Tag Archives: Leeds

Seminar CLXXII: regions, Russia and Robertians

One of the more interesting things I saw in the tail end of 2019 (because yes, sorry, backlog still that far back) was an attempt by three colleagues of mine (two since sadly moved on) to start a new sort of seminar, at least, new for us in History at Leeds. The colleages in question were Dr Jamie Doherty, Dr Fraser McNair and Professor James Harris, and what they wanted to do was build a dialogic seminar on political cultures. They managed one go, on 21st October 2019, and then it stopped, not because it was a bad idea but because, I believe, they had decided to have a second go towards Easter 2020, and you may recollect how the world’s plans for 2020 worked out. By the time it was possible to regroup, not everyone was still in place, and so this one go was all we got, which was a pity, as I’ll try and show.1

The way it worked was pretty simple: two colleagues with expertise in quite different periods lined up with 15-minutes papers about the same theme, as they saw it from their perspective, and then everyone else got to join in too in chaired discussion. The chosen theme was ‘Regionalism’, and in the arbitrarily blue corner, perhaps from his native county, but of course flying colours for the tenth century as seen from mostly the European West, was Fraser, while in the corner that is red with the people’s blood, and tooled up with more knowledge on how Stalin’s USSR worked than some would ever want, there was James.2 In this analogy, Jamie was referee, though the analogy makes this sound much more oppositional than it really was. What it really was was fun, and a way of doing a seminar that really did get a bigger conversation going; my notes record contributions from eight people other than the speakers and about twice as much discussion as papers. I wish all seminars came out like that! So this is how it went, sort of blow-by-blow.

    McNAIR: first let’s try and define a region. Obviously there’s several possible scales, in the Carolingian world (with modern English analogies) pagus (e. g. the Black Country) and county (e. g. Worcestershire), and in the eleventh century lots of the latter become units of a higher level; but because of that confusion, is it maybe better instead to say that a region is a unit that is not the centre to which it relates?
    HARRIS: when I looked at the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, I found the numerous regions the USSR recognised through giving them representation competing for central investment, and not working together to demand a collective voice; the quicker response to the simplest instructions brought the most investment, so the regions effectively encouraged the centre’s resort to dictatorship by promising to do what they were told better than their competitors!

Then the conversation started. The chunks in my notes break up like this:

  1. Communications (Fraser, James, someone I didn’t know then and someone surnamed Morris I now can’t identify): if there were no communications obviously power couldn’t operate but how far are they two-way? Can regions talk back? In Carolingian Europe they came to assemblies to speak and be heard; but over time it was people at the centre who were sent out to the regions and eventually they stopped coming back. In the USSR communications back to the centre were so voluminous that they had to be filtered, but they were also deficient, working through preferred routes only and saying what the centre wanted to hear; that definitely didn’t mean the regions were uncontrolled though!
  2. Jamie asked if political ritual was used as a mask, or protection, for communication in Stalin’s USSR and James confirmed that it absolutely was: the ritual of choice was self-recrimination as a way of getting the right to speak, and approaches to the ‘court’ were made through formulae too. This was James showing that he listened to his medievalist colleagues in the pub, I thought, and I was very pleased by this speaking of our language. Fraser added that regional rituals also existed and that is also worth thinking with, and James stressed that informal communications were obviously hugely important but are mostly unattested, something which struck chords for several of the medievalists present, including me.
  3. Fraser then started looking for levels of unit we might all share; the Spanish Empire’s myriad island dependencies as described by Iona McCleery for us didn’t look good for this, but it seemed for a moment as if bishoprics might be something that was at least recognisable over most of our areas, even if in the USSR they obviously weren’t very important. Fraser pointed out that their arguments for their power rested on a central structure more than a regional one, but this proved to be a division: Fraser’s bishops addressed their faithful using their central significance, but James’s regional representatives used the region as base to talk to the centre, the only Soviet audience worth having. For a long time, following Matthew Innes of course, I’ve understood the Carolingian Empire as working at peak with both of these dynamics at once; but of course that doesn’t mean every part of a political system has to have them both in balance, and I could probably do with thinking more with this as well.
  4. So we then came round to scale, as we so often should; this started with Fraser asking if regions could exist without a centre, as he thought eleventh-century France was such a thing, defined instead by its edges; this, for me, was also the position of Catalonia after the Carolingians, sharing only a language and not being anyone else’s, but itself being only regions with no shared centre, not even Barcelona, and that raised the question of how small a region can be. To that James noted that some representatives on the Soviet Central Committee had a political weight well above their demographic one because of representing large empty areas, so that there the problem was more how big one could be! This, I think, is a Europe versus Eurasia issue, but still quite important.3
  5. The last conversation was one for the modernists, however, being about how industrialisation and the people flows towards cities which it created, and then globalisation and the deindustrialisation it has caused, altered these dynamics by dispersing identities. Sean Fear thought that we have examples of regional identities being rested on globalising flows – I don’t know what he meant now, but I think of the Fair Trade movement as a possible example – while someone else spoke of diasporas as non-geographical regional identities, and was met with the argument that physical proximity still enables cooperation better. Sean’s point may have been cities arising as identities more important than the regional backgrounds of their constitutent members, as he ended with that, and here there would certainly be things medievalists could have added about performing group membership in ways outsiders can learn; but we were out of time…

As you can tell, in retrospect it’s hard to draw much of a continuous thread out of this, and it would have been nice to have the future instalments of the series to see if threads kept emerging and suggested areas of work. What this did show, however, and even in this messy write-up I hope still shows, was that we could actually all talk about the same things wherever and whenever our study areas sat on maps and timelines, without even having to look for similarities enough to make our examples, you know, correlative. We were dancing round being able to have conversations here about historical phenomena in a usefully comparative fashion, and it’s rather a shame we didn’t get to do more of it. It showed the potential for collegial discussion that I described long ago existing even outside of a so-called college, if we’d only had the chance to build on it.


1. Retrospectively, now, it’s hard not to see the pandemic as the point where we in universities all ramped up to being 100% service-delivery personnel, and I don’t personally feel we’ve ever been allowed to step back down to where we were before. Consequently, I can’t now imagine a thing like this happening that wasn’t led by postgraduates or postdoctoral scholars, and indeed even this was one-third the work of one of the latter.

2. James is probably most famous either for his most recent book, James Harris, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (Oxford 2016), or an earlier one he co-wrote, James Harris and Sarah Davies, Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order (New Haven CT 2014), but the one that was most relevant here was probably his first, James Harris, The Great Urals: Regionalism and the Evolution of the Soviet System (Ithaca NY 1999).

3. Iona McCleery had, indeed, already pointed out the weirdness of calling somewhere like West Africa a ‘region’ simply because your centre of relevance for your own perspective is elsewhere, even though it’s bigger than most countries, when a ‘regional’ saint’s cult might have a reach only of a few towns; as ever, scale is tricky but has to be reckoned with.

The conference before the storm: Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2019

Looking back on the last pre-Covid International Medieval Congress seems like a different world by now, even though we’ve but recently had the 2022 one, where, ironically or not, I caught my first dose of Covid. I guess that, because of that and because of the big push towards online hybrid participation that the pandemic gave us, it’s clear already that we’re never going back to quite the same experience of a campus full of medievalists meeting and interacting, but will now live with the sense, firstly, that that may be dangerous as well as desirable and that some people just aren’t going to be able to take part, and secondly that a lot of the action is in fact happening off-stage, in the ether.1 So this was the end of an era, or the last stop before a change of trains, or some other metaphor. And, to be honest, because of that, before picking up my notes on it I would have said I remembered very little of what happened at the 2019 Congress, as opposed to any other year since the IMC moved to the Central campus. I didn’t organise anything myself, is all I would have told you this morning, and on inspection that is completely untrue: Rethinking the Medieval Frontier ran for a full day, with people speaking from two continents about places from the Canaries to Kashmir. So as it transpires, I was there (obviously) and was pretty busy (nearly as obviously) and learnt a good few things (thankfully), and it was actually an impressively international and intersectional gathering that had all kinds of promise for the future threaded through it, and it still seems worth writing a report on it. It’s just that the future took a different turn… Because these reports are always huge, however, and not necessarily of interest to all (certainly not throughout), I’ll do what has become my practice and give you the running order of my conference experience, and then put actual commentary below a cut and let you decide (the few of you reading on the actual site rather than in your e-mail, anyway) how much further you care to go.

Monday 1st July 2019

119. Materialities at Birkbeck, I: between mind and matter in medieval monetary policy

  • Rebecca Darley, “Discourses on Absence, or Kalabhra and Vakataka Monetary Policy in Early Medieval Southern India”
  • Chris Budleigh, “Surplus and Scarcity: the contested relationship between monetary supply and aristocratic land management in Comnenian Byzantium”
  • Sidin Sunny, “The Lighter Dirham: power relationships in medieval Spanish society and tendencies in coin fineness and debasement.”

240. The Use and Construction of Place, Space, and Materiality in Late Antiquity

334. Seas and Floods in the Islamic West

  • Andrew Marsham, “Nile Flood Levels and Egyptian Revolts in the Early Medieval Period”
  • Xavier Ballestín, “Ships, Seafarers, Sails and Bows: a source approach to marine networks and coastal settlement in the Western Mediterranean basin on the eve of the rabaḍ uprising in Córdoba, 202 AH/818 AD”
  • Maribel Fierro, “Sea in the Life Narratives of Andalusi Scholars and Saints”

Tuesday 2nd July

530. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, I: Iberian Spaces

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ends of Empire: Two Island Frontiers between Byzantium and Islam”
  • Stacey Murrell, “Centering the Marginal: concubines on Castilian frontiers, c. 1050-1350
  • Sandra Schieweck, “Iberian Border Regimes: the case of Castile and Navarre in the late Middle Ages”

630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, 2018, II: Administration and Control

  • Luca Zavagno, “‘The Byzantine Liquid Frontiers’, or How to Administer Insular and Coastal Peripheral Spaces and Stop Worrying About It”
  • Davor Salihović, “The Distribution of Bordering in Late Medieval Hungary”

730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, III: between religions

  • Roberta Denaro, “Far from the Corrupting City: building the frontier as a stage for martyrdom and asceticism, 8th-10th centuries”
  • Turaç Hakalmaz, “‘Islandness’ of a Coastal Kingdom: the case of Cilician Armenia”
  • Aniket Tathagata Chettry, “Exploring the Complexities of a Brahmanical Frontier in Bengal”

830. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, IV: dealing with power on the frontier

  • Jakub Kabala, “Claiming Authority over the Edge of the World: Frontier Strategies in Salzburg, c. 870″
  • Zeynep Aydoğan, “Conquest and Territoriality in the Late Medieval Anatolian Frontiers”
  • Andreas Obenaus, “To Whom Might/Do They Belong? Claims to Newly-Discovered Atlantic Islands in the Late Medieval Period”

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

1048. Forging Memory: false documents and historical consciousness in the Middle Ages, I

  • Graham Barrett, “Charters, Forgeries, and the Diplomatic of Salvation in Medieval Iberia”
  • Daria Safranova, “Using and Detecting Forged Charters in Northern Iberia, c. 900-1100″
  • Levi Roach, “True Lies: Leo of Vercelli, Arduin of Ivrea, and the Struggle for Piedmont”

1140. Byzantine Materialities, II: Ephemera and Iconoclasm

  • Rachel Banes, “You Can’t Write That Here! Mapping Religious and Secular Graffiti in Asia Minor, c. 300-700 CE”
  • Daniel K. Reynolds, “Images, Icons and Apologetic: Christian Iconoclasm in Early Islamic Palestine”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Dancing in the Streets: the ephemera of Byzantine processions”

1252. Transport, Traders, and Trade Routes in Early Medieval Europe

  • Ewa Magdalena Charowska, “Dugout Builders: the trademark of the Sclaveni in the 6th and 7th Centuries”
  • Daniel Melleno, “From Strangers to Neighbors: Franks and Vikings in the late 9th century”
  • Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: early medieval caravan trade between the West Frankish kingdom and al-Andalus”
  • Victor Farías Zurita, “Response”

1340. Byzantine Materialities, IV: workshops, trade and manuscripts

  • Shaun Tougher, “Macedonian Materialities: the Menologion of Basil II”
  • Chris Wickham, “Materialities of Middle Byzantine Exchange in the Aegean”
  • Flavia Vanni, “Men at work: stucco workshops on Mount Athos”

Thursday 4th July 2019

1509. Gold, Coins and Power in the Early Middle Ages

  • Marco Cristini, “The War of the Coins: Numismatic Evidence for the Gothic War”
  • Nicholas Rogers, “Angels and the King’s Evil: projections of royal authority”
  • Vera Kemper, “‘All that glitters is not gold’: heroes and material wealth”

1652. The Monetary System and Currency in Eurasia in the Pre-Modern Era, II: money and its circulation in British Isles and Scandinavia

  • Yuta Uchikawa, “Commerce and Coin Circulation around the Irish Sea in the 9th and 10th Centuries”
  • Hiroko Yanagawa, “The Irish-Sea Imitations and their Circulation during the Middle Ages”
  • Kenji Nishioka, “The Use of Money in Scotland during the 12th and 13th Centuries”
  • Takahiro Narikawa, “Church and the Money Circulation in High Medieval Norway”

1738. Materialities and Religion in Medieval Armenia and Byzantium

  • Katherine New, “The Representations of Material Objects in Medieval Culture: statue or doll in Byzantine mythography”
  • Carmen Morais Puche, “Medieval Byzantine Coinage in Patrimonio Nacional: image, materiality and religions”

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Rulers who weren’t kings, discussed at Leeds

I have as usual to apologise for a gap in posting. I mentioned the Covid-19; then I was on holiday; and then I was late with a chapter submission that I finished, on overtime, yesterday. Much of this post was written before that all started piling up, but I’ve only today had time to finish it. I was originally going to give you another source translation for the first time in ages, but it turns out that even though I translated the relevant thing fresh in 2019, two other people had already done it even then and I somehow missed that at the time. Oh well, never mind, because that progresses my backlog into April of that year, when I had the honour of giving my second ever keynote address (and, it must be said, so far my last). This was kindly arranged by my then-colleague Dr Fraser McNair, who had put together a conference called Non-Royal Rulership in the Earlier Medieval West, c. 600-1200. To be fair, though, I was only one of three keynote speakers, so well-connected is Fraser. As ever, I can’t give a full account of a two-day conference at a three-year remove, but I can give you the premise, the list of speakers and some thoughts which, I promise, will not just be about my paper. I’ll put the abstract and running order above the cut, but the rest can go below one so that if it doesn’t interest you, you few who actually read this on the website can more easily scroll to things that do. So here we are!

Between the breakdown of Roman rule and the sweeping legal and administrative changes of the later twelfth century, western Europe saw many types of rulers. The precise nature of their title and authority changed: dukes, counts, rectores, gastalds, ealdormen… These rulers were ubiquituous and diverse, but despite the variation between them, they all shared a neeed to conceptualise, to justify, and to exercise their rule without access to the ideological and governmental resources of kingship. This conference will explore the political practices of non-royal ruler across the earlier medieval period, in order to understand how the ambiguities of a position of rule that was not kingship were resolved in their varuous inflections.

And in order to do that thing, Fraser got hold of this glittering line-up (and me):

8th April 2019

Keynote 1

    Vito Loré, “How Many Lombard Kingdoms? The Duchies of Benevento and Spoleto in the Eighth Century”

The Terminology of Non-Royal Rule

  • Russell Ó Ríagáin, “A King by Any Other Name Would Rule the Same? A Relational and Diachronic Examination of the Terminology of Authority in Medieval Ireland”
  • Emily Ward, “Quasi interrex? Boy Kings and the Terminology of Non-Royal ‘Rule’, 1056-c. 1200″
  • Andrea Mariani, “Portugal Before the Kingdom: A Study of the Count of Portucale’s Titles and their Political Legitimation (9th-12th Centuries)”

Lay and Ecclesiastical Non-Royal Rulership

  • Mary Blanchard, “Equal but Separate? The Offices of Bishop and Ealdorman in Late Anglo-Saxon England”
  • James Doherty, “The Righteous Brothers: Bishop Philip of Châlons, Count Hugh of Troyes and Cultural Capital on the Stage of Crusade”
  • George Luff, “Princes of the Church: The Emergence of Ecclesiastical Rulership in the Early Medieval West”

Keynote 2

    Fiona Edmonds, “Regional Rulership: Northern Britain in its Insular Context, 600-1100”

9th April 2019

Analysing Non-Royal Power Relations

  • Sverrir Jakobsson, “Non-Royal Rulers in Twelfth-Century Iceland”
  • Mariña Bermúdez Beloso, “Non-Royal Rulership in North-Western Iberia: Who (Were They), what (Were Their Functions), Over Which (Territories did They Rule), How (to Study Them), and Other Questions for the Sources”
  • Alberto Spataro, “Rule by Law? Judicial and Political Hegemony of Milan in the Regnum Italiae (11th-12th Centuries)”

Keynote 3

    Jonathan Jarrett, “Counts Where It Counts: Spheres of Comital Action in the Tenth-Century West Frankish Periphery”

Non-Royal Rulers in the Middle

  • Daniel Schumacher, “Count Reginar: Duke, missus dominicus, and Rebel”
  • Fraser McNair, “An Anglo-Saxon Strand in Legitimizing the Counts of Flanders”
  • Jamie Smith, “‘Friends in Other Places’: The Diplomacy of Early Tostig of Northumbria, 1055-1066”

Symbolic Communication and Non-Royal Rule

  • Guilia Zornetta, “Benevento Before and After the Fall of the Lombard Kingdom: From Ducatus to Principatus
  • Rodrigo Hernández Hernández, “Justice, Peace and Virtue: The Mercy of Diego Gelmirez as a Discursive Element to Consolidate his Rulership in the Historia Compostelana
  • Anna Gehler-Rachůnek, “Strategies of Political Communication: the Papacy and the West around 600”

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Seminars CCLXIX & CCLXX: From opposite ends of the Mediterranean

I’ve just had a look through my seminar notes from March 2019 and decided that two still bear the telling. As ever, it is good of those who still read here to bear with my efforts to reduce the backlog in the face of the fact that things continue to occur meanwhile… But back then when my backlog is, at the beginning of the month I was present on the 4th when Professor John Moreland addressed Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies Medieval Group with the title, “Sheffield Castle: archives, excavations, and augmented reality, 1927-2018”, and then I was around again on the 27th when Dr Helen Birkett addressed the IMS Medieval History Seminar with the title, “News, Current Events, History: The Preservation of News Texts from 1187/8”. I’ve got no way to tie these together except that they were in the same month in the same university and I saw them both, but why should we need more, eh?

Poster for seminar by John Moreland at the University of Leeds

Seminar poster by Thomas Smith

So to begin with Professor Moreland’s paper, I have to admit that I did not previously know that Sheffield had had a castle. But there was one, and a recent bequest had enabled the University’s then-untroubled archaeology department to start a partnership up with the contract organisation Wessex Archaeology (who for reasons unexplained have an office in Sheffield) and the university’s department of Computer Science, to go over the work that had been done on it and try to synthesize the results of old and new digs. The castle has been dug quite a lot, apparently, being located, under what was between the 1960s and very recently the city market, by an amateur archaeologist in the 1920s and then dug for a decade, with some more work on its perimeter in the 1950s and new work just beginning at the date of this paper. The paper was as much about why what had been done had been done as what it actually was, but the basic story was that some kind of castle was probably put here in the 12th century by one William de Loyelote, built up rather with a gatehouse after license was given to crenellate in 1258, and then possibly burnt in a sack of the city of 1266 by a man really genuinely called John De Eville. There was some rebuilding thereafter and it was still a going concern in the 16th century, and indeed in the English Civil War though perhaps not going enough as it fell to siege in 1644 and 1646 and was slighted in 1649-1650.

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s – sadly, Sheffield’s website doesn’t say which

The question that now arises is what bits of this actually survive. The 1920s-30s digs found lots, and some of that was photographed in situ, very luckily for such old archaeology, but that archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, tended to date what he found from known history, such as the 1266 burning, so that various wooden structures showing destruction by fire he considered to be pre-1266 and everything above them to have been the 13th-17th-century building, which Professor Moreland though would likely prove wrong given the relative depths of stratification. In that case, this fire must have happened earlier and the 1266 sack of the city may not have hurt the castle at all. Another point of difference was over the material that Armstrong considered to have been ‘Saxon’, an alleged cruck-built building in the central courtyard and some of the material culture. Professor Moreland, however, thought that there was no pre-Conquest material at all, and that Armstrong was just after pushing his native city’s origins back to when it could be ‘Germanic’ rather than ‘French’, this mattering rather more in the atmosphere of the 1930s, though not always that way round… The oldest remains Professor Moreland had been able to date were late 11th-century, at which point there seems to have been a Norman motte with maybe a wooden gatehouse. But by this stage he had five minutes left to talk, so we didn’t get all the details of that I might have wanted, and the promised ‘augmented reality’ ironically never materialised, then or now. However, you can find out more! Wessex Archaeology have a good web-page on the digs, including their 602-page site report which, I admit, I didn’t read for this post (or at all), and a video by Professor Moreland explaining what the augmented reality stuff would have been like.1 Also, not very long after this paper, there emerged a book, so it is certainly possible for you to learn more.2

Dr Birkett’s paper was a very different sort of thing, not just because it completed within the time allowed but also because it was a proper old-fashioned text-mining medievalist study, which as I only now find out, had already been published at the point when she gave it to us.3 The object of the search was to find out how people in the West found out about the recapture of Jerusalem by the forces of Islam, under the famous Saladin, in 1187. We know that it created enough of a furore that eventually King Richard I of England, King Philip II Augustus of France and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa all went out to try and get it back – but how did the news actually get to their royal ears?

Poster for seminar by Helen Birkett at the University of Leeds

Poster again by Thomas Smith

Obviously, the answer was probably letters, but what I hadn’t expected was firstly that we would have any such letters surviving, and secondly where they turn up. These were surprises because actually, there are 13, but none are actual autographs by people of 1187; instead, such texts were later copied into chronicles and histories, or just copied; we have some loose copies which got used as bindings, and one rather mystifying copy of a letter from Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (the Latin patriarch, despite his name) that now survives in the Arxiu Parroquial of Cardona, of which town we heard only a couple of posts ago so you know it’s in Catalonia. In fact two such letters made it to Catalonia, but it doesn’t seem to have raised the same response as other places… But from the image I was pretty sure it was a local copy – I know the scripts! – so there was a kind of response even so.

But that is a whole book’s worth of study and for someone else. Better questions to ask might be, as did Alan Murray, of course present, whether multiple copies of such letters were being sent, or whether one was sent and then copied for dissemination, and Dr Birkett thought the latter. There is a particular one by a Templar called Terricas (apparently) which exists in more copies than any other, and Dr Birkett thought that the actual man’s journey westwards to seek help could be tracked. I don’t, myself, see why that precludes him fetching up in, say, Genoa, and then writing his letter and having copies sent hither and thither; but of course, I haven’t seen it, and either solution does explain why what we have is not the original letters, and reminds us that in this era (and to be honest, our one too) a letter only arrives because someone or a chain of someones physically brings it; that process also attracted questions, but answers are hard to provide. Dr Birkett herself was more interested in why these texts were still being copied up long after they were ‘news’, because outside the chronicle texts the preservation rarely seems to have been part of a plan; their homes were often blank folios in manuscripts made for other purposes. It is possible that, since Jerusalem was never recaptured (unless we count Emperor Frederick II’s attempt, which because the Church judged him to be a bad guy we seem never to do), this was ‘news’ that never got old. But the samples are very small, and I was myself wary of any generalisation of plotting trends of 2-4 manuscripts. But the questions are still interesting to ask, and maybe there are more answers to be found.

That will have to do you for this week. Next post will be some more current news and then I have an old musing that never before got written up about the role of the blog in/as scholarship, so please stay tuned for those, and if that’s not enough I hope to have more critique of a certain historian of early medieval military matters ready to go after that, surely therefore something for all tastes. Stay well and safe till then!


1. It is Sheffield Castle, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Final Archaeological Evaluation Report, by Ashley Tuck, 201540.05 (Sheffield 2020), online here.

2. John Moreland, Dawn Hadley and Ashley Tuck, Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927–2018 (York 2020), online here.

3. Helen Birkett, “News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187–1188” in Viator Vol. 49 (Turnhout 2018), pp. 23–61, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.119573.

Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

As usual, apologies are owed to you, dear readers, for a long absence; sorry. We stopped working to contract at about the time all my marking came in, and the result of marking arriving was as usual disappearance from civilisation. This last weekend that was compounded by a breakdown and impromptu eight-hour stop in Brecon, as well, which cut back my blogging chances somewhat. But quite a lot else has been happening and I have news as well as olds to report. I had some olds half-set-up to go, however, so that’s where we’ll start, with two papers from two successive days at the University of Leeds in 2019, both on the Normans in Sicily.

Now, for those in on the medieval scene it may not be surprising to hear of work on Norman Sicily at Leeds; in fact the main thing that might be surprising is that we were bussing it in, because is Leeds not after all the seat of Graham Loud, doyen of the field and supervisor of many protégés therein? And this was true even then, but Graham was at this point in the second of three years of a research project which would take him neatly up to retirement, and his students had pretty much all completed. Furthermore, because of his absence, we weren’t even really teaching Norman Sicily any more. The thing that can happen when a specialist retires, where a whole section of the library quietly ceases to be used, was already in progress. But this did not mean that there was no audience when firstly, on the 19th February, Jeremy Johns hauled up from Oxford to give an Institute for Medieval Studies Open Lecture with the title, “Documenting Multi-Culturalism in Norman Sicily”, and then the very next day Francesca Petrizzo, one of those completed students of Graham Loud’s indeed, spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title “‘Normans Don’t Cry’: grief, anger and the Hautevilles”.

Medieval scribes from three Sicilian traditions in Peter of Eboli's Liber in honorem Augusti

The masthead image of the project Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-existence, law and multiculturalism in the administrative and legal documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c.1060-c.1266, which although they don’t identify it on the website turns out to be from Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120 II, fo. 101r, online here. Really, academic websites should do better than this, but never mind, let’s move on…

Professor Johns was introducing us to a then-new project, Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-Existence, Law and Multiculturalism in the Administrative and Legal Documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c. 1060-c. 1266, funded by the European Research Council in a way that had just become rather political. The project probably also looked rather political to some, in so far as it was engaged in that most dangerous of things, attempting to check facts behind a cliché about religious, racial and cultural interaction. The cliché in question was that of Norman Sicily as a multicultural paradise of tolerance and shared artistic cultures; it is, now that Islamic Iberia is a bit more widely contested, almost the last of those we have left, but obviously it’s not everyone’s idea of paradise, and not everyone believes that it can have been possible despite certain signal memorials of it, because those are more or less by definition from élite; social strata deeply concerned in the success of the governmental project.1

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

The tombstone of Anna in St Michael’s Palermo, lettered in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew, commonly used as an emblem of Sicilian medieval multiculturalism; but Anna was mother of a priest of King Roger II, so may not have been precisely typical…

Well, this is a thing on which, to a certain extent, we can put numbers and for which we can find data, because the Normans arrived as French-speakers in a Sicily which had an Arabic administration and tax system, with older less Arabic components, staffed in part by Greek-speakers, and although survival of these systems’ documents is not what you’d call great (at least not by Catalan standards!), there are roughly 500 Latin, 350 Greek, 125 Arabic and 25 Judaeo-Arabic chancery records, quite a lot of inscriptions which at this point they had yet to count, and a good few other references that can be factored in.2 The difficulties or not that these documents describe are themselves qualitative instances of how these different cultural strata interacted, but also, and this was the main point of the paper, so is the choice and change of language in them. For example, one of the things coming out of this project will hopefully be the first ever study of Sicilian Arabic, because unsurprisingly it was a bit different. Ibn Hawqal, an Baghdadi merchant and probably Egyptian spy visiting in the 950s, thought it lamentably bad and ungrammatical; but the documents will tell us how it was actually written, and perhaps even spoken.3 Eventually, too, though this hasn’t happened yet, all the documents, in all languages of record, will be online in facsimile, transcription and translation, and that will be a fabulous resource to have.

What seems unlikely to emerge, however, is a simple narrative. The one we have at the moment is more or less that initially, the Normans needed the administration in working order so badly that they maintained it and its operators, thus practising tolerance by necessity and making a virtue of it while it did them good; but, after a century or so, partly because support for their endeavours from the Latin world was so necessary and partly just because the Normans did not naturalise very far, Latin tended to push out the other tongues and Christianity the other religions.4 What the project was already showing was that Arabic might have gone quiet, but had not completely gone, even in documents from close to the end of their sample, where boundary clauses might still sometimes be given in very local dialects of it in documents otherwise fully Latin.5 Who was the audience for that, nearly two centuries after Latin conquest? Likewise, it seems as if while the Normans may not have Arabised, they certainly naturalised to the extent that even by the 1190s, no-one seems to have been writing French on the island, rather than a local Romance more like that which would become Italian. Between Sicilian Arabic and Sicilian Romance, the most obvious outcome from the Norman period may actually have been, well, Sicily, admittedly not for the first time in its history, but ever reinvented as each wave washing over it dried into its shores.

Poster for the Medieval History Seminar, Institute for Medieval Studies, 20 February 2019

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

Francesca Petrizzo, meanwhile, had been one of my advisees while she was Graham Loud’s doctoral student, and so, disclaimer, can always be sure of a good write-up here, but I think more people than just me thought hers was a fun paper. Her doctoral thesis was on the political value of kinship among the most successful of the Norman families who made southern Italy and Sicily the new home for their endeavours in the eleventh century, by a process of hiring themselves into military disputes and slowly emerging as the masters of the situations into which they were hired, to the ultimate extent of becoming Kings of Sicily and counts of numerous other places nearby.6 However, what her thesis had not covered was emotional bonds, and this paper was an attempt to sound the evidence for that, and was therefore as much a methodological exercise as an empirical one: how can we get at emotions and feelings from the sources we have, and how can we ever be sure that they were what the subjects of report felt? There are some cases where it seems clear enough, relatively speaking: when Elvira of Castile, the wife of King Roger II of Sicily, died we are told by Alexander of Telese that Roger hid in his chambers for weeks, so that a rumour spread that he had died too and then his brother-in-law raised a revolt against his counsellors, whereupon Roger had to emerge in vengeful fashion and kill quite a few people. He then didn’t remarry for a decade, until he was down to one male heir. Love, grief and anger don’t seem unreasonable to attribute here, though one would like the hiding story to occur in more than one source.

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa, with tombs of the Hauteville family visible beneath the floor, photo by Anna Nicoletta MenzellaOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The main emotional outlet of the Hautevilles does seem to have been anger and venegance – the title quote came from a report by Amatus of Montecassino about a band of Normans whose lord was killed in a fray, who, he says, did not waste time on tears but went straight through the stages of mourning to vengeance without waiting (not his language, obviously, but the title quote is: “Normanni non plorent”, ‘the Normans don’t cry’).7 But seeing other emotions in the sources is hard: we can see patronage as an expression of affection, especially when it was extended to people who repeatedly caused trouble (though that was a lot of the Hautevilles, and there may just not have been much choice); we can also, however, therefore see a preference for kin over outsiders, despite how troublesome a kindred it was.8 And then there are memorials that show us some level of mourning, of which we have two above, though of course these are the public expression of mourning rather than a private one. Many of these emotional pathways, interestingly, occasionally let women through into what would normally be men’s roles; women counts regnant, several powerful consorts, daughters who witnessed charters, patronesses of chronicles, and so on.

The examples involving women may be the most powerful ones, for me, because they sit against the otherwise obvious possibility that these actions of violence, inclusion, patronage or dispute may have been pragmatic and political rather than emotional (in so far as the two spheres separate). Obviously female kinship ties had political value as well, but Tancred of Conversano having his daughter witness charters probably didn’t help anything except her sense of being a nobleman’s offspring. Nonetheless, most of the questions were about how results of an enquiry like this could be made reliable, with one person saying it simply couldn’t be done, as all we were getting was the emotions that the agent of record thought would have been appropriate, and another wondering if the chroniclers’ emotions weren’t the thing we should study here instead. Joanna Phillips, also of this parish, wondered if it might be more reliable to track responses to emotion than records of its expression. More interesting to me was the question that asked if this emotional profile was a Norman thing or more generally medieval, to which Francesca said that it wasn’t even general to the Normans; few other families had this kind of internal cohesion and, apparently, trust. But also, in most other cultures and kingroups of the era crying was a perfectly legitimate display of sincerely felt emotion; if these Normans didn’t cry, then they were modelling a different, less emotive kind of masculinity than was the fashion with others. That kind of relative history of emotions might work better for me; the chroniclers in question are still individual lenses which need to be gauged, of course, as are any non-chronicle sources (of which there were some) involved, but at least once we can say, this story presents appropriate emotions thus but this one elsewise, we can start to dig into why. The material for that seemed to be abundant here!


1. This is a lot to substantiate in one footnote, so maybe I can just give examples. For example, Iberia maybe not a multicultural paradise even if some current hate speechifiers go too far in denying it: Anna Akasoy, “Convivencia and its Discontents: Interfaith Life in al-Andalus” in International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 42 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 489–499. Sicily still in the frame: Sarah C. Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Ithaca NY 2017). Critical reevaluation (maybe too critical): Brian A. Catlos, “Accursed, Superior Men: Ethno-Religious Minorities and Politics in the Medieval Mediterranean” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 56 (Cambridge 2014), pp. 844–869. Lots more could be cited, often with quite different views.

2. See Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993), and indeed Jeremy Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwān, Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization (Cambridge 2002).

3. Professor Johns didn’t mention Ibn Hawqal, but the geographer’s peroration on Sicily is one of my favourite tenth-century sources, and can be found in French, at least, in Ibn Hauqal, Configuration de la terre (Kitab surat al-Ard) : Introduction et traduction, avec index, ed. J. H Kramers and trans. G. Wiet, Collection UNESCO d’œuvres représentatives : Série arabe, 1st edn (Paris 1964), 2 vols, I pp. 117-130. The only English version I know is a teaching translation of my own from that French, rather than the Arabic.

4. This is the picture you’d get from, for example, Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 1992), which was the first thing I ever read on the subject (and was new then…).

5. The example here was a 1242 document by King Frederick II’s administrator Obbertus Fatamongelia, apparently the first charter in their sample to use Arabic for a space of forty years, but I’m afraid I have no tighter reference than that. When their website’s finished, though, we’ll all be able to find it from that I hope!

6. That thesis was, for the record, Francesca Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers: Kin Dynamics of the Hautevilles and Other Normans in Southern Italy and Syria, c. 1030-c. 1140” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2018), online here.

7. Again, I don’t have a detailed reference here, but one can read Amatus in Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans, trans. Prescott N. Dunbar, rev. Graham A. Loud (Woodbridge 2004).

8. As well as Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers”, see now Francesca Petrizzo, “Wars of our fathers: Hauteville kin networks and the making of Norman Antioch” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 48 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 1–31.

What to remember from the 2018 International Medieval Congress?

Although I feel that it probably is a sign that I am catching up on my blogged past, I have to admit that I face the fact that the next thing in my blog pile is the International Medieval Congress of three-and-a-half years ago with a certain unwillingness. I mean, I’ve spent much of the last two years either trying to stay off or being told I can’t go onto the campus where it happened, for a start, so there is definitely a sense that this is deep past which doesn’t have so much to do with time as experience. But I’ve done all the rest and the format for them seems pretty well worked out now, and so I will give it a go.

Postcard advertisement for the International Medieval Congress 2018

Postcard advertisement from the IMC website

This was, I am reminded as I fish the programme off the shelf, the 25th International Medieval Congress, and the programme is the fattest of all the ones on that shelf. I can’t actually work out how many sessions there were: it says that there were 392 sessions on the conference theme of Memory, 9 keynote lectures and 394 further sessions, plus 4 lectures, so I think it’s 799, but firstly I’m not sure if that was everything and secondly, that was the programme as initially published, not the result of all the subsequent changes you find in the also-thick booklet of changes when you register. And in any case, however many sessions there are, you still can’t go to more than 17 because that’s how many slots there are in the programme, which is massively parallel, and most delegates won’t manage that because of their feeble needs for food and sleep or because of wisely placing socialising with people you otherwise never see over more direct forms of academic engagement. I do like, however, how this means that it’s probably mathematically possible for more paths through the Congress to exist than there are attendees, since there were this year 2,545 attendees and, if my GCSE maths does not fail me, 1 x 53 x 1 x 54 x 54 x 13 = 2,009,124 possible combinations of sessions just on the Monday not including any of the receptions. How would we know if it got too big? Anyway, this just means that what I have done the last few times, just listing my own path and then offering a few remarks where things still stand out for me, seems like the best approach still, because I can’t give an impression of 2 million plus possible other Congress experiences in one blog post, now can I? So mine is below the cut, day by day with brief commentary on each day to lighten the data dump. As ever, I’m happy to try and answer questions about the papers if people have them, but I will try and stay short unless you do. Here we go! Continue reading

Increased recognition and research capability

I figure you’ve probably had about enough of me this week, what with the strike posting, so for the regular post of the week I shall keep things short with two bits of good news amid the current woes, and not even backdated like most of my posting. (Well, a little bit, but not as much as usual.)

In the first place, those of you who’ve been tracking me a while may remember that I arrived at Leeds in the post of Lecturer in Early Medieval History and the mission, more or less, of keeping coverage of the years with three digits going in whatever fashion I thought best. Apparently, despite my early difficulties, that has gone all right because on 30th June I was able to accept promotion to Associate Professor in or of [no-one seems sure] Early Medieval History. My core mission remains unchanged, but this does mean that people sending me mail from the US addressed to Professor Jarrett will technically no longer be incorrect! There are also implications for my take-home wage (still not keeping up with inflation of course) that make the 15-page form, 19-page CV and 18-month process (admittedly thrown sideways by Covid-19 like so much else) a bit more worthwhile, but mainly it’s quite nice to have some form of reassurance that actually, I have been doing my job not just well enough but well enough for it actually to be a better job. But actually probably nearly as important for my academic future is this:

Volumes 2 through to 8 of the Catalunya Carolíngia on the blogger's shelf

Yup, that’s a whole lot of uniform-looking books on a shelf all right…

What is that? you say, and I answer, it is the entirety of the Catalunya Carolíngia charter volumes, on my shelf and ready for use and consultation, which is to say that I now own texts of every known charter from Catalonia prior to the year 1000. You must all have seen these volumes in my footnotes, but until very recently they took up less space in my house because not all of them existed yet. It’s been a long project, founded by the lawyer and amateur scholar Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals in the 1920s, which saw the royal charters for Catalonia and the charters of Pallars and Ribagorza published beginning in 1926 and finishing in 1955, and then a long nothing till Ramon Ordeig i Mata published the 1,500-odd documents from Osona and Manresa in 1999. Since then Ordeig seems to have been the magic ingredient, as every subsequent volume except the three covering Barcelona, which came out in 2019 thanks to Ignasi Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell, has been completed by him, even if it wasn’t started by him, and in 2020 that culminated with volume 8 for Urgell, Cerdanya and Berga.1 The facility this gives my work is hard to explain. It has dramatically slowed work on the book because of having new data, the dangers of which I have described before and which have again come true, but you see, now I have everything there is: almost no future evidence of this kind can be expected to be discovered.2 That means that if I check my notes and the indices to these volumes I can be pretty sure how much something does or does not occur over a corpus of just about 5,000 documents and about 20,000 square miles over two-and-a-bit centuries. It may only be in print, but it’s still a heck of a searchable database, and I intend putting it to work for many years yet. If I ever meet Ramon Ordeig i Mata I will shake his hand gratefully; his work has really made, and continues to make, my research possible.3


1. I won’t cite all the volumes here now, as those who really want to can find the details themselves without trouble, but there is a useful history of the project in Gaspar Feliu, “La Catalunya Carolíngia” in Joandomènec Ros, Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Mercé Morales Montoya, Josep María Salrach Marés, Feliu and Marta Prevosti i Monclús, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals: sessió en memòria, Semblances bibliogràfiques 97 (Barcelona 2021), pp. 75–89, online here.

2. There probably are more documents in private hands still—indeed, I kind of live in hope of one or two caches that went missing during the Spanish Civil War turning up some day—but it’s probably not many that go back as far as my period of interest, and the project had already been quite good at getting at the ones that do exist. Their advantage was largely having Church connections, rather than government ones, as far as I can see, because a similar government venture did not meet with the same success: see Daniel Piñol Alabart, “Proyecto ARQUIBANC – Digitalizacion de archivos privados catalanes: Una herramienta para la investigacion” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret and Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital diplomatics: The computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik 14 (Köln 2014), pp. 99–108.

3. A lot of other people are owed thanks here too, but especially Josep María Salrach who made it much easier for me to get several of the volumes. I should also note that the intention of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans is actually to turn it into an electronic database too, via Project CatCar, which has already generated a lot of interesting essays about what these documents have to tell us about Catalonia’s past. I’m sure the full electronic version will make a difference when it exists but right now, just wait till you see what I can do with all these indices!

Seminar CCL: heritage employment for historians

Obviously, if I thought all was well in academic employment in the UK I wouldn’t be on strike right now for the fourth time since I got this job, and it is clear that despite what the vice-chancellors would have the world believe, the number of others who feel that way is growing, not shrinking, each time action is resorted to.

All the same, if there is an area of work in a worse state than UK academia for precarious and underpaid employment, it is surely the heritage and museums sector, a sector whose pay is already so poor that people can often only do it as the second job in a household, meaning that the majority of staff in it are female but somehow the majority of management is still male.1 I came from that sector to academia, twice, because of the precareity and low wage; I actually enjoyed the museum work more and might have stayed if there had been any prospect of permanence or progress.2 But I was fortunate enough to work in museums with some private funding, and even then, the job I held at the Fitzwilliam Museum for five years, on a rolling annual contract whose renewal was never certain, does not now exist. I left just in time to see the UK government utterly gut the sector, with national funding briefly being distributed through only four ‘hub’ museums in England, all in the Golden Triangle, before settling on steady money to 14 ‘national’ museums, 13 of which are based wholly or partly in London. Every other museum in England is either privately funded or paid for by the local councils which the same government also progressively defunded under austerity, leaving them surviving on volunteer labour, what grants they can scrounge, or a dripfeed of emergency funding that doesn’t allow the establishment of a stable staff base to carry on any work that gets started. (The situation in Scotland and Wales is a bit different, and I’m not really up to speed with it, so while I realise that this is to continue that Anglo-centric London-focused attitude, I’m not going to talk about the Home Nations in this post. Sorry. Comments that would educate me are very much welcomed, though!)

So, for all these reasons, whenever someone in academic history hits upon the idea that we could increase our graduates’ employment prospects by directing them at the heritage sector, my reaction is more or less this:

Jack Nicholson emphatically saying 'no'

And thus you may imagine that when I learned that, on 14 May 2018, the Medieval Group in the Institute for Medieval Studies here at the University of Leeds were hosting a three-speaker workshop entitled “A Day in the Life of… Heritage Professionals”, I was initially a bit sceptical that we should really be doing this. But it was actually very good, and got a good discussion going, and maybe represents a perspective that is more realistic than the one I’ve just given above, so I thought that I should in fairness present it. Our three speakers were:

I had already met Dr Baxter, because she is the Curator of Archaeology at the city museums, which among other things – many other things – puts her in charge of their coin collection, with which some day I hope to do some work. Her actual speciality is Neolithic stuff, but Leeds Discovery Centre houses 25,000 objects from the far end of then to the current end of now, and 15,000 coins (which does seem to be the magic number for underused coin collections I know about). Some of those objects are in drawers, some in cabinets, some in freezers and some are too big to be in anything except the building, and Dr Baxter is the only archaeologist on staff, so specialisation isn’t really an option. This was one of the questions that came up, about how to cope with such breadth, and Dr Baxter and Dr Tuckley gave different sides of the same answer: you can’t really do your thing any more, but you can acquire a lot of new things!

Interior space at Jorvik Viking Centre

Interior space at Jorvik Viking Centre, photo by the Jorvik Group of which Dr Tuckley is part and published in ‘Review: Jorvik Viking Centre’, Current Archaeology no. 327 (London 2017), linked through

Dr Tuckley, then as now Head of Interpretaton and Engagement at his Trust, was more optimistic perhaps because of having slightly more spare staff resource; he works primarily at the famous Jorvik Viking Centre, and for what he’s doing, which is the most patron-facing aspect of the work, just has more staff than Dr Baxter does for her rôle, I guess. Still, the tale he told of getting to where he was, and getting Jorvik to where it was, twice over, was no less frantic and exhausting to hear. The trust of which he is part also had bases on several different constituencies, with heritage units at Steffield, Nottingham and Glasgow, all staffed by ex-commercial archaeologists. Of course, Sheffield’s is now gone and I don’t know how true any of this now is, but at that stage it sounded like a healthily-diversified portfolio. Of course, you would hope a public-sector body didn’t need a business survival strategy, but that’s not where we are these days.

Restored walls at Pontefract Castle

Restored walls at Pontefract Castle, photo at their site, linked through

Eleanor, meanwhile, was the most directly-connected of the speakers to the IMS, having lately been a doctoral student there, but was now coordinating the volunteer staff at Pontefract Castle, one of our locality’s lesser-known medieval sites but one where an awful lot has been done in recent years by volunteers, including several from the IMS. The scheme had been built from the ground up and at the time of the workshop was 4 roles being filled by 70 people, so coordinating it was itself a full-time job, though I don’t remember if Eleanor was actually being paid full-time. Of course, actually doing stuff with a site tends to draw people in to see, so they were still recruiting volunteers but also finding more stuff which they would ideally be doing. Quite how far this job could have been expanded, I don’t know, but since Eleanor is now a Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Armouries in Leeds I suppose that one might argue that it served at least one purpose, and Pontefract Castle still has its volunteers, so this, like Jorvik, was probably a success story in the making.

So where does this leave my gloomy prognosis about graduate employment in the heritage sector? Eleanor has clearly managed it, Kat was there doing it, and Chris Tuckley, as it turned out, was not only an IMS graduate himself but had two more of them on his staff. Nor is he alone in this: someone who was then one of my research postgraduate advisees has also gone to work in the sector and looks likely to stay there for now. One lesson from this might then be that, if you want a job in the heritage sector, come and do a doctorate at the Institute for Medieval Studies! But it was also, I think, a good and somewhat bracing clarification about what that heritage job would look like, and how what it was not was a chance to continue your research. One question that was asked was what each of the speakers would do with one day of fully-funded unconstrained time, and all the answers were ironic, but only one even featured research. At the moment, academia can still sometimes give you that unconstrained time, though one has to ignore a lot of electronic clamour to keep it that way. But as of 2018, at least, I had reasons to think better of the state of the heritage sector than I had been used to do, so this was worth it for that dose of realism and balance as well as for the interest of the various work the speakers had going on.


1. The best figures I can find for this are four to eight years old, in Equality and diversity within the arts and cultural sector in England: evidence and literature review, by Andy Parkinson and by Jamie Buttrick, Final Report (Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2017), online here, so it’s possible things have now changed, but with the pandemic as a factor, we might gloomily guess which way: see Megan Frederickson, “COVID-19’s gendered impact on academic productivity”, preprint in GitHub, 2020, online here, being the broadest-ranging study I’ve seen so far; all the published ones are hard-science-specific.

2. I didn’t necessarily realise this until my last day at the Fitzwilliam, actually, when, searching for something to say at my leaving do, I found myself saying that I’d never regretted having to come into work there. As far as I could remember, it was true. I’m not ragging on academia specifically when I say that I’ve not got that from any other job before or since.

Aside

Yes, folks, it’s come around again. The promises of negotiation and concessions that ended the last round of strikes in the UK higher education sector all came to nothing and meanwhile our pay has dropped still further against inflation and … Continue reading

Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it. Continue reading