Tag Archives: Iceland

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 4 and final

Although it continues to be a ridiculous reporting backlog I have, yet it does advance, and we now reach the last day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. This is always the hardest day, because the dance is the night before but the first session starts early so that play closes in time for people to head home. I suppose I should just be grateful that for the first time in my attendance I wasn’t presenting first thing Sunday morning… But some people of course were, and since they included both a friend and someone talking about the Picts, there I duly was.

536. Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Northern Europe

  • Jan-Henrik Fallgren, “Early Medieval Lordship, Hierarchies and Field-Systems in Scandinavia and the British Isles”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “State Formation within the Localities: a comparative approach to land management and productive processes in early medieval England and Northwestern Iberia”
  • Óskar Sveinbjarnarson, “New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland”
  • Douglas Bolender, “A Household Perspective on State-Formation in Medieval Iceland”
  • This was a tightly-focused session. All were looking for answers to the same question: what can we say about how social hierarchy and power emerge in the northern edges of Europe in the post-Roman centuries? For Dr Fallgren one answer lay in farm organisation: he saw a pattern of central big houses, often long-houses, with surrounding fields with a marked-out perimeter in all of Öland, Gotland, Ireland, England and Pictland. This meant ignoring a considerable amount of variation about how this was done in practice and I thought the similarities he was detecting risked being more or less demographically determined, but if the causation could be more clearly worked out there’d be something to say here all the same. Álvaro, in the way that perhaps at the moment only he can, was also comparing widely, England, Ireland and Spain, emphasising that there was never a mythical autarkic peasant moment on which lordship comes to be imposed in any of these societies, but that still, lordship and organisation of settlement do intensify together in ways that we can observe in the historical and archæological record.1 His paper was valuable for emphasising that despite this, that lordship does not include everyone and Spain especially shows us lots of small independent proprietors continuing alongside and between the big coagulating lordships in their areas.2 For Mr Sveinbjarnarson, working with the much less forthcoming evidence from the erstwhile Pictland, where he had been digging at the fort complex of Rhynie, the significant time was the fifth and sixth centuries, when after a period of breakdown we see wealth acculumation and deposition as hoards, prestige imports reaching this far north again, an increase in size and decrease in numbers of fortifications, big old forts being reactivated and so forth. I think we sort of knew this but Mr Sveinbjarnarson was able to colour in a lot more of the picture than I knew about.3 Lastly Professor Bolender, who had the hardest job in some ways: although there is textual evidence for settlement organisation in early Iceland in the form of Landnámabók, ‘the book of the taking of lands’, finding enough of any kind of archæology to challenge it is very difficult; one question asked him what tools, roads or place-names might add to the enquiry, to all of which his answer was pretty much “the evidence doesn’t exist!” For now, Landnámabók‘s picture of initial large farms set up by the earliest settlers then infilled by smaller settlements, and eventually large consolidated interests emerging seems at least not to be contradicted. Iceland of course offers that initial purely peasant society which Álvaro was stressing didn’t exist in his areas, and it’s interesting to see the same dynamics nevertheless emerging, but I did think that the messages of this session might have been even clearer if one of the papers had tackled an area where large landownership never went away, like Southern Gaul, just to get a better idea of what they were seeing that was close-to-universal and what that was specifically extra-Roman. Still, to want so much is already a sign that the comparison was forcing some quite high-level thinking!

Then, I think we couldn’t face the canteen lunch and went into town for nachos. This was a good idea from the point of view of food, but less good from the point of view of timing, as we returned late for the last session of the conference, which was this one.

540. Peasants and Texts

  • Helen Cushman, “Marcolf’s Biological Warfare: Dialogue, Peasant Discourse, and the Lower Bodily Stratum in the English Solomon and Marcolf
  • Sherri Olson, “Peasants, Texts, and Cultures of Power”
  • Shane Bobrycki, “The Peasant and the Crowd in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Maj-Britt Frenze, “Textualized Pagans: Depicting the ‘People of the Heath’ in Conversion Era Anglo-Saxon England”
  • Because of the late return, I can tell you nothing about Ms Cushman’s paper, which I entirely missed; my apologies for that. Professor Olson, however, mounted a strong argument from fourteenth-century court rolls from Elmlea and Durham that despite the popular picture of peasant societies as being illiterate, these ones both generated and disputed with written records, from their own agreements (kept at home, apparently) right up to the court rolls itself, which were sometimes consulted by peasant plaintiffs; while not by any means all themselves literate, they were still what the more theorised among us would probably call a textual community, bound by a shared interpretation of what these texts that governed their tenures meant.4 Shane, whom I met in Cambridge years ago and had not seen since, gave us an erudite run-down of shifting attitudes to crowds in the largely élite-written sources for the early medieval West: the Romans distrusted all forms of public crowd, for all that the élites needed their approbation, but in the early medieval context crowds were sometimes good, the legitimate forum for validation and expression of justice, righteousness and so on. Unless, argued Shane, that crowd was made up of peasants, in which case pretty much all our sources still consider them dangerous and illegitimate and use the language of ‘rusticity’ only for things they want to denigrate… Lastly, Ms Frenze did that most Kalamazoid of things, trying to strain new meanings out of Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Her conclusions were roughly the same as Shane’s: the ‘heath’ is dangerous, though for Bede Christian blood could sanctify it. I had managed to dodge all the Beowulf papers so far, so I guess I had to catch one, and I do understand why there are always so many, but if the deliverer of one doesn’t at least acknowledge the problem of dating the poem I’m afraid my response to them will always be sceptical.

And so that was that! Goodbyes were said and we variously made our ways to our transports, for us a train to Detroit and then a plane out the next morning after a small amount of cautious sight-seeing around that post-lapsarian city, and back to the groves of UK academe. But it was a good conference, more surprisingly like Leeds in demographic than usual but with most of the people I’d hoped to see seen and many things learnt. I always hope to make it to Kalamazoo again, but one has to know about one’s schedule so far in advance to mesh it with a UK teaching job that it takes forethought I rarely possess. Next time, though, I might now be exalted enough not to settle for the dorms…


1. Álvaro’s cites here seem worth giving, they being Susan Oosthuizen, “The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and the Origins and Distribution of Common Fields” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 55 (Exeter 2007), pp. 153-180; Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas R. Kerr & Lorcan Harney (edd.), Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: the evidence from archaeological excavations (Dublin 2013); Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin 2000); and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge 2000).

2. The best cite for this case may still be Pierre Bonnassie, “Du Rhône à la Galice : Genèse et modalités du régime féodale” in Konrad Eubel (ed.), Structures féodales et féodalisme dans l’occident méditerranéen (Xe-XIIIe siècle) : Bilan et perspectives des rercherches. Colloque Internationale organisée par le Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique et l’École Française de Rome (Rome 1980), pp. 17-44, online here, trans. Jean Birrell as “From the Rhône to Galicia: origins and modalities of the feudal order” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 104-130.

3. He cited Leslie Alcock, perhaps his “Early historic fortifications in Scotland” in G. Guibert (ed.), Hillfort Studies: essays for A. H. A. Hogg (London 1981), pp. 150-180, or his “The Activities of Potentates in Celtic Britain, AD 500-800: a positivist approach” in Stephen Driscoll and Margaret Nieke (edd.), Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland (Edinburgh 1988), pp. 22-46. I’m not sure how the field at large feels Alcock’s stuff has held its value but I learnt an awful lot from it when I was still insular in my interests.

4. The theory in question would be Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the 11th and 12th centuries (Princeton 1983), accompanied in Professor Olson’s citation by Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1993, 1st edn, 1979). These two books certainly have kept on giving…

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Seminar CCXVII: medieval Paris graduates in faraway places

The backlog advances but does not yet catch up the year; I now reach 25th November 2014, when I was still in Birmingham. Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures has a considerable number of postgraduate reading groups and seminars, organised by the postgraduates themselves, and occasionally these cross with the staff seminar series. Such was this occasion, when a sudden gap in the schedule of the Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages almost coincided with a meeting of the Rosetta Forum and as a result two of the local doctoral students stepped into the breach to deliver short papers about their ongoing work. I sometimes don’t blog postgraduate presentations, but these two are both old hands, one has featured here before and they were after all presenting in a public forum, and anyway why shouldn’t they have the publicity? The lucky recipients of this dubious honour, therefore, are Ryder Patzuk-Russell, presenting with the title, “The Development of Grammatica in Medieval Iceland: the teaching and study of languages and literature in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries”, and Jeffrey Brubaker, speaking to, “Nuncios or Legati: what makes a papal representative in 1234?”. About the only link between the papers other than period was the presence of scholars trained at Paris in both, and somehow both involved in translation. I’m not sure this was intended, but it was a nice coincidence.

Illustration from a manuscript of Icelandic sagas

This image from a manuscript of sagas really has nothing to do with Ryder’s research except country of origin, but it’s obviously too good a picture not to use anyway

Ryder warned us straight away that he had no conclusions yet, but he has set himself up an interesting question: how did people in Iceland, almost the furthest outpost of Latin Christianity from its sources, learn Latin, when they did at all? There are very few manuscripts to go on but what there is either in that form or recorded in booklists suggest that they did so largely in the vernacular; almost everything is translated and there is much more evidence for vernacular literacy, literature, poetry and even theology than there is for Latin, even though much of what they were using must have arrived from, typically, the archbishopric of Nidaros or, yes, the University of Paris, in that language. The translation may have been going on at the cathedral schools which by the early twelfth century existed at Skálholt and Hólar, but that’s very much the opposite way round to most non-Latinate European cultures, which usually acquired literacy in Latin first, and raises questions about why into which Ryder is even now looking.1 Some reasons might be the pre-existence and continuing use of runes, which were even used for Latin as late as the high Middle Ages here, and the obvious necessity of beginning instruction in the vernacular, though that also applied in other places. The two languages interplayed in many more ways than one might expect, it seems, and what Ryder comes up with may have something to tell us about how vernaculars met and interacted with Latin elsewhere too.

Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Contemporary Byzantine theology of a fairly basic but important kind: Jesus has Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes’s back and Mary holds his crown, so watch it. Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Jeff, meanwhile, was dealing again with a particularly messy diplomatic episode in the history of the relations of Byzantium with the West. Religiously divided by a set of issues which had taken until the thirteenth century even to be delimited, the two halves of northern Mediterranean civilisation were forced into interaction at that period because of the ‘success’ of the Fourth Crusade in capturing Constantinople and then their progress failure to hold onto the captured territory in the face of the resurgent Byzantine power at Nicæa. This made a council at that city in 1234 at which union between the two churches was discussed especially heavily loaded, and the fact that union between the churches was not only achieved then but not at any point thereafter either has, Jeff reported, made most historiography teleologically assume that it could not be achieved, that all participants knew this and that the whole affair was therefore only a show, which ended not in union but in mutual condemnation of either side as heretics. It seems a lot of effort for such an outcome, however, and there were obvious upsides to union if it could be pulled off (which is why it was repeatedly contemplated and sought after at many other points in the period, after all).

The Lefke Kapisi gate at Iznik, Byzantine Nicæa

A symbol of Nicene obduracy, the Lefke Kapisi gate at modern-day Iznik. “Lefke Kapisi Iznik 932a” by QuartierLatin1968Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Resolving this question of whether the council was meant to fail might be answered, suggested Jeff, if we could be exact about the status of the Western envoys, a team of English and French friars trained at Paris but also given some brief preparatory research time at Constantinople. Could they in fact negotiate and bind their master, Pope Gregory IX, to their concessions? In other words, did they hold a legatine commission or were they there only as nuntii, glossed by one text as ‘a speaking letter’, only able to report a papal position and not to change it?2 If the latter, obviously, we could assume that the pope wasn’t holding out much hope for the council. Unfortunately, as Jeff showed, the texts (substantially the Greek statement of their position and the friars’ post facto translation of it, about which we’ve heard here before) are not specific; the friars did call themselves simplices nuntii at one point and denied any legatine commission, but on the other hand claimed that their decisions would be ratified; the Greek text, meanwhile, which might have used the word legaton, in fact uses apokrisarios, which is much less specific. Jeff argued that the status of the envoys was in fact genuinely ambiguous, which may have been one of their problems but rapidly became a place into which to retreat as negotiations deteriorated. It would be nice to solve this one, but I have to confess that I can’t see how we can. That is at least something like the position in which the friars (and indeed the Greek clergy also trying) found themselves, I guess!


1. I have this from Vivien Law, “The Study of Grammar” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 88-110, but Ryder cited the big version, Law, Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (London 1997), which I’ve never dared tackle.

2. For details of the distinctions here see (as cited by Jeff) Donald E. Queller, “Thirteenth-Century Diplomatic Envoys: ‘nuncii’ and ‘procuratores'” in Speculum Vol. 35 (Cambridge MA 1960), pp. 196-213, online here, repr. in Queller, Medieval Diplomacy and the Fourth Crusade, Collected Studies 114 (London 1980), II.

Next stop Iceland?

This post is about pre-Viking settlement in the North Atlantic, and here specifically the Faroe Islands. I originally stubbed this in September 2013, when I came across a relevant web report on Melissa Snell’s medieval history blog at About.com, but since that time it seems that they’ve stopped keeping archives over there, so that post is now gone. Actually this is good news, because it forced me to web-search out other reports, and the obvious one, on Nature World News, also includes a link to the actual article behind it all, so now I can write you something informed.1

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain, and shamelessly plundered from a Faroes tourism site, linked through

The story is that new research proves that the Vikings were not the first colonisers of the Faroes. This, and the fact that this was being published in an geoscience rather than a specifically archæological or historical journal, gave me some faint worries about sensationalisation of research meant to prove other things, as we have seen here many times before, but in this case, as far as I can see, it’s the real deal. The team in question were doing a low-urgency rescue dig on a coastal site in danger of erosion at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy in 2002 and 2006. The site had been dug once before in 1994 and had then shown a Viking longhouse at the bottom of its occupation sequence (which subsequently went all the way up to the 19th century, always on the same spot, not least, as the article says, because there just aren’t that many sensible places to put settlements on the Faroes).2 This time they located the long-house’s hearth, and then they kept going and found more beneath. It wasn’t much more, just peat ash with carbonised barley grains in it, but this is significant for two reasons: firstly, barley isn’t native to the Faroes, and secondly, peat-burning requires usually months of cutting, stacking and drying, and thus implies prolonged settlement, not just drop-in visits. And they duly had radio-carbon analysis done on the barley grains and got the figures you see below.

Calibration graph and stratigraphical context of the radio-carbon samples from Á Sondum, Sandoy

From Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dougmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 230, larger version linked through

There are some things I don’t fully understand about this, mainly because to get these dates they used not individual samples but a combined sample, whose results were mathematically combined using a ‘weighted mean’. Well, weighted how? I feel we should be told more about this.3 Still, unless it was actually weighted outside the sample dates, which would be some strange new definition of ‘mean’ of which I was not previously aware, the results still seem fairly inarguable: two straigraphically separate episodes older than the Viking site by between half a century and three centuries. I feel that a mean critic might be able to handwave away the more recent result, given it was right under the hearth and the dates could just about overlap, but the older one is much harder to get around, which gives one that bit more confidence in the younger one.

A forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland

An even more forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland, apparently being slowly washed away by glacial outwash, as presented in Albert C. Hine, Jon Boothroyd & Dag Nummedal, “Glacial Outwash Plain Shoreline, South-Central Iceland”, Beach of the Month, Coastal Care 1st August 2013, linked through

So, OK, what does this all mean? Well, most obviously it means that someone was on Sandoy burning peat and scattering its ash on the shoreline well before the Vikings got there (and the study is extremely careful to emphasise that we have no idea who). What our authors are most excited about is that there were, previously, very small signs of pre-Viking occupation in the palaeobotanical record (which is to say, barley pollen had been found before in a hard-to-date but potentially early context4), and that having been able to pin it down with actual digging like this has big implications for other island chains where such out-of-place floral data has turned up but been dismissed. But it also made them think of what it makes me think of, which is an old question about whether anyone got to Iceland before the Vikings. There are stories about this in the texts, firstly bewildering seafaring fantasies like the Irish Navigatio Sanctio Brendani, in which Brendan and his monks find a series of fantastic islands in the Western Ocean while in search of Paradise, which they duly locate and are allowed to stop in for a bit before turning for home to spread the good word.5 Much effort has been spent on pinning actual Atlantic islands into his tale, but, to be cynical again, one might as well try the same exercise with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the islands are equally allegorical in both texts.6 But there is also the Íslendingabók of Ari Thorgillson, ‘The Book of the Icelanders’, in which Ari reports that the first Viking settlers on Iceland found white-clad men they called ‘papar’ there who fled before the Norsemen, leaving behind croziers and bells.7 That looks so like the kind of people St Brendan actually led that it’s usually been assumed these were Irish religious taking the spiritual exile thing unusually seriously. But there is no archæological evidence to show that Ari was doing anything more than making this up by extrapolation from stories about the Western Isles of Scotland or similar. The archæologists here are suitably cautious about fitting these older debates around their findings:

“Who were these earlier settlers, how many of them were there and where did they come from? Were they single ecclesiastical anchorites as described by Dicuil from Ireland, Late Iron Age groups of colonists from Atlantic Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia? Did they continue on to Iceland, or did the Faroes represent a temporary diasporal bottle-neck, requiring later Viking seafaring technology to be able to sail to Iceland and Greenland, and importantly to sail back? To answer these questions, more and better-preserved pre-Viking Faroese archaeological sites need to be identified, excavated and analysed.”8

To that, I would only say that the Vikings’ seafaring technology was perfected well before the Viking disapora started, so that might not be the significant limitation, but the Faroes radio-carbon dates are still very early and the authors’ caution here is absolutely commendable.9 What they do do, however, is establish an excellent idea of where to look for such remains in island contexts, and that gives me hope that Iceland might, indeed, be the next stop, just because it would be fun finally to have some kind of archæology to set against Ari’s stories. I’ll let the authors of the article have the last word, though, because they have bigger things in mind than my antiquarianism, and will myself just finish by saying that I wish all science publications with historical impact could manage it as well as these writers have:

“This detailed examination at the base of coastal erosion archaeological sections was successfully used to identify the first archaeological sites of Mesolithic date in the Western Isles of
Scotland. A similar palynological argument for early human settlement was proposed for the ‘invisible Mesolithic’ of the Western Isles, where small-scale clearance episodes evident in pre-Neolithic pollen sequences, coupled with a rise in microscopic charcoal, led researchers to suggest that hunter-gatherer fire ecology accounted for these disturbances, despite the lack of any Mesolithic archaeological sites in the island chain. In the Faroes and the Western Isles of Scotland, small-scale perturbations in pollen sequences were interpreted as ephemeral human occupation events in periods prior to the orthodox landnám [‘land-taking’] events attested by the substantial settlement record of structures, dating to the Viking and Neolithic periods respectively. In both cases, the palaeoecological interpretations were eventually proved to be correct on discovery of ephemeral archaeological remains of pre-landnám date at the base of large coastal erosion archaeological sections and this raises intriguing issues about perturbations in palaeoenvironmental sequences prior to orthodox landnám chronological horizons in other island systems elsewhere in the North Atlantic and across the world, as in the Pacific."10


1. Mike J. Church, Símun V. Arge, Kevin J. Edwards, Philippa L. Ascough, Julie M. Bond, Gordon T. Cook, Steve J. Dockrill, Andrew J. Dugmore, Thomas H. McGovern, Claire Nesbitt, Ian A. Simpson, “The Vikings were not the first colonizers of the Faroe Islands” in Quartnerary Science Reviews Vol. 77 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 228-232, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.011. Assigning author order on that must have taken nearly as long as the project itself…

2. Ibid. pp. 228-230; the previous dig, led by the second author here, seems not to have been published.

3. Rather than tell us about it, they refer to two other studies, P. J. Ashmore, “Radiocarbon dating: avoiding errors by avoiding mixed samples” in Antiquity Vol. 73 (Edinburgh 1999), pp. 124-130, which you’ll notice is a vote against doing this, and Ascough, Cook & Dugmore, “North Atlantic marine 14C reservoir effects: Implications for late-Holocene chronological studies” in Quarternary Geochronology Vol. 4 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 171-180, DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.12.002, which presumably isn’t.

4. Here they cite a whole rook of stuff, the most recent of which is K. J. Edwards & D. M. Borthwick, “The pollen content of so-called ‘ancient’ field systems in Suethuroy, Faroe Islands, and the question of cereal cultivation” in S.-A. Bengtson, P. C. Buckland, P. H. Enckell & A. M. Fosaa (edd.), Dorete – Her Book – Being a Tribute to Dorete Bloch and to Faroese Nature, Annales Societatis Scientiarum Færoensis, Supplementum LII (Tørshavn 2010), pp. 96-116.

5. I’m not sure what the preferred edition of the Navigatio is these days but in trying to find out I have found Guy Vincent (ed.), “Navigation de Saint Brendan : texte latin et traduction”, http://www.utqueant.org/net/doc.3.Bren.II.html, last modified 24th October 2005 as of 26th August 2014, which will probably do. There is a good English translation in J. F. Webb (transl.), Lives of the Saints (Harmondsworth 1965), pp. 31-68, repr. in D. H. Farmer (ed./transl.) & Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (Harmondsworth 1983), pp. 231-267 even though the text is likely from a century after Bede.

6. There are various studies on the Atlantic world implied by the text in John W. De Courcy & David Sheehy (edd.), Atlantic Visions (Dun Laoghaire 2009), which I will admit straight up I have never seen but just now pulled out of a database; any other suggestions?

7. There seems to be an edition of Íslendingabók by Guðni Jónsson online here but I have no idea how good it is; again, any better references would be appreciated. The standard translation, Siân Grønlie (transl.), Íslendingabók; Kristni Saga. The Book of the Icelanders; The Story of the Conversion (London 2006), pp. 3-34, is online here in PDF.

8. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

9. Jan Bill, “Ships and Seamanship” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 182-201.

10. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.