Tag Archives: landscape archaeology

Seminar CCXXXIV: ground-level archaeology in early medieval northern Spain

Despite my usual policy of alternating them with what I think of as local-content posts, I’m going to crack straight on with another seminar report. This is mainly because if I had been doing this contemporaneously this is where the post announcing the upload of Justinian II’s coins would have fallen, and on my own blog I can be compulsive about chronology if I like darn it, and partly because the next local-content post requires me to read sixty pages of Italian to do it properly so will take time, but it also gets us back to the Iberian Peninsula, because on 17th March 2015 there had come direct from there no less a figure than Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, to speak at the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar with the title, “Agrarian Archaeology in Northern Iberia: a general overview of medieval landscapes”, and I felt I should be there and take part.

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

One of Professor Quirós’s teams at work at Lantarón in Castile, not the right area but a good picture!

Although in some ways I catch the worst of it in Catalonia, where scientific archæology and money to do it both seem rare, actually Northern Spain has been doing really well in the field of ‘new archæology’ in recent years, especially as cheaper techniques than radio-carbon dating have begun to proliferate, and up until the market crashes of 2008 there was also quite a lot of work being funded. Professor Quirós has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, and so is remarkably well-placed to give a synthesis.1 Here he was focused especially on the Basque country (which is after all where he works) and started his comparisons from there, but I know very little about that area so that was fine with me.

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

The castle of Treviño, Basque Country, dug by Professor Quirós and crew some time ago

The paper basically consisted of a series of short ‘state of knowledge’ round-ups of various sorts of evidence and then an overall summary and speculation on the remaining unknowns. The geographical focus also meant that a lot of that knowledge was about farming and peasant settlement, because there simply isn’t much else that’s so far been located until quite late on, except one outlier site of which we will say more in a moment. So we had material from field survey, the archæology of structures, zooarchæology, artefactual evidence, field systems, manufacturing and palæobotany, all taken thematically and joining up at particular questions. All this has been going on with quite some energy in the last decade or so, and the points it’s bringing up are probably best discussed in the overall chronology that Professor Quirós was now able to put forward. This went something like this.

    1. In the fifth and sixth centuries we start to see new villages forming, in the first real change since the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never had much business up here anyway, but the landscape is decentralised and disarticulated, with very low levels of material culture not being transported for any distances. Silos, previously built big, are now built small, suggesting accumulation has dropped to a household level from a community one. Land use seems, from pollen and so forth, to be going up over the period but there’s little sign of increase at the settlements.
    2. In the seventh century, however, field systems begin to show up and so does long-range transhumance (visible in the huts of the travelling herdsmen), and the one estate centre they’ve managed to locate, at Aistra, starts up in this period as well, with enough command of labour to get terraces built, not a small job. This all suggests the beginnings of some hierarchy.
    3. In the eighth century, in what seems to be a much wider phenomenon, settlements here begin to nucleate and cluster but the vestigial links between them visible in the previous century drop off again, even as the social strata in them begin to pile up higher, especially at Aistra where there are now granaries and selective consumption of animals. This is also the period when we start to get rural churches, which also suggests an available surplus being cornered by one particular interest group, and we know from elsewhere in northern Iberia that these groups are probably the same ones as showing up at the top of the secular hierarchies, they’re not separate.2 It is probably not unconnected with these as wider phenomena that there were peasant revolts in Asturias at this sort of time…3
The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa

The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa, which though itself not early medieval apparently sits over an early medieval cemetery and thus the closest I can quickly find to this phenomenon in standing fabric

  1. In the ninth century there starts to be documentation, mostly from the monastery of Valpuesta at the very western edge of the zone, but the archæology also speaks of more field system organisation and a return to transhumance, while the ways that animals are being slaughtered suggest a system of renders; there are communities which seem never to dispose of particular cuts of pork, for example, even though they have the rest.4 Cattle also start to turn up in the west, suggesting people doing things differently, but on the other hand, animals seem to have begun to shrink in this period, and their diets (which can be got at via isotopic remains in their bones) became more restricted. Those two things are obviously probably linked but they may suggest a shift to home husbandry and therefore enclosure of what had previously been commonly-available pasturing.
  2. Finally for this paper, in the tenth century these trends continue but organisation by the powerful also becomes more obvious: bishoprics are set up for the area, fortification becomes common-place, agriculture intensifies (as we can tell from silos at some fortresses) and the area is in general participating in the economic take-off run and (I think) consequent seigneurialisation that Georges Duby or Pierre Bonnassie would have been happy to see.5

There’re also a couple of general phenomena that struck me as interesting, because they seemed unusual to me. In the first place, the area never seems to have been very short of metal tools; we don’t find very many of them (though some) but right through the period we do, apparently, find shaft furnaces for ironworking, even at fairly humble sites. In the second place, cerealiculture was really diverse: although when we have renders specified in documentation they are almost always in wheat or barley, peasants were also growing millet, particularly, and several others too as well as fruit, legumes and flax for linen and rope. Meat was probably rarely on the menu but when you compare it to high medieval Catalonia (my only comparator) it looks as if the Basque peasants had a rather better ‘third harvest’ than their south-eastern neighbours later on.6

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

Excavation under way at Aistra, on one of what seem to have been a good many dismal days in 2009

All in all this was a fairly impressive sweep through what archæology can actually tell us about societies in a period where documentation is scant or lacking, and one wants of course to go and chase up half the data and see for oneself. One would also wish—and Professor Quirós would be with that one—for another estate centre, because although Aistra sounds like a marvellous and rewarding place to investigate (as long as you like rain), the fact that it got going so much earlier than its investigators were expecting and than a documentary picture would have made likely means that a comparator is dearly necessary to make sure that this place wasn’t just weird in some way.7 It would still need explaining even if it was, of course, but as we know some places just did get special attention. Nonetheless, to have a decent basis for being able to assert anything about change on this kind of scale is amazing, and as Andrew Reynolds, chairing, said at the beginning of discussion, whereas Professor Quirós had been kind enough to say that English archæology of this period was the necessary comparator because of its quality, what has been done recently in Spain might well be thought to reverse the situation, and as you will see from the footnotes, he should know. And since I generally aim to bring the Iberian Peninsula back into people’s pictures from the margins where it too often sits, I am fine with that, as long as I can get the site reports…


1. As well as the various project blogs linked in the post above, see (just to pick the most comprehensive things on this post’s themes from his last few years of publications) J. A. Quirós Castillo, “1911-2011: un siglo de excavaciones arqueológicas en los castillos medievales del País Vasco” in idem & José María Tejado Sebastián (edd.), Los castillos altomedievales en el noroeste de la Península Ibérica, Documentos de arqueología medieval 4 (Bilbao 2012), pp. 123-143; Quirós, “Los comportamientos alimentarios del campesinado medieval en el País Vasco y su entorno (siglos VIII-XIV)” in Historia agraria Vol. 59 (València 2013), pp. 13-41; Quirós & Giovanni Bianchi, “From archaeology of storage systems to agricultural archaeology” in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado, Quirós & Bianchi (edd.), Horrea, barns and silos: storage and incomes in Early Medieval Europe, Documentos de Arqueología 5 (Bilbao 2013), pp. 17-22; Quirós, “Archaeology of power and hierarchies in early medieval villages in Northern of Spain” in Ján Klápšte (ed.), Hierarchies in rural settlements, Ruralia 9 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 199-212; and Quirós (ed.), Agrarian archaeology in early medieval Europe, Quaternary International 346 (Amsterdam 2014).

2. I’m thinking here of work like Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West” in Julio Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the early Middle ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 87-117, and especially Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

3. That is, if it really was a peasants’ revolt; on the misinterpretations of this episode, which has served many historiographical agendas, see this old post.

4. The Valpuesta documents are edited in Desamparados Pérez Soler (ed.), Cartulario de Valpuesta (Valéncia 1970). On peasant diet in the area see Quirós, “Comportamientos alimentarios”.

5. I’m sure you know the works I mean, but for completeness let’s get them in: Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974) and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, but see also La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), a conference in which both took part.

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocaña, “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, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

7. There seem to be only interim reports and some specialist publications on Aistra so far, the reports being: A. Reynolds & Quirós, “Aistra (Zalduondo): I Campaña” in Arkeoikuska 2006 (Vitoria 2006), pp. 94-100; eidem, “Despoblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2007 (2007), pp. 159-167; Quirós, “Poblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2008 (2008), pp. 209-211; & Quirós & Reynolds, “Despoblado de Aistra: IV Campaña”, ibid. 2009 (2009), pp. 176-180.

Seminar CCIII: working on and out the North Italian landscape

It’s seminar report time again, and this time it was back down to London for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research where, on 7th May 2014, Professor Ross Balzaretti was presenting with the title, “Early Medieval Charters and Landscapes: Genoa and Milan compared“. This is of course meat and drink to me as if there’s anywhere that has nearly as many charters left from the early Middle Ages as does Catalonia it’s Italy and the Mediterranean climate and mountainous landscapes the areas share made a lot of what Ross was saying seem comfortingly familiar.1 Insofar as Ross was out to make converts, therefore, he was not preaching to me, but I can at least join in with the hymns.

Terraces at at Corniglia

A Ligurian landscape of the sort that Ross has written about, this one being terraces at at Corniglia, man-made and nature overlaid and intercutting

The basic contention of the paper was that we can use charters as sources for landscape use and economic activity in a north Italian context, which is just as well as we don’t have a lot else left with which to do it given how intensely those landscapes have mostly been worked since the Middle Ages.2 The argument against such use of charter evidence has usually been that the documents are so formulaic that their detail can’t be trusted, to which the counter is that they vary a very great deal, and Ross was able by his comparison to show that the formulae, if that’s what they are, vary so much between Milan and Genoa that even if they’re formulae they must reflect considerable local differences in what formulae apply, so that in fact the level of choice would have to be such that it’s simpler to assume that what is making the variation is the actual landscapes concerned.3

Olive-groves at Castello Rosso, near Genoa

Olive-groves at Castello Rosso, near Genoa

As to that variation, it is quite marked. Genoese charters make much more of trees and Milanese ones more of fields for cereals. Both were producing in a specialised fashion, implying a market presumably dominated by the big towns whose hinterlands we were hearing about, but in Genoa the specialist product was olive oil and Milan it was much less focused (though that may be not least that at this point Milan was rather bigger). But the specialisation was also partly geographic: there are more mentions of terracing around Genoa not just because the charter scribess round there liked that formula but because the land requires it, being much more sloped than around Milan. Around Genoa the work to make the land yield food is very evident in terms of work contracted or expected and boundaries revealing it already done. Milan looks more domestic, as if less co-dependence was necessary to make a living here. And so on.

Parco Agricolo di Milano

There is now an agricultural park outside Milan, apparently, which lets me show you the other kind of landscape in play here as well

All of this rang very familiar with me because of the similar, if lesser, variations I’d been seeing between the lands owned by San Salvatore di Brescia in the Santa Giulia polyptych, so much discussed a little while ago. Here as there, of course, another way to see the variation is as between people, making different decisions about how to make their living, and charters do have that advantage that the polyptych does not, that you can usually put names to these individuals. But that doesn’t mean at all that I thought Ross’s focus on the landscape was misplaced; the countryside these people worked was the silent partner in all their actions, and the charters let you get at something of that too.

Seminar CXCVII: de-emphasising Greece in Byzantine history

Long before I knew what my next job would be, on 13th March 2014, I was persuaded to attend the University of Birmingham’s General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I have been doing this on and off since then, and naturally more regularly given my new employment, but I think I am still the only person not speaking who attends from outside the Centre, which is slightly odd. I came along because I was told by someone who should know that I’d be interested in this particular paper, however, and so it proved, that paper being one called “Byzantine Greece — Microcosm of Empire? Retrospect and Prospect”, by Dr Archie Dunn.

Map of Byzantine Greece c.900

Byzantine Greece c. 900. By Cplakidas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn’s basic starting contention was that, at least since its revival as a nation in 1830, modern Greece has been central to Byzantine studies, since its area preserves or generated many of the major narratives and almost all the surviving Byzantine documentary material, and was the location of many of the pioneering digs in Byzantine archæology. It’s just taken places like Turkey who have less interest in claiming some kind of continuity with their Byzantine predecessor longer to decide this stuff might still be interesting, I think, though it is now happening, and a Greek-language academy presumably also helps. Anyway, this presents problems of generalisation, because Greece thus drives the older and still basic synthetic narratives of Byzantine history but wasn’t necessarily typical of the wider empire. So Dr Dunn here attempted, using the archæology that he knows best, to set up a new synthetic model of landscape development in Byzantine Greece and then test it against Thrace to see just how bad this problem is. The basic lynchpins of this picture were cities, castles and churches and their interrelations, so you can probably already see how I would find thinking material in this.

The Angelokastron in Corfu

The Angelokastro in Corfu, about the best copyright-free image of a Greek Byzantine kastron I can find even if well out of area… By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The synthetic model for Greece went something like this. By the fifth century Greece, once a landscape of cities, still counted a lot of cities in its territorial organisation but far fewer than before and not all of them actually physically instantiated, rather than just being organisational constructs, settlement having moved out to rural settlements like Italian hill-villages (a comparison I thought of about a minute before Dr Dunn invoked it), walled in undressed timber-braced stone, and articulated also by churches separated by 4-10 km distances. Over the sixth to eighth centuries the cities continued to fade but from the seventh century on fortifications arise instead, partly as a reaction to Slav incursions. Those incursions were gathered under more or less willing jurisdiction eventually, however: by the ninth centuries some such notional groups have official seals, for example. These new kastroi, castles, often had bishops, despite the tiny territories thus implied, but even so were not poleis, cities, to the government but choria, villages, even when abandoned cities were close by. They were however centres for military organisation, and however they’d got there were incorporated into systems of government.

Castles at Didymoteicho in Thrace, now Greece

Castles at Didymoteicho, which we do have textual evidence was founded by Justinian I. By Aramgar (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn then compared the situation of Thrace, roughly modern Bulgaria and a bit west into Greece, where a lot of the same factors could apply but somehow, don’t all. Here, though the scattering of new villages and kastroi did occur, it did so without the end of the urban network that had preceded it; the bishops stayed in the old poleis and the kastroi fitted in new places between these. Dr Dunn argued, I think from my notes, that this was an attempt by central govenment to impose a similar system to that that was being managed in Greece over a landscape whose old jurisdictional anchors were still in place, and which couldn’t be ignored—the Thracian cities did revive somewhat over the seventh to ninth centuries—but which weren’t the focus of attention from the state any more. Some of the new fortifications subsequently became towns, however, which prompted me as the then-temporary-Anglo-Saxonist to ask if, as with the fortress-towns of Alfred the Great’s burghal system, they took a long time to do this; sadly, the archæology hasn’t yet been done that would ground that comparison.

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece. By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The main points that came out of this paper, then, were firstly and mainly that Greece can’t be taken as typical of Byzantium even if much of our information comes from it, but also a point about scales of comparison. To make a real point when dealing with a state of this size, one’s micro-regions need to be quite large. No one or few of these city districts would tell a typical story; comparing chosen themata across the two provinces would probably miss the general shape of change entirely. That then implies that to compare at this scale you have to look at something that occurs widely enough but thinly enough to be manageable; cities may be too slight, churches is heading for the feasible maximum, house types would be impossible, it seems to me. Other questions did arise, of course. The obvious one, asked by Ruth Macrides, was, well, why is Thrace different, to which the obvious answer seemed to be proximity to Constantinople, leading to better-funded development of both defences and agriculture because the capital needed them both in a way that it didn’t from further-off Greece. Someone I didn’t know asked about agency, whether these new foundations were necessarily top-down, to which the honest answer could only be that we know some are so there is some kind of central effort to do things, but whether other sites are in on the plan, who knows? And Rebecca Darley asked what was organising society at the village level before they started getting churches, and whether they might have replaced an older religious articulation, to which Dr Dunn said that if there was such an older sacred landscape, it is now largely invisible, though a few cases could be adduced. Here again it seems to me that scale of comparison is important. In the previous answer, a few cases were indicative because we know there was some linkage of them together; in this one a few cases were not, because we don’t have that linkage. Such a linkage would have to be some organised pagan Greek priesthood for which there’s no evidence, of course, so that’s probably OK, but looking at it now the argument from silence still sits oddly next to that from information. It would be nicest of all to be able to show this by digging of course, and I’m sure Dr Dunn would be more than happy to start on that given funding! It was certainly clear that he would know where to start or, indeed, carry on looking.

Seminar CLXXII: roads to nowhere?

I’ll have to beg still more forgiveness for the sudden drop-off in posting here. I sent in the final version of an article the day before yesterday, finished a late review yesterday, hope to finalise another chapter today, and that still leaves me three pieces of work to get done before the end of the month, one of which I didn’t know about two days ago… It’s a bit like that at the moment. I can already see that there’s no prospect of my getting as far as last year’s Leeds before departing for this one, which is a bit embarrassing. Since the only thing that can make this worse is not posting, however, here is another backlogged seminar report, from 24th April 2013, when I was at the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar in Oxford to hear Professor Andrew Fleming of the University of Wales Trinity St David give a paper entitled “Exploring the History and Significance of Early Medieval Roads”.

Hollow Lane, near Canterbury, linking the old Roman road, Stone Street to Wincheap

Hollow Lane, near Canterbury, linking the old Roman road, Stone Street to Wincheap, certainly an old road – but how old? Image from Wikimedia Commons

I might, I suppose, given that I was still in Oxford, have expected that this would turn out to be solely about England, but it was still interesting, because Professor Fleming has been working on landscapes and how you get through them, and specifically on this with regards to Dartmoor in Devon, where there has been comparatively little to change routes since prehistoric times, for a long time. Rather than reprise the paper, given my lack of time, I’ll just draw out the points that particularly interested me.

  1. There was great stress on the difficulty of putting an archæological date on a road. Since what a road most fundamentally is a space, the bottom limit of which people wear away by using it, really all one has to work with beyond place-names and surveys (so, for early medieval purposes, charter boundaries and Domesday Book) is stratigraphy where the road intersects with something else. On the one hand, because roads are linear and long that does mean you get quite a lot of such intersections, but on the other you can’t necessarily expect all the road to have been built, maintained or replaced at once so even on the rare occasions where you have a date to work with, it’s not usually clear how far down the road it will travel.
  2. It is apparently a big argument of Professor Fleming’s that medieval roads did not join places, but joined regions, being long-distance routes rather than the short-distance ones eventually joining up into a system that Hoskins, invoked in the first sentence of the paper, saw in the English landscape.1 Places are then jointed to these long routes by their own little roads, leading up out of the valley or wherever to meet the main track along the high ground. I don’t know how true that is everywhere but I could certainly think of places where it is, in fact it would be true of a good distance of the A404 which must be the single road of any size I have travelled the most. So that was interesting to think with as it implies that roads need not necessarily go where people wanted to go to them on, and that guessing those destinations may therefore be harder than it appears.
  3. That said, roads, especially military or transhumance routes, tend to generate supporting settlement, especially at junctions. What started as a few huts seasonally occupied gets a bit more established, sooner or later someone puts a church up and suddenly you have a community locus where before settlement was dispersed. It still is, at that point, probably, but even so the road, though a line not a point, can give places a centre. This all made me think about things in my area like the strata francisca and the Camí Ral, which certainly weren’t intended to link the places I’ve been to on them to anything else but may explain some of why those places are where they are. (Roda de Ter is older than the Roman bridge across the Ter there, but that bridge has certainly focused subsequent settlement, not least as someone built a church at one end of it2)

One of the questions we didn’t really touch on was who maintained these routes, and I’m surprised at myself there given how much I would usually be all over any questions of agency. There were lots of other questions, though – this seminar was always good for that as I would duly find out myself – and they raised the further points that private property could be on a large enough scale to account for some of that, in as much as a lot of the Dartmoor places that had been mentioned had some connection with Tavistock Abbey, who might well have wanted to join up their properties and move sheep between them. Other questions took this question of livestock down to the micro-level, asking about how roads that might have been intended mainly to move animals interacted with field boundaries that might be even older, but given the dating problems little that was substantive came out of that. There was a question about roads imposed by élites for rapid communication and how those might differ from drove roads but Professor Fleming contended for overlap here. It all made for some interesting thoughts the next time I was being driven anywhere, anyway, and perhaps it will for you too. Now, back to the grindstone!


1. Referring to W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Cambridge 1955, 2nd edn. 1973).

2. See Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda (Vic 1995).

Leeds report 1 (Monday 13th July)

So yes. As recounted elsewhere I travelled up to Leeds on the Sunday before, installed myself and then went to a party, which has no business being reported here so I’ll move on. Anyway, I was there for all of the actual International Medieval Congress, and the best way to report so that it doesn’t entirely swamp all else seems to be the way I did the Haskins Society Conference, with session and paper titles and minimal comments; I can always say more if you want to know. Of course the difference between Haskins and Leeds is that Leeds runs many sessions in parallel, typically 29 or 30 this year. By my reckoning that means that even if one went to only the regular sessions and not the round tables, plenary lectures or excursions, one could still attend 2914 different combinations of sessions, so this is only one possible Leeds of, er, more than 10 million billion (and I do mean billion not milliard you crazy US types with your smaller numbers). I don’t imagine there will be that many other write-ups however…

One has to get up very early to get a decent seat at the keynote lectures at Leeds, which is how it starts, but I snuck in at the back and managed. I’d wanted to go especially on two counts, because I’ve worked for one of the speakers and know him to be extremely clever, a good presenter and a genuinely decent fellow, and I’ve argued with the other speaker all over the Interweb, and thought it would be interesting to hear him speak in person. The former is John Arnold and the latter is of course Jeffrey J. Cohen of In The Medieval Middle. Both were very good in different ways: John was dry, discerning, careful, thorough and deeply involved in his material, and Jeffrey was persuasive, emotive, intelligible and working (also carefully) with some fascinating material. Happily, for deeper analysis I can point you to Magistra’s write-up of the session, and that will allow me to get back to the structure and minimalism I was just promising you. So, that was:

1. Keynote Lectures 2009

  • John H. Arnold, “Heresies and Rhetorics”
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen, “Between Christian and Jew: orthodoxy, violence and living together in medieval England”

And then there was coffee and then the papers themselves started, and I went as follows.

105. Charters and Communities

  • Jinna Smit, “Per dominum comitem: charters and chancery of the Counts of Holland/Hainaut, 1299-1345″
  • Charter from the archives of Count of Hainault, by the scribe Richard Fleck

    Charter from the archives of Count of Hainault, by the scribe Richard Fleck

    Thoughtful little paper showing those things you get with offices producing a lot of documents that somehow we forget to expect with the Middle Ages, officials signing things off that they didn’t write, other people using their name, but here with the additional complication of a single rule of provinces with two different vernaculars, meaning that some scribes could only work one half of the territory; the really cool thing was that quite a lot of the scribal identification work had been done using OCR hand recognition techniques, which only a short while ago I was being told was impossible and then only possible with Glagolithic

  • Arnved Nedkvitne, “Charters and Literacy in Norwegian Rural Societies in the Late Middle Ages”
  • One of the reasons I wanted to get someone in my sessions talking about Scandinavia was that it goes through some of the changes that Western Europe goes through sufficiently late that we get to watch in more detail; so, here, the point that really struck me was that though there might be no schools, actually even training a choir equips some boys with rudimentary Latin literacy of a kind, and that might, as here, wind up being sufficient for document production.

  • Karl Heidecker, “Rewriting and ‘Photocopying’ Charters: the multi-purpose rearrangement of an 11th-century Burgundian archive”
  • Karl, who was leader of the very important St Gall Projekt, is now working on Saint-Bénigne de Dijon, which is fascinating for a range of reasons; the one he had picked is that one of its cartularies contains graphical copies of the originals, with script grades and chrismons and all that fine stuff but not with the actual layout, the layout shunted round to fit the cartulary pages; just the effort of working out how the cartulary had once fitted together was enough to bamboozle however.

Food for thought over lunch, and then I foolishly decided to try and get something written, with the end result that I was late for…

225. Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Medieval Grand Narrative, I: the marriage of theory and praxis

  • Joaquin Martinez Pizarro, “Doomed Window-Shopping in Late Antique Gaul: thoughts on the literary study of historiography”
  • Jeff Rider, “The Uses of the Middle Ages”
  • Guy Halsall, “Dialogue, Interlocution or Just Plain Cultural History? What (if anything) do we mean by `interdisciplinary’?”
  • You may guess here that I was here for the last paper, in which Guy very approachably and without too much scorn went for the throat of the interdisciplinary endeavour, arguing that the valuable work it has produced is far far outweighed by the deadweight of its necessity as a buzzword in funding applications making it meaningless, and that in any case even when the few people who really can work in two disciplines with equal facility, rather than just raiding another for ideas, do this and do it well, nonetheless what they produce is something that, before we used this word, would have been called cultural or maybe even social history; that is, whatever discipline you mix with history, you always wind up doing history at the end, in as much you are studying the past rather than the present. I actually think that a lot of the `literary turn’, not least that showcased by Eileen Joy of In The Medieval Middle, is more about the present than the past whose light it turns on us, so I don’t know that Guy is right here, but I confess that I would side with him if pastists and presentists were forced to segregate. As to the other papers, I missed the beginning of Martínez’s but his basic point appeared to be that Gregory of Tours used style that his victims wouldn’t recognise to elevate his position in the eyes of his peers, which sounded familiar, and Jeff Rider’s paper and the best question he got asked because of it have already been taken up by Magistra better than I could manage.

So, tea, and then across the campus in order to be in time for…

303. Architecture, Archaeology, and Landscape of Power, III: the royal vill in Anglo-Saxon England

  • Alex Sanmark, “Anglo-Saxon Royal Manors: location and communication”
  • Stuart Brookes, “Royal Vills and Royal Power in Anglo-Saxon Kent”
  • Ryan Lavelle, “West Saxon Royal Sites”
  • I confess that I made a nuisance of myself in this one by asking about the statistical validity of the distribution maps that all the speakers were using. As one commentator said to me afterwards, “Yes, they should absolutely be allowed to map what they like against whatever they want – but then they should map it against telephone boxes and see whether that correlation doesn’t look significant too”. Dr Brookes knew what I meant and brought up Kolmogorov-Smirnoff without being prompted, so his pattern of the development of the power structure of royalty in Kent may have been better founded than his paper allowed one to understand. In that case I think his choice of dumbing down was ill-advised; the people who could understand his material would have survived the full-strength version, the others aren’t interested enough anyway. A disappointing representation by a branch of the field we should all be listening to.

I now stepped back to the flat to make a rapid dinner and just made it back out in time for…

401. Special Lecture

  • Maribel Isabel Fierro, “Heresy and Political Legitimacy in Muslim Spain and Portugal”
  • An interesting and accessible guide to exactly how Islam recognises and expresses heresy and which of the relevant examples of this made it to al-Andalus, but not really so much to do with political legitimacy and, er, enhanced, by some of the most garish and confused use of Powerpoint I’ve ever seen someone get lost in.

There were three different receptions that night, too, and I don’t think I had to buy any drink, but I’m also fairly sure that I made it only to two of them and spent part of it writing a book review, so it was with an odd mixture of inebriation and mania that I retired in good time on the first night of Leeds.

Jordi Bolòs and the historic environment

I don’t know why my natural subject header seems to read like a bad thriller title, but here’s another one. It is possible that the sidebar still bears witness that recently Professor Jordi Bolòs i Masclans of the Universitat de Lleida found this blog, and took the chance to mention his excellent series of historical atlases of the Catalan counties, of which as I said in reply I already own one. This has however led me to his, not one but seven! blogs. That’s going some. I haven’t been through them all, but they are mostly doing book reviews, for early medieval and later medieval publications and for stuff dealing with methodology in history, settlement archaeology and topography. The publications he notices include many English ones, some of which even I’ve also mentioned, though this is only so much help to you perhaps unless you read Catalan—but I’m impressed by the boundary-crossing.

Cover of Jordi Bolòs's Els origens medievals del paisatge català

Cover of Jordi Bolòs's Els orígens medievals del paisatge català

There are also four blogs concentrating on his actual research, which covers settlement, cartography and medieval archaeology generally (though he also has two charter editions to his credit). Two seem to be running fairly slow. One of these covers the villages that grew up in Catalonia shortly after the year 1000 in which, supposedly as a response to increasing violence and disorder, settlement concentrated in the sacred space of the church’s cemetery, where it was supposedly sacrilege to attack; the Catalan for these settlements is ‘sagreres’, and Prof. Bolòs’s observations on them are confined to two posts in April, so I haven’t linked it in the sidebar. The other considers new-established villages in the territories of expanding high medieval Catalonia, and there’s only three posts in that one. Plus which, I don’t work on that area or that timeframe, but don’t let me stop you, and so on.

The two live wires are rather more my style and interest. The first of these, Cartografia i Història Medieval a Catalunya, is concentrating on topography and cartography: the repeated message is that mapping things really helps you understand them, and the whole subject is one very dear to Prof. Bolòs’s heart. I’ve added two links to particular entries where he’s mapped places I’ve talked about, but again we are looking at Catalan-interest stuff only really, and there is some duplication from the Viles Noves blog. I think it’s pretty interesting, but you may not from outside my field.

The domains of the Benedictine monasteries in Catalonia and the uses of territory (9th to 13th centuries)

The domains of the Benedictine monasteries in Catalonia and the uses of territory (9th to 13th centuries)

The last, however, I bring to your attention a bit more obviously, and this I do because that’s the one that seems to be trying to reach you, the English-language reader. Although it’s got a Catalan name, Arqueologia del Paisatge de Catalunya, and a Catalan focus, it’s currently headed by a big English-language post setting out a manifesto for the preservation of the historic environment. He goes to great lengths to explain what we can learn from the landscape, the patterns of settlement and use it displays, and why it’s necessary, as he sees it, to protect it by legislation from building and destruction by development. This is probably easier in Catalonia than some areas, where there is a flight from the land still very much going on, but even there the population is going up and spreading from the cities. Those people have to go somewhere, and I’m never sure where the line between the material welfare of a large number of people (whom the Earth probably can’t sustain, but who nonetheless exist and have certain human rights to be treated the same and offered equal opportunities) and the preservation of a heritage that, as I’ve argued, helps to make everyone’s lives richer and more, well, comprehending. I may not be sure: Prof. Bolòs has made up his mind, and set out his stand, and I think he would be grateful for others outside his normal reach taking a look.