Tag Archives: iconography

Image

Obviously not cricket

Bibliothèque national de France, MS Latin 10910, fo. 175r, showing a portrait of a female holy figure with a cross and book

Bibliothèque national de France, MS Latin 10910, fo. 75v, showing a portrait of a holy figure with a cross and book

I have another conference on which to report, but in case those are not your favourite posts, I thought that this week I’d first jump to the very end of 2017 in my backlog, when in a flurry of reading at the end of my first ever study leave, all intended to finish the article which became my “Nuns’ Signatures”, I was moving at speed through Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia, by Felice Lifshitz.1 It is an excellent and provocative book, but it also contains a reference to this image, which I then went and looked up, and then I became quite confused.2

I take comfort in the fact that it is apparently not just me whom this image has confused. The manuscript cataloguer for the Bibliothèque nationale de France, when needing to tag this image, has opted for ‘probablement le Christ’, probably Christ, so they apparently weren’t certain either. I mean, there is the nimbus around the figure’s head and there is the Cross, and the robes of the ancients, so I see how they got there, but this identification still leaves things unexplained. The first of these is what this portrait is doing in this manuscript, which is a text of the Chronicle attributed to ‘Fredegar’ from the late seventh century.3 The image, a full-page drawing, falls within the account of failing diplomacy between King Alaric II of the Visigoths and King Clovis of the Franks, failing because it didn’t stop Clovis invading Visigothic territory and killing Alaric a very short time later, nearly provoking a war between every power in the Continental West.4 It’s interesting history, but it doesn’t mention Christ or explain this portrait at all. And then the second and arguably more important question is, why is He wearing cricket pads?

Now as it happens, I think I can explain the cricket pads, but I’m not completely happy with my explanation. There is a particular depiction of Christ that is very common and has Him enthroned, with drapery over His knees which might, if you had only a poor version or a sketch of a sketch or something, be rendered in this fashion. Here’s a good manuscript example of the kind of image I mean.

Christ enthroned from Budapest, Orszägos Széchényi K&omul;nyvtár, MNY I

I. Berkovits, Illuminated Manuscripts in Hungary, XI-XVI Centuries, transl. Z. Horn and rev. A. West (Budapest 1969), plate IV, from Budapest, Országos Széchényi K&omul;nyvtár, MNY I; I have the cite from this page and that doesn’t give closer referencing, unfortunately

And here’s an Arab-Byzantine coin, where the same drapery technique for Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia have been rendered into something very like our cricket pads here.5

Obverse of a copper-alloy follis struck at Jerash in 636-698, Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, BZC.2004.34, showing an emperor and empress enthroned

Obverse of a copper-alloy follis struck at Jerash in 636-698, Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, BZC.2004.34, showing an emperor and empress enthroned

However, this only gets us so far. Firstly, I can’t quickly find any parallel for Christ enthroned so early which has Him carrying the Gospels; the usual pictures of Him with the Gospels don’t have the throne. That by itself doesn’t mean much: I’m not an art historian and someone with a better internal mental library could probably find an example (and hey, maybe that person is reading…). But I don’t think even they will find Him also carrying the Cross, or wearing a crown, both of which we have here. So I wonder if this is really what we see here, and as it happened, Professor Lifshitz didn’t believe it either.

Instead, as part of a larger argument that Carolingian nuns often sought out and either wrote about or had stories copied for them about great religious women, by way of gender-appropriate role models and inspirations, Lifshitz identifies this image as Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine I’s mother who is famous in Christian sacred history for relocating the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.6 She gives no justification or explanation for this, and it does fit her argument very snugly, but one can more or less reconstruct the argument that perhaps she would make: it is obviously a holy figure, because of the nimbus, but apparently also a royal or imperial one given the crown; it is distinguished by the Cross, which as an attribute belongs to Helena more than to anyone else; and it is pretty plausible, what with the unusually long hair and what one can read of the body shape, as well as the fact that any source depiction of Christ being used here would have been bearded, which has also been changed, that this is meant to be a woman. And if that’s the case, there is perhaps no other Christian candidate. But the book and the throne remain unexplained—I suppose except in so far as Helena was an empress, and in so far as she is supposed to have found the Cross by painstaking contemplation of the Gospels and prayer?7

So I can construct a road that gets me to the same reading of this image as has Professor Lifshitz, but I’m not sure if I can construct it far enough backwards from the image. For a start, I am struggling a bit to imagine the source. It seems likely to me that it was not another manuscript, because I think the cricket pads can only be the result of stylisation or simplification, and so I, perhaps inevitably, suspect that the source is coin imagery, not least because we can see one die-engraver doing something very similar with knee drapery on the Arab-Byzantine coin above. But the empress in such portraits is always accompanied and always crowned, plus which the Arab-Byzantine derivation can’t be the manuscript source because it’s too late, and one might expect the image to be rightly understood if the source was an original coin of Justin and Sophia. So actually I wonder if the archetype is Christian at all, rather than Christianized, because there’s also another possibility.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople 565-578, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1154, showing Victory seated half-right with long sceptre and cross on globe

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople 565-578, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1154, showing Victory seated half-right with long sceptre and cross on globe

The pagan deity Victoria, even if Christianized by association with the Cross—and thanks to Constantine Victory was the other female figure who regularly appeared with a cross—would perhaps explain the body shape in our manuscript, and perhaps the knee drapery. But, she’s only ever depicted in this half-stance, with only one metaphorical pad facing the metaphorical bowler, and she also always has one hand up on the long staff. And she doesn’t in any way explain the book. But I can see a path in which someone started with this as a prototype of an enthroned female figure with a cross and then altered it to more closely convey what they knew of Helena’s story. Unfortunately this still leaves us the question of why.

For Professor Lifshitz, the answer is obvious: a female scribe or artist, looking for a female holy figure for more relatable inspiration of devotion. And I can see how that might work, but is it what was happening here? My stumbling block is the text: with the best will in the world I cannot imagine anyone using the Chronicle of Fredegar for devotional inspiration, especially this bit. But some kind of illustration was always meant to go into this gap, because the text is continuous either side of it; the space was left clear at the time of writing. And the text doesn’t mention Helena, or Christ, or any saint or religious motif at all. (It is not the only image of a saint dropped into this text, I should say, but it is the only one which looks to be a woman.) So what were these nuns doing? And at that point, it is hard not to ask, how do we know they were nuns anyway? The manuscript’s provenance is not clear; it could have been made in a nunnery, but it could not’ve.8

The answer for Professor Lifshitz is simple: they were drawing a woman, so they were interested in women, so they were probably women. And this is not her only example.9 But this risks becoming circularity, where we use women’s drawing habits as evidence for women making manuscripts that we then analyse to deduce those drawing habits. It may be consciousness of difficulties like this that led Professor Lifshitz to say earlier in the book, “In the final analysis, a scholar’s own lens may be the determining factor in how the ambiguous evidence is interpreted,” and as long as that’s conscious, as here it evidently was, fair enough.10 But my lens may be differently focused, because while I am able to accept that whatever this picture is it is a female figure, and I can even probably explain the cricket pads, I don’t really think I understand why someone put this drawing there in the first place.


1. Felice Lifshitz, Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: a study of manuscript transmission and monastic culture (New York City NY 2014), p. 205 (with note p. 282 n. 86). My article to which I refer is of course Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152.

2. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 10910 fo. 75v (not 75r as per Lifshitz’s cite), online here.

3. The Chronicle is printed in its original Latin in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Fredegarii et aliorum chronica; Vitae Sanctorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) 2 (Hannover 1888), pp. 1-193, with the relevant bit here being p. 83. There is no translation of this early part of the text, I’m afraid. The text is not fully understood, but a serious attempt is made by Roger Collins, Die Fredegar-Chroniken, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Studien und Texte) 44 (Hanover 2007).

4. For context for this I went first of all to Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751 (London, 1994), but his discussion pp. 46-48 doesn’t use Fredegar’s evidence, and I actually can’t quickly find someone who does. I am probably missing something here.

5. There’s a much better example in Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), Plate 34, no. 612, which is apparently (p. 364) a British Museum coin, but I can’t make it fall out of the British Museum’s online catalogue with the available search tools, so can’t give you a picture.

6. See n. 1 above.

7. I should admit at this point that most of my grip on Helena’s career comes either from numismatic works or Cynewulf, Elene, transl. Charles W. Kennedy (Cambridge Ont. 2000), online here, which is not exactly historiography; I should probably read something like Andriani Georgiou, “Helena: The Subversive Persona of an Ideal Christian Empress in Early Byzantium” in Journal of Early Christian Studies Vol. 21 (Baltimore MD 2013), pp. 597–624, the better to understand what sources there are for Helena’s life.

8. There is a good argument that we have a lot more manuscripts copied by women, but not named, than people tend to consider: see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History 27 (Oxford 1990), pp 53–78, and Rosamond McKitterick, “Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century” in Francia Vol. 19 (Sigmaringen 1992), pp. 1–35, repr. in Rosamond McKitterick, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th to 9th Centuries (Aldershot 1994), chapter VII.

9. Lifshitz, Religious Women, pp. 196-206.

10. Ibid., p. 192.

Fishers of men

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

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West face of the Castledermot South Cross

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

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

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

Head of a grey heron

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

Papil Stone birdman head

Head of one of the Papil Stone birdmen

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

5. Ibid., pp. 167-180.

6. Ibid., pp. 163-164.

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

A prophetless coinage

I stubbed this post quite soon after starting at the Barber Institute with no intent more serious than to post a picture of a marvellous coin and enthuse about it. And I hope you can see why!

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

This is, as the caption says, a solidus of Heraclius with his two sons, whom we usually know as Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas but whose given names were both Constantine, and the former of whom subsequently reigned briefly as Constantine III (641). There is lots to say about this coin type, which was novel in many ways: there is for example no legend identifying the emperors, only a monogram of Heraclius’s name on the reverse to the left of the cross, which will be important in a moment; it is making a strong point because the Church opposed the legitimacy of Heraclonas, who was Heraclius’s son by Empress Martina who was also Heraclius’s niece; and one could go on. But I mainly wanted to post it because they look so much like a poster for a superhero movie; one can almost see the cloaks billowing in the studio wind. (My original title for the post was Emperors Assemble…) I am not the only person who’s put these online, but who cares? But then very recently, while looking up stuff for a different project, I found a web-page discussing an Arabic imitation of this coin type which had a couple of things badly wrong with it, and a bigger point emerged.

Gold dinar struck in Syria between 639 and 705, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

Gold dinar struck by an unknown authority in Syria between, well, who knows? 639 and 705 would be probably-safe outside guesses. Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

You can immediately see both the similarities and differences. The Latin legend is replaced by Arabic, and the Arabic reads, for those who can, ‘bism Allah la ilaha illa Allah wahdahu Muhammad rasul Allah’ [Edit: corrected, it turns out I cannot], ‘In the name of God, there is no god but God, Muhammad is the prophet of God’. The monogram goes, being replaced perhaps by the beginning of the Bism Allah in Latin letters. All crosses are replaced by pellets, so that the three figures now look oddly as if they’re holding walking canes and the cross-on-steps becomes a pole-on-steps. But it’s plainly the same type underneath it, I’m sure you’ll agree.

All of this is something that can be seen on copper coins of similar types which are presumed to come from the same period, normally guessed at between the 670s and 695 or so, in which latter year Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have begun a reform of the disparate coinages of his realm which would unite them into one system of coins with no pictures, only script, running over Arabia and Persia alike. Before then, however, and in some places also after then, coins like this that echoed, imitated and adapted previous types, both Byzantine and Persian, had been the working currency. Few of those were gold, however, and few of these ones are known; the web article I linked to above says that all the known ones are in the British Museum. Well, one of them is in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts—in fact, it and I have both spent much of the week in the School of Chemistry with an XRF machine, but let that pass—and that is the first mistake I wanted to correct.

The second, though, is that the article suggests, following a Flickr site called Taboo Numismatics to which it links, that the Arab-Byzantine type (as these adaptive coinages are canonically called) actually depicts the Prophet Muhammad. Now, one can see the argument: there is a bearded figure on it and the reverse legend names the Prophet, albeit in terms that might equally just be a profession of faith. Still, the name is there and the picture is there, and the fact that they’re not on the same face is a problem but one that also exists for the Heraclius coin.

There is also the problem that Islam is supposed to abhor images of people, of course, and as we know of recent years to be especially keen that the Prophet not be depicted. This has not always been so, however, and indeed the point of the first site that I linked to is explicitly that, that many medieval images of Muhammad from Islamic contexts are known. There are also coins for which this case would be much stronger, which take a new image of a standing figure in a headdress, carrying a broad sword, and place the legend ‘Muhammad rasul Allah’ around him. The type also exists naming ‘Abd al-Malik, and the ‘Muhammad’ version of it seems only to have been struck in Palestine, but we don’t know how they relate; it’s usual to assume that ‘Abd al-Malik introduced the design and that for some reason Palestine only struck it anonymously, but it seems equally possible to me that Palestine did actually strike a coin showing the Prophet and that ‘Abd al-Malik borrowed the design for his halfway-house pre-reform coinage. The Barber does have some of these coins, but I’m chary of putting images of them on the web right now: you can see one that was sold in 2013 here, and here’s one of the ‘Abd al-Malik ones.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

If there is to be a search for early Islamic coins showing Muhammad, therefore, it’s with the ‘Standing Caliph’ types of Palestine that it must start. The Three Standing Figures gold dinars won’t really work for it. Yes, there is the legend, but there are also many points against. In the first place, the portraiture is so exact a copy of the coins of Heraclius, right down to the barbs of the moustache, that it is clear that one of those coins was before the engraver. They would, indeed, have been fairly frequent among gold coins in the area and so the resemblance would have been noticeable more widely. What message could this be meant to send if that coin were showing Muhammad? That he had somehow been Heraclius? It seems unlikely. But even then, there are three figures: who are the others? The site I started with makes a spirited attempt to explain them as Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, at Heraclius’s right and Aisha, Muhammad’s wife, at his left, but this also won’t really work; that site has the advantage (for these purposes) of a fairly poor image that allows him to maintain that the right-most figure is veiled, but our own won’t easily allow that. It seems very much simpler to say: they’re not supposed to be anyone, but they are supposed to look like what the figures on those gold coins the people of the area knew looked like, with suitable adaptations to point out that something new was in fact going on. There is gold of the Standing Caliph type, too, naming ‘Abd al-Malik, so this presumably didn’t last very long, but in any case. I’m pretty sure that what I’ve just put online is not a picture of Muhammad!


The most accessible study of the Arab-Byzantine coinage is Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of he Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008), which does discuss the Muhammad problem. Note that Tony Goodwin, “The Arab-Byzantine coinage of jund Filastin – a potential historical source” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 28 (Leeds 2004), pp. 1-12, also argues that the Standing Caliph coinage of Palestine is earlier than ‘Abd al-Malik’s. To Tony Goodwin also goes the honour of publishing the Barber’s dinar, along with some others from this part of the collection, as “Some Interesting Arab-Byzantine Coins from the Barber Institute Collection” in Numismatic Circular Vol. 111 no. 4 (London 2003), pp. 196-198. It remains for me and my collaborators to get any more of them out there…

Faith and Fortune is back, in Exeter

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, now on show again, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

If you remember me mentioning Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage, the rather excellent coin exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which preceded my current one, and thought it sounded fun but did not in fact manage to go to it, you may be pleased to know that there is now a second chance! By a happy series of coincidences the fine people in charge of the Street Gallery at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter got to hear about it and decided they would like to host it, and so in April we packed the boards up and sent them down with supporting materials and one of the original curators, Dr Rebecca Darley, in tow to give an introductory lecture. It has been open since 25th May (sorry) and will be until 19th December 2015, so there is plenty of time to go and see it still! I present the exhibition information:

Faith and Fortune is the first exhibition in several years that draws exclusively from the in-house collections of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The principal chronological focus of the exhibition spans the years A.D. 300-750 but includes later 13th-century Turkmen material. The exhibition has been the focus of a presentation at the British Museum and has received positive reviews from specialists in medieval history, the Middle East and numismatics. It focuses on these particular themes and the current scholarly and research interest in Late Antiquity. The over-arching theme of the exhibition concentrates on the use of Late Antique coinage as a platform for the promotion of the respective political and religious ideals of the Byzantine, Umayyad and Sasanian Empires. This focus serves as a springboard for the exhibition to explore divergent attitudes among Byzantine, Sasanian and early Islamic societies regarding the representation of divine figures or religious subjects. The exhibition is curated by Rebecca Darley (4th-7th century Byzantine and imitation coinage) and Daniel Reynolds (7th-8th century Arab-Byzantine and early Islamic coinage) and the expertise of the Coin Collections Assistants Maria Vrij (7th-9th century Byzantine coinage and iconography) and Ali Miynat (Turkmen coinage).

Display of the exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic Coinage, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

The display in situ at the Street Gallery

This image was a bit peculiar to receive, because I’ve been there: two of the conferences I’ve been to at Exeter have been held in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and I clearly remember not being able to afford to buy Richard Hitchcock’s books in that gallery space. Nonetheless, it is a good space for actual displays too! You will observe that there are no display cases, so we were not able to send the actual coins along with the boards; instead they have been replaced with life-size photographic reproductions that get the points across nearly as well. I must also acknowledge the help of Rebecca Darley of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project at the Warburg Institute, University of London, Evelina Kuvykovaite of the University of Warwick and Jane Clark and the team at the Street Gallery for making it all so easy for us collectively to set this up; it was remarkably easy to do, and hopefully worth it for many visitors!

Leeds 2014 Report I

Crowds of medievalists at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

IMC 2014 in session


I very much hope this is the last time this happens, but I find myself again reaching a Leeds International Medieval Congress in my write-up backlog only after the next one has already happened. Looking back at the 2014 one, too, I find that I remember remarkably little of it; for many of the papers I have notes on, I would have sworn to you I had never seen the presenter. I think this must be me and how distracted I was by various things back then. It could also be that we drove up the night before straight from the closing moments of The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference just recounted and that I was already a bit hazy from too much learning. Whatever it is, though, it means I’m very reliant on my notes and that may also make this briefer than usual; I can but hope. But let’s charge in. On Monday 7th July, once up, I seem to have ignored the first keynote lecture, I think largely so as to get in at the second-hand bookfair, and then dived in properly as follows:

121. Coining and Sealing Empire in the Middle Ages

  • Guido M. Berndt, “The Face of the Emperor and the Face of the King: numismatic evidence from Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy”.
  • Susan Solway, “The ‘Currency’ of Rome: coining empire in the Middle Ages”.
  • Florence Codine, “The Emperor’s New Hair: imitation and innovation in coin portraits in the post-Roman West, 5th-9th centuries”.
  • I do remember this session, however. You can see how it should have played to my interests somewhat, but in fact I went in sceptical because one of the papers looked very much as if it was along the line of an exhibition proposal I’d just pitched at interview (so it didn’t seem a novel idea to me) and another looked like an unknowing repeat of one of the best papers I ever saw given, so, there was a high bar.1 I am also leery generally of sessions where the moderator speaks, as was the case here, and of art-historical approaches to early medieval coinage (which is very far from naturalistic in its portraiture and so speculative at best to get real visual information from).2 Given all this, my expectations were probably always going to be low.

    Bronze 21-nummi of King Hilderic of the Vandals, Carthage, 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066

    Obverse of a bronze 21-nummi coin of King Hilderic of the Vandals, struck at Carthage in 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066. You can see how important it was to the die-engraver and moneyer that it look just right…

    It would be cruel to say that the session easily met those expectations, then, because I was probably the wrong audience: I knew most of what Dr Berndt’s paper had to say about what the Vandals and Ostrogoths minted (and would indeed be exhibiting some of it early the next year, as seen above), for example. Professor Solway, who overran by ten minutes, was arguing that the post-Roman world retained the imperial portrait on its coins and used Roman coins with it on in jewellery as a symbol of authority, and this may well be true but if so we need to think a lot harder about how that symbol was understood: it was obviously not necessary for it to show a current emperor, for example, nor an identifiable one, nor even show him the right way up. Neither was it necessary to do so at all: some early Anglo-Saxon pennies do carry something like an imperial bust, but others do not while a third group stylise it into mad hair and nothing else. Yet they all seem to have been exchangeable. It’s not simple, and some change over time from direct imitation to stylised representation to redesign and individuation would have made this canter from Julius Cæsar to Frederick II a bit more sensitive. Mme Codine’s paper meanwhile was very conscious of the limitations of the evidence, which ineluctably undermined its very tentative suggestions that the famous long hair of tthe Merovingian Kings of the Franks was represented on some of their coins. We don’t really understand who issued Merovingian coins, so this was always going to be a hard sell. Versions of the other two papers here are, however, already in press in a book edited by Professor Solway, so you don’t have to take my mean words for it, you can see how unfair I’m being for yourself, at least if your institution can afford Brepols.

Things rapidly looked up, however, even if it was somewhat of a rush to get food and make it to:

198. Keynote Lecture 2014

    This year, the IMC had split its keynotes up and this meant that I spent the early part of this one trying to eat crisps unobtrusively, but it was worth it for:

  • Hugh Kennedy, “The End of Islamic Late Antiquity: change and decay in the 10th-century Middle East”.
  • Hugh’s lecture was in two parts, in the first of which he made the case that the early Islamic state could be seen as a late antique one, with a civil service, a classicising historiography, a tax system running in coin and many other features, although not including any tax on trade. The second part then noted that most of this broke down in the tenth century, with a shift to paid soldiery tying up the state’s resources at a point when, in processes unfolding over decades and perhaps imperceptible at a lived timescale, it became less and less profitable to develop and maintain agricultural land in the caliphate’s rich heartlands and more and more profitable to be in the civil service, leading to a steadily more massive drop in base agricultural production, without which of course everything else suffers. Strapped for vital cash, and massively overspent, the caliphs farmed out more and more of their tax collection, thus losing more and more direct control over their territories. Hugh pointed out that any parallels with so-called feudalisation in the West would have to deal with the fact that Islamic justice remained public, not ‘seigneurial’, because it was a religious affair; there are many ways for an empire to decentralise and fragment, I think we can agree!3

214. Empire, Power, and Identity in Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, and Islamic North Africa, II

  • Uta Heil, “Fulgentius and Thrasamund”.
  • Christian Barthel, “At Empire’s Edge: ruling Libya in the late 5th and early 6th century”.
  • Because one of the presenters in this session hadn’t made it, the two papers were run separately with their own questions. Dr Heil introduced us to Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe, a bishop who was exiled from Africa to Sardinia by the Vandal king Thrasamund. This was not a simple bouncing-out of an irrefragable Catholic by an Arian ruler, however, because there was apparently quite the written interchange between them, not the least of which is a dialogue, purportedly between king and bishop, in which the bishop explains the wrongs of a theological position the king was adumbrating, apparently not Arianism but Monophysitism. Fulgentius was apparently able to write books and books of theology while in Sardinia, teach, receive visitors and so on and the impression one gets is that the king had found a way to keep a high-powered theologian on call without his being able to intervene much in African politics, which were highly religious. I am guessing that a very large pension was presumably part of this deal… Meanwhile Herr Barthel wanted us to know about three inscriptions of Emperor Anastasius from what is now Libya. These show considerable military reorganisation, setting up wage-scales for the staff, prison administration and boundary policing, all quite detailed measures that show a government clearly still in operation, which is all the more striking because almost all we know otherwise is the names of obscure probably-Berber groups against whom these defences were now necessary, from the work of Synesius of Cyrene, which was a general harangue to let Constantinople know how bad the situation had got. That and the three copies of these inscriptions are almost the only sources we have for the whole area for most of a century, and it mainly made me think on what slender threads even this much therefore hangs.

Then caffeine and back to the fray for the final session of the day, in which my loyalties were happily combined in the form of the venerable Texts and Identities strand and speakers I knew from other contexts, as follows.

327. Texts and Identities, III: Italy between Eastern and Western Empire in the early Middle Ages

  • Caroline Goodson, “St Petronilla, Rome: cultural allegiances and family alliances”
  • Clemens Gantner, “Removing the Holy Pope Martin from the Church of the Saviour: uses of the arrest and trial of Pope Martin I in Roman sources from the 7th to 9th centuries”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “The Challenge of Rome for Carolingian Politics of Identity in the 8th Century”
  • This session had been much mutilated, but in a good way for me: both Caroline and Helmut were replacing absent speakers, whom I didn’t know, and so I now had a much better idea of what would be on offer and went in with confidence. Caroline told us about the papal use of the cult of St Petronilla, who at her earliest site of cult was held to be a fourth-century venerable lady, rather than a saint, but when moved by Pope Stephen II to her own church became, somehow, St Peter’s own daughter, martyred in the second century. The cult has usually been studied because King Pippin III of Francia linked his daughter Gisela to it by his patronage, but Caroline argued that if the aim of this was to bring the Franks into Rome in some visible way, the audience of this was nonetheless the Romans, and so the emphasis on Peter was probably what the popes were after, with the Frankish involvement a very secondary issue. Clemens looked at the history of Pope Martin I, which as I had learnt earlier that year involved appointment from outside, in 649, by a Byzantine administration which became so dissatisfied with the results that they arrested him and exiled him to Cherson. You can imagine that this is an episode that could be told very politically, as Rome generally detached from Byzantine in subsequent centuries, but the politics change a lot in each version: the issue is usually the wrongness of eastern doctrine, against which Martin boldly stood, but exactly which doctrinal controversy it was and how much the real issue was whether Constantinople could still take tax from Rome vary a lot from retelling to retelling. Lastly Helmut looked at how the relationship of the Frankish kings with the papacy is reported in various eighth-century Frankish sources, and concluded that here too things could change very fast, as the Franks’ own project did: he saw a shift from papal legitimisation of the new Frankish kingship through the Franks’ suitability for imperial power, to be conveyed by the pope, to the popes mainly being a way to bring the Franks into contact with the Lombards thus demonstrating how superior the Frankish people, and not just their kings, were. In conclusion: texts were political, very much the standard message of Texts and Identities but always worth showing afresh. Questions showed that the least understood source here in this light is the papal biographical compilation called the Liber Pontificalis, The Book of Pontiffs as the translator has it, of which there survive several versions, often differing in small additions that could as easily represent non-papal points of view.4 I know that lots of people have worked on the Liber just lately and I haven’t read it yet, but one feels that it can’t yet be enough…

And thus, anyway, closed the first day, and I seem to recall that we went to dinner in the refectory and decided not to do that again, and then I expect the bar called, but this at least gets you through the academic content. There’ve been hardly any coins this post, have there? I’ll have to fix that, stay tuned…


1. And that paper is now in print as Jonathan Arnoldd, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 6 (Baltimore 2013), pp. 152-183, DOI: 10.1353/jla.2013.0007.

2. That said, Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford 2003) is a good go at such work because it is interested primarily in symbolism and doesn’t look for literal representation.

3. For example, long long ago, at my Ph. D. upgrade meeting no less, Professor Mark Mazower pointed out to me that the Ottoman Empire could be compared, which was (he did not say this bit, which may be stupid) already more or less feudalised and which fragmented when it tried to modernise instead!

4. Printed in Louis Duchesne (ed.), Liber Pontificalis : Texte, introduction et commentaire (Paris 1886–1892), 2 vols, online here and here, and translated in Raymond Davis (transl.), The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis to AD 715), Translated Texts for Historians 6 (Liverpool 1989), idem (transl.), The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 13 (Liverpool 1992) and idem (transl.), The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 20 (Liverpool 1995).

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part IV

(Written offline on trains between Oxford and London, 17-18/09/2011)

On the morning of the last day of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, as habitués know, the civilized start time of the previous days is put aside for one that beats even Leeds, presumably in the hope that people will come and see at least something before setting out homewards. That was our hope last year when my collaborators and I appeared in the Sunday morning slot, and then it more or less worked; this time was not quite so well-attended, which is a pity because I thought my paper this year was rather better. On the other hand, one of our presenters had failed to show up, so it was perhaps understandable that people went elsewhere. Thankyou, then, to those who did come and see, one of whom was the Medieval History Geek whose write-up is here.

Session 531. The Court and the Courts in the Carolingian World

    Iron-Age-style emmer wheat growing at Butser Historic Farm

    Iron-Age-style emmer wheat growing at Butser Historic Farm, from ukagriculture.com

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “2:1 Against: cereal yields in Carolingian Europe and the Brevium exempla“. You have of course read the core of this here, but I’m glad to say that it seems to make a fairly decent little paper and that the feedback, which was mainly of the form, “yes, OK, we believe you about Annapes but does your argument also deal with the low crop yields Duby reported from Italy?”, very helpful in determining what needs doing to this paper to get it submissible. I do, despite the rather flaily plan of last post, have plans to do something about this.
  • Allegorical portrait of St Luke from the Ste-Croix Gospels

    You'll be telling me next you didn't know bovine evangelists got black wings

  • Lynley Anne Herbert, “A Bishop and an Abbot Walk into a Scriptorium: uncovering the clerical courtiers behind the Gospel of Ste-Croix“, was a great thing to share a session with, an excellent paper about something almost entirely different to one’s own topic. This was an art history paper of the best kind, containing lots of pictures, very clever explanations of them that no-one’s so far come up with and even the likely solution to whodunnit, though I’ll not give that away. I can prove the point about the pictures, however, because Ms Herbert ran her presentation off this very same laptop where I first typed this and it’s still there, muahaha etc., so for those of you who didn’t come, this sort of thing is why you should have. Suffice it to say that this one was so interesting I more or less escaped without questions.
  • Cruciform tetragrams of the early Middle Ages compared

    This was an artistic parallel I can believe in

That still left the last session, though, and this turned out to be one of those joyful coincidences that can only happen when there are this many scholars present on one campus, the session where you more or less wander in off the street and can help someone you didn’t even know about minutes before.

Session 578. Images of Medieval Kingship

This session too had lost a speaker, but I didn’t see anything more interesting that wasn’t similarly hampered, whereas in this one… well, you’ll see. I was here for the second paper, really, but the first one was also interesting. We got:

    A royal Maundy ceremony in 1867

    A royal Maundy ceremony in 1867

  • Ellie E. Fullerton, “Kings of Beggars: royal almsgiving in medieval Europe”, which discussed, mainly in French and German contexts, royal ceremonial handouts to the poor, in which kings, or at least writers about kings, seem to have seen a basic royal responsibility that also offered the chance to pay off sins. Is that how Elizabeth II sees it when she gives out the annual Maundy money? Well, who knows…
  • King Alfons I and Queen Sancha of Castile, from the Liber Feudorum Maior (via Wikimedia Commons)

    King Alfons I and Queen Sancha of Castile, from the Liber Feudorum Maior (via Wikimedia Commons)

  • Shannon L. Wearing, “Representing Kings and Queens in the Iberian Cartulary: the Liber feudorum maior” was however what had drawn me in, because the relevant Liber is the cartulary of the counts of Barcelona.1 I would have loved a copy of Ms Wearing’s presentation as well, but at least in this case most of the images are already online. This was an iconographic study but done from the scribes up, which I have not seen before with this manuscript; Ms Wearing detected two clearly different artists at work, presumably at different stages, and they had different ideas about how kings and queens should look, broadly the first going for a generic portrayal and the latter much more individualised. Since it was this latter who also painted the picture I love so much of King Alfons I of Aragón and his chancellor Ramon de Caldes with a pile of charters in the archive, and who therefore gave Caldes more prominence in that illustration than the king, there’s some obvious conclusions to be jumped to about responsibility here but Ms Wearing was commendably careful. One set of questions she couldn’t answer as yet were ones about gender, however, because there are a lot of women in the manuscript, and here I was able to set some context by pointing out that the documents of which the Liber feudorum maior is mainly composed are already quite gender-odd. It is mainly, you see, the feudal oaths of which we have seen a couple here, by which the counts of Barcelona reorganised their territory into networks of sworn dependence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (and also inherited the crown of Aragón). As you will have maybe noticed, in these documents the swearing parties are identified by their mothers, and this is the only documentary context in Catalonia where this happens. A certain amount of ink has gone on why this should be but not to any great effect; it remains a problem to be solved.2 By raising it, however, I was able to relate images and text in a way that might not otherwise have been possible, because of knowing other texts to which this is different. I hope it helped and anyway it made me feel clever.
  • King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

    King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

    Also by hanging about to the bitter end like this I met Jordi Camps, whose name has been in the `Currently reading’ part of the sidebar here for, let’s say, a very long time, and who was a gentleman and encouraging to both Ms Wearing and myself. I’d known he was around but hadn’t yet managed to catch him so this was a pleasant coincidence.

But that really was the end; after that it was sitting around talking with Australians (which has become one of my favourite pastimes this summer), failing to make it to lunch with Another Damned Medievalist and Notorious Ph. D. to my chagrin, getting on a bus and then setting out homeward. So, looking back on the whole thing, what else is there to say about this Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo non-academical

First things first: my accommodation was better this year than last. Partly, I suppose, I was just prepared for the horror this time but this dorm room had been swept, there was an adequate supply of bedding and soap and there was not a goose standing on top of the block shouting its heart out at six every morning, so I slept better and thus felt better. On the other hand, out in the world I remember being periodically enraged by people who ambled slowly up the middle of corridors without any apparent conception that others might want to get past, not just at the conference but the airports as well; I don’t remember ever meeting this so badly but it seemed as if I was always trying to get past people who had no thought that they might be blocking a thoroughfare. Anyway, that’s my personal road-rage I suspect.

Socially I enjoyed this year more than last year, and last year was pretty fun. I had several groups of friends established on arrival this time, and so I could be sure of being invited to things and having people about me if I wanted, whereas last year that had been a bit more touch-and-go; on the other hand it may also have been that the discontinuation of the shuttle buses into the town made it more difficult for people to leave campus en masse in the evenings. I was annoyed by this when I wanted to travel thither, obviously, but now I suspect it was probably helping the conference vibe to have people under more pressure to stay on site and socialise.

Anyway. It was fun. It also cost a lot, but less than last year and I have, eventually, been able to reclaim the travel and registration, so the only real cost has been in time and interest on my overdraft, plus, you know, a few books… All the same the time cost was quite high; this year I could do it, next year I expect to be teaching more and it may well be that this means I cannot go again. There is also my resolve to stop coming up with useless papers so as to go to things to reckon with; I think that this means that next year I am probably only presenting about Picts at least for a while, and that not so often. But who knows how things will look by then? So we’ll see. For now, anyway, the write-up is done and it’s onto other things more English once more.


1. Edited with some illustrations (monochrome) by F. Miquel Rosell as Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva en el Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Reconstitución y edición (Barcelona 1945); discussed in English by Adam Kosto in “The Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona: the cartulary as an expression of power” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 27 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 1-21.

2. Not least by Michel Zimmermann, not just his “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557, that I usually cite and which is now online here for free, but also “‘Et je t’empouvoirerai’ Potestativum te farei). À propos des relations entre fidélité et pouvoir au onzième siècle” in Médiévales Vol. 10 (St-Denis 1986), pp. 17-36, and “Le serment vassalique en Catalogne : écriture de la fidélité ou invention d’un ordre politique?” in Françoise Laurent (ed.), Serment, promesse et engagement : rituels et modalités au Moyen Âge, Cahiers du CRISIMA 6 (Montpellier 2008), pp. 585ff, the last of which I have not yet met.