Tag Archives: lectures

Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship

We now come to the other paper from the first quarter of 2017 I said I still wanted to talk about, which was one of the open lectures which the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds runs. These can cover quite a range of topics, and in this instance it was high medieval English archaeology. It’s been a while since Leeds had any medieval archaeologists but we like to stay in touch, and accordingly on 7th March Professor Oliver Creighton of the University of Exeter came to talk to us and the willing public with the title, “The Archaeology of Anarchy? Landscapes of War and Status in Twelfth-Century England”.

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders at the Battle of Lincoln, 1141, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v, from the British Library’s website under their normal terms of use but also available through Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Anarchy’ in question is what historians have for a long time tended to call the wider civil situation engendered by the struggle for the English throne between the Empress Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V of Germany hence her title, by this time husband of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and most relevantly heir designate of King Henry I of England, and King Stephen, who despite having sworn support for Matilda to the dying Henry still swept in and grabbed the English throne for himself in 1135 when Henry died. During the ensuing struggle, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Christ and His saints slept,” and every lord who could got away with whatever injustices and self-aggrandisements he could.1 Taking its rhetoric more or less literally, scholars of the older generation observed that a wash of castles got built without the theoretically-required royal permission, that some lords even started minting their own coin and in general everything went badly until it became possible to arrange terms between Stephen, whose eldest son died at a critical point, and Matilda’s son the future Henry II, so that England could finally concede without enduring a woman on the throne.2 The scholarship has moved on since then, recognising that obviously quite a lot of people were willing to see a woman on the throne rather than Stephen, that for others the problem might have been more with this particular woman than gender as such, given that Stephen’s queen (also Matilda, just to help) gets a much more positive write-up in the same sources, and that the castles and mints were probably in many cases begun with one or other royal permission, because the lords were able to play the contendors off against each other in this situation.3 What hasn’t really been done is to see what this looked like on the ground on any scale, and that is what, with the help of the Leverhulme Trust, Professor Creighton had been doing. He had picked 12 sites in or around the key zones of contention, Wessex and the Thames Valley, and gone over them with resistivity sensors and a fine-toothed field survey, and thus had some sense of what kind of remains the supposed anarchy had left behind, which I didn’t at the time realise had already produced a book whose summary we must have been hearing.4

Pickering Castle depicted with the twelfth-century counter-castle visible, from Wikimedia Commons

Pickering Castle as it still stands, with the Anarchy counter-castle visible as a mound at the top left of the picture; photo by Pauline E, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The findings broke down roughly into two headings, I suppose, one of which was definitely war. Several of the castles involved in Professor Creighton’s study area had been built as part of military campaigns (including one incomplete siege castle and the town of Wallingford where the siege castle itself wound up being besieged), and the resistivity surveys had often shown up subsidiary earthworks and fortifications that had probably formed part of trying to reduce or outflank these places.5 Given the work that Henry II later had to do to raze castles of which he didn’t approve and the fact that at least one of these ‘temporary’ fortresses, the Rings at Corfe, was besieged again in the English Civil War (as opposed to the civil war in England that we’re now discussing…), I do wonder if we can always be sure that these extra works were early-twelfth-century in date.6 The other thing that comes up a lot round them is arrowheads, apparently, however, where the dating is a bit more certain, and I certainly have no interest in suggesting there wasn’t fighting at these locations.

The Rings earthwork at Corfe Castle

The Rings at Corfe Castle, supposedly a siege earthwork set up by King Stephen and then used again in 1646, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

There was, apparently, a great variety of castles in this era. It wasn’t as simple as every lord flinging up a motte and bailey and daring all comers to challenge his right to exploit the local peasantry. While I expect a lot of that was happening, what is more obvious is bigger ventures like whole fortified villages (Boteler’s Castle), whole towns (Cricklade or Wallingford) or whole fortified islands even, or just very large castles, and even reactivated hillfort settlements whose roots are probably very old indeed. Some churches and monasteries were fortified too, and all of these places tended to reorganise their local landscape in ways that must have outlasted the military purposes they were possibly only meant to fulfil briefly.

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden, on what was probably also an Iron Age fortified site, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

The other thread that is visible in the material culture, therefore, is in fact the lordly self-aggrandisement that the old scholarship was so keen on condemning. We already had the coins from which the quasi-independent minting is known, of course, but we also see a sharp increase in the preservation of seal matrices, of heraldic decorations (including harness pendants and strap-ends with devices on), fancy architecture and new Church and monastic foundations, all the works, it seems, of lords whose position now either allowed or required them to make more effort in saying something about themselves and their status, which of course makes one wonder who the audience was for all this material and architectural display.7

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, image used as masthead for the exhibition’s extremely informative website, linked through

One could choose to see it all as a vulgar display of power meant to cow the local peasantry and gentry into falling into line behind these newly assertive lordships, one could see it as competition between the lords, perhaps for the loyalty of exactly those same gentry and peasantry, one could see it as an attempt to gain sufficient ground by half-forced concessions from more-or-less-royal authority that when things eventually settled down the lords would be established as much grander than circumstances had previously allowed, or one could just see it as defiance of the crown and a genuine attempt at independent lordship, and this just being what that looked like. Obviously, the archaeology does not itself tell us which if any of these things it represents, and Professor Creighton didn’t try, but just like the similar kinds of activities that people studying the south of France and Catalonia a century or so before have spotted, it is tempting for historians to try and make patterns out of it anyway.8

It has to be said that the lecture didn’t do much, or even try, to shake me out of the impression that if you were not in charge of one of these castles, it must have been a bad time to be trying to make a living in England; the scale at which people, settlements and stuff seem to have been being moved around, presumably without much choice in the matter, and the lack of recourse they can have had about it, all helped me understand in more depth where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s picture was coming from. In that respect, although Professor Creighton had not done what one commentator, local postgraduate Victoria Yuskaitis, wondered about, mapping textual and archaeological data together, he was already making them work together in a new way, yet one that seemed to reinforce the older scholarship as much or more than the newer stuff. That may be something for people in the field to consider…


1. Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), s. a. 1137, at the end of a full page-and-a-half complaining of seigneurial abuse, extortion and torture.

2. For an old-fashioned view like that you’d have to go to R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 1135-1154, 3rd edn. (London 1990) or the less durable H. A. Cronne, The Reign of Stephen, 1135-1154: Anarchy in England (London 1970), though even then cf. John le Patourel, “What Did Not Happen in Stephen’s Reign” in History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 1-18, on JSTOR here, or Edward J. Kealey, “King Stephen: Government and Anarchy” in Albion Vol. 6 (Boone NC 1974), pp. 201–217, on JSTOR here.

3. Now you could get your updates in any or all of Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English (Oxford 1992); Edmund King (ed.), The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign (Oxford 1994); Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 (Stroud 1998); David Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135-1154 (Harlow 2000); Donald Matthew, King Stephen (London 2002); Edmund King, King Stephen (New Haven CT 2012) or Paul Dalton and Graeme J. White (edd.), King Stephen’s Reign (1135-1154) (Cambridge 2012); it’s not what you’d call an under-researched area. On Matilda and gender-expectations specifically, though, add Jean A. Truax, “Winning over the Londoners: King Stephen, the Empress Matilda and the Politics of Personality” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 13 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 42–62; Heather J. Tanner, “Queenship: Office, Custom, or Ad Hoc?: the Case of Queen Matilda III of England (1135-1152)” in Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (edd.), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (New York City NY 2003), pp. 133–158; and Patricia A. Dark, “‘A woman of Sublety and a Man’s Resolution’: Matilda of Boulogne in the Power Struggles of the Anarchy” in Brenda M. Bolton and Christine E. Meek (edd.), Aspects of Power and Authority in the Middle Ages, International Medieval Research 14 (Turnhout 2007), pp. 147–164.

4. Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright, with Michael Fradley and Stephen Trick, The Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-Century Landscapes of Conflict (Liverpool 2016), to which we can now add Duncan W. Wright and O. H. Creighton (edd.), Castles, siegeworks and settlements: surveying the archaeology of the twelfth century (Oxford 2016), which seems to be the fieldwork reports from this project.

5. On the incomplete siege-work at Burwell, see as well as the coverage in Wright and Creighton, Castles, siegeworks and settlements, Duncan W. Wright, Oliver Creighton, Steven Trick and Michael Fradley, “Power, conflict and ritual on the fen-edge: the Anarchy-period castle at Burwell, Cambridgeshire, and its pre-Conquest landscape” in Landscape History Vol. 37 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 25–50.

6. I had special reservations about the use of beakheads in architecture, such as we have seen here from Iffley Church in Oxford, as hard dating indicators for building in the 1120s-1160s, on the basis that they weren’t used outside that time. That sounds like a self-fulfilling diagnostic to me, and even Iffley threatens to stretch it.

7. The ways seals fit into this also seems to me a possible area of question, mainly because their use was spreading all over Europe at this time, which probably wasn’t a result of the conditions in England; see Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago: signs of identity in the Middle Ages, Visualising the Middle Ages 3 (Leiden 2011). On the coins, meanwhile, see M. A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Currency” in King, Anarchy, pp. 101–124, updated by Martin Allen, “The York Local Coinage of the Reign of Stephen (1135–54)” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 283–318 and Allen, “Pembroke: a New Mint of the Empress Matilda in the Reign of Stephen?”, ibid. Vol. 179 (London 2019), pp. 295–297.

8. As the previous note suggests, there were ways in which looking outside the British Isles might have added to this study. I’m thinking here straight away of Pierre Bonnassie, “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132–148, but as well as Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago, one could suggest Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015) or even Karl Leyser, “The Crisis of Medieval Germany” in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: the Gregorian revolution and beyond, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 21–49, for a sense that some of these developments were being experienced more widely.

Chronicle I: July, August and September 2015

I’m back in the UK, and even if you’re not, you may have gathered that quite a proportion of this country’s academics are currently on strike about proposed cuts to our pensions. In theory, therefore, I can do nothing like work today, but for various reasons I think blog can be allowed; after all, given that the main reason I haven’t been blogging regularly of late is my job, it seems all sorts of perverse if when the job halts I still can’t blog. So, without further ado, I’m going to test out the new format with a short account of the three months of my academic life following the last backlogged event I covered, a conference in Lincoln which you can go and read about if you so desire.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

We begin here… The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Now, I say my academic life but it’s even more difficult to separate that from the rest than usual for this particular patch of my existence, as in this time I was transferring that existence from Birmingham to Leeds. The two themes of my life in this period were therefore movement between cities, and counting coins. The latter was because one of the things the Barber Institute had hired me to do when I started there was an actual audit of the coin collection, whose records from the previous few years were sadly not all they should have been. In the event, it was only once I knew I was leaving that I really got started on that, becuase immediate priorities were all more, well, immediate. But now it had to be done, so I was spending most of any given working day in the coin room comparing trays to spreadsheets, and occasionally finding where someone had evidently dropped such a tray at some point then put things back in the wrong places. There were only a few of those but they really slowed things down… But it did, finally, happen and I wrote a big report which not only confirmed that the Barber was then in possession of 15,905 coins, 35 tokens, 22 medals, 165 seals, 42 weights and 10 other objects of paranumismatica, as well as collections not formally part of its holdings like the so-called ‘Heathrow Hoard’, but gave them something much more like a firm footing for future development of the collection. At the same time I was also setting up a lecture series for my exhibition, which I was now going to miss, processing uploads which you already heard about, and zapping coins with X-rays on occasion. It wasn’t a bad job, really. Oh yes, and I was also supervising two MA dissertations, one of which was on the Heathrow Hoard, indeed, so there was some teaching even though it was outside term.

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735, which did not get dropped

So all that was busy enough, but in August my old diaries and e-mails betray a slow shift: correspondence about workshops I would be doing in Leeds, moving company quotes, a farewell party at the Barber (bless them) and eventually the actual close of play. Somewhere in there, of course, was also happening the slow packing-up of stuff and eventually it all going into a Pickfords lorry, in coordination with my partner’s stuff coming up from London to be so shipped as well, and finally our actual installation into what we then thought would be our new home for the foreseeable future. I also did a medievalist tour of Dudley with a couple of friends, and I will post about that separately, with photographs, because there is actually medieval stuff to photograph there. But it’s September where the itinerary just gets crazy: from Leeds to Birmingham on the 8th, crashing for one last night in my now-empty previous home to hand over white goods and keys the next day, and then back to Leeds; to London and then Harpenden, of all places, at the weekend for a gig, then back to London and back to Leeds; and back down to Birmingham again on the 15th, for reasons I’ll say more about in a moment, and back up to Leeds again on the 16th; and then on the 20th I flew to Sicily, where I was for the following 6 days for reasons I’ll likewise mention below. And the day after I got back, we had to start having our house hot-water system replaced and I started teaching in my new job, opening up my career there with a lecture on Charlemagne and the Carolingians, all fairly fitting I think. Up to that point I’d been on campus quite a lot anyway, for induction and training, and also organising next year’s frontiers sessions for the International Medieval Congress, but now it had really started.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

Can it be that we have got so far through this post without an actual coin? Here’s a good big ugly one to make up for that, a copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

I’m still quite smug about the second Birmingham trip, just because it involved seeing an opportunity coming from a long way off at a time when I was otherwise completely lost in the weeds of the job. As I mentioned, there were a set of lectures intended to support my exhibition at the Barber. For various reasons they took a long time to organise, and I was having trouble finding suitable guest speakers. But as the date slipped back and the new job became clear, I suddenly realised: by the time they happened, I could myself be a guest speaker, because I would no longer work there! So that’s what I did, giving my successor in the post the job of introducing me for a lecture I’d set up. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem like a triumph, but it did. After all, if you want something done, do it yourself… The lecture was called “Small Change and Big Changes: minting and money after the Fall of Rome”, and it basically went through the changes that the imperial coinage system underwent as large parts of the Roman Empire fell into the control of non-Roman rulers, using Barber coins as illustrations throughout; the background idea was that of the exhibition, that we are still the heirs to Rome’s monetary and iconographic vocabulary of power, but the foreground was much more me working out ideas that I intended to take into the classroom; the lecture title is, after all, suspiciously similar to that of one of my current modules

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Which means we are now here, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds,once again. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

So, what haven’t we covered? Well, one thing that this new post format means sacrificing is the old write-up of trips, papers and conferences. I should still mention what they were, however, I think, so this is the list such as it was:

  • 3rd August: the medievalist outing to Dudley and Claverley, of which there will be separate photo posts;
  • 12th August: Eleanor Blakelock, “Secrets of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmiths: underlying truth of the Staffordshire Hoard”, a seminar in the Department of Physics at the University of Birmingham whose details have now gone from the web, but a very useful contact with someone who genuinely knows about metallic analysis of early medieval gold, which resulted in an exchange of references as well as some useful knowledge about how Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths seem to have made their work look shinier;
  • 23rd August: an actual visit to the then-new display of the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was good but probably isn’t worth recording separately for you all at this long remove given how much coverage the Hoard has already had here;
  • 21st–25th September: the XVth International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, Sicily. This needs a post of its own, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll keep it to one, but I am determined; it was a good but intense experience and I’m still trying to find out if my paper at it will be published. As you might imagine, I also managed to fit in some medievalist tourism here and there will be photos of that too.
  • 29th September: David Hinton, “Personal Possessions in Medieval England: archaeology and written evidence”, Institute for Medieval Studies Public Lecture, University of Leeds: my first academic event at my new job put one of the great figures of Anglo-Saxon archaeology before me and he was, of course, interesting; he emphasised the great spread of standards of living and wealth that Anglo-Saxon and medieval English material culture covered, from subsistence farming with almost nothing incidental owned (or at least lost) up to hoards of treasure such as have already been mentioned. Nonetheless, probably more people than that implies had precious items, however paltry; these were kept for lifetimes, which can make dating them from context difficult to do, but were also often metal and therefore recyclable, so the evidence all needs careful interpretation. Of course it does! But here was someone very used to doing that who made it sound manageable.

So, firstly that sort of summarises two and a half of the busiest months of my life until last year, but secondly I seem already to have promised five more posts of various kinds, mainly photos. I’d better therefore leave this one here and thus properly establish the new state of the blog! More will follow! After all, we haven’t got our pensions back as yet…

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7


1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…

Seminar CCVI: whose job was high medieval English pastoral care?

I have had to neglect this blog cruelly so far this year, I am keenly aware, and I hope–this sounds foolish but I mean it–to blog about at least one of the reasons why shortly. Meanwhile, however, I will unblock the head of the queue by reporting on a lecture I went to in Birmingham last June, before the backlog can get any worse…

Cover of Robert Swanson's Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215-c. 1515

Cover of Robert Swanson’s Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215-c. 1515

One of the people it’s been nice to meet while in Birmingham is Professor Robert Swanson. Very loyal readers might just remember my first encounter with his work, years ago when I had to read up on the twelfth-century Renaissance very quickly.1 I enjoyed that book and it was very helpful, but it turns out that this is not really what he does, which is much more late medieval Church organisation and spirituality. That is a subject that attracts all sorts, but having talked to Professor Swanson a bit I thought it would be fun to hear him do his stuff, and the opportunity came around on 3rd June 2014, when he was asked to give the Guest Lecture to the Early Medieval, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Forum in Birmingham. The title he chose was “Pastoral Care, Pastoral Cares, Pastoral Carers: the cura pastoralis in late medieval England”. This would have been too late and too Insular for me in normal circumstances, since more or less all the questions whose solutions intrigue me about the early and high medieval Church seem pretty much settled in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, but I had at this point just finished supervising an undergraduate dissertation on a text of this kind and era, onto the study of which Professor Swanson had put the relevant pupil, so I felt as if I might get something out of it, and so I did.2

Effigy of Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury, responsible as you will read for making all this stuff a live issue in England. Canterburycathedraljohnpeckhamtombeffigy" by Ealdgyth - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Effigy of Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury, responsible as you will read for making all this stuff a live issue in England. Canterburycathedraljohnpeckhamtombeffigy” by EaldgythOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was in fact with Lateran IV that Professor Swanson began, because one of the very many things with which that Council was concerned was the standard of care for people’s souls which the Church was administering. Lots of how-tos and instructions ensued and by 1281 this had even reached England, when a Canterbury council also considered what needed to be done in this sphere (under the presidency of the dead guy above). Now, as Professor Swanson had it, this has up till now mainly been studied in terms of what it meant for priests and others who held ministry in the Church, who were enjoined to all kinds of education, guidance and policing of vice, that is, in terms of the cure of souls, in the most medicinal sense of that metaphor. These days, however, we think of pastoral responsibilities as a much wider field of operations, more like social work, and Professor Swanson wanted to look at that sense in a medieval context; how much of that kind of ministering to people was there, and who was supposed to do it?

Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)

A 1504 Dutch painting of the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, “Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)” by Master of Alkmaar (fl. 1504) – http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl : Home : Info : Pic. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This turned out to be quite easy for him to set up a framework for. There are already, in this mass of didactic literature, a whole variety of instructions for the layperson to live a suitably holy but active life, obviously including the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Deadly Sins and so on, and also a set of recommendations called the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, which could be broadly categorised as mutual assistance among neighbours and so forth. Now, they need the qualification as ‘corporal’ because there were also Seven Acts of Spiritual Mercy, rather less often discussed but nonetheless letting the laity through the gate somewhat, because of requiring one basically to watch out for the state of your neighbour’s soul, and warn them if they looked like endanngering it. Quite a lot of this sort of conduct can be found urged in sermons even without the Seven Acts mentioned, in fact, but in the more worked-out versions it was even considered pious behaviour to constrain such miscreants to stop them thus hurting their chances of Salvation, or even to denounce them to other authorities who might correct them, all for their own good of course. This could even be applied to the priesthood itself, who could be denounced to their archdeacon or bishop, mainly because of the danger to their congregation’s souls of course but also to their own, and at the very highest level it was in some sense the work of the king, who should bring his subjects to Heaven as far as possible, but also of every mother and father of a child who had to be taught to tell right from wrong, so a pretty all-encompassing theology once pieced together from these various expressions.

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of an archdeacon telling off some priests

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of an archdeacon telling off some priests for their flash duds, or something equally anachronistic

It’s hard, in fact, to see what interference this doctrine wouldn’t justify. It clearly overlaps considerably with the priestly ministry, and so in questions the issue naturally arose of whether people were actually attempting to carry this out, or even using it as a justification for what we might otherwise call nosiness, busy-bodying or, more generously, community policing. That was, in some ways, not the point of the lecture, which had been about whether there was room for a lay ministry in this period’s thinking at all, but with it fairly well-established that people could have found one if they wanted, one now rather wants to know if they ever did try to apply the theory!


1. Robert N. Swanson, The Twelfth-Century Renaissance (London 1999); his other work includes Church and Society in Late Medieval England (Oxford 1989) and Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515 (Cambridge 1995), pictured above.

2. The text was Dives et Pauper, which was mentioned in this lecture several times and is printed in Priscilla Heath Barnum (ed./transl.), Dives et Pauper, Early English Texts Society O. S. 275 (London 1976). I shan’t embarrass the student by naming them, but they did pretty well…

Seminar CXCIV: who was afraid of the end in millennial England?

We have already recently mentioned the scholarly debate over whether or not there was a particular fear of the the world associated with the year 1000 in the Middle Ages, and that I was teaching a course on such matters in Birmingham this last spring. Thus, when I gathered that Professor Catherine Cubitt was giving the Royal Historical Society’s Public Lecture on 7th February 2014 with the title “Apocalyptic Thought in England Around the Year 1000”, I made sure I ws there, both because of the theme and because Katy is always interesting. Because of the reading for the course, I was one of the people in the audience who knew a lot of what she was saying, but by no means all and I came away with many new thoughts.

Having written all this and starting the search for links and images, I discover to my delight that the lecture was in fact recorded, so you can watch it uourself and see how fair I'm being! And it's worth the watch, if you like such things, and not just for the Steve Bell cartoon visible in the clip here...

Getting at whether writers, and by this given the sources we mean churchmen, obviously, were really worried about the imminence of the end of time and the Final Judgement is complicated by the fact that it’s a really obvious preaching tool. While Richard Landes and others may be right that for some people, the Final Judgement was a happy promise that although they’d been beaten down on all their lives by over-privileged people on horses living in halls, God would eventually, and perhaps soon, set things right, certainly the sermons we have from this era, a genre in which England is unusually rich, think that their hearers needed to be afraid, because time for repentance and mending their ways might be running out.1 This is fire-and-brimstone preaching at its most immediate, I guess, and it requires a peculiar two-handed approach: the End must be close, close enough that the signs are evident, but also there must still be time to make things better or it’s too late to preach. The result is that the Apocalypse becomes always imminent but never here, and in this respect we could have just the same debate about Pope Gregory I around 600 as we could have about, say, Abbot Æfric of Eynsham around 1000, whose list of events that should be read as showing the end times being in progress went back to the first century!2 If there was genuine worry about these issues, it’s both hard to separate from the utility of the trope for moral reformers (the basic conclusion of my students that term) and possible to find whenever we have the right kind of evidence.

London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, showing the text of the Tribal Hidage and the opening of the Grammar of Æfric of Eynsham

I can’t show you a picture of Æfric, but I can show you an eleventh-century writing of his name in this manuscript, London British Library MS Harley 3271, at the head of his treatise on grammar, weirdly facing a text of the Tribal Hidage

Nonetheless, there is a lot of this stuff, relatively speaking, from tenth- and early-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s easy enough to see why: the country was beset by Viking attacks it was not managing to resist, the kingship of Æthelred II (978-1016) was increasingly paralysed by poor leadership and treachery, and things were not getting better despite an increasingly desperate moral agenda at court.3 Here again we have the problem that one of the people who was most involved in that agenda, Archbishop Wulfstan II of York, was also very fond of the Apocalyptic message as a preaching tool, seen most clearly in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, apparently first written after the worst had happened and the king had been driven out but redone several times after that. Since he also helped draft Æthelred’s later laws and perhaps his unusually verbose and ‘penitential’ charters, that the voice of the state has an urgent tone of repentance about it is not surprising.4 The agenda was probably not cynical, either: Æthelred’s charters seem almost to be searching for what he and his people may have done wrong in their different pleas for forgiveness: yes, the imminent Last Judgement, but also various saints he might have offended, the soul of his murdered brother, his mother’s curse… he was apparently a haunted man and whatever Wulfstan’s concerns were, they found a ready audience with the king.5

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993 very full of apologies for the king's earlier mistreatment of the abbey

Nor was it just Wulfstan that used this stuff, either; we’ve mentioned Ælfric and there are various anonymous homilies preserved that also like the Last Days as a trope. Furthermore, for what it may be worth, Wulfstan himself seems to have been concerned about this all his life, in his earliest works before he was part of the government and even still after Æthelred’s succession by Cnut and the consequent end of the Viking menace.6 The End was still coming! Katy’s conclusion was therefore that, even if such thinking and preaching served a moral and reformist agenda and was being used to that end by its propagators, there were still a lot of those, sufficiently many and widely-disseminated (especially in the laws) that people at large would have been much exposed to this rhetoric. (I think now of the rhetoric of the term ‘recession’ and how that is used as a critique of the establishment, too, whatever its empirical truth.)

The <em>Sermo Lupi ad Anglos</em>, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat

The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat (though I’m afraid i don’t know which manuscript)

As the first questioner noted, this did not entirely address the question of whether there was much popular take-up of the idea that End was near, and Katy conceded this, saying that Richard Landes has made this such a difficult question that it couldn’t be addressed in this forum. (My students would generally come to the conclusion that it can’t really be addressed at all.) Jinty Nelson noticed, and I later made sure my students did, that the English rhetoric of the End is quite, well, Insular, in as much as it doesn’t partake of any of the developing Continental and Byzantine traditions about the role of a last emperor in clearing the way for the End, even though (as I pointed out) Æthelred did sometimes use the Greek imperial title basileus in his charters; the sources are Revelation and St Augustine and not very much more.7 Another point I tried to raise (because there’s nothing so dangerous as a man with a little knowledge, I suppose) was around the laws: unlike the various sermons, and charters whose audience was a single court assembly then a monastery thereafter, the laws represent official disseminaton of this rhetoric, or so we assume. (I did privately wonder if Patrick Wormald’s work on the manuscripts allowed us to conclude that actually half of this stuff never left Wulfstan’s office in Worcester and represents only the versions he would have liked to send out.8) Katy replied that she felt that the Apocalyptic rhetoric has to be read into the laws, rather than being there explicitly, and indeed this was what I later found with my students. That was a good course, and the lone group that took it did their best with it; looking back, though, I realise that this lecture must have set a number of the places whither I wound up trying to guide them…


1. I’m leaving aside here the point made by both Landes, often, and Katy here that a long tradition of literature starting with Christ Himself in the Gospels held that the date and time of the End could not be known, and that any attempt to calculate it was to defy Christ. This is true and much reiterated, including by Katy’s sources, but the post is long enough already! Some obvious references at the outset, however, are Richard Landes, Andrew C. Gow and Daniel C. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), where Malcolm Godden’s “The millennium, time, and history for the Anglo-Saxons”, pp. 155-180 is most immediately relevant; compare Edwin Wilson Duncan, “Fears of the Apocalypse: The Anglo-Saxons and the Coming of the First Millennium” in Religion and Literature Vol. 31 (Notre Dame 1999), pp. 15–23, a basic introduction to the issues, and Simon Keynes, “Apocalypse Then: England A.D. 1000” in Premyslaw Urbańczyk (ed.), Europe around the Year 1000 (Warsaw 2001), pp. 247–270.

2. We found on the course that Bernard McGinn (ed./trans.), Visions of the End: Apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages (New York City 1978; 2nd edn. 1998) was an indispensable source of primary material, including if I remember some of Gregory the Great’s writings on this issue, but see on him also Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End” in Chris Humphrey & Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34. For Ælfric a good starting point is Pauline Stafford, “Church and Society in the Age of Ælfric” in Paul E. Szarmach & B. F. Huppé (edd.), The Old English Homily and Its Backgrounds (Albany 1978), pp. 11–42.

3. Here the most obvious thing to cite is none other than Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 85 (London 2012), pp. 179-192, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x.

4. I discover now in searching for stuff to support this post that there is now plotted Andrew Rabin (ed./transl.), The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (Manchester forthcoming), which looks very useful.

5. Here, meanwhile, the obvious cites are now Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203 and idem, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Aethelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258–276, and in case that doesn’t seem coincidental enough, I should mention that the lecture was preceded by a recitation of new fellows of the Society, of whom Levi was one! So the world remains tightly bound, unlike, as Wulfstan was fond of emphasising, Satan (see William Prideaux-Collins, “‘Satan’s bonds are extremely loose’: apocalyptic expectation in Anglo-Saxon England during the millennial era” in Landes, Gow & Van Meter, Apocalyptic Year 1000, pp. 289-310.

6. See Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan and the holiness of society” in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York City 1999), pp. 191-224, repr. in Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West (London 1999), pp. 225-251; Joyce Tally Lionarons, “Napier Homily L: Wulfstan’s eschatology at the close of his career” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004), pp. 413–428.

7. For the wider scene the most neutral introduction is probably Simon MacLean, “Apocalypse and Revolution: Europe around the Year 1000” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 86–106; for the Byzantine tradition, try Paul Julius Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Los Angeles 1985), perhaps updated with Paul Magdalino, “The Year 1000 in Byzantium” in idem (ed.), Byzantium in the Year 1000 (Leiden 2003), pp. 233–270. Æthelred had the title basileus used for him in a full forty-three of his charters, which you can make the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England list for you here; it is often basileus of Britain or even of Albion, too, which makes me wonder if it wasn’t a reaction to the Kings of the Scots’ increasing use of the title of King of Alba.

8. Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003); see also idem, “Archbishop Wulfstan, eleventh-century state-builder” in Townend, Wulfstan, pp. 9-27.