Tag Archives: interdisciplinary conversation

Interdisciplinary Conversation VI: the use of medievalists as per Lévi-Strauss

I described a few posts ago the long long path that led to the publication of my recent article “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”; this is a post about something I found on the way. It became clear early on with that piece that the problem with the general understanding of agriculture in the early Middle Ages had become Georges Duby; he didn’t originate a lot of the ideas that he popularised, but his work is now where most people find them and he integrated them into an overall progress narrative that everyone but early medievalists finds very useful, so it’s hard to shake people’s convictions even now that the early Middle Ages must have been the agrarian Dark Ages.1 But of course Duby’s key works were published in the late sixties and early seventies and he lived until 1996, so it became important to be sure he’d not modified his own views since, because of the incessant reprinting of those old works, it would have been possible that no-one much noticed.2

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby. I no longer have any idea where I found this image in 2008, alas, so I hope it’s copyright-free

Now, the short answer is that he didn’t, despite some wavering, but in the course of trying to find that out I came across an issue of a journal with which he’d long been concerned, Études rurales, celebrating his career and including a number of pieces by him, which I therefore knew I had to seek out.3 I think I found this out maybe three separate times, and downloaded all the articles at least twice (finding the second time that I’d already done so years before and forgotten), over the long time it took me to revise the article, but in 2016 I was at last actually reading them, and it was interesting. None of the Duby pieces were in fact new, all being reprints of classic or rare work from long before, but several people were updating his findings or, in some cases, just praising them, and one of the latter was no-one less than Claude Lévi-Strauss. When I set to writing this post I had to wonder if such a meeting of minds was possible anywhere else in this era than Paris; I went through my bibliographies and decided that if Clifford Geertz had written something saying how cool David Herlihy‘s stuff was, or maybe for the UK if Mary Douglas had about—well, who? Richard Southern‘s?—it might be of the same order, but those things didn’t happen, and I couldn’t think of other parallel grand academic personalities of such broad social scope. Anyway, in Paris in 1996 it did happen and Lévi-Strauss wrote a short laudatory piece, the basic point of which is that anthropologists should read lots of medieval history because it’s really good to think with.4

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, from “Le Structuralisme de Lévi-Strauss”, La-Philo, online here, and far too cool an image not to use even though not really very much what he looked like for most of his long life, it seems

Now, since (as indeed he says and I have often lamented) the general tendency of medievalists is to borrow their theory from anthropologists (and not, as Sean Manning has just been pointing out in comments, usually the currently-active ones), this could be said to be swimming against the tide. Lévi-Strauss explained himself by saying that the vast scope of the Middle Ages, with its diversity of social hierarchy and structures, belief systems and economic foundations, provides the laboratory of alternatives that one never has studying a concrete population who are what they are whether you understand it or not. It offers the counter-factuals which allow you, the anthropologist, to say, well, my study group didn’t have to turn out this way, other things have happened; what makes the difference here? “C’est cette fluidité… qui fait du Moyen Áge un vaste laboratoire où l’ethnologue et l’historien peuvent mettre á l’épreuve leurs hypothèses théoriques.”5 And he gave a few examples from Duby’s work, as the occasion required.

Now, when I read that the first time, my thought was, well, are these accolades that medievalists would want? Is what we provide only a databank against which others can better evaluate the Great Us and Where We Are Now? Is our function to illuminate the present, rather than to make visible the past? But since then, of course, I have raised a small amount of money and hope, indeed, to do so more in order to do exactly the kind of work that le grand prof. was praising here, pointing out that the Middle Ages offer models based in complexity and fluidity that serve better to illuminate quite a lot of modern situations than a constitutional perspective founded in the naturality of the nation-state. So I might be moving towards a qualified presentism as part of our rôle in a way I would once have rejected as unfair to the lives, dilemmas, choices and actions of the people who actually populated the world we study. I think, on reflection, that Lévi-Strauss here managed to bridge the gap I have occasionally pointed out between presentism and the people whose actions and situations did not lead directly to modern Western national constitutions and social structures, by finding a way for, “toutes sortes d’expériences sociales… dont la plupart resteront abortives,” still to inform us.6 Sometimes these old guys were pretty clever, I guess!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28 at pp. 5-10.

2. The two most relevant works here being the much-reprinted (and still in print) Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968) and Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (Ithaca NY 1974), translations of French works from 1966 and 1973 respectively.

3 Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here. Duby wavered about some of his conclusions about agriculture in Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, but while he admitted he might be wrong he made no suggestion about what would be more right.

4. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Remise de l’épée à Georges Duby” in Braunstein, Duby, pp. 21–23, online here.

5. Ibid., p. 22, meaning (for those without French), “It’s this fluidity… that makes the Middle Ages into a laboratory where the ethnologist or historian can put their hypothetical theories to the test.”

6. Ibid., p. 22, meaning, “all sorts of social experiences… of which the greater part would remain abortive”.

Seminar LXXXIII: arguing about kinship with anthropologists and families

Sorry, fell off the ‘net to a certain extent again there. Let me return to the fray with a seminar report, from where the amiable and erudite Dr Conrad Leyser (a man whose Oxford web presence is even more exiguous than mine, but who is at Worcester College, not Jesus College or Manchester University any more, whatever their webpages may tell you) presented at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar (though there again he is not listed, he’s like the Internet’s invisible man) under the title, “History, Anthropology, and Early Medieval Kinship”, on 31 January 2011. This was a lively paper, which is not something you can ordinarily say about presentations on the history of scholarship (unless they’re by Dr Beachcombing of course). It also served to teach several of us, I suspect, including me, just where some of our teachers, mentors and in Conrad’s case parents had been getting their ideas from…

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Edward Evans-Pritchard

Edward Evans-Pritchard

The reason Conrad was doing this was that he is editing the proceedings from the sort of interdisciplinary conference we don’t have enough of, and has therefore got to write an introduction.1 This was one possible shape of it, explaining how we got to the points of needing the conversation that that conference had provided. Conrad started the paper by setting up a great opposition in old (social) anthropology, between the structuralist approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss (who only died in 2009), interested in working out what the system of kinship does for society and especially in the incest taboo, and the much more empirical, descriptive approach of Edward Evans-Pritchard, more interested in just documenting different societies than reflecting that back on the entirety of humanity, and seeing genealogy not as a structure, since it was so readily edited in the social memory, but as a narrative, with a point to make.2

From here Conrad diverted into history, but for summary I think that works better at the end so I’ll stick with the anthropology for a minute. By the 1970s, he told us, anthropology was getting quite suspicious about kinship as a term an a field of study, the suspicion being that it was occidentally-centred and a political concept unsuitable for application to many of the subjects of study. The logical outcome of this was that the field began to look at such ideas much more in the west itself, and that some genuinely challenging work has come out of the debates around in vitro fertilisation, because sometimes donors of eggs or sperm can be close kin to the people who will raise the child.3 Asking who then is the real parent is tricky enough in any surrogate situation—an ex-girlfriend of mine has six parents by some reckonings, thanks to adoption and divorces—but it gets a lot trickier to describe relationships when the incest taboo is broken like that, and so forth. Conrad pointed out here that medieval and indeed modern Christianity wrestled or wrestles with this all the time: Jesus was after all a surrogate baby, right? But He was also of the house of David! via, er, Joseph… Exegetical kinship in the minds of our subjects is therefore something that this kind of work may help us find words for and thus be able to explain better.

But, you would be entitled to ask, what has all this to do with medieval history? Well, fair enough, and as I say Conrad had kept that ball in the court all along, I have just chosen to do it differently here. The point is, of course, that the anthropological state of the field has informed an awful lot of the work we now take as gospel in early medieval kinship. Furthermore, it has often been only one side of the field that people pick up, citing “anthropology” much as we cite archæology or even history itself, as a more or less positivist bank of knowledge on whose existence we are all more or less agreed, without realising or if realising, without making it clear that the interpretation of such knowledge is crucial to its presentation, expression and safety of use by outsiders, and that even what look like raw datasets are being shaped by these debates before they reach the reader. Thus, the shift that Georges Duby and Karl Schmid saw from an agnatic to cognatic kinship system around the year 1000, from a broad kindred drawn from both father’s and mother’s families to a patrilineage and ultimately primogeniture, for example, this is derived ultimately from Lévi-Strauss and does not use the rival English work. Conrad’s father, Karl Leyser, based in England (indeed, in Oxford) however took a much more Evans-Pritchard-like line, there was an argument about it that didn’t establish either point and as a result Jack Goody was able to borrow the point back and use Karl Schmid’s work as a fair and accurate guide to the development of medieval families, and then of course (I editorialise here) the historians all cite Goody, even if we disagree, because he’s an anthropologist and therefore we think he has special knowledge, not realising where it came from and via whom, and round and round it goes.4

Back in the field of history, however, others were noticing that our categories for this sort of thing had been assumed ever since Duby and were adjusting to the idea that kinship might be more strategic than structural, altering reproductive practice and inheritance rights to fit social circumstances.5 Now even those ideas have been called into question—who sets a family strategy anyway and how do you get anyone to keep it?—and, for example, Kate Cooper (who is Conrad’s wife; his mother, Henrietta Leyser, was also evident in questions, which must be especially awkward to argue with but at least proved, along with the other factors, as Chris Wickham said, the abiding relevance of kinship in academia!) is now arguing for an agnatic-cognatic shift under the late Roman Empire, a change which Karl Ubl is reading in basically functionalist terms…6 so it may well be that after a while in which anthropology and history have had little to say to each other on such matters, it is actually time we got them talking again. But to do that, it’s necessary for each side to have some idea of what the other has already said. So I guess Conrad’s conference was a timely affair!


1. It’s thankfully fairly easy to cite stuff for this because half of Conrad’s handout was a seriously thorough bibliography, which I even showed to my anthropologist of resort and they agreed that it was as fair a summary as you might fit onto a side of A4, so if the above seems inadequate or just wrong, it’s going to be my fault not Conrad’s. From it, anyway, I can tell you that the volume in question is C. Leyser & K. Cooper (edd.), Making Early Medieval Societies: conflict and belonging in the Latin West, 400-1200 (forthcoming). Conrad’s handout doesn’t give place of publication for anything, and I’m afraid I’m going to skimp on time and not provide it either, just because there is so much backlog to clear here.

2. Cited on the handout: C. Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949); E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951).

3. Here citing especially J. Carsten, After Kinship (2004), though the handout also has M. Strathern, Reproducing the Future: essays on anthropology, kinship and the new reproductive technologies (1992) and C. Thompson, Making Parents: the ontological choreography of reproductive technologies (2005), which I include because it strikes me that this is the kind of edge-of-the-human territory where some of my readers have their camps currently set up and they may be interested…

4. Duby himself learnt a lot from Schmid, whose “Zur Problematik von Familie, Sippe und Geschlecht, Haus und Dynastie beim mittelalterlichen Adel” in Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Oberrheins Vol. 105 (1957), pp. 1-62, remains seminal (edit: thanks to Levi below, details corrected here) but remains untranslated; there is however his “Über die Struktur des Adels im früheren Mittelalter” in Jahrbuch für fränkische Landesforschung Vol. 19 (1959), pp. 1-23, transl. Timothy Reuter as “The structure of the nobility in the earlier Middle Ages” in Reuter (ed.), The Medieval Nobility: studies on the ruling classes of France and Germany from the 6th to the 12th century (Amsterdam 1979), pp. 37-59, for an Englished introduction to Schmid’s arguments. For Duby Conrad cites the foundation stone, G. Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècle dans la région mâconnaise (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971, repr. 2000), which is largely untranslated (a few parts as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais”, transl. Frederick L. Cheyette in Cheyette (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (1968), pp. 137-55) but, as Conrad’s handout mentions, quite a lot of the supporting work and especially that about family structure is available in English in Duby, The Chivalrous Society, transl. Cynthia Postan (1977). The argument that failed to convince is Karl Leyser, “The German Aristocracy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries: a historical and cultural sketch” in Past and Present no. 41 (Oxford 1968), pp. 25-53, Donald A. Bullough, “Early Medieval Social Groupings: the terminology of kinship”, ibid. 45 (1969), pp. 3-18 and K. Leyser, “Maternal kin in Early Medieval Germany: a reply”, ibid. 49 (1970), pp. 126-134. Goody’s contribution is of course J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983).

5. So, see for example Pauline Stafford, “« La mutation familiale »: a suitable case for caution” in Joyce Hill & Mary Swan (edd.), The Community, the Family and the Saint: patterns of power in early medieval Europe (Turnhout 1998), pp. 103-125 or Ian Wood, “Deconstructing the Merovingian Family” in Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), The construction of communities in the early Middle Ages: texts, resources and artefacts (Leiden 2003), pp. 149-171.

6. Kate Cooper, The Fall of the Roman Household (2007); Karl Ubl, Inzestverbot und Gesetzgebung: Die Konstruktion eines Verbrechens (2008).

That demmed elusive rational economic medieval actor

While some of the paper-writing pressure was off I punctuated my reading with some of the stored-up PDFs I’ve stashed at various points, having followed web-links and gone, “that looks interesting and potentially relevant!” and one of these was a paper by Cliff Bekar and Clyde Reed called “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility”.1 I’d like to question it, and I imagine the readership at large won’t mind if I do.

This is one of those episodes where someone from outside medieval studies has a theory they want to test and decides that a medieval sample would be cool, though in this instance the papers that did that were some way down the line and this is the return of the son of the heir to the open fields debate that apparently economists have been having for close on forty years. At the beginning of it one D. N. McCloskey seems to have taken issue with an understanding that then existed that consolidating and enclosing agriculturally productive land was economically beneficial, and that peasants in the Middle Ages had instead worked common land or at least open land and so must have been completely benighted. McCloskey argued that actually, scattered land holding was a good insurance strategy because it meant one’s crop was less likely to all fail at once, and the decrease in yield was the ‘premium’ one paid for that.2 This meant that the peasants were making a sound decision for economic reasons and seems therefore to have attracted economists and an argument, as Dr McCloskey doesn’t seem to be or have been one to back down easily. Where Bekar and Reed came into this in 2001 was that they wanted to use simulation to test some of the assumptions, and so tried to estimate the possibility of actually running out of economic resource over a fifty-year period for a peasant population of 300 ‘agents’ each holding 20 acres, given various set-ups of field system. They set the system up so that it more or less approximated McCloskey’s figures and then started changing things, showing that in their system there was a ‘sweet’ range, in which actually scattering landholding was less effective at preventing disaster than either of (i) storing surplus against hard times individually or (ii) pooling it as a village reserve to be redistributed at the end of the year.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

So instead they suggest that scattering lands instead had other advantages: firstly, it made a pooling system much easier to police because what one was growing each year would be obvious to anyone walking through it so that one couldn’t decide, for example, to grow only flax that year hoping to max out one’s income secure in the knowledge that you could live out of the village reserve. I’m a bit dubious about this because it only works if no-one with scattered holdings ever fenced or hedged them and quite frankly I’d have thought wandering animals, including wolves at this time in England, would have meant that almost everyone did. The core assumption that enclosed and open are opposite along with consolidated and scattered looks very strange to me, though I haven’t read enough Chris Dyer to know if they’re wrong, and from their footnotes they have. Well, I’ll leave it. Secondly, they suggest that scattering meant that lands could easily be sold off as a form of income substitution in bad years, whereas a consolidated enclosed estate couldn’t easily be fragmented and selling big lumps of it would hit productivity permanently. They also note in the works of their chosen medieval historians that a lot of land on the last medieval English market was indeed tiny units and that enclosure did massively increase vulnerability to disaster for the small-holder (here esp. pp. 322-323).

So, OK, there are so many problems that I am about with the assumptions here that one hardly knows where to begin. At the beginning I suppose; here are the ones I marked while reading this in a café in Oxford.

  1. They assume that harvest quality follows a normal distribution (p. 310), but we know (you and I, dear readers, we know) that actually harvests are usually either poor, adequate, good or really disastrous, and people have done real simulation, with crops and work and stuff, showing this.3 So it’s garbage-in right from the get-go.
  2. A small thing, but they compensate for the fact that a pooling system would take administrating by effectively charging the system for it, deducting 20% of the yield as running costs (p. 317 & n. 20). Actually, though, the impact of this cost would not be on the final product, but on the availability of labour to generate it, and they have already said that effects on labour are disproportionately heavy on yield (p. 316).
  3. Most importantly of all, McCloskey’s figures were derived from nineteenth-century information. By that stage, in England at least, agriculture was at least part mechanised, in mills and threshing at least, and certainly far better tooled up than anywhen in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages themselves are problematic because towards the late end blast furnace manufacture of iron makes large-scale production of iron tools more practical and so late medieval agriculture is probably more effective than early. Also, there’s the climate, but let’s not do that again, let’s just note that since an estimate of likely yield range is fairly vital to their simulation, if it should actually be a lot lower I think that ‘sweet range’ may disappear. They need medieval figures very badly, though as they say there aren’t any. All the same, there is earlier stuff than this they could have used I’m sure.
  4. At all stages there is no money factored into the system. Land is converted to grain direct (p. 316), yield is never monetised or invested as capital for improvements or sold at market, agriculture is stationary, autarkic and closed of distribution. And this is just not how it was, anywhere really. People took yield out of the system for a range of reasons, not just their self-protection against disaster.
  5. Most of all, the simulation ignores lords. It does this firstly by forgetting that surplus left the medieval food system, as we’ve just said, although it does talk about tithes as a form of pooling (p. 321), which is only partly the case—doesn’t factor for that though—and thus ignores any form of taxation, but it also assumes that the peasantry are free economic agents unconstrained by outside factors. The idea that the local lord might make them grow oats that year because he was experimenting with horse-breeding, or tax all the wheat and nothing else, or whatever, doesn’t appear here at all; even though they talk about different patterns of land exchange on demesne land the authors don’t allow for other rules to enter the system. BUT THEY OUGHT. And the idea of any extra-economic factors, tradition, religion and so on is completely lacking.

So what we have here is that elusive creature, the free rational economic actor. He or she is fully informed about the consequences of their decisions and operates unconstrained with perfect foresight. Yet the practices that the authors are describing would have had to have been observed, and observed correctly, over a lifetime and then accurately passed down to the next generation. So actually, at the beginning of our simulation the actors shouldn’t have the knowledge required to behave as the simulation needs them to. Likewise, medieval peasant villages were of course not all made up of 20-acre landholders: once the authors allow land sale into the model, indeed, change occurs rapidly and much more variation exists at its end than at its start. That’s when they should have started: I’d be much more interested in what the results were if one continued the model for the next fifty years.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this was a completely useless paper. It certainly makes explicit the economics of peasant-scale land management in some ways that most early medievalists would just ignore: one does get a sense of options and consequences from it. Secondly, because the same problems exist with all the simulations, they do at least have some comparative value. If the nineteenth-century figures can be accepted for what they are then the idea that scattering one’s landholdings might still make sense is interesting. One would, as I say, prefer to know whether it still held when many of the values were altered, and since we’re looking for a cross-over point where wealth and probability of disaster meet, if that shifted violently one way or the other then any economic viability for storage, pooling or land scattering might immediately disappear from the figures. But in its own terms it does show something. As long as it’s showing an isolated population sample who didn’t use money or barter with outside interests, who didn’t pay tax or spend on non-subsistence goods and all of whom were nicely-landed and knew what the results of a fifty-year survey would be when it started, though, what it shows isn’t going to have much to do with the Middle Ages as people lived them, and lived (and died) by such decisions.


1. C. .T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

2. D. N. McCloskey, “English open fields as behavior towards risk” in P. Useldine (ed.), Research in Economic History Vol. 1 (Greenwich 1976), pp. 124-170.

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2007 as of 4 January 2009, citing Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.

Book bit bullets IV

There being little time for anything else, it’s time for another post of short reflections on reading; I’ve been travelling a lot lately so there has been time on trains for reading to be done. And I’ve come across quite a few interesting things, so here’s the traditional bullets.

Sveti Donata u Zadru

Sveti Donata u Zadru with accompanying Romanesque belltower

  • This is a round church in Croatia, Sveti Donata u Zadru, or San Donato de Zadar if you’re Italian—thankyou Phil for the Serbo-Croat version in comments—which I recently learnt actually predates Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, but resembles it so closely because basically as soon as the Croats learnt about the one at Aachen they seem to have remodelled this one to look more like that. This was part of an article that successfully set out the weird disconnection of the enthusiastic imitation of Carolingian court culture and architecture by a ruling élite which was otherwise deeply embedded, and indeed partly legitimised, by its political resistance to the Carolingians…1
  • Secondly, I am at last reading Mayke de Jong’s In Samuel’s Image and I just wanted to say, anyone who has met and talked to Mayke will be able to hear
    her at full strength in her preface; rarely have I seen a personality so clearly rendered in print. Also, of course, the book is really interesting and I’m glad I was given an excuse to make it urgent.2
  • I took it to Kalamazoo and back and never quite got round to reading it, but now I have finally read Cullen Chandler’s 2009 piece in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History.3 Detailed comment would be out of place here but it was a really strange experience to see someone else using so many of the examples I know well, and often to a different purpose. It was rather like going to a meeting or similar and finding that the person you’re meeting know half your friends via an entirely different route. Meanwhile, the article as a whole gives me plenty to think about, mostly in the area of why I tend to favour economic over social explanations of transaction and whether I should rebalance that, and on the other hand, when Cullen gets to read my book, he is going to wonder whether I somehow sneaked an advance peek at his paper and then used all his references, because we really have picked up on quite a lot of the same people…
  • As well as my ridiculous to-read pile (pile? nay, bookcase…) I also keep a computer folder of PDFs that looked interesting. I’m less far behind with these than I am with the books, and so just caught up with something that T’anta Wawa shoved in my direction when I first started talking interdisciplinarity with them, an article called “Facing the State, Facing the World” by Michael F. Brown, which is about Amazonian peoples and how their self-identification has changed through their dealings with their various ruling states.4 The amount of stuff that rings out to me from this about identity formation on my tenth-century borders is so huge that I am basically going to pounce on TW as soon as their thesis is finished and brandish plans for a joint paper at them, in which I pontificate and they rein me in. There is plenty of this conversation to have. You may also find the paper interesting…
  • In an ideal world I would have managed to read all of Wolfgang Metz’s Karolingische Reichsgut before I had to give my Kalamazoo paper, or indeed before I finalised the text of “Settling the Kings’ Lands”, but at that point the world was not ideal in that way. He was asking a lot of questions I’ve always wondered about, to do with just how the Carolingians ran their lands and kingdoms, and one of the things he’s principally concerned with towards the end of the book is whether the nobility are given fiscal lands as part of their office, and how much and where, or whether their family lands are more important. Almost in the closing pages he suggests particularly that the Carolingian kings kept the nobility out of their biggest estates, the palace complexes like Ingelheim and Frankfurt, and that the counts of these palaces, while they seem in some cases to have had land associated with their office, had it at dispersed estates in the neighbourhood, rather than actually being in a position to live off the palace lands proper.5 This makes me wonder just how far the Carolingians were aware of the origins of their own rulership and the danger of over-mighty nobles in their lands. It should also serve to remind us of course that what of the fisc the Carolingians gave away is not half as important as what they retained, especially since in charter evidence we only really see the former and the latter remains a kind of fiscal dark matter which, in the case of places like Frankfurt at least, retained considerable gravitational pull.
  • Lastly, we have spoken here before of the erudite scholar and gentleman, Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, and his slightly pessimistic view of the welfare of the peasantry in Catalonia’s feudal period. He deserves a lot more readership than he gets, especially among anyone working on the peasantry. I have also, I hope, mentioned his considerable generosity with time and photocopies, I’d have found the field far harder to work without his ready help, and now he has a new book out, a volume of collected papers including some stuff that’s new to me and which I shall have to get through urgently.6 Happily, and kindly, he has made this much easier by sending me a copy, for which I owe him many thanks—I hope I can reciprocate soon—and this makes me very pleased. It must be said though that he is almost in danger of stereotyping himself as the peasant pessimist, because not only does this collect most of the material in which he makes such arguments, but also the volume bears a title that could hardly be bettered in that line, La llarga nit feudal. Mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos, or for those reading only in English, The Long Feudal Night: a thousand years of conflict between lords and peasants. I assure you that he is a lot more cheerful in person than this makes him sound…
  • Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal

    Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal


    1. I learnt about this from M. Jurkovic & A. Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y arquitecture antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

    2. M. de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: child oblation in the early medieval west, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 12 (Leiden 1996).

    3. C. J. Chandler, “Land and Social Networks in the Carolingian Spanish March” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3rd Series Vol. 6 (Brooklyn 2009), pp. 19-44.

    4. M. F. Brown, “Facing the State, Facing the World: Amazonia’s native leaders and the new politics of identity” in L’Homme : revue française d’anthropologie Vol. 33, nos 126-128 (Paris 1993), pp. 307-326, online via Persée here.

    5. W. Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 187-195.

    6. G. Feliu, La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos (Valencia 2010).

Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair

When the first e-mail on two successive days has to be an apology for something that went on the blog the day before, which you then have to edit, and you’re getting people’s names wrong in comments, many would advise that you should step away from the keyboard for a short while and get some sleep. I heard this advice “that I giv’ meself”, but I have so much stuff to write up… So let’s see if I can recover some generosity of spirit and discretion of approach with a seminar write-up, to wit, John Blair presenting to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title “Can we know anything about the beliefs of the laity in pre-Christian and early Christian England?” on 27th April just gone.

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Blair started by asking, as a framing question, whether we can say what was in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon convert to Christianity. There are of course Bede’s famous exempla, the sparrow flying through the hall and so forth, but Blair wanted to use archæological and anthropological evidence to put flesh on the bones, or in some cases add bones to the flesh I suppose. Starting with pre-Christian beliefs, he was suitably circumspect but pointed out the pronounced focus on animals in ritual and art from that period, especially animals fighting each other, birds and snakes, birds and fish, zoomorphs at each others’ necks, etc., which he suggested might be good and bad principles of violence locked in combat, and also their presence in ritual deposits.1 (This included a nice instance from the letters of Saint Boniface condemning interlace, the same sort of interlace perhaps that has been found carved into the portals at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, indicating that views differed.) The animal focus led him to parallels with shamanic religions still or recently recorded, though he stressed firstly that the parallels are inexact, and secondly that those religions are (as m’colleague T’anta Wawa would doubtless insist) much altered by exposure to modern society, his example being a Mongolian (I think) shaman woman photographed rolling up to a ritual in the 1960s in her chauffeur-driven car. All the same, the idea of mediating supernatural forces expressed as animals may provide a parallel.

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

He next spoke about shrines, of which we know very few, and which may have been solely vegetational in many cases, but he suggested that there was an increasing trend to monumentalisation by 600 or so, barrows, burials, cairns and so on, and also to development of complex sites, such as Yeavering, as well as the adaptation of older monuments like Iron Age and Bronze Age barrows.2 This, to me, sounded very much like what Martin Carver‘s been saying about Sutton Hoo since the early 1990s and it was odd not to hear him name-checked; certainly the same idea came up, that this might be a reaction to an incoming, coherent and monumentalising Christianity.3 Another change that Blair highlighted from this same sort of time was an increased manufacture of amulets (though this bothered me: surely the evidence is of increased survival, which isn’t the same thing) and a shift in the amulets’ cores from carnivore teeth to beaver teeth, especially in women’s graves.4 This struck me as really interesting, but mainly because while apparently demonstrable it seems almost inexplicable in any terms we can so far reach. It does illustrate that there is source material for beliefs in this kind of study, though. Some of these amulets are Christian, too, as demonstrated by Scriptural inscriptions in them, and here of course obvious parallels came from the Staffordshire Hoard’s gold strip.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

The next section of the talk focused on Viking evidence, for which Blair relied pretty much on Neil Price‘s book The Viking Way; this seems well-regarded, but I hadn’t heard of it before, I must fix this.5 From that Blair drew us a picture of women seers, women authoritative within the household; if this went for pagan Anglo-Saxon England too, Blair wondered, how does this affect convert-period monasticism? He mentioned double monasteries under women like Barking Abbey, but one could also think to Bede’s Letter to Egbert about family monasteries, and that would seem to support this picture less well.6 The possible rôle of some women as mediators with the supernatural however had a darker side, as revealed in burials that contained bodies bound up so as to be unable to walk, staked through the heart and so on.7 He drew a parallel between these bodies that, it was apparently feared, would not die properly, and the incorrupt bodies of some saints, in particular two roughly contemporary cases, none other than St Æthelthryth of Ely, found incorrupt at translation with great celebrations huzzah huzzah &c., and a 12-year-old girl put into a barrow at a cemetery of the same period just down the road, on the perimeter of whose attendant burials was a decapitated disjointed woman whose legs had been tied and who had been buried with a load of amulets, the disjuncture apparently having happened after she’d been in the grave some time.8 There is a reasonable if small literature about such ‘walking dead’, of course, to which Blair himself has just contributed, but the parallels with Audrey would never have struck me otherwise, and as he said, there would have been people in Ely who were aware of both exhumations.9

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003; the webpage insists this isn't a deviant burial, and it's centuries too early, but by gosh it looks the part

Words like ‘witch’ and ‘vampire’ are of course hanging all round this, and shouldn’t really be used because they only get defined in the way we now understand them in the sixteenth century, and it’s not clear that we’re talking about any of the same complex of beliefs here, even if there is a clear relation. It is however clear in the evidence that most of these burials, not all but most of those where it can be checked, were young women. This, as with the beaver teeth, seems to me to be real evidence of something of which we haven’t yet got clear sight. The other thing, though, is that they increase in incidence at about the same period as the other changes Blair had focussed on, monumentalisation, ‘beaverisation’, and so on. Blair’s overall picture, then, was that in the conversion period disruption to earlier religious practice, most specifically burial, rises towards the end of the seventh century and reaches a peak, after which it almost disappears. A scholar called Dunn, whose work I don’t know, apparently suggests that this may be related to the plague of those decades,10 but Blair adduced parallels from anthropological work in Greece where the cause of upset was changes to family structure, because a lot of importance was placed on the flow of blood within families and that was now being constrained. In Anglo-Saxon England the result of this pressure, on whatever we choose to blame it, seems to have been manifested as fears about the dead, which could obviously be tied up with ideas of resurrection in the body and so on but might have equally been a crystallisation of non-Christian belief needing to make itself evident, if Carver be followed. Interesting stuff! And it will be really interesting to see how far Blair can make this stuff go, because after reading Nancy Caciola’s article I would have said there was little more that could be done. In fact, it would seem that, as I should maybe already have known from Andrew Reynolds’s new book that I haven’t yet had time to read,11 the answers may yet lie in the soil…


1. Blair’s cite for this, which I crib from his really useful bibliography handout, was Tania M. Dickinson, “Symbols of Protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 49 (London 2005), pp. 192-239.

2. Blair’s handout suggests that we should read J. Blair, “Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and their Prototypes” in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 8 (Oxford 1995), pp. 1-28. All I know about Yeavering, meanwhile, I got from the original excavation report, Brian Hope-Taylor’s Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), but a recent conversation at Heavenfield alerts me to the fact that there is more recent work, though I don’t know what to recommend from it. Michelle may be able to add more…

3. Most obviously in M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998, repr. 2000, 2005), but there is a swathe more indexed here along with some classic pictures of the man himself through the ages.

4. Blair cited Audrey Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 96 (Oxford 1981).

5. Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford 2002), currently being revised after at least some critical adulation, or so it seems from this page.

6. Bede’s harangue about false monasteries does seem to include some that were occupied by members of both sexes, indeed by married couples, but there’s nothing in it that seems to me to justify any idea that women ruled these mixed communities; he sees them as entirely secular ventures of implicitly male landholders (Bede, Letter to Egbert, cc. 12-15).

7. Here Blair’s cite was himself, J. Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Aldershot 2009), pp. 539-559. I do wish Patrick could have seen some of this stuff.

8. Published by Sam Lucy, Richard Newman, Natasha Dodwell, Catherine Hills, Michiel Dekker, Tamsin O’Connell, Ian Riddler and Penelope Walton Rogers, “The Burial of a Princess? The Later Seventh-Century Cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 89 (London 2009), pp. 81-141, the ‘princess’ in the barrow pp. 84-91 and the teenage vampiredeviant pp. 91-94. Told you this bibliography was good!

9. I would first think, always, of Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here, but see now also Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, obviously. Caciola’s article also uses lots of juicy evidence from the Continent.

10. Blair’s bibliography gives this as M. Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons (2009), and full details appear to be Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c. 597-c. 700: discourses of life, death and afterlife (London 2009), as you can see from this review by Barbara Yorke at Reviews in History, where the work is called “erudite, but sometimes controversial”.

11. Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford 2009), which is one of the few things not in the bibliography.

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading

Seminary LXI: notables of the field and their Renaissances

Dave Brock of Hawkwind playing at the Cambridge Junction, December 2009

So, the last post recorded a paper that I was pleased to have made the time to hear. The same is less easy to say of this one. How can I put it? I like old rock bands. Now you can divide old rock bands into four groups, if you obsess enough about such things: those who despite having been going more or less continuously for years are still inventive and productive (Gong, most obviously for me; Hawkwind, to a lesser extent); those who have been going more or less continuously for a long time doing the same thing over and over (Status Quo, ZZ Top) among whom a subset have lost, to death, personality conflicts or reality, their creative cores and should stop for the sake of their once-good name (I will name only Thin Lizzy here, in either of their current touring incarnations). Then there are those who have lately reformed, and either can still cut it (Electric Prunes, Omnia Opera) or who really can’t but presumably needed the money (Blue Cheer…). Every time I risk a gig by some such venerable name, I wonder which of these it’s going to be, but one has to go because there may never be another chance (and every gig is unique anyway).1

Professor Jack Goody lecturing to the American University in Beirut

Professor Jack Goody lecturing to the American University in Beirut

I am less used to applying this scheme to academics, not least because they very rarely return to the field after time off, but it was in my mind after this paper, which was on the same day as the previous one. Long-memoried readers will recall, perhaps, that early in the life of this blog I blogged a book of interviews with various notables of the so-called New History.2 One of the interviewees was anthropologist and social historian Jack Goody, whom I had already noticed has recently put a new book out called Renaissances: the one or the many?,3 and another was Peter Burke, so when I discovered that Professor Goody, who has a local emeritus chair but is nonetheless rarely in these parts, was speaking about his new book at CRASSH and that Professor Burke was responding, I thought it would be interesting to go and see what that was like.

Early 'Abbasid manuscript

Early 'Abbasid manuscript

Professor Goody had, he told us, been in a quandary about this paper. He didn’t really want to just give a talk about the book, so had written another, then been persuaded that people probably wanted to hear about the book so glumly opted for the original after all, which he had then left at home, leaving him only some notes for the other one and his own considerable learning to produce an actual talk more or less on the fly. This he did while sucking on something, cough sweets or similar, throughout, so that it was often rather hard to tell what he was saying even once he had made up his mind. The basic argument, I think, was that the term ‘Renaissance’ involves an awareness of what is past so that it can be revived (however faulty that awareness might be), and that this involves records and therefore literacy, which is one of Professor Goody’s oldest concerns. An interesting sidetrack here took us off to China, where as he observed a pictographic script has allowed an empire of many languages to remain united for centuries, for various values of unity, because even when its inhabitants can’t understand each other speaking they can write their speech down in the same script. It’s a point, though not one germane to the title. Oral societies, he argued, have perpetually to reimagine their past whereas literate ones are constrained by what is recorded, especially if it’s Holy Writ (though it seems to me that even Holy Writ is reinterpreted for each generation). With that given, he produced several examples of societies in which an effloresence of learning comes out of a recovery of old ideas: Sung China with Confucianism, ‘Abbasid Islam with its incorporation of the Classics, or even nineteenth-century Bengal with Sanskrit and Vedic literature (so he argued). The crucial element, he finished by arguing, is the openness of religion to innovation in the respective societies; it can enforce stasis in order to protect the status quo, or in the right frame of reform and renewal it can encourage progress by similarly advocating a return to the roots. The true benchmark of such a renaissance, therefore, is not literary output but scientific progress. (The technology of communication is also a factor—for example, the ‘Abbasid revolution was made far easier by access to paper, so much cheaper than parchment—but less significantly.)

Peter Burke lecturing in 2009

Peter Burke lecturing in 2009

It is possible that I do Professor Goody an injustice with this summary, because he was as I say quite hard to hear properly. I am conscious that I may have filled in gaps in my understanding of his argument myself, so I’m not going to critique, merely report with that caution. Professor Burke, as a friend of Goody’s but one not afraid to argue with him, picked two things to react to: firstly, that Burckhardt’s picture of the Italian Renaissance, which Goody had mentioned, is now deprecated in favour of a continuity from Middle Ages to Industrial Revolution in the context of which the Renaissance has to be placed, and that it is no longer regarded as the single such group of changes even in the Western European context; but secondly, that he felt nonetheless that it was still exceptional in terms of scale, the number of people involved (or, I thought, known to have been involved) and range of disciplines and skills active exceeding those other European ones and even the non-European ones discussed by Goody. This is, he argued, why it remains the great comparator and the concept which is exported to other cultures to be tested against their conceptions of cultural change.

I shall not finish the rock band analogy I’ve started here. Professor Goody is indubitably a rock star in his discipline, and has provoked a great many discussions and arguments, as well as written, as Burke pointed out, on an incredible range of topics. If he genuinely were a seventies rock band I’d be damn impressed he had a new album out at all, and I’d have gone to the gig whatever it was likely to be like, just to say I’d seen him. It’s just that, as I say, the metrics by which I measure those performances are not ones I usually expect to be reminded of in this sphere.

Jethro Tull live in 1998


1. Except, arguably, those by Status Quo. I don’t mean to demean this; they know exactly what their fans want and they provide.

2. Maria Lucía Pallares-Burke (ed.), The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2004).

3. J. Goody, Renaissances: the one or the many? (Cambridge 2010).

From Roman to Romanesque, or from Catalonia to Austria by obscure processes

Sant Julià de Sassorba in the early morning, being overflown by a hot air-balloon

I mentioned that I’d been reading a very clever article by Jerrilyn Dodds that I wanted to respond to. If what follows is quite dense I apologise, but I’m keenly conscious that it could balloon to many pages if I let it. I want to try and summarise the article, if only to make sure I understand it well enough to express, and then to raise a tiny finger of query about the thesis. Dodds was writing an article for an exhibition catalogue (I’ve praised the volume before) whose subtitle was “art and culture before the Romanesque”, which for those of you who haven’t met the term is the Continental artistic and architectural phase that comes before Gothic. Dodds therefore set out to problematise as well as explain the idea of pre-Romanesque architecture, by saying that the term (much like ‘medieval’) denigrates by implying that the thing it describes was only an opening act rather than a thing of its own, and by suggesting that a European phenomenon can be encapsulated in all its diversity in one term. With these reservations expressed, Dodds then draws architectural history in three broad phases, and does so in an implicitly Marxist way, which is very interesting: her criterion is, more or less, who controls the means of production, or at least sets its aspirations. So, she sets out a late Antique phase when an increasingly individual and abstract late Roman style is adopted by a range of incoming élites and particularised with their own local and traditional motives and ideas. (She refuses to entertain the word barbarian for this work, as you might expect.)

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007. Follow the link for some examples of exactly the sort of adaptation Dodds is talking about...

Then, argues Dodds, there come the Carolingians and a centralising authority with its own ideological project, and since art follows patronage and patronage requires wealth, which tends to come from power, that ideology bends art towards its chosen ideal. Adopting Carolingian styles, or the particular form of imitation of Rome and late antique culture that the Carolingians like to present, is a way of stressing one’s membership of this unity, but as that membership becomes less desirable and the élites of the regions lose interest in the centralising power, the force of local identity is let loose on this style, meaning a new diversification of Carolingian art and building styles in the various places they no longer control, although before long one of these variations becomes a new hegemony under the Ottonians.

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris


Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Of course Dodds is notionally writing here about Catalonia, and here is where Catalonia fits in, because it is a region where the Ottonians do not rule, and so is left to develop its own artistic version of the European vague without much outside pressure to normalise. Furthermore, it is just across the border from another polity with its own powerful normalising artistic project, the Caliphate of al-Andalus, so its local versions have some peculiarity to them. That said, when the style settles it’s less Muslim and much more rural Italian; the Romanesque churches of Catalonia have a lot of Lombard parallels, to the extent that it has been hypothesized that actual Italian craftsmen must have been working here. (Since the exiled Venetian doge Pietro Orseolo retired to the area, there were some connections.) And what Dodds finishes by emphasising is that this fairly rural style, massive blocky buildings with round arches and a particularly characteristic way of marking off stories with ornament and doubling their windows, becomes part of the next ideological project, the supposed reform Church promoting the primacy of Christian religion and allegiance to Christ over all secular ties through its building and other forms of artwork, and thus a regional style winds up all over Europe. (It’s certainly true that Romanesque as it survives is overridingly a religious architecture, but then secular buildings of any kind from this period are incredibly rare, so I don’t know if that’s meaningful.)

Apse and tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

Apse and tower of Romanesque church of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

I find this a very powerful explanatory paradigm, and as I said when I first mentioned this article it serves to remind one, very convincingly, that art really can reflect power strategies, especially in this era when wealth is so concentrated and art so expensive. That said, I feel discomfort with the tightness of the envelope and I’d like to think some of this stuff out more. I know, for example, that there is a school of anthropological thought that argues that borders are very often sites of cultural production, and that what the border originates the centre will often follow. (The name I have been told is Gloria Anzáldua and her book Borderlands but I have yet to take my anthropologist-of-resort’s exhortations to actually read it far enough to heart, alas.) Quite where that leaves the idea of centralising artistic projects I’m not sure, and I wonder if Dodds and Anzáldua’s paradigms could actually be brought into dialogue here. Rome, I presume, is what bends things here; all these projects are some variation on Rome in Dodds’s view. Secondly, there is the problem that Romanesque really does spread. It’s rare in England I believe, where ‘Norman’ as a style is affected by it but not quite the same thing. But compare the below, which are from many many hundreds of miles apart, one from inside the Ottonian domains (though later) and the other from outside even the Carolingian ones.

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria


Panoramic view of Santo Toribio de Liébana, Cantabria, from Wikimedia Commons

I could find more, and they would stress, yes, diversity, but not enough diversity that you would necessarily be able to say, without knowing that the tower of Sankt Hippolyt there has a peaked wooden roof and the tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb up above has a spire, which of the two was from where. And although Santo Toribio’s tower is hardly there you can see from the fabric and the windows that the building is basically part of the same project, and indeed if you go out to Catalonia and wander you will find that people were still building in this basic style for the next eight hundred years, give or take, and that guessing whether something is medieval or not comes down basically to weathering or finding the tourist information plaque. Can this really all be explained by power relations and the universal church? And if not, what on earth does explain it? Dodds’s answer is the best I have seen, but clashes with some of what we know of medieval political identity and rivalry. Or does it? It may be, instead, that I am just a bit too soaked in my region and my medieval world-view is too shrunk to accommodate something this big. Or, it may be that the élite culture is in the end mostly useful for talking about the élite and that stepping into such a building would not have made the average worshipper feel connected, or Roman, or Catholic, but just apprehensive and God-fearing. That is, I wonder if the primary purpose of this art really is political, even if it may still reflect political choices. As you can see, Professor Dodds has given me plenty to think about, but I’m not finished yet.


That article, again, is J. Dodds, “Entre Roma y el Románico: el mito de Occidente” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: Arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 147-155, transl. as “Between Rome and Romanesque: the myth of the west”, ibid. pp. 492-496. For the story of Pietro Orseolo, however, I’d need to go back to Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. J. Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents XIII-XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, II pp. 141-277, though I’m sure it must be covered elsewhere too.

Recent interdisciplinary symposium and bone churches

Scholars in conference! Left to right T'anta Wawa, my own self and Martin Rundkvist

Scholars in conference! Left to right T'anta Wawa, my own self and Martin Rundkvist

An impromptu affair occasioned by the presence of the good Dr Rundkvist in the UK for purposes of being amazing, or amazed, or both! And like all proper academics we gathered in a pub to moan about the field and enthuse about each other’s projects. There was also a resolve that this would be properly documented on all three blogs, which will at least make TW post something :-) Martin is way ahead of me though.

Also, while I’ve attracted both of your attentions via pingbacks, you two, and also indeed Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery if I may, what about this article about ‘houses of bones’ in the Czech Republic, which I found via Archaeology in Europe? I mean, this would cause NAGPRA campaigners to choke on their own incredulous disgust, but it’s even a good long way off contemporary practice in Western Europe too innit? All the current debates about the scholarly and artistic use of bodies, from the furore over Gunther Hagens’s Bodyworlds exhibitions to arguments over the reburial of the Anglo-Saxon bodies from that cemetery at Barton-on-Humber a few years back, I don’t think any of them considered anything like this:

The ossuary at Mělník (open daily except Mondays; cost 30 Kč) contains the bones of up to 15,000 people, arranged along the walls of an old crypt beneath the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Skulls are used to create patterns and spell out words – including large letters reading “Ecce Mors,” or “Behold Death.”

I mean, the first ‘teaching point’ I get out of this is that it’s no use talking about Christian attitudes to the dead as if they’re all the same or laid down in Scripture, but I also wonder what we think an appropriate reaction for us as spokespersons for our various ideas of best practice. This seems to me a very alien way of ‘living with the dead‘, but (except for the artwork constructions! and that’s a fairly big ‘except’) it’s also a pragmatic and Roman one, isn’t it? Only this isn’t a Roman zone and the prevailing culture arrived after the collapse of the Empire in the West. They were Christianised from both West and East, but in Germany or in Byzantium burial practices were not like this, were they? I just don’t know whose peculiarity this is and what frame to use to look at it through. But am I just being the naïf Western medievalist here? Because this, this is nothing I recognise:

Ossuary display in the Kaplica Czaszek, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

Ossuary display in the Kaplica Czaszek, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

Now *this* is interdisciplinary (a testimonial)

Let me set out a soapbox and make a case. It’s not one that I necessarily hold to all of but it stands up by itself when it’s made like this. One of the dangerous things about being genuinely interdisciplinary is that it means not just raiding other disciplines for ideas and running back to Clio’s Citadel to use them, but letting people from other disciplines inside your own to critique your methods and affectations and, in extreme cases, rearrange all your preconceptions in ways that feel inappropriate. In these terms, genuine interdisciplinarity is not just a challenge to one’s own thinking, which of course it should be, but a threat to the discipline. If anthropologists, archæologists, geneticists, mathematicians, ‘social physicists‘ and scientists in general start doing history, and they (as some are) are willing to learn enough history to make it count, purely text-based history stands to lose some of its legitimacy and identity. That said, as I was recently hearing argued at Leeds, it’s hard to know what we might call this endeavour of scientific elucidation of the past except, well, history, but the point is one of the people we train not being the people who can really do ground-breaking research but only those who guide people who actually understand the methods in use, while seeing their paradigms tested and discarded. This makes people defensive.

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon girl excavated and reburied at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, 2008

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon girl excavated and reburied at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, 2008

I first noticed this with the reaction to Heinrich Härke’s work on skeletons and the settlement of Anglo-Saxon England. He detected two different builds of skeleton in several sites on which he’d worked, and argued that they could be identified as ‘British’ and ‘Germanic’.1 There were all kinds of reasons to mistrust that analysis when it was made: the biggest and most obvious one was that the discipline had spent a decade or so emphasising that ethnogenesis made concepts of ethnicity and race fluid and basically unfounded in biological reality, and then here came this archæologist who apparently hadn’t got the memo and was stressing just those realities. (I suspect it’s also possible that people were slightly uncomfortable with a German scholar laying heavy emphasis on race, which sounds old-fashioned in a range of ways not all of which have been harmless. I doubt an English scholar would have provoked the same reaction as Härke did. And no, I don’t think that’s how it should be.) But although his interpretation can be questioned in lots of ways, the data were real: he had two different sorts of skeleton to explain. Now, of course, we would try and carry out isotope analysis of the bodies’ teeth to see where they had actually lived in their lives, but that’s not exactly history rescuing itself; that’s either history using science, or else it’s science colonising history. And the same sort of battle is ongoing with the increasing rôle of DNA analysis, confused by the fact that very few people understand exactly what studies like Blood of the Vikings actually showed, and these people very rarely include journalists; I have a sketchy idea but only because I like talking to scientists and Steve Harding at Nottingham is very happy to talk to people.

You see what I mean. Texts are safe, because we can never finally resolve them but we can be expert in them all the same. But the empirical demands of history, when it’s allowed to assert them by its practitioners, draw us to empirical evidence, and the ways to derive empirical evidence from archæogical remains, and indeed buildings, objects and yes, texts, or at least, writing, from non-archæogical contexts, are growing. But they’re complicated, and they’re going to involve laboratories. There is coming a point when those who want to identify as historians are either going to have study a lot of science, or back out and work only on literature. Now I know that some readers quarrel with my distinction between reading as literature and reading as historical source, but let them click the link I’m lengthily touting before they make answer. This is it: here is one historian, Michael McCormick at Harvard no less, who has already decided where he stands, and it’s with the scientists. And as a result all that ethnogenesis work and elaborate explanations of the Celtic assimilation into English society are looking rather bare: but because actual historians were involved, and deeply, and the team seems to like the exchange of ideas, what we are getting is not a return to the old paradigm of fire and slaughter or even mass enslavement of Britons by Saxons but a new idea that there must have been some very distinct preferential marriage practices of which we previously had no idea. Yes, they are proving things about marriage practice in the early Middle Ages using science. We can work with this, if we actually want to discover what happened that is. Or we can complicate it and resist it. So, brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution! Are you ready to testify?

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)


1. Härke’s work e. g. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior Graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past and Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22-43; idem, “Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon Graves” in British Archaeology no. 10 (London 1995), p. 7, online here. A measured critique in Andrew Tyrell, “Corpus Saxonum: early medieval bodies and corporeal identity” in William O. Frazer & Andrew Tyrell (edd.), Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain (London 2000), pp. 137-156. Härke responds to his critics, some of whom were less measured, in Heinrich Härke, “Archaeologists and Migration: a problem of attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 39 (Chicago 1998), pp. 19-35, on Scribd here, and has now gone to work on similar themes on Russia where I suspect he meets fewer problems.