Tag Archives: islands

Funding the study of medieval islands

It is by now long custom that I start my posts here with an apology for delay, and on bad days also some kind of explanation for it. Today I’ll keep that to, “I think the problem is establishing ownership of my weekends”, and muse on it in a footnote, but at the top I should just get on with it, I think.1 At the moment there are four kinds of post I want to be putting up here: firstly ones in the declared Chronicle series where I just tell you what was happening in my academic life in the period under discussion, secondly posts stubbed long ago during those actual periods which I should finish and get up here, thirdly posts arising from those Chronicle posts where there were just things that needed more explanation, and fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, out-of-sequence announcements of my various and brilliant successes! Only you may also remember that I have got backlogged even with those

So, this post is one of the self-publicity ones, and I’ll follow it with one of the stubbed relics, all of which is largely because I’m not enjoying the prospect of writing up the International Numismatic Congress in a single post. But why am I apologising? Surely the whole point of blogging is to make yourself more famous, right? So look, here’s something I’m proud of: in April 2017 I got given about £5,000 to fund a collaboration with a colleague in Turkey on a project called ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands.

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, looking very cheerful for reasons that are about to be explained!

The backstory to this is quite happenstance, which is so often the best way for things like this to happen. Dr Luca Zavagno is a historian of the late antique Mediterranean who had at the time of writing lately been given a permanent job at Bilkent University, at Ankara in Turkey, but his Ph.D. is from Birmingham’s Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, in association with which I had worked between 2014 and 2015. We also have important people in common, and I can’t actually remember right now how we met, but Birmingham seems likely to explain it somehow or other. Luca, with a ridiculous amount of publication already behind him, was then (and is now) writing a book about how scholars have misunderstood the active rôle played by Mediterranean island communities in the Byzantine Empire after the emergence of Islam, and how we need to put them back on the map, as a kind of third space next to the Anatolian plateau and Ægean seaboard that have otherwise been determined as its major zones.2 And because Luca is a cautious scholar, he decided he needed help getting this right. That was precondition one.

The Newton Fund logo

Precondition no. 2

Precondition two was the existence of Newton Mobility Grants. These are run together by the British Academy, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and are fundamentally about establishing links from the academy in Britain with scholars further afield than our usual spheres of collaboration. At the momemt, they’re focused particularly upon China, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey. You can see where this is going…

So it was Luca’s idea really, but we put in together for a three-part extravaganza, in which first of all Luca would come to Leeds and meet people there and run a graduate seminar, then to Birkbeck in London where our most important mutual friend, Rebecca Darley, is based, for similar activities, at each stage honing Luca’s project agenda and identifying its key areas of importance and difficulty, and finally ending up with a workshop for us all in Ankara. It was surprisingly easy to get, though I’m not going to say that without making all due obeisance to Rebecca and to the Leeds Humanities Research Institute for making the application better and easier, respectively, without whom I doubt we would have been as successful. But nonetheless, successful we were, and actually that was already so long ago that we have now done all the activities we promised. Indeed, you can see some of the details on our dedicated website, which is all the work of Luca and his excellent intern Harun and for which I can take no credit.

So, how did it all go? Well, Leeds went OK; we wound up doing it at such short notice that attendance at the events, especially the graduate seminar, was not what it could have been, but it did what was needed, which was to get Luca project feedback from many different levels and interest people here in his project. Learning from this, the London events were constructed more ambitiously and were more about Luca leading other people through his learning, and I wasn’t there but understand they went excellently. Somehow, however, none of this had cost as much as we’d expected. Once I had convinced Luca that this was actually a bad thing, due to the weird perversity of UK grant economics, he stepped up with a will and the Ankara workshop suddenly inflated from being just a project meeting to being a small but fully-fledged international conference! I will talk about that in its due season, but the programme details are visible here.

Now in theory it could have ended there, as we’d really done all that we promised, but we were so pleased by how the conference had gone that Luca was determined to do something with it, and the obvious thing to do with a seven-paper conference seemed to be a themed journal issue that we co-edited. And that is what we’re doing! Now, this is a publication in process, and I am always superstitiously worried about talking about those until they come out—what if they get rejected after I’ve told you all about them?—but we have had two of the eventual six articles accepted already, so probably something is going to happen. Mine isn’t yet one of them, though, so I still won’t tell you what or where, just that as you can tell the timing for that to all have happened so soon was really quite tight, and I had to put aside or postpone a number of other important things to get it done on time. It is also my first time co-editing a journal, and managing the peer review has been a weird experience, though doubtless very useful. For anyone other than Luca I might not have put myself through all this; but as it is, gods willing, it’s an extra article and co-written intro that may be out next year that I wouldn’t otherwise have, on stuff I’d never otherwise have looked at, all because Luca thought we could do some good trying to get money to make his book better. I’m rather proud of it all. See how great a matter a little fire kindleth!


1. What do I mean? Well, in the great work crisis of 2016-17, I was basically working every weekend to stay afloat, just on the stuff that needed to happen next week, let alone research. At that point blogging was a long way out of the realm of possibility, but when things got easier, as they now are, it was still hard to see where it fitted. There was still, and likely always will be, more to be done than would fit in any reasonable time, but I’d begun to realise the importance of taking time off as well. (Yes, I was late to that party, I know.) The trouble since then has been finding where blogging can fit. It’s not that I think my bosses would get angry at my blogging on work time, but I certainly don’t think they’d see it as a core task. As it is, I have a work triage list: blogging sits at no. 10 on it and so far, in the entire history of my employment at Leeds, I have not made it below no. 9, and in an ordinary week even out of term won’t usually see no. 7. So it has to be done outside work time, but I struggle to allocate that, and usually succeed only by going out or doing something entirely non-academic. If I’m in and have a computer up, I’m probably working. Today, I made a deliberate decision to blog instead of whatever my other tasks might be, but that’s what it has taken. The problem is that blogging is no longer a habit for me, and there isn’t really room for it to recover that status. I will work it out, but I’m not there yet. Saying to myself, ‘it’s Saturday and nothing’s in crisis; today they don’t own me’, is a start, however.

2. Key texts here might be Telemachos Lounghis, Byzantium in the Eastern Mediterranean: Safeguarding East Roman Identity (407–1204) (Nicosia 2010); Filippo Burgarella, “Bisanzio e le Isole” in Paola Corrias (ed.), Forme e caratteri della presenza bizantina nel Mediterraneo occidentale: la Sardegna (secoli VI-XI) (Cagliari 2012), pp. 33‒42; Dominique Valérien, “The Medieval Mediterranean” in Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita (edd.), A Companion to Mediterranean History (Chichester 2014), pp. 77‒90; and most of all, Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, 2 vols (Paris 1988). For the two zones of Byzantium see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400‒800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 29‒37, though the idea didn’t start with Chris. Luca’s own answers begin to be set out in Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600–800): An Island in Transition (London: Routledge, 2017) and Luca Zavagno, “Islands: not the Last Frontier: Insular Model in Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, c. 650-c. 850″, in Giuseppe D’Angelo and Jorge Martins Ribeiro (edd.), Borders and Conflicts in the Mediterranean Basin, Mediterranean, Knowledge, Culture and Heritage 2 (Fisciano 2016), pp. 37‒50, and more is coming, evident not least in the fact that I have stolen all these references from draft versions of it!

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Leeds IMC Report for 2015, part 4 and final

The last of these posts, though not the last of the 2015 conference reporting I fear, sees me up bright and early on the 9th July 2015. Why? Well, partly so as not to miss breakfast but also because as you may recall, the previous day had almost all been sessions in honour of Ian Wood to mark his retirement. In fact those sessions continued all the rest of the conference, but for reasons that will shortly become clear, I could only go to the first one, and that meant going to hear one of my undergraduate teachers for whom I long ago developed a practice of being good and prompt. What am I talking about? Witness!

1514. The Early Medieval Church: history and hagiography – sessions in honour of Ian Wood, V

  • Rosamond McKitterick, “Reflections on the Manuscript Transmission of Eusebius-Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Barbara Rosenwein, “Feeling Saints in Gregory of Tours”
  • Wendy Davies, “Unpicking the Early Strands of Becerro Gallicano of San Millán de Cogolla: the monasteries of old Castile”
  • Thomas F. X. Noble, “Response”
  • As a line-up of people whose work has influenced me this is hard to beat. Rosamond, furthermore, opened all our eyes, I think, by picking up on something that I at least knew but knew very little about, that Eusebius’s famous History of the Church, written in Greek around 312-24, was largely known to the West only in the form of the Latin translation of Rufinus, who made it in 401, he says as a distraction from the depradations of the Goths! Rosamond pointed out that he did not leave Eusebius’s text alone, but combined much of the last two books and added two more of his own, and this involved inserting the Nicene Creed, no less, where Eusebius’s report of the Council of Nicæa had only had the council canons. And this was basically the West’s most stable source for the Creed that is the centrepost of Christian worship. Rosamond had counted ten versions in circulation by the Carolingian era, but Rufinus’s was the most common. You can see why some people felt like a reform was needed, can’t you? Professor Rosenwein, meanwhile, reminded us that despite technically being in Heaven and above such concerns, saints as conceived in the Middle Ages still got angry and upset, lamenting and so forth, in much the ways that their followers on Earth did but for better reasons and with better outcomes; they were to an extent emotional guides for the faithful on how to use one’s feelings for the good. This paper was hampered somewhat by relying solely on Gregory, who may well have had his own emotional spectrum (I would centre it on crotchety entitlement, myself), and in questions Albrecht Diem mischeviously raised the prospect that Gregory had two or more different ideals of sanctity in which case, as Professor Rosenwein said in answer, all generalisation would become impossible. Lastly Wendy, taking advantage of the brand new digital version of the Aragonese monastery of San Millán’s oldest surviving cartulary, had dug into it to detect an initial compilation of geographically-focused dossiers, of which one, but only one, went much back before 1000, that dealing with one valley whose materials were, unlike the rest, not in standard diplomatic form; she characterised this as the diplomatic of breakdown, when the practice of charter-writing continued but no authority was left to require how. This is quite powerful as a tool for me and I need to go and look at those charters, not least because I have observed the same myself at Leire and Obarra without thinking about what it meant.1

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, none other, closed that session by remarking that the frontier had its own characteristics that were worth seeing from a frontier perspective; little did he know how much of a choir he was speaking to… You see, the reason I couldn’t come to any more of the sessions for Ian Wood, be they never so luminaried, was that my own sessions got going after coffee this day. They were but two, and I could have wished they weren’t so late in the conference since the audience dropped with each one as people went home, but they were still fun and they went like this.

1630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: beyond the Reconquista

  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “A Kingdom with no Frontier: on the political identity of the Astur-Leonese monarchy, 9th-11th centuries”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “De administrandis marcis: the 10th-century frontier with Islam seen from Barcelona and Byantium”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Place, Fringe, Society or Process? Rulers and Ruled at the Iberian Frontier through the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población, c. 1050-1150″
  • Remains of the church of San Benito de Sahagún, on the site of the earlier monastery

    Remains of the church of San Benito de Sahagún, on the site of the earlier monastery. Photo by Davidh820Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 3.0 es, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21717489


    All three of us entered this session with historiographical beasts to slay, I think. For Álvaro it was the frontier itself: he focused on the Tierra de Campos around the monastery of Sahagún and noted that after it was notionally fully incorporated into the kingdom of Asturias at the end of the ninth century, with royal donations indicating a considerable scale of property in the general area, the kings could still effectively lose control to local strongmen after a while, and the monastery had first to become the kings’ chosen strongman and then, after a further while, to give up on the kings and focus on the counts of Castile for support. This was less a frontier zone than just an ineffectively-governed one (though I might still argue for that as a frontier space, like mountains2). This theme that frontier politics were maybe just like politics elsewhere came up a lot in discussion, and it was fellow contributor Nicholas Paul who drew us back on track by reminding us that what made it different was the possibility of and for warfare, and Rob Portass had already raised this possibility by reminding us that Sahagún suffered sacking by the armies of al-Mansur in the late tenth century, enough as we know to detach many an area from its notional protectors!
    Rodrigo’s chosen beast, which has withstood a lot of slaying so far, was the Reconquista. Despite doing the particularly difficult thing of giving a first paper before one’s old supervisor (I taught Rodrigo in Oxford, which was why I had gathered him into this effort), he made an eloquent and even impassioned attempt to use the five-hundred-plus local law codes known as fueros to argue for a fragmented, discontinuous and locally-negotiated process of incorporation of new territories into the Navarrese and Aragonese crowns, a process which military presence and the award of these codes only began, rather than concluding. The results remained at the mercy of local strongmen and contrary offers (meaning, for example, that Tudela, Rodrigo’s particular focus, actually switched from Aragón to Navarre after a while) for a long time after the supposed frontier had moved beyond them. This of course meant that the very processes that Rodrigo here thought defined the frontier were those which Álvaro had used to refute such a definition for Sahagún, so it is perhaps no wonder that the discussion was agnostic about whether we were really looking at a distinct phenomenon, but trying to put some definitional flesh on the skeletal concept of ‘frontier’ was what we were all doing there so that was OK by me.
    Archivo Municipal de Tudela, Pergamins A.0002.3

    One manuscript of the fuero of Tudela, Archivo Municipal de Tudela, Pergamins A.0002.3 I think, due to be published by Rodrigo García-Velasco whose image this is


    Speaking of me, I was of course the middle one here, and my beast was incomparability. Despite the apparent incongruities of culture, size, resource and agency I was determined to put my year of necessary Byzantinism to use here, which was where all the digging into Constantine VII‘s De Administrando Imperii had come from. Looking at Constantine VII and Borrell II of Barcelona, of course, who just about overlapped but who in the former case were writing of an earlier time, I gave due attention to the disparities but then argued that both leaders seemed to realise that their best strategy for asserting themselves beyond the borders of what they securely controlled was to locate and enlist a subordinate in whom they could really trust and then let them have their head. Borrell laid more conditions down on some of his chosen subordinates (some of whom, like those of the kings of Asturias, were monasteries) and arguably got less out of them, but the attraction and retention of somebody who could actually achieve things for you was apparently worth the price of their working for themselves. This is the kind of ‘rule’ I want this frontiers project to derive and test; how well has this worked when people have done it and are there context-specific factors that explain that? And so on. This was by way of a first try at what I want this project to be.
    Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

    The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), populated for Borrell II by a monastic subsidiary

But, necessarily, such a project cannot be all about the Iberian Peninsula even if that’s where my personal networks are strongest. So there was lunch, and various people fading away and finally, the determined hold-out cohort reconvened for the last session of both conference and strand, as follows.

1730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, II: Eastern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean

  • Jakub Kabala, “Concepts of the Border in Early Medieval Central Europe”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Islands – Not the Last Frontier: Insular Models in the Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, ca. 650-ca. 850
  • Nicholas Paul, “The Lord’s Tournament Ground: the performance of nobility in Crusader Outremer”
  • I was sorry about the small audience for this session, not just because I’d invited these people to speak from far away in all cases and could in the end offer them only a few hearers, but also because there were three quite different and testing conceptions of frontier space in operation, the discussion such as it was was very thought-provoking and I just wish there could have been more people in it. Kuba was dealing with early medieval ecclesiastical language for borders, which, unsurprisingly, was Biblical, coming from Exodus and Proverbs. While these were usually interpreted in commentaries as describing the boundaries of correct belief, beyond which only heretics would go, Kuba had many examples of churchmen invoking them to complain of more basically territorial infractions, Carolingian clerics writing of Brittany and Thuringia, Methodius of Bavarian infiltration of the province of Moravia, and so on. Clearly the Church had a sense of bounded space here, even if a Biblically-phrased one. Predictably, I therefore asked in questions how that space was bounded, given that it didn’t need to be politically controlled or defended and frequently wasn’t, and Kuba wisely said that the key question was who ordained its clerics.

    Fresco illustration from San Clemente di Roma, showing the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, before the pope

    Fresco illustration from San Clemente di Roma, showing the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, before the pope. By anonymous artistUnknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2303590


    This got me thinking. It is that nodal concept of territory with which early medievalists now like to play instead of lines on a map, and it could be represented almost fractally, as each individual cleric answering or not answering the claimant authority himself had a congregation composed of villages or even households who might go to him but might instead go to the priest next-door. In some sense, at this lowest level, if you could go back there and ask people which fields and streams were in which farm and so on you could build a map up from these tiny tiles, as indeed people did for the term of Santa Maria de Manresa in 978 in a way that Jordi Bolòs hs since mapped (my example not Kuba’s obviously), but it would be sort of missing the point: the resource demarcated by such lines was the hearts and minds of those behind them, not the stuff up to the edge.3 If such a person crossed that line to go and visit someone, and then died, would the priest he ordinarily confessed to still get to claim him for burial? Somehow these questions did not come to me at the time, and I don’t know if they could be answered, but I think I will probably be asking them of Kuba when next we meet…4
    The Byzantine-built castle of Saint Hilarion, Girne, Northern Cyprus

    The Byzantine-built castle of Saint Hilarion, Girne, Northern Cyprus. By Richard – originally posted to Flickr as Saint Hilarion Castle, Girne, Northern Cyprus, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7030408


    Luca, meanwhile, had and has a manifesto. A decent part of the Byzantine Empire was made up of large islands: if you count Sicily, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and the Balearics together you are looking at quite a lot of land-mass, yet they are almost always considered peripheral to the mainland’s interests, Sicily sometimes excepted. Luca argued instead that these are a third sort of space to range between the plains of the landward empire and the mess of islands that is the Ægean, places to which the sea is very important but which can function autonomously. They are also more than fortresses and defences, often being trade hubs and even—and this is the bit that catches me particularly—becoming sort of betweennesses once technically lost to the empire, with connections still visible in the form of ceramics, seals and coins after their conquest by or loss to opposing or local powers. Cyprus, indeed, was subject to something like a formal power-sharing agreement between the Empire and the Caliphate during the seventh century, and it’s persistently difficult to say whether it was really in the Empire or not thereafter; its officials used Byzantine titles and honours, but we’ve seen how that can work… Much of what seems problematic here stops being so if we start to see Luca’s islands as frontiers in the Islamic sense, as thughr, that is as passages from one space to another rather than barriers between them, and maybe that’s where we take it next.
    Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin

    Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin (N. B. this never actually happened)


    Similar reflections on a between-space came finally from Professor Paul, who pitched us a picture of Crusader Outremer as its visitors seem to have seen it by the twelfth century, not as a warzone but really more as a holiday camp where you came from the West to get your chivalry good and bronzed. An analysis of chronicles and literature both was behind this, from which emerged a picture of the lords of the Crusader kingdoms as the ultimate hosts and arbiters of chivalric conduct, rich and homed in exotic spaces where, yes, you might go fight Muslims but you might equally fight each other or hey, go hunting lions with trained cheetahs and go back home with a whole cluster of prestige stories whose attainment, rather than expanding Christendom, was really the point in going.6 Presumably not very many Crusaders’ journey was really like this but it was the story people wanted told, and for the audience raised questions about whether anyone saw this as the frontier of Christianity that we now see in it. Professor Paul’s answer was that the frontier became less visible the closer to it you got, and he linked this back to Kuba’s mission grounds with, I now suppose, that same sense of the reductive optic by which you could keep going down a level and define the boundary slightly differently each time you zoomed in. Of course, in Crusader Jerusalem there would be about five cross-cutting ways in which you could define it, which was exactly why I had been so keen to get a Crusader specialist in on this whole thing. Professor Paul did not disappoint.

So that was the end, and accordingly those of us still left went with one accord to the bar, and I can’t remember what eventually made us leave it but we must have done, because I have stuff to report from elsewhere on the next day as well. But to that, we will come next post! [Edit: I forgot the ending… !] Finally, to end with, proof that I will go on needing more shelves and more reading time as long as I keep going to this conference…

Books bought at the 2015 International Medieval Congress, Leeds

The book haul from 2015, assembled shortly after my return to Birmingham


1. In Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in idem & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89-128, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679.

2. I’m thinking here mainly of Chris Wickham, The Mountains and the City: the Tuscan Appennines in the early middle ages (Oxford 1988), esp. pp. 357-365.

3. The Bull is printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1245, and how long it seems since I’ve cited that work! I must have been teaching… The mapping is done in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles dels comtat de Manresa (798-993) (Barcelona 2004), p. 53.

4. The question about burial rights mainly occurs to me because they were significant in the demarcation of early English parishes: see John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 433-471 with particular disputes at pp. 450 & 463.