Tag Archives: Humour

Fishers of men

This is a post that began in a drunk conversation with one of my oldest academic friends (whom I will not shame by naming, but whom you could potentially help out quite a lot by adding your name to this petition). That conversation was also four years ago, and I’m choosing to claim that that, not the beer, is why I can’t quite remember how we got onto this—my guess would be that this was during a few days I spent staying with them while using a local academic library to finish the paper which became my article ‘Nuns’ Signatures’, and that I was just pulling interesting-looking books off my friend’s shelves—but somehow we came upon a picture of this sculpture.

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, image from Canmore

What this is is one face of the Pictish symbol stone from Papil, Shetland.1 It’s not in Shetland any more, where only a replica remains, because it was carted off to the National Museum of Scotland, but I suppose more of my readership may therefore have a chance of seeing it some day. Anyway, the other face has a cross and interlace on it, but it’s this one that drew my altered attention, partly of course because of the odd cowled figures and the lion, but mainly because of these guys.

The birdman figures on the replica of the Papil Stone, Shetland

The birdmen on the lowest register of the modern replica of the Papil Stone, on site in Shetland, photo by J. Dimitrescu, copyright not stated so hopefully this is OK linked through to their excellent site

Now, it will not surprise you to know that scholarship is a little divided on just what might be depicted here. Early (modern) plague doctors seem to be ruled out by the bird feet, the axes and maybe also the human head of which they appear to be sharing custody. Especially since these guys are in the lower register of a three-panel picture, with the upper one being plausibly things of Heaven (a cross, cowled figures with crooks), the middle one being, well, a lion, not sure what to do with that but definitely a thing of Earth (or of Zion, I admit), the easiest answer might seem to be demons of some kind, playing with a member of the doomed dead. But if so, it’s quite a local kind of demon, you’d have to admit; this is not your standard beast with forked-tail and horns iconography.2

[Edit: revisions from here on have attempted to do something about the tone, which unfortunately managed, while trying to make my theory sound as silly as it deserves, to make the work on which it rested sound silly as well. That was not my intention at all; that work got an award from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and is online for you to peruse if you want a serious study of the stone. My actual argument, such as it is, remains the same.]

Well, I got no further with this thought that night, but the next day something suddenly struck me. You see, some scholars of early medieval, and especially, Germanic art, have some very artful interpretations of it in which, though an image seem to us weird as hell (perhaps literally), it may actually be a really cunning Christian reference.3 (I suppose a demon would, kinda sorta, be a Christian reference, but I mean more directly Biblical than that.)

As it turns out, I am not the first person to wonder if this can be done with this stone. There is other stonework from this site which seems to show monks, and this has led various people to theorise (not unreasonably) that there was a monastic settlement here and (less reasonably maybe) that this is therefore a scene from the Life of St Anthony, arguably the proto-monk and certainly regarded as such by many a medieval community. In this episode from the Life the saint-in-training was, and I quote a recent article about this stone, “tempted by women disguised as birds who whispered into his ear.”4 I’m not going to wonder right now what the heck was going on in Anthony’s personal desert (or relate this to the fact that birds are also supposed to have brought him food), I’m just going to note that, as I learn from the same article where several instances are pictured, this episode turns up on Irish sculpture quite a lot, so it’s not an unreasonable thing to suppose in this case. Except for the bird feet.

West face of the Castledermot South Cross

West face of the Castledermot South Cross, at Castle Dermot, County Kildare, Ireland, showing the Temptation of St Anthony one panel up from the base; photograph by Liam Murphy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

For reasons of those feet, therefore, and also quite a number of other reasons (such as that Anthony is pretty much always shown as a whole human being, and not an isolated head between two figures carrying axes), the author of that article, Dr Kelly Kilpatrick, wisely rejects the Antonian hypothesis. Instead, she argues that the stone shows, “a common ideal of mythological war-like creatures in Pictish tradition, paralleled by written descriptions of Irish battlefield demons”, and instances at least four more of these characters, or at least beak-headed humanoids carrying weapons, on stones scattered across the old Pictish territories.5 (I say at least because I’m not sure whether or not I think Rhynie Man really belongs in the set, being more human though definitely scary, a kind of beweaponed Pictish bogeyman. There are English parallels to him I’ll blog about separately that have much more benign interpretations.) So case closed? Well, perhaps. In fact, if we’re being serious, then yes, I think so, really; the parallels seem fairly clear (as you can see for yourselves), are based on a thorough knowledge of the corpus of stones and it fits with a wider theory Dr Kilpatrick is offering about Pictish beliefs which I need to hear more of. But you didn’t come here to be serious, surely!

So, instead, let’s try and replicate my 2017 leap of hangover logic. Dr Kilpatrick has certainly seen more of these figures on the stones than I have, even after a lockdown tour of symbol stones I did last summer, but still I wonder if she is right when she says of these figures, “Apart from the beaks, they have human hair, and human-like facial features, including incised eyebrows.”6 Let’s have a close look at one of those heads…

Head of a grey heron

Head of a grey heron sighted at Waterfield Meadow in 2014, image by C. Butterfield from NatureSpot

Papil Stone birdman head

Head of one of the Papil Stone birdmen

What if they’re not eyebrows but eyestripes, it’s not hair but a crest? I think that whatever these creatures are, they have heron heads. Now, for those of you whose native lands may not be blessed with the noble heron (though that’s not many), they are fishing birds, which spend most of their lives looking hunched and uncomfortable ankle-deep in lakes, but every now and then unfold in a lightning quick spearing action which brings up a fish almost every time. And it was when I decided that the sculptor here was thinking herons that inspiration suddenly struck, in the form of a verse of Scripture (a thing which really very rarely happens to me):

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19)

Need I even say more? What are these beings if not fishers of men? Look, they’ve been caught right in the act by our carver. In which case, not demons but apostles! Apostles with bird feet. There may be some iconographic details still to be worked out in this theory, I admit. Until then Dr Kilpatrick may be your best guide…7


1. I don’t have any of the standard catalogues to reference here (though see n. 4 below) but the stone is briefly described, analysed and illustrated in George Henderson and Isabel Henderson, The Art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland (London 2004), pp. 156-157 & fig. 228.

2. I don’t actually know how old the horns, pitchfork and forked-tail iconography of devils and demons is, but I suspect it’s later than medieval as I can’t think of any medieval examples. No time to check now though, sorry!

3. The winner in this particular contest, not just in quantity of suggestions but their ingenuity, is definitely Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

4. Kelly A. Kilpatrick, “The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 141 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 159–205, online here (p. 167).

5. Ibid., pp. 167-180.

6. Ibid., pp. 163-164.

7. Though it will take a lot to convince me that these demons do not have heron heads! And from there we could spin all kinds of theories about landscape and cosmology… I would not be the first person to pitch such theories, either, there being Martin Carver, “Early Scottish Monasteries and Prehistory: A Preliminary Dialogue” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 332–351, but for that very reason I might for now leave it to him…

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.

Links of hopefully-still relevant interest

Way back when I was a more diligent blogger and used to read other people’s stuff too, I used occasionally to gather up possible links of interest, most obviously for the rotating festival of such links that was Carnivalesque, which I now find is defunct; I guess a lot of us have suffered as I have with shortage of time, but I also suppose that such news goes round by Twitter now. Well, I am not a Twitteratus and will not be, so every now and then I still stash links in case someone reading would be interested, and in my massive backlog I now reach one such stash of material. Of course, these are all years old now, but as fellow blogger Saesferd (used to?) put it, “it’s mostly old news” in the first place, and maybe not all of it was on your radars when it was new… I’ll attempt some headings.

Discoveries in the West

Billon coins from the Cluny hoard

Billoin coins from the Cluny hoard, described below

Viking sword fragments from an Estonian hoard

Fragments from the Estonian hoard

Discoveries beyond the West

I owe notice of all these to Georgia Michael, to whom many thanks; this section is all her work, really.

A small hoard of Byzantine coins discovered down a well in Israel

Possibly actual dicovery photo, but either way, the small Byzantine hoard described below

Lastly, things people have put on the Internet

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman's collection

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman’s collection linked below

With several of the blog’s themes thus covered, I leave it for the weekend, hoping that some of you at least hadn’t already heard at least some of this… I think I am now through all the content I promised out of the last Chronicle post, so the next post, tomorrow unless strikes end very sharply indeed, will be the next one of those, covering July to September 2016. See you then maybe!

Letter to applicants

I don’t usually mention job rejections here, because why would I? Everybody in my position gets them but I don’t want prospective employers to know that this also applies to me. However, since once before a really nice rejection got mentioned because of its quality, it seems only fair, and also fun, to note the opposite.

This is a familiar phrase, I’m sure: “It may sound like a cliché, but in this case it was true, that we were faced with an unusually large number (over 120) of exceptionally strong candidates.” Firstly, it sounds like a cliché because fields this large are not exceptional any more, and it bothers me that selection panels can’t get their heads round this. I have heard this surprise a lot these last few years and it’s not surprising me as much as the people I’m applying to, apparently. That’s the genuine reflection on the state of the discipline out of the way, now for the snark.

Dear writer of this letter: it would sound less like a cliché if you hadn’t put this in an e-mail attachment whose filename was ‘Letter to applicants-210509.doc’. That’s the electronic equivalent of sending me the bug letter instruction really, isn’t it. And it would look an awful lot less like a cliché if the address and signature had not been set in Lucida Handwriting. I mean, firstly, having just the top and tail done in a script makes it look like what you wanted was the effect of a form letter finished off by hand to start with. And secondly, it’s Lucida Handwriting for heavens’ sake. Don’t you people read Acadamnit?

Still, at least they somehow sent something. That’s more than we often get. For cost reasons, they tell us, and this is often the same institutions that send you acknowledgement of your actual application, had you noticed? On the other hand on the day I post this I got a further rejection for a post I’d given up on long ago, and they sent three separate copies of that one. No expense spared! Gee thanks.

So the obvious and positive conclusion is undoubtedly a new slogan for my jobhunt: “you have to be quite careless not to give me a job!”

One step closer to Heorot

You know how there are things that people offer for sale which you have to buy simply because they exist, and in some cases, because no-one else will believe you that they do unless you can show them? One such is now on my wall, and here it is:

shop-ohbeowulf1

Now, class, I want a medievalism paper on this by midday next year…

Reading Roberta Frank really is a joy isn’t it?

I must come up with more excuses to do so. First there was that excellent article in last year’s Speculum about the dating of Beowulf (girls! warning! dating Beowulf may not be a good long-term strategy for romantic happiness! CGI could not convey the grief of others who tried! For further advice try here), and then I find she has a paper called “On the Field” in that van Engen volume I’m still reading. In it, she uses the word `medievalist’, and endnotes it, and we find that the endnote reads:

‘Medievalist’ referring to people like ourselves is first documented in 1874, the same year that ‘cocaine’ and ‘lawn-tennis’ first entered the language.

Now I should dislike this, because of course it is the same sort of making the reader do the criticism on the criticism that I was annoyed by Kathleen Biddick for, but this is firstly harmless because the point is clearly made, viz. that this is an older word than people might expect, and her examples give it an air of English country-house mystery that most people who have any sense of them at all will detect, and secondly, this is throwaway, gratuitous, it’s only an endnote; it’s not the thrust of the whole paper. But most of all it’s fun, and that makes an awful lot of difference. I understand now why her Festschrift appeared to be so full of irreverence: I bet she loved it.

This is the shortest post I’ve written for ages. I need to make more effort to be concise here really, as I apparently need to be advertised with caution… (Good luck, Zoe, I would guess that you’ll do all right.)