Tag Archives: Islam

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.

Teaching

It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.

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…

Link

An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Seminar CXLIV: making landowning legal in early Islam

The approaching beginning of the academic year 2013/2014 finds me looking back at the previous one, my last in Oxford and also my busiest, as the ten-month blogging backlog probably makes clear. Leaping straight on the horse, though, last academic year began for me in terms of things to report with a visit to Oxford by Professor Hugh Kennedy of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, to talk to the Medieval History Seminar on 25th October 2012 with the title “Landholding and Law in the Early Islamic Middle East”.

Eighteenth-century Persian depiction of Islam on the march, with Muhammad piously depicted only as a flame destroying idols.

Eighteenth-century Persian depiction of Islam on the march, with Muhammad piously depicted only as a flame destroying idols. What need have these men of landed estates, you may ask? Image from Wikimedia Commons

The reason there’s a paper here is that very early Islam was in fact largely set against extensive landowning; the social structure of conquering Islam was that the conquered had the land, and paid the salaries of the Muslim armies and government in tax. Humanly enough, though, the Islamic élite wanted a secure basis of their wealth and it wasn’t long before traditions began to be recorded in which the Prophet had been a landholder too, and large-scale landholding was evidently possible by, say, the ninth century. In the almost total non-survival in Islamic lands of the kind of document I’d use to look at something like this, to wit charters, you have to go through everything else looking for hints and possibilities and that, as part of a larger economic history of the Islamic Middle East, is what Hugh had been doing.

What we find, apparently, is that something like a doctrine of social utility mapped out the route to private landed wealth. Islamic law quickly came to agree that land that was empty and was put back into use, thus serving the community of the faithful where it had not before, was worthy of beneficial taxation, a situation that was allowed to be inherited. This is not exactly property, but was the easiest route to landholding for those in frontier zones, where such land was easily obtained (or at least, alternative claims to its ownership were easier to ignore, I might suggest). In Islam’s inner territories that was harder, however, and there the way that the very very few documents we do have (about which I knew nothing, and which seem to be more or less caliphal confirmations of benefices with privileges, lots like some would see the Carolingian grants dealing with aprisio1) suggest the trick was done was by building irrigation, again adding utility and thus being able to claim something back from the sultān, at this stage not a person but meaning something like ‘establishment’. The few grants we have are confirmations of such privileges to the heirs of people who’d carried out such projects, and you can see how these could make the basis of a privileged and substantial landed base that subordinate settlers would inhabit under one’s dominance.2 Nonetheless, there is nothing at this stage that suggests that the caliph and the ‘establishment’ could not legally have taken back those lands if they were not being developed, so this is still not quite full property. Hugh still had work to do, therefore, but there was already a clear picture developing of early Islamic law’s ability to shift its picture in response to circumstances and its community’s needs, and to find or create the precedents it needed so to do.

Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi, MS Leiden Or. 298, fo. 7r.

Leaf from an 866 paper manuscript collection of hadīth, Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi, MS Leiden Or. 298, fo. 7r.

Questions dealt with how Islam would have responded to the landholding it found itself amidst as it expanded, and how much of this might be Roman laws refitted, and James Howard-Johnston also raised the excellent point that converts presumably were not obliged to give up their lands, with consequent implications for the already-faithful. It is quite hard to see how even militant Islam could have managed without some structures for private landed property given how many of its subjects had such, but that just makes it all the more intriguing the time it seems to have taken to work them out to where we can see them…


1. This is kind of the traditional view of the Carolingians’ grants of rights in waste land, argued tentatively by Auguste Dupont, “Considérations sur la colonisation et la vie rurale dans le Roussillon et la Marche d’Espagne au IXe siècle” in Annales du Midi Vol. 67 (Toulouse 1955), pp. 223-245 but nuanced somewhat in his later “L’aprision et le régime aprisionnaire dans le midi de la France (fin du VIIIe-début du Xe siècle)” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 71 (Bruxelles 1965), pp. 179-213 & 385-399. For references to other work, see J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (2010), pp. 320-342.

2. I nagged Hugh for a reference to these elusive documents after the paper, and what I wrote down is “H. Kennedy in IRAQ (2012)”. I think this must be H. Kennedy, “The feeding of the five hundred thousand: cities and agriculture in early Islamic Mesopotamia” in Iraq Vol. 73 (London 2011), pp. 177-199, as the 2012 issue has no piece by him in, but it may be that it is yet to emerge.

Seminar XC: Normans? in Africa?

Still another Oxford seminar here, and one that I could maybe skip over because it has already been blogged by the estimable Gesta, but which I don’t want to let slip by because it was really cool. Alex Metcalfe, who has come at medieval studies via the unusual route of study in law (I think!) and in Arabic, is one of the very few people currently in field who are interested in getting Western and Eastern sources to answer the same questions at the same time, and this led him to be at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 21st February 2011 presenting to the title, “The Norman Conquest (and Loss) of Africa”.

Ruins at Mahdiyya, Tunisia

Ruins at Mahdiyya, Tunisia

It may be news to you—it was to me— that the Normans had any conquests in Africa, but in fact the link between their Sicilian territories and the Muslim province of Ifriqiyya (very roughly modern Tunisia) long predated the Norman presence in Italy, that being whence Sicily was conquered by the Muslims, and so once the Fatimid Caliphate moved out of Ifriqiyya to Cairo in 960 the area was left slightly open, the ruling families on either side of the very short distance between Tunisa and Sicily having fallen out of alliance and so forth. The other background, said Alex, was persistent crop failure in Ifriqiyya leading to an economic dependence on Sicilian grain and a shift to pastoralism, wrecking the Zirid rulers’ tax-base and leaving their cities in trouble. All of the which left the area looking like low-hanging fruit for the Norman kingdom of Roger II (1101-54). And who doesn’t want a doorway onto the Saharan gold trade, after all? In 1142 things got sufficiently bad in Ifriqiyya that the Zirid Amir Hassan signed himself over to Roger as a vassal and so the Norman troops went in to ‘secure the régime’. Alex drew a difference between the situation in Sicily where local élites had largely been left in place by the Normans and this one, where local leaders were reinvested with their properties as Norman fiefs, making their situation now very different. The Normans also charged for the renewal of documents (though the documents that survive had frequently not actually been update, just endorsed) and installed Genoese and Pisan merchants. Because of this sort of thing, and because of the rising presence of the Almohads as an alternative to these Christian overlords, the area was not quiet under Norman rule, and in 1156 a whole bunch of revolts broke out, coinciding with similar ones back in Sicily, and the Normans lost everything but the citadel of Mahdiyya, wrought reprisals on the population there who called the Almohads in and that was about it. One of the aftermaths may have been the beginning of the breakdown of the fabled convivencia and toleration of the Norman Sicilian kingdom, with new measures being taken to subjugate the Muslim population who were presumably now seen as a security risk. Or those attitudes may already have been hardening, but this little-known tale is certainly part of the large story, while it also caused Ifriqiyya to slip beyond the notional frontier and Sicily to drop back to a fairly marginal status on the edge of Europe, even though the distance between the zones remains so tiny.

Map of the Central Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, by Alex Metcalf

Alex's map of the Central Mediterranean; do not adjust your screen

Chris Wickham asked why Alex thought the Normans had not managed to hold this area, where local structures of society had surely been ruined to the point where resistance to the Norman conquest ought to have been harder than the resistance that there largely isn’t in Sicily. Alex put this down to the new presence of the Almohads not giving the Normans time to bed down, and to their neglect to pursue the kind of wealth creation they had nurtured in Sicily (however much that had been for their own ends). Palermo remained centre of this new province, rather than giving it back something to hold on to, so the population had no real incentive to hold off from joining the brave new Almohad world, not least because their jurists were somewhat divided over whether one should even remain living under Christian rule if alternatives existed. In Sicily the Normans managed to combine offers of advantage, overwhelming force and tolerance to good effect, and in Ifriqiyya none of these remained available for very long. All very interesting and the questions of policy failures versus circumstances remain to be worked over a bit more yet, I think.

Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

As with any type of specialised knowledge, I guess, one of the problems with getting information out to the people at large is that the people at large don’t necessarily have the context that allows them to judge whether something is important, or just hot air. More importantly, often neither do the people who write about it for them. This is of course not news here or elsewhere, but every now and then you gotta vent anyway. Two pieces that went past on News for Medievalists, the messenger it’s OK to shoot, in particular struck me as pieces where it might have been good if a historian of the relevant area and period had been consulted somewhere along the line.

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

The first of these was a piece about a Chinese coin found in East Africa. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of this at all, though the political context into which this, and all the other stuff you may have seen about Chinese naval contact with Africa in the fifteenth century in recent years, is bothersome. Basically, the Chinese government is currently pouring a lot of money into East Africa and, not surprisingly, one of the results of this is a new line of historical and archæological investigation arguing for the importance of China’s early influence on East Africa, an early influence that the Ming state nevertheless more or less threw away in 1433. The main figure of this wave of flag-showing was a Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who more or less came in peace, and he is becoming a powerful symbol of enlightened maritime friendship and patronage for Beijing, which is probably not unconnected with Chinese archæologists recently finding his tomb, empty, although a subsequent announcement admitted that in fact the identification was probably wrong, which to judge by other such stories will mainly allow the ‘experts’ to find the tomb again at some convenient later point. In the reportage of all this they will, of course, rely on exactly the journalistic shortcomings that set this piece off.1 (There is a really good article in Time about the politico-industrial context of all these amazing discoveries here.)

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

So yes, OK, calm down, what about this coin? Well, whatever the Chinese government and its unwitting spokespeople want to make of it, there is no problem with a Chinese presence in fifteenth-century Africa. No, I’m fine with that. The bit that got me was the final paragraphs of the BBC piece that News for Medievalists were robbing, where they talk about how this knocks Vasco de Gama off the map in the “connecting Africa to the world” stakes; China were there earlier. Witness:

“We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,” said Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya.

“Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals. It shows that Kenya was already a dynamic trading power with strong links to the outside world long before the Portuguese arrived,” he said.

You get it? It’s about China beating the West, both in time and in morals. And the obvious thing that’s missing from this is the Middle East, dammit, because this whole area was under a Muslim sultanate at this point and had been for years. It was already connected to a vastly wider world stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco via Baghdad, and I suspect that it is that last name that is one of the problems, because currently it’s probably not politically wise for Kenyan spokespersons to put out pieces saying, “Yah, well of course we used to be real good buddies with Baghdad till you Western guys came along and changed all that.” I could wish that some of the coverage was cunning enough to pick that up, but at the very least they should mention the religion of the Sultan of Malindi and the immense networks that being an Islamic state at that time in history gave a polity access to. They could also mention that the first point East from Africa is not actually China, but India, which had ‘discovered’ this area and its trading potential long before, but India is not currently investing in Kenya as much and I guess that’s why that’s not news. Of course, one might question whether Africa really needed to be discovered at all to be important, or whether this is just past and present colonialism talking, but if discovered and connected to a wider world it had to be, it seems pretty clear those politically-pesky Arabs should be claiming the honour. The other point, though, is more subtle, and this maybe they can be excused for not picking this up. Did you ever hear of a place called Kilwa?

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

No? Kilwa Kisiwani, Venice of East Africa? The Treasure Island of Kilwa? Still nothing? Well, you’re not alone if so, I’d never heard of it either until a few years ago I found myself trying to fix the fact that in a certain database almost all of its coins there present were mistakenly marked as being half-rupees, but it was pretty big. For about three centuries, and peaking in the fourteenth, this island fastness had the run of the east African coast and therefore the ability to channel its trade, which made it extremely rich. It was also, of course, given the day and age, an Islamic state, and a very well-known one: Ibn Battuta stayed there, its rulers communicated with others and its coins (at least, the gold ones, which are weirdly never found locally) travelled great distances through the Islamic territories.2 Zheng He, however, landed at Malindi, and Kilwa’s over-reaching importance in the area hasn’t made it it into any press coverage I’ve seen. Obviously Zheng He’s choice of berth is one reason, although we can probably assume he also went to Kilwa Kisiwani since he is supposed to have travelled up and down the whole coast. I suspect, however, that the big factor in this obtrusive state’s strange absence from the Kenyan-Chinese picture is that its territories are now in Tanzania, and thus it’s nothing to do with the real reason this stuff is getting reported. Tchah.

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

There’s more I could write (off). For example, another News for Medievalists’ post robbing a Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Goldstone headlined “Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan” really needs the Matt Gabriele treatment but I could begin with, “well, one reason that isn’t quite going to work is that Afghanistan is currently crawling with soldiers sent from halfway across the world and every time one of them is killed halfway-around-the-world gets to hear about it almost instantly, by much the same high-speed communications means by which the attack was probably coordinated. These eras are not the same. Also, you used the f-word.” I mean, if what you want to say is that Afghanistan is in the grip of a bunch of territorial warlords whom the government barely controls but hopes to entice by deploying patronage, then yes, that might work, as long as your medieval analogue was, for example, late Salian Germany, but picking France and England at the end of the Hundred Years War as your benchmarks rather knocks the whole thing to pieces. You see, Hamid Karzai, about whose government the article technically is,3 is not, in fact, an occupying power so equating him with England trying to hold France won’t really float. Neither, in fact, will likening the USA in Afghanistan to Plantagenet England, because of Henry V actually trying to rule France directly due to a genealogical claim on it, not just wanting someone friendly in charge there to prevent people in France raiding his coastline or whatever. And of course if one of the players here were founding their riches on their ability to market a massively-important cash crop globally, as are the Afghan warlords with the opium poppy, it was England, with its wool, not France. In other words, for this analogy to work, the USA would need to have displaced Karzai and annexed Afghanistan as a 52nd state largely to protect its own drugs revenue, which almost certainly isn’t the case and certainly isn’t the point Ms Goldstone wants to make. We can leave aside the medievalism-as-contempt-for-the-other motif for others to pick up, I think, and just skewer the inaccuracy.

Oh, you journalists with a little medieval knowledge. Why can’t you all be more like this guy? (Hat tip to Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard for this one.)


1. This is, by the way, approximately half as much as some people have tried to claim for Zheng He, a retired British naval captain called Gavin Menzies having published two books claiming that the Chinese fleet also discovered America and visited all the major ports of Europe. I’m glad to have found a story where a Chinese academic is quoted not only taking this down but also stressing the importance of Islamic seafarers in connecting up the zones through which Zheng He and other Chinese voyagers travelled.

2. On the numismatics I have to thank Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, one of the UK’s two archæologists working on Swahili stuff she tells me, who has a paper about where Kilwa’s coins turn up and publishing some new ones coming out in next year’s Numismatic Chronicle.

3. Obviously, it’s really about how clever Nancy Goldstone is, but I can hardly criticise someone for gratuitously showing off knowledge on the Internet, now can I?

Leeds report 3: Wednesday 9th

Being slightly more together on the third day of Leeds, and almost avoiding buying any books, I had resolved to branch out at least slightly, if only because of having spent so much of last year in Texts and Identities (which wasn’t terribly lively this year). So first thing Wednesday morning found me in ‘Inside the VIP Suite: The Roles of a Ruler’s Favourite‘, three papers from quite different regions about those who secure the attention of the powerful to the exclusion of others. Hans Peter Pökel was enlightening about the rôles of eunuchs in the cAbbasid Caliphate, including the interesting sidelight that although usually regarded as less manly and effective than a full male, as ghazis (frontier troops) against the Byzantines they were considered unusually vicious and effective, this being because Byzantium was usually where they’d had their tackle removed. Stefan Bießenecker had a range of German examples, and John Dillon was mostly narrative about two relatively successful Neapolitan ministers who didn’t quite fit the definition, because of not excluding others from power so much. All in all it wasn’t terribly earth-shattering but did at least mean that I hadn’t spent the whole conference being strictly early medieval.

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

After that, though, I reverted to type and hid in Texts and Identities for what was apparently the sixth of a series of sessions on the mysterious chronicler or chroniclers we call Fredegar. In this Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz were extremely soft-spoken, to the extent that I having arrived late and being stuck on a window-ledge near the back, couldn’t really hear them. This was a pity as what I caught was quite interesting, as it should be given the speakers’ calibres, but really I couldn’t tell you what if anything I learnt. My notes however save me and suggest that Walter was trying to get at the way in which ‘Fredegar’ represents ethnicity and identity, in terms of gentes rather than regna which can contain several gentes but whose king always belongs to one gens not all of them, such as, well, the Franks, this being Fredegar; and that Dr Reimitz picked up that theme and showed how ‘Fredegar’ was building the Franks into the Roman tradition of Universal History much as Bede is supposed to for the Anglo-Saxons.1 Ian Wood‘s paper was much more audible and therefore interesting but didn’t really stick to its title, apparently having undergone some revision since an earlier presentation at a conference in Tübingen that was apparently being reprised in these sessions. He was talking about the earlier books of the Chronicle, which have a less clearly pro-Frankish agenda and make their points with anecdotes and fabulae whose sense is keenly contemporary and thus very difficult to reconstruct. After that much of this it was getting easy to see how the Friends of Fredegar had managed to put together so many sessions…

Graph demonstrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

Graph demontrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

I branched back out over lunch however, which involved a certain amount of dashing back and forth between campuses, but all the same I just made it into the lunchtime lecture which was on “Climate Change and the Historic Environment”. I’ve been known to blame the whole alleged feudal transformation on climate change in the past, and I felt I could use some actual data given how much polemic there is on the web about the ‘medieval warm period’. Actually, most of what Sebastian Payne (of English Heritage) was saying was well prehistoric. He talked about how we get ancient climate information at all, and then concentrated on disproving various media myths, firstly that it is currently usually hot for the Earth, secondly that storms and climatic disturbance are becoming more frequent, and there were some others I forget. Actually, he told us, things have been abnormally cold for the Earth for most of the last four thousand years, though individual years are all over the place within that broad limit, and actually we’ve been unusually quiet for huge storms and events this last thirty years. Also, as far as the medieval warm period was concerned, his graphs with that kind of definition did pretty much all agree that 700 onwards gets warmer, levels at about 900 and holds more or less till 1200 then tails off again and is quite bad by 1600. But most of his graphs were much longer-scale, pre-human, which did lead to the obvious point: if we’ve become a dominant species with a huge global infrastructure in this 4-millennium cold spell, any slight change in that could still be extremely worrying. We really don’t want a dinosaur-compatible climate! To this his rather dour answer was that we haven’t built sustainably in this kind of perspective, and that quite a lot won’t make it through any rough times of climate that are coming on; and his paper was ostensibly about preserving the historic environment in these times of change, but he spent most of it proving that we are very short-sighted as a species and that history might have a few things to tell us about what works and what doesn’t. Interesting, anyway.

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

A run back across the road took me into the seventh Fredegar session, this one focusing on other people than the Franks as shown up in Fredegar’s Chronicle. Stefan Esders showed how Fredegar used the lives of King Dagobert of the Franks and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as mirrors of each other, a good beginning spoilt by pride and subsequent punishment; Andreas Fischer showed how he also balanced Byzantines and Persians against each other as equally legitimate empires and forecast their conversion. Both these presenters were sure that Fredegar had some Eastern source, possibly even Syrian, and Fischer wondered if he might even read Hebrew; this seemed to me much weirder than they thought. (Ian Wood had earlier on said, ‘we always say he, it could be she for all we know’. Perhaps it’s a seventh-century historical Héloïse telling us all these stories…) And lastly Ann Christys, for whom I’d actually turned up, showed how he (or she) uses the Arabs in Spain and Provence not only to cast Charles Martel as a holy warrior, but also to align the Duke of Aquitaine whom Charles Martel cast out as a treacherous ally of heretics. In this scheme, the defeat of the Arabs Charles managed is actually not what Fredegar is interested in in this story; they just give him a good way to badmouth Duke Eudo. So that was all fun, or at least I thought so. Amazingly rich text; if only we had all of it, hey?

The last session on Wednesday was the first one where I really regretted not being able to be in several places at once. Where I actually went was a really cool session about burial archaeology called ‘Tombs and Identities’, but to do that I had to pass up another digital session and one with at least one good paper about wills in. Also, I realised later, I’d missed perhaps the only paper that will ever be presented at the IMC about Catalan archaeological chronology in my period, and I must contact the presenter and apologise for not having spotted her and asking her for a copy of the paper. Catalan ceramics are not very helpful but they’re about all the dating evidence there is and having a short guide to them in English would be very useful to me. Poor observation Jarrett…

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

That said, the Tombs and Identities session was really good; I just should have been somewhere else. Highlight was certainly Philipp von Rummel, who was arguing that attempts to see Childeric’s grave as a German adopting Roman culture was old-fashioned, because Childeric probably thought he was a Roman, but the definition of ‘Roman’ had changed a lot in the previous hundred years. He was a Roman military officer, holding a Roman position of rule, and he’d probably been born in the Empire. He looks like a (contemporary) Roman in his portrait (and von Rummel had some interesting lower-class Roman parallels for the famous Merovingian long hair here) and there’s no reason to suppose he thought of himself as a barbarian at all, so it tells us more if we stop using those categories like Victorians. But the other papers, which talked about royal and high-status burial in Italy, were also interesting though I did wind up questioning the significance of the second one’s graphs. Why is it me, with no statistical training, no particular mathematical ability and a love for showy representation, why is it me who has to ask the questions about bad maths? Why aren’t these being caught by anyone else? And why don’t people realise that if their graph only shows percentages, we want to know what the total sample was, and that if their graph peaks in the seventh century, and so does the density of their sample, then we want a Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test or similar to see whether that’s actually surprising? Who’s doing this bloody maths, me or you, huh? Okay, it’s me. But it really shouldn’t be because I know nothing about this stuff. It’s very annoying. If it has numbers in that had to be calculated, historians will swallow it uncritically. Anyway, I’ve said this before, let’s move on.

By now I was tiring, and though my original plan had been to make it to a round table about databases and prosopography that I thought would be useful, actually I sat down at the desk in my room to kill a few minutes looking at books before I set out, and woke up about an hour later just about to miss the last plausible bus to make it, and executively decided to go into Headingley and get food instead. Later, as I recall, there was drinking, and then I made an attempt to get an early night which the well-meaning concern of a friend who had carried on drinking entirely scuppered. And then there came Thursday, but that would be another post, after I’ve told you about something stupid I did at Tuesday’s lunch…


1. The so-called Chronicle of Fredegar owes its name to a name attached to a late manuscript, and there’s no real indication that that annotator knew anything we don’t about the author, or rather since it is several quite different books, probably authors; nonetheless, as we have no other name and this name isn’t much used elsewhere, it has stuck. For this reason, when Roger Collins gave an an excellent paper about the text at the IHR some time ago, he told us very solemnly that he would “pronounce ‘Fredegar’ as ‘Fredegar’, with inverted commas that are silent, like the P in Psmith”. Only about half of the audience got this allusion, and snickered quietly, to which Roger then followed up, with similar deadpan solemnity, “A joke which fell completely flat when I told it in Vienna, for some reason” at which point the audience collapsed en bloc. If you get a chance to hear Roger Collins present a paper, do go, it’s worth it.