Tag Archives: linguistics

Bringing Scotland to Oxford: the O’Donnell Lectures for 2013

The medieval history of Britain outwith England is not terribly well covered at Oxford. I got into the habit of saying that by virtue of my appointment there I was now England’s only professional historian of the Picts even though I haven’t worked on them since last century: this was to stupidly forget Dr Meggen Gondek, but it was still far truer than it ought to have been, especially in the largest history department in the world outside Moscow.1 And this is all very mystifying, because every year in Oxford there is a lecture series on just such matters, the O’Donnell Lectures, in 2013 they were on the theme of Early Medieval Scotland, and they were absolutely packed with interested Oxonians, including of course me. This was a half-day event, organised by Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, and the running order was as follows:

Alex kicked off with a typically controversial paper that opened with a typically controversial statement, which was that the term Celtic Scotland was rubbish: when it was Celtic it wasn’t Scotland and Scots is a dialect of English anyway. He went on from there to argue that in fact the whole concept of national languages is anachronistic for this period and area: while everyone would agree that there must have been many dialects across the area we now call Scotland, what was missing was any acrolect, the ‘official’ or master language of which they formed versions. If there was one of those, after Christianization it would have been Latin, effectively disconnecting the vernaculars from each other. Alex argued for Pictish as essentially being several dialects in a P-Celtic continuum of various sorts of Brittonic that had nothing to bind them together, yet still shared changes due to pressures from Old Irish or Old English that didn’t come from any controlling centre. Some kind of British acrolect seems to be evident by the seventh century that may have been centered on the Severn basin in the fifth, when that was the richest and least affected part of the old Roman province and apparently also generating pennanular brooches, but even that had lost its centre to the Anglo-Saxon culture by the time we can see it in names and texts. There was lots to think about here, and many parallels from elsewhere, but the lack of simple categories is not going to make it easy to work with however accurate it may in fact be.

A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Badge of an acrolect? A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Professor Broun, whom I’d not met before, followed in the noble tradition of G. W. S. Barrow (who I now discover sadly died a few months later, unconnectedly) by looking at the high medieval Scottish kingdom’s structures and wondering how old some of them might be.2 He focused particularly on the officer known as a mormaer, who from a Carolingian perspective looks a lot like a count: he seems to have held a court with a bishop, collected fines, coordinated military service, or at least he seems in the twelfth century to have done such things. This was not part of their family status but it was that status that made them appointable to the rôle, and they could be quite hard to manage without. On the other hand, the kingship provided a centralised aspect to this system that nothing else did, which meant that the king was important to these people as a link to any wider importance. Again, this all looks pretty much like a thinly-resourced Carolingian system and as tenth-century as it is twelfth when you look from across the Channel, but how tenth-, or even eighth- or ninth-century, might it have been here? Well, we have basically no evidence, but we can see firstly that Pictish kings could raise large armies, and secondly that mormaers had rights and lands that were not associated with kindred in an age when almost everything else was, suggesting that these were relics of some older system into which new leading (and presumably Gaelic-speaking) kindreds had moved.

If that was true, then (argued Professor Broun) Pictland would arguably have been more of a state than Scotland for a good while!3 And that is so, I guess, but it means we have a picture of a system running on ‘public’ obligation to rulers who had nothing to offer to their distant subordinates except not drowning them, which shouldn’t be a sustainable model without some kind of pull factor too (which is probably what is marked by the symbol stones, as Professor Broun and I seem to agree,4 but what significance travelled with their masons dammit?) Here, questions mainly raised the possibility that in the phases of either Pictish or, let’s call it Alban kingship that were less successfully centralised mormaers would probably have been able to be kings or at least reguli of their regions, especially (said Alex with good reason5) if that region was Moray, whose ruling line eventually became kings of the whole kit and caboodle. But I still feel as if we are missing a mechanism that attached those regions to the centralising operation: I think that mechanism is the development of what we classify as Pictishness, and I don’t understand how it worked. At least by the end of the day I could be sure that Professor Broun shared this frustration…

The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside

Monuments of membership? The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside (Moray)

Then there was Thomas’s paper, ably if sometimes sceptically read by Richard Sharpe. This was much more agonised about our state of knowledge than the other two. Basically, it argued for a plurality of competing churches in what is now Scotland in the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish, Northumbrian and Pictish, although the sources that tell us this are arguing about things we just can’t see and are overweeningly concerned with purely local matters when they talk about Scotland, all of which sounded very reasonable to me of course, but that then between 800 and 1100 we just know nothing. Even the very few hints of structure or change we have in the exiguous sources are more confusing than helpful: royal involvement in the tenth-century Church is later claimed by Dunkeld and Abernethy among others, but is there anything in this or were they just then competing for the earlier origin myth? By the time our sources speak again, the Celi Dé, an ascetic monastic order who nonetheless tended to run in families, are obviously very important, and the reform movement is busy trying either to stamp them out or co-opt them, but when did they start to become influential, or even start at all? When we see bishops turning up in this area in records of the tenth century, what or whom are they bishops of? We just don’t know. About as far as we can safely get is that the kings of the tenth century back some Church foundations and that the Celi Dé may be part of this.

There is some hope for a better texturing of the local church, too, by better, finer-grained work on place-names, especially hagiotoponyms, place-names based on the names of saints, and names in Kil- and Eccles-, both of which seem to be specific to areas where Old Norse and Old English influence was felt, respectively. But even then it’s not simple, because of how late they are recorded and what their other components are: we wind up with Old English names Gaelicised under Old Norse influence, which is hard to think about. It all suggests that the system was still varied in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that any royal system of big houses (dare we say minsters? the paper did) is bigger dots in a landscape full of other dots of older or newer and different colours. Alas, even after so long working on this stuff, Thomas felt he had much more still to do.

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait, probably on top of the medieval church of Laggan Mochaid, attested in 1214 but probably older since two Pictish stones have come up here…

As you can probably even tell, part of the problem we seem to be facing here is that of Scotland as an early medieval entity. The current national division encompasses rather a lot of cultural zones and the divisions between dominant cultures, languages, Church organisation and whatever else were not just shifting throughout the early Middle Ages but did not match up at all. Indeed with the Church structures a distribution map might be the only way to catch it, not anything zonal. When we know that there were, nonetheless, kings of Scots and of Picts who apparently ruled these areas, one is forced to ask how such a disjointed uncharacterised polity could be ruled at all and what stuck it together, and at that point one either does as Professor Broun did and argue for a very very light-weight definition of ‘polity’, or remember that there were also subordinate rulers we hardly see and worry that the whole thing is probably a tombola of variegated and mingling relationships between the powerful that didn’t stay put for two minutes together. Both are in fact possible! But one of the nice things about studying early medieval Scotland right now, as Professor Charles-Edwards pointed out in his introduction, is that the field has advanced as far as it has in the last decade or so—even if what that means is that our ignorance is so much better constructed now—largely because it’s being led by these three people and a few others all of whom talk to each other a lot and get on, without which we wouldn’t have even this much of a coherent picture. There’s a lesson here for the Academy at large, but there were also lots of new things to think about early medieval Scotland! Just, a strange place to be hearing them…


1. Such, at least, had been the claim of Chris Wickham at my induction. But seriously, folks, the Picts and Catalonia before the year 1000! How did I manage to wind up with two specialisms about which no institution in England gives a stuff?

2. Referring mainly to G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century (Edinburgh 1973, 2nd edn. 2003).

3. Cf. Wendy Davies, “States and Non-States in the Celtic World” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 155-170.

4. Largely, it seems, on the basis of Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967) and “Primus inter pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture” in Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 97-167.

5. See Alex Woolf, “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2000.79.2.145.

Seminar CLI: Spain and Africa’s earliest Romance

Let me make clear straight away, this post is about the Romance languages, not the literary genre. In fact, it is specifically about the birth of Romance in Spain, and with work on that of course comes indelibly associated the name of Professor Roger Wright, and so it will not surprise you to gather that this post is because on 21st November 2012 he was presenting to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “African Invaders and Very Old Spanish”.

This paper was, as Roger admitted straight up, based on published work, and it would only be new to us if we hadn’t read enough of his stuff, but nonetheless, since his thinking has in fact moved on since the works for which he is best known, not least because of dogged opposition from certain quarters, it was new to me and the questions suggested I wasn’t the only one.1 The starting premise, dear to my heart, is that Castilian is weird in Romance terms, having many features that other Romance languages don’t, and the basic question was whether this can be put down to influence from Africa.

Haplogroup Distributons in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations (Adams et al. 2008)

How does one picture a language? Here is another way, then, in which African influence in Spain has been tracked; click through if you missed that post…

Now, the obvious conduit for African influence on Spain is of course the Muslim conquest, but since here we’re talking about Latin usage, unless one accepts Richard Hitchcock’s argument that much of the Muslim army that mounted the 711-714 campaigns that felled the Visigothic kingdom of Spain would have been Berber and North African recruits who, since they couldn’t yet have really learnt Arabic, must have had only Latin as a lingua franca, we need to look further back, and indeed even if Hitchcock is right the influences could still be older. Augustine of Hippo apparently reports being teased for his provincial Latin, and Isidore of Seville, Visigothic knowledge collector par excellence, reckons there are several peculiar things about the African Latin of his day. Several of these symptoms (betacism, the swapping of ‘b’ and ‘v’, much older than the QWERTY keyboard layout as my documents quickly made clear to me) also appear in the Visigothic slates.2 And, when one considers the respective difficulties of travel across the Pyrenees and across the Straits of Gibraltar, without considering modern state boundaries, obviously that makes sense.

Subsequent additions to the Africa of the Roman Empire would have been unlikely to have dented this African Latin, argued Roger: the Vandals, by the time they hit Africa at least and probably from much further back, are unlikely to have been a linguistic unity and their only common language must also have been various versions of Latin; they would have relied on Latin to deal with the locals, anyway.3 The Byzantine reconquest of Africa from the Vandals would also have had the administrative need to work in Latin as indeed it still partly did even at Constantinople; and the Visigoths meanwhile connected Spain and Africa by their grasp on what is now Ceuta (and still part of Spain, often forgotten except by Morocco). Berber languages, hardly an addition but arguably stronger after the loss of Africa as a Roman province, nonetheless seem significant only inland in this period. There is, in any case, no sign of any Berber influence on Spanish (and only one word in Portuguese) and no mention of Berbers (as opposed to the much vaguer Mauri, Moors) in the texts that describe the Muslim conquest such as the Chronicle of 754, which also doesn’t mention interpreters, Roger pointed out.

Section of handout from Roger Wright, &quo;African Invaders and Very Old Spanish&quo;

Professor Wright’s handout where it gives examples of African symptoms in Latin shared by Castilian

Nonetheless, although reconstructing African Latin’s distinctive characteristics is hard, it does seem hard to find them in Spanish Latin before 711. Isidore, as we say, sees a difference; Paul Alvarus of Córdoba, writing c. 860, does not. Betacism is rare before the seventh century, much more common later. Weirdly, and significantly, Arabic in Andalusia, the most heavily-settled area of course, also shows this symptom. Similar things can be said of the distinction between long and short vowels, the African difficulty Augustine describes: Roger pointed at Castilian ‘montes’ and ‘fuentes’, mountains and springs, from Latin ‘montes’ and ‘fontes’ respectively, to show this lack of distinction in action, and another symptom is the lack of a simple past tense in Castilian, where the past can only be formed by using the verb ‘to have’ an a participle. This doesn’t occur in Catalonia in the period of my documents, and modern Catalan retains as does French a preterite, even if neither are usually used in speech; I noticed the compound tense with excitement in the Beaulieu cartulary towards the close of the ninth century just the other day; but this was already settling in in Africa before the conquest, apparently, and now survives in Castilian. And there were a number of other cases of phonetic, syntactic and vocabulary resemblance that cumulatively seemed hard to argue with, though if you’d like to try I give the relevant section of Roger’s excellent handout as a scan above.

Thus, although the gap between say, 600 and 840, is still hard to fill in terms of linguistic development, in Spain it seems reasonably clear that the 711 invasion is one of the branches, with the consequent implication that its armies and settlers were many of them Latin-speaking. The further implications of that had, as I say, already been somewhat explored by Richard Hitchcock in 2007, but as far as I know Professor Hitchcock has never published that, and though what I’ve said here is as far as Roger went it’s still plenty to think about…


1. The obvious works of Roger’s to refer to are his Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) or R. Wright (ed.), Latin and the Romance Languages in the Early Middle Ages (London 1991), but by now he might prefer that we checked his A Sociophilological Study of Late Latin (Turnhout 2003) or specifically on this question R. Wright, “Late and Vulgar Latin in Muslim Spain: the African Connection” in Frédérique Biville, Marie-Karine Lhommé & Daniel Vallat (edd.), Latin vulgaire, latin tardif IX : Actes du IXe Colloque International sur le Latin Vulgaire et Tardif, Lyon, 2 – 6 septembre 2009, Collection de la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée : Série linguistique et philologique 8 (Lyon 2012), pp. 35-54. For opposition, I suppose one would look most obviously to Michel Banniard, Viva voce : communication érite et communication orale du IVe aui IXe siècle en Occident latin (Paris 2002) but more anciently Rosamond McKitterick, “Latin and Romance: an historian’s perspective” in Wright, Latin and the Romance Languages, pp. 130-145 or Michael Richter, The Oral Tradition in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout 1994).

2. For an edition of the slates, aimed at just this question, see Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Las pizarras visigodas: entre el latín y su disgregación. La lengua hablada en Hispania, siglos VI-VII (Madrid 2004). I observed in questions, largely on the basis of this post at Magistra et Mater I admit, that this also happens in Lombard Italy, to which Roger’s response was to suggest bad spelling and to observe that almost everything that can happen to Latin happens in Italy. Well, OK, but…

3. Here Roger cited Jonathan Conant, Staying Roman: conquest and identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge 2012) and Yitzhak Hen, Roman Barbarians: the royal court and culture in the early medieval West (Basingstoke 2007), neither of which I’ve read but both of which, and perhaps especially teh former of which I had no knowledge before this, I really should.

Leeds 2010 Report II

So, Tuesday of Leeds then. I am going to try, though we all know how well this usually works, to keep this shorter than the previous one. I seem to remember that I didn’t sleep very well the Monday night for some reason, but having some years ago discovered that the best way to enjoy Leeds was not to drink as much as I had been doing up till that point (because it was all free, folks),1 I was still on time for breakfast, where the queues weren’t as bad as last year, but still bad enough to make me wonder how on earth this campus copes when it’s got 1,500 students in it instead of 650 medievalists. Thus fortified, I stepped out and my day’s learnings were as follows.

501. Ritual and the Household, I: Anglo-Saxon Settlements

Remains of a sunken-featured building at Shippams Factory, Chichester

Remains of a possibly-Saxon sunken-featured building at Shippams Factory, Chichester

  • Clifford Sofield, “Ritual in Context: patterns of interpretation of ‘placed’ deposits in Anglo-Saxon settlements”, discussed material found out of context in sites of between the fifth and eighth centuries in England, by which he meant, for example, animal bones in foundation trenches, and so on. He had done some fairly heavy graphing of this stuff and found correlations, for example that 122 of his 130 placed deposits of all kinds were from sunken-featured buildings, and usually in the fill from when the structures were demolished. He suggested that this practice marked the end of a building’s ‘life-cycle’. That was interesting all right, and he had other such ideas, but I still would have liked percentages as well as raw figures throughout. How many of the structures he had checked up on were sunken-featured buildings in the first place? Is 122 out of 130 in proportion or not? And so on.
  • Vicky Crewe, “Appropriating the Past: the ‘ritual’ nature of monument reuse in Anglo-Saxon settlements”, tangled with a number of common misperceptions, such as that Anglo-Saxon settlement avoided older burial mounds, whereas pre-kingdoms sites often built on top of the things; that ‘ritual’ practices are unusual rather than every-day, and that fifth- and sixth-century English settlement was egalitarian; it may indeed have been but that’s not how they buried their dead, that’s clearly hierarchical. I would like to know more about the Ph. D. this stuff is presumably part of.
  • Sally Crawford, “Women’s Ritual Spaces in Early Anglo-Saxon Settlements”, for me the winner of the session because of the presenter’s complete comfort with the presentation scenario; she must be an excellent teacher. She was focussing on a tiny area, loom-weights found in the well-known settlement of West Stow, and looking at where they had actually been in buildings; from this she deduced that these were not artefacts related to an individual but to a community and that weaving was therefore a village practice there, not a household one, continuing on the same site through a succession of temporary workshops. This tiny focus thus brought to life people using their living space together in a way that the two prior papers, not less important but more schematic, hadn’t been able to, and there were lots of questions because people felt they had more to contribute I think.

614. Languages in the Early Middle Ages: travel, contact and survival

This one had been a highlight of my planned itinerary, because in the original program Luis Agustín García Moreno had been going to talk about the end of the Gothic language in Spain, and since he is a grand old man of the field I was looking forward to seeing him speak. That said, even in his absence the session was still fascinating. I love listening to linguistics, though I find it awfully dull to read, so this is a good way to make sure I’m faintly aware of lingustic agendas in my stuff. I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t deterred, either; the small room was so full that people like Rosamond McKitterick were sitting on the floor for shortage of seats! These were the papers.

  • David Stifter, “Facts and Factors Concerning the Fate of Gaulish in Late Antiquity”, discussed a pair of ceramic fragments which are not widely recognised to have what may be the latest examples of written Gaulish on them, from a workshop producing commercial stuff in great numbers celebrating Roman victories; apparently in the reign of Hadrian there was still a market for inscribing a design showing the defeated King Decebalus of Dacia in Gaulish. If so, the survival of the language did not in any way prevent an identification with the Empire.
  • A jar bearing the name of Decebalus, last King of the Dacians

    A jar bearing the name of Decebalus in the more-conventional Latin

  • Roger Wright, “Late and Vulgar Latin in early Muslim Spain: the African connection”, demonstrated with Roger’s usual wealth of reference that the Latin spoken in early Muslim Spain (which, as we’ve discussed here before apropos of a paper of Richard Hitchcock’s that I was surprised not to hear mentioned, would have been substantially the language of the incoming armies, who simply couldn’t have largely learnt Arabic in the time available) was very heavily influenced by African Latin. This involved the nice irony of Isidore of Seville having ticked the Africans of his day off for Latin symptoms that are now characteristic of Castilian Spanish, most obviously betacism (substituting ‘b’ for ‘v’ and vice versa). I liked this one, because it took the less controversial bits of Professor Hitchcock’s paper (which may well have been using Roger’s earlier work) and made them mean something independent.
  • Wolfgang Haubrichs, “Language and Travel in the Early Middle Ages: text and context in the Old High German Pariser Gespräche“, was largely an introduction for those of us who didn’t know them to the selfsame Gespräche. These are a set of useful phrases that appear to have been collected to help someone familiar with fairly Romance Latin cope with the minutiae of managing an estate where Old High German was spoken, and so they deal with the various ways servants can misconduct themselves (sex, food and failing to go to Mass, most largely) and how people identified themselves (by lord, by household, by patria; not, interestingly, by language, though presumably that would already be obvious). I hope the interest of this is obvious, but in case not, let me stress that this text helps prove that the unsavoury French expression “le cul d’un chien dans ton nez” has a very long history (OHG “Undes ars in tine naso”, if that helps). Professor Haubrichs suggested that this text might have arisen out of the close connections between the abbeys of Ferrières and Prüm in the 860s, so that’s how old that phrase might be.

Then there was lunch and I think it was at this point that I first got bitten by the books, having worked out that actually I could afford to buy from Brepols this year. This is a dangerous realisation. Still reeling, I took refuge in diplomatic…

706. Shaping the Page, Forming the Text: material aspects of medieval charters

    Precept of immunity from King Charles the Simple to the canons of Paris, 911 (genuine)

  • Mark Mersiowsky, “The Discerning Eye of the Forger: medieval forgeries as material objects”, saw Professor Mersiowsky, who is now concluding an absolutely huge project on the original charters of early medieval Europe (yes, all of it, he’s seen them all or close to), distinguishing some charters which are meant to actually look like what they are purporting to be, with its flaws, from those that are meant to look like the right sort of thing (I wasn’t sure, and neither were some questioners, that this distinction held up), and a third class where documents of other sorts were the models, such as the way that some forgeries update their model to the current local style so that it looks more like what people recognise as a charter and not some crazy royal thing from centuries past that no-one’s seen before (as demonstrated by the pictures above and below this section, if you like). There wasn’t really time to explore all the ways people used the documents they fabricated in the period but Professor Mersiowsky made it clear that he has a lot to give on this and many related subjects.
  • Claire Lamy, “The Notitiae of Marmoutiers and their Continuations: preparation, shaping, practices (1050-1150)” covered a coherent group of documents from Dominique Barthélemy’s favourite abbey that leave a lot of space on the parchment, far more than was needed for the witness lists or validations that they sometimes never got. Sometimes the space left was so much that another transaction would be put into it, but by and large they weren’t trying to save parchment; the practice remained mostly inexplicable at the end of the paper.
  • Sébastien Barret, “Forms and Shapes: ‘private deeds’ in Cluny (10th-11th centuries)”, should have been a paper that had me champing at the bit given some of the stuff I’ve said here and indeed at Leeds, but he was less concerned with the documents’ contents than their forms, fair enough given the session title, and the interesting thing is that those forms are very plural; Cluny don’t seem to have been working with a clear idea of what a charter needs to look like to be valid in this period. This in turns leads to many different ways of authenticating, and Barret argued that validity is primarily social, which fits with other things we have been told to think about Cluny’s documents.2 This is something I need to think about, because I’ve argued repeatedly that external form of a charter is not what people usually care about so much as what it says; but in my area, there is very much a clear idea of what one looks like, for all that.
  • Schoyen Collection MS 590/49, a sale charter of 965 from Cerdanya

    Schoyen Collection MS 590/49, a sale charter of 965 from Cerdanya; you will observe how it does not resemble Charles the Simple's document much...

805. Texts and Identies, VII: modes of identification, IV

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

I confess that I had been keeping away from Texts and Identities thus far, not out of strategy as sometimes in the past but simply because many of the paper titles looked like postmodern junk. (And you know, I’m more tolerant of that than I used to be, but really.) This one however I chanced because Stuart Airlie was responding and one’s Leeds is not complete without seeing him perform at least once. The actual papers to which he responded outshone their session title, too, and were as follows.

  • Marianne Pollheimer, “Grammars: preaching communities – of sheep and men in the 9th century”, was an extended commentary on a metaphor of Hraban Maur‘s dividing humanity into the sheep and the wolves and asking just what he thought was good about sheep anyway and where the shepherd fits into it all; most obviously he is the preacher, guiding and protecting the flock, but how far up did that metaphor work? Bishops and kings naturally featured, and the whole thing turned into a question of how Hraban or someone reading him would have compared this idea to his world at large.
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Compilation and Convergence: the transformation of the ethnic repertory in Carolingian Europe”, was perhaps a little familiar but this time covered more peoples and more sources; it was worth hearing again to be reminded how important ‘the people of the Franks’ were to Charlemagne’s self-presentation, at least as seen in the Annales regni francorum in its earliest version, and how shortlived that unified ethnic self-perception turned out to be.
  • There were then questions, in which Professor Reimitz got a chance to explain how Frankishness could be class-based, religious, judicial or simply ethnic and how in each of these categories a given person might think of themselves as something else, even though Frankish in whichever was most immediately relevant for the source.

    Once the initial flurry was done Dr Airlie stepped up to take turns with Ian Wood in summarising and responding to the whole subthread, most of which of course I’d missed: Dr Airlie emphasised that the field has changed a lot in twenty years, that the big questions are now irrelevant and subtleties are in, that we are now Elvis Costello not Ozzy Osbourne (to which I say, speak for yourself mate, I’m Hawkwind).3 Professor Wood in turn pointed out how rooted in the war, and not mentioning it, the historiography they were celebrating the retirement of had been, and how ethnicity had been so hijacked between 1914-45 that it had ceased to be a topic anyone could look at. He could have gone further with this, in fact, as one of the problems I think people who work on historical DNA have got is that they appear to be resurrecting ideas of race that we had managed, politically, more or less to bury in the welter of scholarship, that indeed Professor Reimitz had just exemplified, showing how fluid ethnicity was in the early Middle Ages. The DNA guys look dangerously to some people, I think, as if they want descent to explain everything, and it’s partly because of that, though also partly because of how much easier to follow it is, that strontium isotope analysis is becoming so much more important.

    Dr Airlie also argued for the rethinking of Rome and the abandonment of the term ‘Byzantine’, although since he was using it again next day he may only have been flying a kite with the latter. Wood’s closing point was that we are now looking at all kinds of texts, which is great, but that we consequently forget that really, the overridingly most important, most reproduced and most read in the early Middle Ages was the Bible, which is largely missing from traditional scholarship where it should be centred. As Airlie then responded, the most important identity for anyone in this period who owned it was still ‘Christian’. (I would probably contend for ‘patronus‘, ‘paterfamilias‘ or indeed ‘man’ myself, but you know, if that had been important people would have written it down more, right? Right?)

Anyway, that was that for the day, and then I think it was this evening that Another Damned Medievalist insisted on buying me dinner for various reasons, for which I must thank her, and we sat outside the Stables pub getting spattered on by the weather until a table inside became free and then a convivial gathering formed. Things got a lot more confusing once I’d made it back to Bodington, but that’s not your problem and it wasn’t really a problem for me either. The night ended in good spirits and the next day will follow in due course.


1. I should say, I don’t think this is increasing maturity, I put it down entirely to the ceasing of the Utrecht Medieval Studies department’s receptions and my consequent lack of Jenever intake.

2. Here thinking most obviously of Barbara Rosenwein’s classic, To be the Neighbor of St Peter: the social meaning of Cluny’s property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989).

3.Turns out, I am…

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading

The worst kind of interruption

This is not an automatic post, this is as the title describes. A woman I knew died today. She was one of the ones we didn’t want to lose. She never published the below as far as I know—where on earth would you? I don’t know if it was even finished—and I think that was a shame. I think she’d probably have forgiven me for doing it for her, and if she might take offence, quod absit, I would tell her that it is because I want other people to recognise that we’re the poorer without her now, if I only could tell her.

It’s long. I don’t care and I hope you won’t.

Historica irreverentia

Like all things that live, languages evolve.
Words are born, reworked, remade, and dissolve.
Sing, Savage! harsh fire forged words clumsy
Und archaic, complex because unrefined:
Thick tongued scald in rough furs; rotten teeth:
He who sang song when Hengest sailed Swan’s Way,
Broke with magic British blades at fated Mons,
The bear wolf’s legacy: Britannia delenda.
Saxons, gray Woden’s sons, rule the ruins
In Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Mercia.
A rough roll like oars they speak: Sea rhythm.
Then angle angels urged the Latin north,
Crude Kings convert; the cross, Christ, reign restored.
Written word undermines original form.
Gloriam en excelsis Deo Roma.
Alfred, sweet Alfred, St. Alfred: He reigns.
(And it rains, it rains, it rains, oh it rains)
The kingdom unites, fights, thwarts pagan Danes.
Then Christian Dane, Confession, a last lone herald.
When Northman of France, surly brute barons his host,
Hastening after the doomed herald,
Takes the land, makes himself lord.
Writes up for taxes a domesday book.
Le roi: Je ne parle pas anglais.
Je deteste la lingua de l’angletterre.
E por um cen anos, anglais e fim.
Ivanhoe, who can know, robbing who’d dare
Cross the Saxon forest, merry made fair
In the sheer wood for rest, robin’s gay song.

Then troubadours, then April shoots.
Songs and midterm unrestrained.
Ballyoke end brickhaven forswore
Brooch ballybeg shitten nos hauses flur.
Lo Malory, lo frog, lo cult, lo sooth, forsooth,
Choose her to forceth the way, they write, aye,
nat und die, nat und die, hey nonny nonny.
Roi frogs are Throne, queer Lyon; Fool
John ‘lows “bar bar” barons t’cart him
Off the throne: No more French, “bar bars” the sound!
Christ’s swounds, Black Prince a tuppence, sack
Heaved forth from Poitiers vincas: Rank smells.
Brook bally beg shitten hon hauses flur.
A sheerer shooteth forth fresh arrows in a reel:
Coz he wins his suite agin en cort,
La guerra, Prince Hal on honeymoon
Rides a french phile, gallops her right good.

E Henri e Henri e Henri end
Henry Und Henry and Henry and
End Henry: To dare through perlous Roses ran,
son bulloxing a primate. At last. Rebirth.

Reaction: Construction like court ritual bound
The words, that’s the way, we PROTEST!
Marchon, iamb angry in my ire,
Papists, Puritans, art punks: Give
Me a muse to fire the brands, the blades:
Bloody Mary, not quite a drink, dungeons loves.
Faery Queen, Virgin Mean, Elizabeth, dodges loves.
Shake spears against the damned balladeers
Dragon sea men, armed ah mite moor, the
Damned diego drive by petulant wind
Making safe the nation of shopkeepers,
And preserves in violence, love, lovely,
Our beloved bard: Belittles the law courts
A bugger, shylock, o is he, fixer
Of the tongue, his pen a soldier’s nail, like
An impious wretch publicly punished.
And James, damned James, witch crazed
Scotsman, poser, posits a new Bible,
The King James edition, confusion:
“Aye, but no mur Romish confession.”
Bad translations, tis all; damned Puritans
Making for a crazy britches broil, boil.

On Johnson: On Donne: Then Royal Victims.
Ship tax! Shit tax! Parles Parliament.
Long hairs beware, frog infected chevalier!
Draw muskets, crack cannon: Barroom! Brawl!
Ironsides, horse’s ass, he taketh all.
O Charles, you jest last yer bloomin’ hed!
Bloody right – Write on – Come Cromwell:
Bloody hell: Well. Rape our land, ire: Suggest:
Make those damned Scotsmen our unwelcome guests.
Restore amor, the petty bard, the lecher pard:
Jacobites, Jackasses, Mary men, all.
And oh geez, oh geez, come: Whose on their knees?
Und nein, und nein, we’ll then hector George
After that wooden shooed bitch of Orange
Und Hanover the throne to beer bellies,
A flatulent Konig de Grosser, nein!

Und Jorg und Jorge and George –
Sharp, sharp, the King, the King.
Through popes swift de nasty runs over,
Novel monarch absolute, “de foe,” overcomes;
de massa ez her – de slaves, slaves afar
Porch nickers and tae makers, Jimstown boys.
Hellfire and Brimstone: John Edwards bitches abroad
While the Prince wails a new booty: wine bottles
To keep count of conquests, our noble knight,
Planting the Royal Standard, England’s Pride,
In virgin dark territories: Empire!
Impale: that vaunted club of great nations.
‘Tis a lecherous age: Sin the reward
And the wage: the new capitalist age.
Whigs and damned torries scream, shout –
Billy Pitt, bully pit – they sing right loud:
Damn war, injuns, hindoos, frogs, paddies, shit!
Charlie pissed in the paddie, but not
The Apocalpyse Now paddie, crikey!
Wrong country, wrong century, wrong Charlie.
Lie down, croppies, lie down, damned papist pigs!

And in Nord Amerigo, planters,
Puritans, rednecks, roughnecks, denial boones,
Revolt, rebirth, 1760’s spirit.
Ma monees ma own, niggaz stoln far en
Squar – they cotton rail fast, so says
The cracker Carolina don…
Right so, says the merchantman cross clasper,
Rum dealers, rum deal: England Raw!
Raw makes war, the Rock (Plymouth) would shore know!
And those vagabond shoes start walkin’ tall,
Frozen Bluecher’s bastards, blue coats valley,
Forge on a nation, niggers redmen beddammed.
Frankly: Fuck off, for all Congress would care.
Makin’ ‘Mericans, no niggers need apply…
To spite a Mad German’s royal eye.
Washing done: Ah do declare, ma teeth done
Went and rot out on mae. Gawdammit.
Guess ah’ll be pater por ma new cunt tree.
Constitutional games are the rage,
Strange Speakers and Misters strut the new stage.
Ogle on the dollar, the seal, no cross.
To think it might have been a dammed turkey.
Oh imperial clucker, gobble all
And well this new amerigo round,
From sure to shining sure, complacent
In the many fast destinies of
A swindling crew who never knew dolors
That they might not take or screw.

Interlude

And here the parle’s parse, divide, separate
Across the green Atlantic Divide
Which Melville’s Great White Dick will fiercley ride,
Chasing after Hawthorne’s Puritan hide.
While Nelson and Napoleon get cross.
Coleridge, Wordsworth, smoke opium with pride,
Kooky khans all, romans, prudence, condemned.
Emerson! emerson! The water’s fine!
Po’ man in the south, raven rabies mad.
There’s more to go, trans zen dance; the wide world.

Amerigo Round

And Loose Anne, Jeff bought her sweet valleys cheap,
Though he dunks “denuts en dark coffee” with sweet
Sassy Sally Hemings, hemming, hoing:
Ain’t no thing but the chickenwing.
No more grits, no more chittlins for her an
Them creme kolor chilluns, they had good food,
For Sally learned to eat some lean white meat.

(Elise White, 5 March 2001. RIP.)

Another conference report: Early Medieval Spain at Queen Mary

Six speakers, about forty listeners some of whom appeared to be students, a small but dedicated party of drinkers and a tea-urn; generally success. That would be a very quick write-up of the Symposium on Early Medieval Spain laid on at Queen Mary University of London on 25 January about which I warned you some little time ago, but as someone asked for a proper review, I’ll give it a bit more than that. You knew I would, really. And the style-sheet and a demand for camera-ready copy arrived in my INBOX last night, so if I don’t report soon there’s a danger that the publication will beat me to it…

The old Westfield College building viewed at a strange angle

The brains behind the day, which was technically a special edition of QMUL’s Department of Hispanic Studies‘s regular medieval seminar series, was Professor Alan Deyermond, which to my great joy is pronounced ‘diamond’, but he rapidly handed over proceedings to an early medievalist, and no less a one than Jinty Nelson. She was giving an introductory paper, more or less linking Spain to the Carolingian Empire, which she did by focussing briefly in turn on the shared Roman heritage, the importance of bishops (and most especially for their providing much of our material about the areas), the royal involvement in theological disputes, and the figures who travelled between the two, such as the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Abbot John of Gorze.1 This gave rise to questions about what happened to Adoptionism and how Spanish Theodulf of Orléans really acted, but the best bit was unquestionably where Jinty ended by observing that it was in fact Robert Burns’s birthday (that one, not the other one—Hispanist medievalists have to be sure you know), and quoting his poem ‘To a Louse’,

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion!

The greatest thing about this was that she was then able to coin the word ‘itherness’, which must be the greatest thing she’d given the world so far that year at least. Damn sight better than ‘alterity’ anyway. But moving on.

Aerial view of the ruins at l’Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya

I spoke for longer than I did the first time I gave this paper, and the extra time mainly went on adding archaeological sites. The paper is basically about the communities and organisation that existed in the zones beyond the accepted frontier, and how much we can detect about them in a body of charter evidence that is basically generated by the process of normalisation and integration into regular social structures, and as I said when I first mentioned it, it features, “churches with no bishops, vicars with no churches, centurions with no armies, judges with no courts and Magyars with no justification”. In a way it’s what I originally intended my thesis to be about before I got sucked in by the evidence of the normalising areas, but I’m not sure that there was ever more than the material for this paper. Ironically, it will likely be in print before the book based on my thesis is, and therefore I shall say no more here except that it seemed to go down well.

A Melgar church in the sun

Wendy Davies gave a much harder-cored paper entitled “Countergift and Suretyship in Tenth-Century Northern Iberia: two aspects of guarantee mechanisms”, in which she examined the measures that a very few people took in their transactions to get people to act, in one way or another, as guarantees that everything would be performed and delivered as agreed. Her preliminary conclusion was that this activity is so marginal that the best interpretation may be the one suggested by the Visigothic Code, that sureties are required only when the transactor who must provide them is of ‘bad repute’. If she’s right, there’s an intriguing route through these documents to the whole question of the value of reputation, ‘fama’, that has recently been opened without really knowing how to go further. In the questions, however, that thing happened that happens when Wendy is presenting and I’m listening, in which I go, “but I’ve got nothing like that in my material!” and she goes “what, really?” and we charter-geek till someone makes us stop. This may make Leeds dangerous

After some technical difficulties, which left Rose Walker briefly gritting her teeth and starting to give an art historical paper without any visual aids, we got sudden IT help and a feast of manuscript illumination. Her paper, “Beatus by the Waters of Babylon”, mainly worked at pointing out the peculiar inheritance of one particular illustration by one strand of the manuscript transmission of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, in which Jeremiah laments the fall of Jerusalem. She suggested that this was particularly beloved by Mozarabic exile clerics mourning the fall of Toledo as does the author of the Chronicle of 754,3 and as such is a marker of exile scribes. Now, I’ve been active in pointing out reasons why the importance of this migration should be minimised, and I suggested that really, clerics might have been most of it. I thought this would be controversial but actually almost everyone agreed. It makes sense, after all, that the most ready migrants from a Muslim conquest would be those who had some kind of exportable professional qualification and whose occupation was now more difficult to carry out, that is, ministers of the Christian Church. However, I am now left feeling slightly less exciting because of so clearly saying what is widely accepted. I still don’t think anyone else has properly analysed the evidence I used for it though. Moving on once more.

A page from the Saint-Sever manuscript of Beatus’s commentary, showing the rain of fire and blood upon the Earth

The last two papers were by people whom I didn’t know, but apparently should, and the first was Queen Mary resident Professor Ralph Penny speaking to the title “Early Medieval Iberia: how many languages?” This was a controversial thing to do, especially with Roger Wright in the audience, and he missed out Gothic and place-names, but otherwise it was a pretty comprehensive and thought-provoking survey. A great deal of discussion followed trying to separate what counted as a language, what a dialect and what just some odd habits, but there was an interesting thread about different levels of diglossia, where, after the Conquest, although almost everyone had another language they considered higher-status, even it were only Classical Arabic as opposed to the spoken brands, really everyone in al-Andalus, Arabs, Berbers, Christians, Jews, and whoever else the Arabs may have brought with them, would have spoken Arabic as a second language if not first. We think of these populations as divided and separated sometimes, and as almost entirely the same in extremist assimilation models, but linguistically they must have been overlapping but incongruent sets.

And lastly but not leastly, there was a man who rejoices in the name Andrew Fear, and he managed to make Visgothic bishops entertaining, which is a feat of no small order. He was speaking to the title “A Visgothic hypochondriac: the poetry of Eugenius of Toledo” and managed to enthuse about the poetry while retaining a highly irreverent and hard-headed appraisal of the history and historiography. Rough humour, fine analysis of Latin metre and egregious orange moustaches have never been so well combined. And the conclusion was that Eugenius II might have been something of a whiner, but that it was all put to a higher purpose, which King Chindasuinth probably got but subsequent historians may not have. I don’t know the texts so I don’t know what I think, but it was a good way to wind up. And I can entirely recommend the Department’s hospitality; rarely have I been so well treated as a speaker. All this and a promise of publication—I can hardly ask for more…


*It looks like a lovely place, doesn’t it, but we were actually in the Physics Building, which is that vintage of sixties/seventies architecture which is just starting to cost serious money for rebuilding. This bit though, this is the old bit, where they held the Anarchist Bookfair this year. I’m told that a number of anarchists had to be persuaded anything they’d be interested in could be going on in a building so establishment…

1. For these two sets of voyages, see respectively Ann Christys, “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, St Vincent and the Martyrs of Cordoba” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 7 (Oxford 1998), pp. 199-216, and eadem, Christians in al-Andalus, 711-1000 (Richmond 2002), pp. 108-134.

2. Referring to the various essays in Thelma Fenster & Daniel Smail (edd.), Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe (Ithaca 2003).

3. Which you can find translated in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians 9 (Liverpool 1990), but see also C. C. de Hartmann, “The textual transmission of the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 8 (Oxford 1999), pp. 13-29.