Tag Archives: Ian Forrest

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!


1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

Towards a Global Middle Ages I: going global in the first place

The backlog decreases at last; I arrive in September 2014 and am therefore now less than a year behind again. This seems like an achievement! What was I doing in September 2014, you may ask, and the answer seems mainly to be settling into a new job, but also turning a blog post into an article, negotiating carefully with the Abadia de Montserrat over long-desired facsimiles, sending off proofs of imminent publications and reading an old article of Philip Grierson’s about the Brevium Exempla.1 However, in the middle of that time I was also hanging out at the edge of a weekend meeting of a group called the Global Middle Ages Network, and this left me with thoughts that I reckoned worth blogging.

A game of chess, pictured in the Tratado de Ajedrez

One thing at least that did travel between various medieval cultures, the game of chess, pictured for that purpose from the Tratado de Ajedrez by the Oxford Centre for Global history webpages

Global history is of course all the rage right now, as being present at Oxford for the creation of their Centre for Global History had impressed upon me, and that shiny new institution contributes a number of the players to this group. It is as befits its name more widely spread, however, and there are also participants based in London, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick, Norwich, Manchester, Leicester, Edinburgh, Reading, Liverpool, Leiden, York and even Cambridge, as well as most relevantly the University of Birmingham, where pretty much all the medievalists seem to be involved and one of whom invited me along. The group’s general aim is to bring the Middle Ages into debates about global history and ensure that years before 1492 don’t get relegated to the sidelines as this new bandwagon gets rolling, but their specific aim at this time was to thrash out the writing of a volume of essays which is due out in 2017. Accordingly, various participants—Catherine Holmes, Naomi Standen, Mark Whittow, Conrad Leyser, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Simon Yarrow, Anne Haour, Ian Forrest, John Watts, Monica White, Jonathan Shepard and Scott Ashley, along with various people brought in to provide feedback and balance, most notably the Oxford modernists Alan Strathern and John Darwin but also such non-contributors as Chris Wickham, Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, Rebecca Darley and my humble self, as well as others whom my notes no longer decode—convened at Winterbourne House and explained what they thought their chapters would look like and what questions and issues they were confronting. Some had advanced their chapters a lot further than others, and because everything was very clearly subject to at least some change, I don’t think I should try to summarise their presentations here. Instead, I want to try and formulate some of the issues that the two days of discussions made me think about, and set them out so that you too can think about them.

Poster for a publication workshop of th Global Middle Ages Network held in Birmingham in September 2014

The poster for the workshop

It seemed to me in the wake of this workshop that there was material for three posts here, and the first is on the concept of a global Middle Ages at all and what falls within it. This was something that was very much debated in the workshop, not least because decisions had already had to be made about what could be included with the available expertise. Thus, Europe was most definitely in, because what’s medieval if Europe is not? Byzantium was reasonably covered, Egypt and the middle eastern coast of Africa (though not Ethiopia or the Red Sea) was covered, although not really in the workshop; China is well covered (but Japan is not); and North Africa also gets some attention, as, encouragingly, will Meso-America. Although that therefore has some claim to globality, there was much lament about the lack of coverage of other areas: I have mentioned two that one might have wished for but for which the group just didn’t have the expertise, everyone wondered what was going on in sub-Saharan Africa but the truth is that we just don’t know (though Dr Fernando did point out that we know more than people think, and I wondered about Benin and Mali given that one of the words that kept coming up was ’empire’).2 Arezou Azad, present, made a plea for the importance of Afghanistan and its area, Arabia was generally felt to be somewhat lacking and India was most conspicuous of all by its absence from both plans and discussion, as it seems generally to be from global history projects the more of them I meet; we will hear more on this. But the group has the people it has and the first book is already too advanced to put more into it, so I guess that those who think these omissions serious must hope for a second.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's An Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

The second issue here is what a global history of this period can aim to achieve. You might think that it was somewhat late to be examining such questions but it came up, not because of a lack of reflection on the issue but because different participants continued to favour different answers. I want to muse more on this apropos of something else I went on to read, but essentially the division was between those who wanted to write an actual history, more or less diachronic, of phenomena that occurred worldwide, and those who instead wanted to write comparative thematic history. Since the book was to be multi-author, the former would be very difficult to coordinate, although there was general agreement that current attempts at it consider the Middle Ages a very poor sibling that can be left out of the new inheritance, roughly what this group is looking to change.3 The book structure will be thematic anyway, so this was at best a rearguard action, but it raised the issue of what framework a diachronic global medieval history could address anyway. As the two modernists pointed out, the work that dismisses global connectivity for the Middle Ages is not just uneducated: there is a difference between our period, when oceanic sea travel was basically accidental, and a period when a dip in silver mining in Peru could affect prices in markets in Vienna the month after. Global historians of a later period can write their narrative mainly around trade, war and disease, even if fewer do so than work in terms of ideas, but the connections between the areas of the globe in the period roughly 500-1500 (and that period is an issue in itself, for which the next post must do) were so thin and occasional that they can bear no such causality.4 Although I thought that someone probably could write an interesting book about the years 800-1400 as a period of long-range diasporas, Viking, Arab, Polynesian and perhaps overland migrations in the Americas, in which the world was pre-connected prior to the European ‘Golden Age of Sail’, it would still be hard work to assert that those links changed anything very much back at the points of origin of any of those diasporas, excepting the Vikings.5

Map of recorded voyages of Polynesian travellers in the Pacific Ocean

I realise that there are some problems dating all of this to within the Middle Ages as we count them in the West, and long-term readers will know how controversial the date for human arrival in New Zealand is, but nonetheless, this is quite a big web…

So although the whole concept of global history seems to invoke the idea that everything can be seen as connected, medievalists wishing to join in have to face the fact that this was not how the people they study experienced the world. A few people brought the idea of climate into discussion as a global factor, but one of the things that we should by now appreciate about climate, as Britain just about shakes a summer out of an otherwise dismally wet year for the third or fourth year running while elsewhere deserts spread and seas rise, is that it is locally variable to an almost chaotic degree.6 Anyone saying, “one thing that we can say is that the globe got warmer,” may well be right in aggregate but is missing any kind of relevance to what that would have meant for the globe’s various, and separated, inhabitants. Scale therefore becomes a major issue with this cope, as it always is of course, but here the problem is how to scale down from the global without losing any overall thesis in regional variation.

The map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi

A genuinely medieval view of the world, the map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi, deficient in some crucial respects (like continents); image from Wikimedia Commons

The harsh critic might say that this simply shows that the Middle Ages was not a global-scale phenomenon, but naturally the group was not going to just give up and disband because of that possibility, so the other major area of discussion was what could in fact be compared. Mark Whittow wisely argued that no-one can understand anything about such a book without there first being a comparison of sources, which is one place where the massive variation of the world record for the period is actually explanatory, because it explains what it is possible for historians of different areas to expect and to attempt, thus explaining how the different essays in the book would vary. All those essays are being written by teams of authors working on different areas, however, so comparison should be built in from the ground up. This process had already isolated cosmologies, religious structures and beliefs, value systems both economic and non-economic, power structures and the apparatus of social mediation (including things like family, patronage and abstracts like trust), movement of people and networks of communications as things that could be compared across a wide frame, even if they didn’t necessarily (or even necessarily didn’t) join up. As with all comparative history done right, we would learn more by the exposure of any given understanding of things to an alternative.7

Map of world civilisation with historical timeline c. 979

It is all a bit much to cover in its full complexity…

This opens up the paradoxical possibility that even a negative result of the overall enquiry, in which in the end the participants are forced more or less willingly to admit that the ‘global Middle Ages’ is a fiction, could still be a useful contribution, because the essence of such a conclusion would, it now seemed, not be merely, “the set is empty” but rather, “it’s complicated”. Usually that’s a cop-out but here it could have an impact: simply by showing that there is enough that we can point to and compare from the period that our comparisons fail due to the complexity of trans-regional variation would demand a recognition that the set is populated and that stuff was in fact happening all over the world in our period and needs to be included in long-term pictures wherever those pictures depict. The question then becomes: what stuff is happening, and is any of it at all characteristic of a so-called medieval period? And it’s that latter I’ll pick up in the next one of these posts.


1. P. Grierson, “The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales”” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 18 (Bruxelles 1939), pp. 437-461, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1939.1300.

2. I sort of felt that Benin should have been on the locals’ minds because the cover of R. E. Bradbury, Benin Studies, ed. Peter Morton-Williams (London 1974), has been displayed on the wall in the School of History and Cultures on the way to the kitchen for who knows how many years, but a more useful cite for the period in question would be Natalie Sandomirsky, “Benin, Empire: origins and growth of city-state” in Keith Shillington (ed.), Encylopedia of African History (London 2013), 3 vols, I, pp. 132-133 and further refs there.

3. The Network web-page includes a reading list, where the most useful works of this type might be Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge 1986) or Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (Oxford 1989), but the one that came up in discussion most is not there, that being Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford 1993). Of course, as the image implies, I reckon one could enjoy starting with H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), 2 vols…

4. Indeed, historians of an earlier or at least much longer period already do write in such big-phenomenon terms, if we will accept Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), as a work of history. At the very least, it demonstrates that the scale can be written within.

5. On them, see Lesley Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; it is worth noting that Lesley is herself a member of the Global Middle Ages Network.

6. When I have to cite something for this I tend to cite Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805721105.

7. My guide here is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and lo, he is also a member of the Network…

The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

You may, by now, have had enough of my conference reporting from a year ago, and believe you me, by the time summer 2014 ended I had had enough of conferences for a bit. But, there is one more to go, which was the 53rd Summer Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which took place at the University of Sheffield from 22nd-24th July, and I was there. The EHS publishes most of its proceedings and I liked the theme, which was ‘Doubt’, so I pitched a paper and they accepted it and so there I was. Now, in the event my paper was not sufficiently doubt-full to be accepted for publication, but it was still a good conference and slightly off my usual beat, which is generally good for one. Still, because I have less to say about most of the papers than usual, I’m going to get the three days done in one post, and because that will likely be large, I will just give you the list of what I saw and heard, and then stick my commentary below a cut so that those of you reading the actual front page can choose to skip on by if you like. Here’s that list, then:

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

  • Frances Andrews, “Doubting John”.
  • Session 1.1

  • Aideen O’Leary, “Devotion to St Andrew in Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England”.
  • Stephen Sharman, “Bede and the Credible Witness: a response to doubt”.
  • Christine Walsh, “Faith and Authenticity: eleventh- and twelfth-century concerns about the cult of saints and their relics”.
  • Session 2.1

  • Christine Oakland, “‘A Box Full of Hay?’ Doubt and Truth in the Diocese of Sens”.
  • Jan Vandeburie, “When in Doubt, Give Him the Finger: Ugolino di Conti’s loss of faith and Jacques de Vitry’s intervention”.
  • Wednesday 23rd July

    Plenary Session 2

  • Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Doubt?”
  • Session 3.1

  • Kimberley-Joy Knight, “Lachrymose Holiness and the Problem of Doubt in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Hagiographies”.
  • Anik Laferrière, “Doubting Monica: the deletion of Monica from fourteenth-century Vitae Augustini in the Augustinian Order of Hermits”.
  • Steven Watts, “Demons and Doubt: the peculiar account of Brother Bernard’s possession in Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus“.
  • Plenary Session 3

  • Ian Forrest, “Trust and DOubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge”
  • Session 4.2

  • Emily Ewing Graham, “Heresy and identity: late medieval friars and the kingdom of Aragón”.
  • Patrick Zutshi, “Evidence and Doubt: the beginning of the Great Schism according to the testimony collected at Medina del Campo in 1380-1”.
  • Thursday 24th July

    Session 5.1

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the effects of spiritual sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”.
  • Thomas Smith, “Investigating the Pope’s Doubts: the validity of petitions from thirteenth-century England”.
  • Enrico Veneziani, “Doubting the Authority of Peter: the trial of Pontius of Cluny”.
  • Plenary Session 4

  • Kirstie Blair, “Unforming Faith: poetry, doubt and the Church of England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

And this is (some of) what I thought about it all… Continue reading