and hyperlinked text appeared three point sizes smaller than that around it. Much of my existing content now looked stupid or wrong and it was hard to work in the new template; links inside the blog stopped working and posting, not just mine but everybody’s but Ralph’s, dropped right off. It struggled on a little longer and then Ralph finally closed the blog in early 2012. It remains readable, but I learn in writing this that Ralph himself died in August 2015, which I am saddened by. May he rest easily.

Since then, anyway, I’ve occasionally had reason to go back to my Cliopatria posts for something, and they are really hard to find. The site has been redesigned again since Cliopatria closed and things now look better, though not as good as they did before the first redesign; but the links to individual authors’ works have gone, as have all the comments, and its internal search is lousy. My name doesn’t appear over all my posts, and neither my own list of links or Google can bring back everything I wrote there. So for some time I’ve been meaning to put together a list of my posts, for my own reference as much as anything, and this is that list. In compiling it, I’ve discovered quite a number of things I had completely forgotten writing, and I fear that there may still be more I haven’t found. What I have, I’ve broken down by categories and arranged by date within them, and if you wanted to go and read any of them that would be lovely, though I’ve also indicated where they also appear here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe because those are easier reading still. When it drops off the front page I’ll set this post up as its own page. In the meantime, this is what I did for Cliopatria.

Actual Research Posts

These were generally poorly-judged for Cliopatria and usually also appeared here. After a while I stopped doing them except out of guilt at having not posted for ages.

Medievalism in the Modern World

A long-term strand of my blogging, this, but all the more important where medievalists would not normally tread but modernists are still reading it. These are probably the posts I’m proudest of writing at Cliopatria, I think they were useful and good publicity for why having experts on this stuff is sometimes helpful.

The State of the Academy

I’m much less sure about these posts, as a rule. In particular, they mostly come from the point when the Conservative Party under David Cameron was just beginning to muck about with UK higher education funding; a lot of people were self-righteously angry and it was easy to get on that bandwagon without necessarily thinking too hard. After all, the government was directing baton charges against schoolchildren protesting about tuition fees; if you weren’t angry, you arguably weren’t paying attention. Also, though, for much of my time on Cliopatria I was at Oxford, which the more I look back on it (or read my leftover issues of The Oxford Magazine) looks like a bubble of small-c conservative privilege I wasn’t then fully able to see out of. The people writing in the Magazine clearly don’t represent their colleagues very widely—Oxford has not gone private, banned tourists from the Bodleian Library, legislated to remove authority from its own Council or cut back the university administration, or any of the other things for which they regularly campaigned, for a start—but Oxford also doesn’t represent the rest of UK HE very well, and I honestly just didn’t realise how true that was till I got out. So these posts come from an odd, and rather blinkered, place, and occasionally I got pulled up for that. Still, there are some good rants there and a few things I’d still stand by.


“They have chosen ignorance”

I found this a year or so ago, but you might still want to look at it. It’s an open letter by a number of scientists protesting about the defunding of research in higher education contexts, with a number of significant institutions (especially Spanish ones, perhaps not surprisingly) supporting them, and they are (still) looking for signatures.


With a year’s perspective on this (and the all-important transition into an established post, no doubt) I find my views on this slightly less similar to theirs. I am still horrified at some inner level about the continuing pressure to cut and cut, but I understand where it’s coming from; we in the UK have been in an era where politicians see declaring actual policy as exposing vulnerability since about 1997, and since Blair at least that’s been not least, I think, because they know they don’t actually have any joined-up policy scheme. Making budgets balance, however, they understand as an aim (if not a skill) and believe the electorate will understand as well. In any case, no-one for ages has had a solution for where the money comes from for higher education that isn’t one way or another raising taxes, which no politician now has the courage to admit they need to do, so if it is solved it will be solved by stealth anyway. In recent months we seem at last to be moving into a position for UK higher education at least where the relevant bits of the state actually have something like an idea what they’d like to see, and I don’t like all of it but it’s not quite what the letter above is seeing. We’re still supposed to achieve excellence without money, of course, but the person in charge (an ex-historian, which I’d love to think helps) seems to understand that some kind of underlying structure is necessary to support that, even if it apparently has to run on less resource.* But there isn’t much less it can run on without losing either quantity or quality, given the decreasing rewards for students in terms of a graduate premium in salary, which means that making the voice of that letter louder may still do some good even if its detail doesn’t fit our particular case as well as it did when they wrote it and I saw it.

* I really would like sloganeers to look up the word ‘excellence’ at some point and realise that semantically it cannot apply to a majority. To excel is to be distinguished by quality; if everyone’s quality levels up, there is no distinction and therefore no excellence. This sounds like bad word choice, but I think it’s worse, it’s the hope that despite a general expressed wish to raise standards there will still be élite institutions, like those to which policy-makers largely go, that will remain worth more in social and career terms. You can aim for excellence, in other words, but their very use of the word shows that they hope most don’t attain it…