Tag Archives: Iconoclasm

The quiet return of the ruler of all

Long-term readers may remember a post from when I was teaching on medieval views of the Apocalypse, in which I looked at some charters from St-Pierre de Beaulieu that mention the end of the world every now and then, and then stopped doing so somewhere around the year 1000. I’m still interested in that kind of inverse evidence for a phenomenon, in which what we can actually see is concern stopping, and I think that last year I found another sort. Consider: in 843 the Synod of Constantinople, under the Empress Theodora as regent for her son Michael III and Patriarch Methodios, relegalised the veneration of images of heavenly persons, or icons, in the Byzantine Empire.1 Meanwhile, at some point between 842, when Theodora’s husband Theophilos died and she assumed the regency for their son, and 856 when she demitted the regency, the gold coinage of the Empire began to show a portrait of Christ on it, and it would continue to feature either Him, the Virgin or a saint, and often more than one, from then on until the empire’s final end in 1453.2 This was, therefore, the beginning of something big, and it seems to have begun with the end of the condemnation of icons.

Gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

One I couldn’t source from the Barber Institute’s collection, alas, a gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

This is not true in a way, because it didn’t quite begin here. You may even remember a very similar-looking portrait on the Barber Institute coins of Justinian II’s first reign (685-695) which I told you all about in March 2015. It would be very neat to be able to say that the promotion of Iconoclasm by Emperor Leo III meant the removal of Christ from the coinage, but it won’t work: for one thing, we are as you may remember no longer sure that Leo III really did very much about icons one way or the other, and for another and more important thing, it was Justinian II’s initial successor Leontius (695-698) who removed Christ from the coinage, not Leo III (717-741). Justinian restored a slightly different portrait of Christ to the coins in his second reign, but that was stopped by his immediate successor Philippikos (711-713). Leo and his descendants certainly did change the coinage, but mainly by putting themselves on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it has frustrated a number of scholars who have hitherto accepted the idea that Iconoclasm was an all-consuming state policy which divided the whole empire that not only does the coinage not show any other trace of this almighty schism, but the coins of the supposedly pro- and anti- parties don’t even really differ.3 So why should the reappearance of Christ, supposedly distinguished by his long hair and Gospel Book as the Pantokrator, ruler of all, already, be connected either?

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Well, whether or not Iconoclasm had been a big deal under Leo III, it had certainly become one by 843. The whole issue had provoked a three-way theological dispute with the papacy and the Carolingian Empire and become a casus belli for several coups (because, like bullying someone for whatever makes them different, any excuse will do for that perhaps, but it became effective propaganda).4 This is the spirit in which our principal written sources for the controversy were written, and the whole reason why our perspectives on Leo III and his son Constantine V are so warped by them.5 Thus, whether or not the removal of Christ from the coinage had been for theological reasons or just to make it clear that Justinian II and all his policies were now gone, for those that knew those coins—and someone obviously had some of them coins at the mint to copy—it would have been seen as theologically motivated by 843. This is how I am trying to get away with arguing that the changes to the coinage in 695 and 711 were not to do with theology and that in 842×856 was, but if you will accept it, it’s another of these cases like the Beaulieu apocalypse charters, in which our sources only expose that something was a concern once it ended!

Triumph orthodoxy

1. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 447-452.

2. I met this fact for the first time while reading Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner & ed. Italo Vecchi (Lancaster PA 2007), where the issues of 843 are discussed p. 30 and illustrated p. 76, but I don’t by any means accept Füeg’s close dating of the issue, for which there is no firm basis.

3. Frustration evident in Philip D. Whitting, “Iconoclasm and the Byzantine Coinage” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingham 1971), pp. 158-163. On the actual coins see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 150-187, but even he performs this same double-think, in which the coinage is unchanged by the advent of Iconoclasm but Irene’s changes to it must be explained in its light, not in the light of her having murdered her son the emperor (p. 158) and Theodora’s restoration of Christ to the coinage (p. 178) is also an Iconodule move. Only the latter seems justified, and even that underexamined.

4. For the Western side of the story see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm and the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009).

5. This is the basic argument of Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era. The sources in question are accordingly discussed in John Haldon & Leslie Brubaker, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era: the sources. An Annotated Survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001). See also Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol 2012).


Kalamazoo 2015, Part 2

The second day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies—which is where my reporting backlog currently sits, alas—began reflectively…

226. The Nature of the Middle Ages: a Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)

I went along to this mainly for reasons of celebrity-spotting, but it’s also often interesting to hear veterans of the field talk about what the field actually is, and to set it against one’s own perspectives. There are dynamics here about how elevated you get before your bird’s eye view becomes cloud-cuckoo land, but equally ones about being so close to the ground that you define the whole world by your local topography, and so on. All of this was given extra meat by this ICMS being the 50th, provoking reflection on the ICMS itself as much as anything. The scheduled presenters each picked their own targets for their muses, as follows:

  • Robin Fleming, “What Material Turn?”
  • Marcus Bull, “The Study of the Middle Ages and the Dread Word ‘Relevance'”
  • Ruth Mazo Karras, “Not Quite Fifty Years of Women’s History at Kalamazoo”
  • Paul Freedman, “Changing Subjects in Medieval History”
  • Nancy Partner, “Medieval ‘People’: Psyche?/Self?/Emotions?”
  • Some of these were complaints, and some reflections. Professor Fleming told everyone else that we don’t use objects enough in our history, and the conference programme certainly gave her a basis for the stance. Professor Mazo Karras charted the growth of the history of women from the archive of ICMS programmes—the first session on women at the ICMS was (only?) eight years coming but the take-off point for her was when societies started to form to do the work elsewhere. Professor Freedman, who was one of the first people to realise how great Vic is as a place to work on and whom I was glad to meet at last, had done similar analysis and noted, among other things, that at the second ever ICMS there had been seven women presenting, four of whom were nuns, but also that English literature and English history still dominate the programme, but that the rest has diversified hugely since 1965. Professor Partner spoke mainly of periodization and the problem of difference, between us and our subjects, which she argued could only be approached by deliberately seeking the ‘interiority’ of our sources, a kind of ‘depth psychology’.

    Medieval manuscript illumination of King Arthur's court and the Round Table

    Of course, it now strikes me that the very word ’roundtable’ is a medievalism, not something that any of the participants mentioned, but the site I got this image from epitomises the medievalism pretty well…

    This opened up the question of the session title perhaps more than the others had, and discussion went two ways, one following this, asking what we could do to avoid the problems of the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’, which have myriad difficulties because of being defined only by whatever lies outside them and not having clear ends. Professor Partner had argued half-jokingly for ‘really early modern’, but David Perry, one of the organisers, argued that it means more to people outside the Academy than it does to us, and Steven Muhlberger continued that by saying that the emptiness of the category actually serves us by allowing us to fill it with whatever suits us. True, useful, but hard to make into a clear mission statement, I think…

    Faulty slide purporting to set out differences between women's situation in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

    Periodization and women’s history: what we’re up against, grabbed just now from the web

    This desire for a mission statement was what had occupied Professor Bull’s contribution, which I haven’t yet discussed. This is because it seemed to me a much more UK-focused perspective than the others and to sit oddly with them. His was a pitch familiar to me from my years in Oxford, in fact, roughly that that we should stop paying attention to governments and managerial bodies who want us to justify our subject, especially in terms of its relevance to the era in which we live, not least because we medievalists will always lose to the modernists in such a contest but also because modern-day relevance must by its nature shift all the time so can’t be a foundation. I accept the logic of this but it seems to me that this is only a fortification that can morally be erected by those who have no outside paymasters. Oxford had been mostly aggrieved that those of its paymasters whom it had trained didn’t seem inclined to respect that privilege, and obviously that someone pays some of your money doesn’t mean that they should get to set all of your agenda, but to argue that they can set none of it because what we do is just worthy of support, whatever it is, is, I fear, unlikely ever to convince those with nationally-accountable beans to count.

    Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)

    But why should we stop now, when we’re beginning to get books out of it, I am tempted to ask? Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)…

    The people who picked up on this in discussion seemed mostly to argue that our use to the wider world is not to show how the Middle Ages is like whatever is now happening, but to show when other people who are saying that are wrong. I feel the push to do that very strongly myself, as you may be aware, and have long argued that to use history is almost always to misuse it, but behind this is an idea of a ‘correct’, empirical and detached vision of the Middle Ages whose perfect fruition would be that no-one outside the Academy ever derived any benefit from the study of the past at all except in a pure æsthetic form; if they discovered anything that was ‘relevant’ it would have almost to be suppressed before it got into others’ hands. It seems to me that people are always going to have reasons why they find this stuff interesting and the best we can do is to train them to find it interesting enough to be careful with it. You can tell, anyway, that this interests me as a subject of discussion, but I still wish we could have the discussion with the economics in. As an earlier defender of this view said, “money doesn’t stink”. You’d think we couldn’t strike for more of it without considering where it comes to us from, but it seems not so. So anyway, from here to coffee and calmer waters…

248. The Venerable Bede: Issues and Controversies I

  • Thomas Rochester, “The Place of Luke and Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • Morn Capper, “Bede and the Making of ‘Mercian Supremacy’: Challenging the Construct”
  • Sarah McCann, “Nodes of Influence: Networks, People, and the Writing of History”
  • It is of course impossible entirely to avoid Bede or Beowulf at the ICMS, but in this instance I would of course have gone anyway because of the presence of Morn Capper, long-standing friend of both this blog and your blogger. Morn’s paper argued that the groundwork for the period of the eighth century in which the kingdom of Mercia dominated England was largely laid in the seventh century, when Bede was in some sense watching, and yet he tells us very little about how it was done: for him, Mercia under the famous King Penda only shows up when it was on the warpath, whereas our sources for his successors Wulfhere and Æthelred emphasise negotiation, alliance and sometimes infrastructure. As Morn said, all of these rulers must have done all of these things but Bede is mainly interested in how far they supported the Church and so the version of Mercia we get from him is very partial indeed. As for the other two, both were at a very preliminary stage, Mr Rochester to establish Biblical models for Bede’s structuring of the Ecclesiastical History and Miss McCann to build a network model of the History using Gephi, and it doesn’t seem kind to mount a critique of their work here.

315. Fluctuating Networks: the Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

  • Robert Portass, “The Peasant Parvenu: Social Climbing in Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Petra Melichar, “Noble Women and Their (Broken) Allegiances in Late Byzantium”
  • Arthur Westwell, “Studios: a Network of Alternative Power in Ninth-Century Constantinople”
  • Here, likewise, I had mainly come because of the presence of a colleague of yore, Rob Portass, but his paper sat rather oddly in the session as it was principally about bonds formed, not broken, between local transactors in Galicia, which is after all kind of Rob’s stuff.1 He was arguing that confrontation with the actual documents, mainly here those of Santo Toribio de Liébana, showed you peasants making deals with each other and advancing relative to each other, rather than the narrative of the historiography of the area which shows you landlords beating down on peasant necks.2 Well, not here, says Rob. Meanwhile, the other two had picked up on the theme a bit more. Ms Melichar looked at the different ties late Byzantine noblewomen could break, with family, Orthodoxy, political networks and so on, usually to stay connected to one of the other of these sets, but as she pointed out, never as far as we can see to advance their own positions, rather than those of the networks within which they worked. Lastly, Mr Westwell set out a case for the monastery of St John the Forerunner of Stoudios as a long-lived ‘safe’ focus for opposition to imperial religious policies in eighth- and ninth-century Constantinople, although the high point of that was the Abbot Theodore, who set himself and his monks to guard what they saw as orthodoxy through a series of theological disputes and mounted that defence not least by many many letters to people at court, ex-monks who had gone on to serve elsewhere, friendly church officials and noblemen and women, not just mobilising support but giving backing to those people’s own opposition. This was a whole world of source material I’d had no idea about and for me one of the eye-openers of the conference.

That was the end of the academic programme for me on this day. If I remember rightly we now met back up with Morn and set out to walk to the legendary Bilbo’s, a required rite de pizza for the medievalist visiting Kalamazoo. We had no driver so set out to walk it, which is perfectly doable as long as you can work out which way to head, and that I eventually did after being 180° wrong to start with. That was worth it for the guy we checked directions with, however, who despite being of apparently normal build and health counselled us to get a cab: “It’s a hell of a walk. Gotta be half a mile at least.” We assured him that in Britain that is OK to walk and enjoyed our pizza and beer all the more for the adventure, and that was how we wrapped up day two of Kalamazoo 2015.

1. As witness Robert Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

2. Classically presented in Reyna Pastor, Resistencias y luchas campesinas en la época del crecimiento y consolidación de la formación feudal: Castilla y León, siglos X-XIII (Madrid 1980).


Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Not everything whose recataloguing I have overseen at the Barber Institute has been Byzantine—I invite those with interests in the Roman period to examine our coins of the reigns of Tiberius I (14-37) and Gaius (37-41) if you like, which … Continue reading

Seminar CCI: absence of ornamentation in Byzantine churches

My last seminar of the spring term of this (calendar) year was back to Byzantium, in the form of turning up to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham to hear Professor Henry Maguire speak with the title “Why was there no Renaissance in Byzantine art?” Professor Maguire was known to me only as a name at this point, but I had been assured that it was quite a big name in the field, and this he demonstrated by having to apologise for the fact that he was giving us a version of a public lecture he’d done in the USA. He was apologising for what he called the “flourishes”, but actually I was glad of the nods towards accessibility. I am however faced with the peculiarity that though I remember him making a perfectly reasonable stab at answering the question of his title, my notes seem determined to answer another one, which was more like “why is Byzantine art so darn austere?”

Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Lucca, 1228x1236

Looking pretty Byzantine, this gold-on-tempera Madonna and Child is actually from Lucca, by a chap called Berlinghiero who was active in the first third of the thirteenth century, but it gets the idea over both of what was and what could change. “Berlinghiero: Madonna and Child” (60.173) in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/60.173 (October 2006).

Comparisons with the art of the Italian Renaissance certainly helped to mark a contrast: even when the subject matter was similar, the level of ornamentation was usually starkly different. To drive this home Professor Maguire showed us two suspiciously similar Madonna and child portraits, both with the classic long gloomy Byzantine faces and almost identical poses, but one from Italy having a background loaded with architecture, ships and trees and a Byzantine one, well, not doing that. This lack of ornamentation is characteristic of Byzantine art as we know it, and can be set with Byzantine theologians’ disdain for the Latins’ concentration on external things rather than the internal, spiritual ones that really mattered, but that feeling didn’t stop them celebrating the glories of God’s Creation visually elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, from the ninth century onwards it’s really hard to find much beyond geometric ornament and stylised portraits in Byzantine art as it survives. Why?

Dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus

Obviously there are exceptions… but even here, in the dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus, this twelfth-century painting is figures of holy men and geometric ornament and little more, however much there is of it. I’m not sure austere is quite the word, but… Link goes to a web-page with a zoomable image.

Well, one obvious factor is that survival, because we’re talking almost entirely about churches here and may suspect, from what little we have of secular art and even manuscript painting, that that was more lively. In church, however, such things could be criticised as distracting from the holy focus of worship from as early as the fifth century. Defacement of palæochristian mosaic pavements and so on has been put down to Muslim pressure, but it was happening in Christian buildings and does seem to thrive as an ethic of non-natural display even in unconquered areas (though it is definitely strongest in modern Jordan and Palestine, as Daniel Reynolds pointed out in questions). Professor Maguire suggested that the real enemy here, as evinced in the legislation that closed the controversy over icons at Nicæa in 787, was not Islam but paganism, an imagery of zoomorphs and human-animal hybrids essentially inherited from Egypt and the Classical era. He ingeniously argued that the removal of the natural world from ornamentation was in fact how one allowed the human figure to remain as a visual object, because of its unique potential to reside in the next world, to which churches then operated as a gateway as they should.2 Consequently the saints only appear in the upper registers of Byzantine church spaces, where one’s eyes are upraised to Heaven to see them; they stand between the worshippers and the uppermost spaces, it’s all quite plausible when put together like this.

A 'corrected' mosaic at St Stephen's Umm al-Rasas, Jordan

A ‘corrected’ mosaic at St Stephen’s Umm al-Rasas, Jordan, with all the human figures carefully replaced with blank or reused tessera. I’m really not sure this is the same phenomenon, myself…

It was this different focus on heaven in art rather than the world that Professor Maguire used to explain the lack of a revival of interest in the created world by which he was characterising the Western Renaissance, but the questions centred most of all on the issue of defacement of imagery in churches. Daniel Reynolds, as said, raised the issue of regionality, and Matthew Harpster that of chronology: whether or not such imagery was criticised earlier, the defacements that we can date are post-Islamic, late eighth or ninth century. There’s a certain sense in this as that’s when Islam generally hardened up in its dealings with the other Abrahamic faiths; it’s when the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar’ starts to be invoked, for example.3 Christians might well feel under scrutiny then… Daniel Reynolds doubted that this could be fear of paganism as late as the ninth century, at least, and also put forward an idea from his own research on the early Islamic Holy Land, which is that as far as he has been able to discover, such defacement happens only in churches which held to the Chalcedonian rite, not in Monophysite/Coptic or other non-Orthodox ones.4 If the attack on Classical imagery is only a Melkite thing, as he put it, then at the very least Islam, while it may have been the catalyst somehow, was not the only actor in play and it served as a reminder that there were lots of stakeholders in Byzantine Christianity, and presumably its art, even after Byzantium ceased to be able to control much of it.

1. Cited doing this were the Vita S. Andreae Sali, which you may be able to find in Lennart Rydén (ed./transl.), The Life of St Andrew the Fool: text, translation and commentary (Uppsala 1995), 2 vols, and Symeon of Thessaloniki, who apparently also provides the Latin-slagging and whose stuff is edited as David Balfour (ed.), Politico-Historical Works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1416/1417 to 1429): critical Greek text with introduction and commentary, Wiener byzantinische Studien 13 (Wien 1979) and idem (ed.), Ἔργα θεολογικά, Ἁγίου Συμεὼν ἀρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, 1416/17-1429 (Thessaloniki 1981), but only some translated; I don’t know which work was meant here, so I can’t be any more guidance than Wikipedia can I’m afraid. This is probably also the place to mention Professor Maguire’s most obviously relevant works, his collected papers, H. Maguire, Rhetoric, Nature and Magic in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 603 (Aldershot 1998) and idem, Image and Imagination in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 866 (Aldershot 2007), and his more recent monograph, idem, Nectar and Illusion: nature in Byzantine art and literature (Oxford 2012).

2. I believe I am prevented, both by good sense and probably also contractually, from mentioning Iconoclasm without citing Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era ca. 680–ca. 850: a history (Cambridge 2011).

3. Something that I know about mainly from Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365-384.

4. Dan needs to get more stuff into print (don’t we all?) but has some limited excuse what with only just having left his doctorate, “Monasticism and Christian Pilgrimage in Early Islamic Palestine c. 614-c. 950″, University of Birmingham 2013, behind him; he will at least soon be able to boast of D. Reynolds, “Monasticism in early Islamic Palestine: contours of debate” in Robert Hoyland and Marie Legendre (edd.), The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean (London forthcoming).

Seminar CLXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, on 2nd November last year I was in a little Northamptonshire town called Brixworth, crowded into its rather splendid church of All Saints with about a hundred other medievalists and interested parties for the annual Brixworth Lecture. Attendance at this was mandatory for me for two reasons, firstly that Birmingham were that year employing me largely to impersonate an Anglo-Saxonist and it would therefore have seemed odd for me not to go, and secondly and perhaps more importantly that the lecture was being given by one of our own, Professor Leslie Brubaker. So there I was, thanks to the good offices of Rebecca Darley in driving us there, and thus I got to hear Professor Brubaker speak to the title, “Byzantium at Brixworth”.

All Saints Brixworth

Wikimedia Commons has a better image than any of the ones I took. This is by Alan Simkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I do wonder what Professor Brubaker’s reaction was when this was first suggested to her, as one thing that students of either side of the divide represented here can say with reasonable confidence is that there were almost no links between Britain and Byzantium after the sixth century. On the other hand, the ones best-documented are probably artistic ones, so, ask an art historian? In any case, Professor Brubaker’s task was made slightly easier by the very recent publication of the new site report for Brixworth, which she thus ran through very quickly setting up quite how much of what we were in was Saxon and what wasn’t. The church seems to have been quite a project: big enough as it stands now, it was bigger when new by virtue of having aisles that have since been removed, which were crowded with side chapels. It was built on a repeating module of 9 m2, with the fourth one being the apse over the crypt, suggesting a relic deposition as its focus. Some of the stone was Roman spolia, too, but not from the nearby villa site but all the way from Leicester, indicating some fairly long-range patronage.1 Since the date now proposed for the church is c. 800, even Professor Brubaker could not resist the temptation to suggest that an obvious patron would be King Offa of Mercia (757-796). I feel this is unfair on King Cœnwulf (796-821), who repaired a lot of Offa’s damage and was also what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’ (albeit not a Byzantine scale, I admit) but gets largely ignored because he wasn’t as bloodthirsty or earthmoving as his predecessor.2 This also got raised by none other than Nicholas Brooks in questions, however, and Professor Brubaker was able rightly to say that even if it wasn’t Offa her argument would still hold up, so, I should tell you her argument.

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

Here is a handy plan showing the original layout, apparently from C. F. Watkins, The Basilica and the Basilican Church of Brixworth (1867) so probably to be taken with some caution but, illustrative. “Original Brixworth Plan“. Original uploader was Simon Webb at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She proceeded essentially by taking a Byzantinist’s view of the church, marking out what seemed familiar or strange, and then wondering how that might be explained. Among the strange were the marks at the door, which she thought might be connected with the liturgy of baptism in which the family waited there to be admitted and the disconnection of the west-work from the rest of the building’s operations (I confess that I don’t now remember what was said to describe this); among the familiar, the crypt and choir as a focus on a relic deposition and the reuse of Roman material. All of this was backed up with images of sites in the Byzantine world which provided good support for the contentions. In a special category, though, were things that would have been familiar some time before the church was built but that would then have looked odd to any contemporary Byzantine visitor. These were the long-nave plan with side chapels, the current Byzantine fashion by 800 having been for a cross-and-square layout, and, especially, the apparent lack of decoration: it seems that Brixworth ran to a tiled floor, maybe, but that otherwise the walls were as plain as they now are.

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

A good photo of the current state of the interior taken by Frank Burns, whose site duly linked through; he gives no copyright notice so I hope attribution will do because it’s a much better picture than any others I could dig up…

The reason that is a live issue, of course, is that between about 750 and 787 the Byzantine empire was in something of a pother about decorative religious imagery, and perhaps no-one is more expert on this than Professor Brubaker.3 This makes me almost afraid to summarise but the big point is that by 800, for the Byzantines, this was over, and painting and colour and so forth were back in. The message seems to have taken a while to reach England though, as the question was still being settled at the Council of Chelsea in 816 (under, we might note, Cœnwulf). So there is a case to be made that Brixworth was responding to Byzantine fashions in art, but if so, it was doing so rather late.

The characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave in All Saints Brixworth

Very blurry picture of the characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave

The probable reason for that is the route cannot easily have been direct. While there are Byzantine parallels for many of the Brixworth features, there are a much more collected set of them in the form of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. Here, especially, we find the triple-arched separation between nave and west-work that I photographed so badly, in which the patron monarch may have sat and watched his congregation but from which, the tower not then being present, he could also have addressed his people outside the building. (That sounds familiar…) But the inspirations at Aachen, while Byzantine, were largely old Byzantine, in the form of Justinian I’s San Vitale di Ravenna. Justinian, at least, also got imitated in England: there was an Alma Sophia in York modelled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though we know very little about it.4 What we are seeing at Brixworth may reflect this second-hand Justinianism, therefore (although, as Professor Brubaker pointed out, what Charlemagne may have been more interested in imitating was King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, Dietrich of song and story). If so, its ideological response to the current worries over imagery may even be more up-to-date than some of its models. I felt that the case for everything reacting at some remove to Byzantium was maybe a little over-stated here—the Anglo-Saxons presumably didn’t miss the Carolingian end of the worry over images, for example, and Professor Brubaker’s suggestion that the new Caroline minuscule script reflected a recent shift to minuscule in the East seemed to me to miss out all the myriad Western pre-Caroline minuscules that it more or less replaced5—but as a reminder that there was, all the same, a very big empire whose issues resounded westwards in the form of ideas and their expression in art at the other end of the Anglo-Saxons’ world this was salutary and enlightening.

1. This is all apparently in David Parsons & Diana Sutherland, The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire: Survey, Excavation and Analysis, 1972-2010 (Oxford 2013).

2. For now the best neutral coverage of Cœnwulf is probably Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Sheffield 2008), pp. 345-413.

3. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011)!

4. It’s described in a poem by Alcuin, translated by Peter Godman as The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford 1983).

5. See Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and David Ganz, “The Preconditions for Caroline Minuscule” in Viator Vol. 18 (Turnhout 1987), pp. 23–43, respectively.

I should have read this the moment I bought it, VIII


All right, last one of this series as I finally reach the end, blog-wise, of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. The last section, two articles and a commentary paper, is entitled ‘The Intellectuality of Early Medieval Art’. It’s led, apart from the McCormick introduction, by the redoutable Mayke de Jong pondering the structure of the upper reaches, quite literally, of Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen, the solarium that so many of that family seem to have had problems with in times of evil auspice (as recently mentioned by Magistra et mater).1 Mayke perhaps works too hard to imbue the royal balcony, where few are allowed and from which everyone else can be seen, in Notker‘s Panopticon-style depiction, with symbolic significance, but the political significance of access to the king’s private counsels and the visibility of that access is very sharply drawn out, along with the way Einhard makes it clear in his Translatio Marcellini et Petri that he enjoyed such access. Thomas Noble quibbles about the architectural details in the response paper but is basically in agreement.2

The cathedral of Aachen as it stands today

The cathedral of Aachen as it stands today

I have to question the importance that both place on the term solarium itself though. Mayke spends a few pages demonstrating that the term is used almost, if not actually, exclusively of buildings that the king might be in, palaces and royal vills and so forth, and Noble compares usages in Rome and concludes, “Perhaps solarium was not a common word”.3 This may well be true for the central Carolingian zone and the ninth century, I certainly wouldn’t want to try and prove otherwise, but on the other hand, it takes me only two or three minutes to find this, from rural Catalonia in 921:

In nomine Domini. Ego Atto et uxor sua Virgilia, que vocant Druda, vinditore sumus tibi Amblardo et uxor tue Eldregodo, emtores. Per hanc scriptura vindicionis nostre vindimus vobis terras cultas et incultas, vineas edificatas vel ad edificare, regos et subreganeis, nostro proprio, qui nobis advenit per nostro comparacione quod nos emimus de te ipso emtore vel iamdicta uxori tue. Et sunt ipsas terras cultas et incultas, vineas edifikatas vel ad edificare, regos et subreganeis in comitatum Ausona, in valle Ausore vel infra ipsos termines. Sic nos vobis hoc vindimus hec omnia quod nos de vos comparavimus in predicta valle Ausore vel infra ipsos termines, exceptus ipsos domos vel ipsos solario cum curtes et ortos et terras et vineas et cultum et incultum, qui fuerunt     de condam Geirardo, quod vos ipsos comparastis de condam Geirardo vel de filios vel filias suas, vel de eredes illarum…

Yes, OK, sorry, perhaps too much Latin, sorry, I got carried away.4 (The superscript addition and the gap are in the original, the emphasis is not.) Rendered into breezy English though, a curious tale emerges:

In the name of the Lord. I Ató and his wife Virgilia, whom they call Druda, are seller to you Amblard and your wife Eldregoda, buyers. By this our scripture of sale of do we sell to you cultivated and uncultivated lands, vineyards constructed or to be constructed, streams and pools, our own, which came to us through our purchase that we bought from you the selfsame buyer or your already-said wife. And these cultivated and uncultivated lands, constructed and to-be-constructed vineyards, streams and pools are in the county of Osona, in the Vall d’Osor or within its term. Thus we sell this to you, all these things that we purchased from you in the aforesaid Vall d’Osor or within its terms, except those houses and that solar with courtyards and barns and lands and vines both cultivated and uncultivated, which were       of the late Gerard, which you yourselves bought from the late Gerard or his sons or daughters, or [his daughters’] heirs…

So, OK, it pains me but let’s leave aside the question of why Ató and Virgilia, I mean Druda, are selling back this land that they bought from these same guys, less what sounds like a plum and well-developed little farmstead that had belonged to another guy before that. Mainly I am willing to leave it because I don’t have the index volume of the relevant charter collection to hand so I can’t look any of these people up easily. The point is that Gerard’s old farmstead has a solar, as I usually translate it, an upper storey partly open to the sun; balcony might do but we’re talking a whole floor here, I think. This is not an uncommon thing; it’s uncommon enough that I had to search a bit, and you could, given how rattly and distorted the Latin of this document is, agreements all over the place, orthography varying and so on, argue that this is just a formula. Certainly the word is unusual, but on the other hand it is clear that these things are cut about to fit the circumstances of the document’s issuing. What I mean is, most transaction charters in this area don’t mention houses with solars. When they do, the most obvious reason is, it seems to me, is that there is one, not that the scribe that day has a model charter or a formula which covered that. If that was the case I’d expect a range of other gear that sometimes turns up too, dovecotes, winepresses, sheds, meadows. The fact that these things are not here but a house with a solar is, for me, best explained if they were actually selling a house with a solar. So I think Ató and Virgilia’s house had one, and so did a few other places.5

Map of central Osona and the Ripollès, Catalunya, <i>c. </i>950

Map of central Osona and the Ripollès, Catalunya, c. 950

Now, Osor is not an area full of palaces. It’s a bit up in the mountains: on the map there, if you can see Sant Llorenç near the middle bottom right, the Vall d’Osor is the next river valley south-east. So it’s probably two days’ walk to Vic, less if you don’t mind crossing some 800 m-high mountain ridges but it must be 35 km if you stick to the valleys. It’s a decent day’s walk down to the Ter too, and the Ter bends so much upriver that rowing wouldn’t get you anywhere any faster unless you had to cross anyway. Osor seems to have been well-settled at this point, there’s no new land being taken in even if it’s not all being used, but it’s some way off being top-rank.6 There are a couple of reasons to suppose that these are well-to-do people, though, not least because they get 50 solidi for the land they sell back, which gives us a sort of ballpark figure for the worth of what they keep, in as much as the way they’ve described things only makes much sense if the lands that they retain are enveloped within what they sell, so it must be smaller. 50 solidi is a fair bit of money by local standards, but it’s an order of magnitude smaller than what places that get called palaces go for out here.7 The other sign of status is that Ató apparently signs the document himself, which implies a certain amount of leisured education, though around here it’s perhaps not all that far out of the ordinary. Anyway, there really isn’t any prospect of the king or probably even the count turning up at Gerard’s old house. And this is a big one; I could find you other (less interesting) examples that are worth lots less.8

View down the Vall d'Osor, viewed from the source of the river of the same name, from the Catalan Wikipedia

View down the Vall d'Osor, viewed from the source of the river of the same name, from the Catalan Wikipedia

So, well, I don’t want to be over simple but I think there may be two things going on here that decrease the significance of Mayke’s royal balconies: firstly, as ever, we’ve just got more data out here and that means more odd stuff turns up, whereas in the north big estates are much more common per charter survival because the little stuff hasn’t made it down to us. Secondly, well, weather, quite frankly. I’m sure they have some lovely summers around the Meuse and Aachen, in fact Gabriele at the Lost Fort will doubtless have pictures of half the relevant areas in blazing German sunshine, but you still might not build for it in the same way as you do nicely south of the Pyrenees. I think we can expect to see more solars in Catalonia than in Francia because there was just that much more sun, to be honest. This doesn’t diminish the significance of Mayke’s points about access to the king and the articulation of power in architecture at all, of course; but it does warn us about arguments that include silence. There is so much dark matter in statistical use of medieval documents, because we never know what we might have if the preservation had been kinder.

(Edit: extensive argument with me in the comments below reveals that several people think I’m being anachronistic here and that what tenth-century Catalans are calling solaria has nothing to do with what the word meant in ninth-century Aachen. I still think plural uses, however far across Western Europe they are from each other, indicates a word that could mean more than just ‘palace balcony’ and don’t think the word itself carries Mayke’s symbolic significance, but I must admit that opinion is generally against me here so you should consider that I may just be being hidebound here.)

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14000, the so-called Codex Aureus

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14000, the so-called Codex Aureus

Anyway. The second paper in this section is a lavishly-illustrated one (though colour would have made such a difference here, especially as it features in the argument in places; the above manuscript’s cover makes Kessler’s plate 2, and it may be clearer in grey-scale, but, well…) by Herbert Kessler about depictions of Christ in the Carolingian period.9 This was a sticky issue, as you may be aware, because of the response to the Byzantine controversy over the use of icons in worship. The problem is the Biblical prohibition on idols, of course; is a picture of God, even in human form, really even slightly holy, or is it a graven image that distracts the worshipper from the real divinity that can only be experienced in the mind and the soul? Christ was after all a man, and one can depict that, but can one depict the God that that man also was, or is to draw Christ actually to deny one of his natures? One of the great merits of this paper is that it actually provides a reasonably accessible way into these debates for the laymen by marrying up text and image and showing how the images try to get round the problem or confront it, individual artists making informed choices of presentation such as leaving some of Christ out of the picture, vanishing out of the top of the frame at Ascension as below (the manuscript that sources Kessler’s plate 7, but even this tiny image is more fun to look at than the greyscale) and so on. Not only does one get a sense of craftsmen at work on something highly intellectual, rather than just colouring nicely as medieval art sometimes gets presented, but one also sees how these images were taking positions in a debate of the day and, not least important, genuinely concerned with Salvation and how best to help someone towards it rather than hinder them.

Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Y6, fol. 81v.

Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Y6, fol. 81v.

This therefore supplements the somewhat less successful section on religious practice earlier in the book and winds the volume up, after Noble’s few adjustments, very nicely.10 My initial bedazzlement with the volume has worn off slightly after this much detailed analysis and reviewing, but really, it’s still a very worthwhile volume. It’s also physically nice: the paper is gloss and heavy, the binding tough but good-looking and the dust-jacket is glossy and thick too. The illustrations, where they exist, are good (though, yes, greyscale) and there are, as far as I noticed, almost no typoes. There are fully 18 pages of index, whereas with most edited volumes there wouldn’t be any, suggesting that the publishers or the editors recognised that it will have reference value as well as reading value. Furthermore, though some of the papers are not quite there and some areas are definitely less covered than others, it really is a pretty all-round state-of-the-question assemblage of work on Carolingian Europe and so, I continue to recommend its purchase to those who might want such a thing.

1. Michael McCormick, “The Intellectuality of Early Medieval Art” in Jennifer Davis & idem (edd.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 275-276; Mayke de Jong, “Charlemagne’s Balcony: The Solarium in Ninth-Century Narratives”, ibid. pp. 277-289.

2. Thomas F. X. Noble, “Matter and Meaning in the Carolingian World”, ibid. pp. 321-326 at pp. 321-324.

3. De Jong, “Charlemagne’s Balcony”, pp. 282-284; Noble, “Matter and Meaning”, pp. 321-322.

4. Text from Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, I doc. no. 232.

5. For example, Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I doc. no. 214, “… vindimus tibi casas cum curtes et ortos, cum solos et superpositos et terras cultes et incultes, nostras proprias…“. But, you say, a solum is not the same thing as a solarium! Check it in the new online Lewis & Short, man! To which I say, firstly, du Cange says you’re wrong, at least sometimes: Charles du Fresne du Cange & D. A. Carpenter, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, ed. G. A. L. Henschel, re-ed. L. Favre (Paris 1886), p. 523, “SOLUM, ut supra Solarium, Locus idoneus solarium ædificando”, and secondly, well, that’s why my first example had “solarium” instead innit.

6. This sort of assessment is much easier for owning Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado (edd.), Atles del comtat d’Osona (785-993) (Barcelona 2001); the map on pp. 44-45 is most useful here.

7. For example, in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV I doc. 419 Bishop Radulf of Urgell and his son Oliba sell an estate at a place called Palau to the bishop’s brother Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona and that goes for 1000 solidi. This isn’t going to have been a royal palace, but given that Abbess Emma also has land next-door it is clearly comital family land, and that and the name suggest strongly that this was a fiscal estate, a big hall and its demesne or similar. For the suggestion that place-names in Palau (‘palaciolo‘ or similar) refer to such establishments, see in this case A. Benet i Clarà & A. Pladevall i Font in Pladevall, J. Sarri i Vilageliu, Benet & D. Arumí i Gómez, “Santa Maria de Palau” in J. Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I, ed. J. Vigué (Barcelona 1984), pp. 230-235 at pp. 230-231, and more generally Ramon Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconnaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166, citing Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Debax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-70.

8. For example, that mentioned in n. 5 above went for only 15 solidi and the solos are only part of the estate there.

9. Herbert Kessler, “Image and Object: Christ’s Dual Nature and the Crisis of Early Medieval Art” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 290-319.

10. Noble, “Matter and Meaning”, pp. 324-326.