Tag Archives: London

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

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

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

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

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

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocaña, “From the granary to the field: archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

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

Seminar ketchup: CXVII-CXXI

If I mean to get this blog back up to some reasonable frequency of posting and currency, I have obviously got to do something about the massive backlog of seminars I want or intended to report on, so it’s time for drastic measures. For a start, I’m not even going to cover Rosanna Sornicola‘s presentation, “What the Legal Documents of the Early Middle Ages Can Tell Us About Language: the case of 9th- and 10th-century charters from Southern Italy” at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 25th January, not because it wasn’t interesting but because the indomitable Magistra covered it long ago and the only thing I really wanted to add to her write-up was my side of an argument I had with the speaker afterwards about when ipse starts to serve as a definite article in late Latin, and nobody needs that here, right? (I mean, if you do, ask in comments, but I’m guessing not.) Gorgeous pictures of Naples and a comprehensive handout, though, all respect to the speaker.

Developing towards a Viking Christianity

Birka Smycken

Silver crosses from graves at Birka, from Wikimedia Commons

That then lets me skip forward to the next day when, back in Oxford, Ildar Garipzanov gave the first of two Oliver Smithies Lectures in Balliol College, this one entitled “Christian Identities, Social Status, and Gender in Viking-Age Scandinavia”. This was required of him by a six-month fellowship he had at the college care of a bequest by that same O. Smithies, and which he was using to advance his part in a bigger project entitled, ‘The “Forging” of Christian Identity in the Northern Periphery (c. 820-1200)’. This project, which has already published a couple of essay volumes,1 is seeking to retell the story of the conversion of the Scandinavian regions to Christianity from the point of view of the converted, rather than the more traditional missionary perspective.2 Ildar’s reprise of it contained the worthwhile starting point that medieval Christianity was to a great degree both a social identity and a religious one: one was a member of a Christian population in a way that a pagan religious identity did not involve with paganism, because of Christianity’s articulated hierarchy that joined its members up. Their research, apparently, is tending to confirm an idea that one of the many social theorists mentioned in this paper had noted, that Christianity spread fastest where religious plurality was possible, as thus to profess Christianity allowed one to enhance various existing aspects of one’s identity (so as to get preferential taxation in Eastern markets, for example) without eradicating others. In those circumstances, why not add some Christian ideas and jewellery or whatever to one’s basic presentation? But this becoming a full Christianization was a much slower process. This helps us understand ‘mixed’-religion graves like some of those found at Birka (or these which I’ve just found about thanks to A Stitch In Time, cheers Katrin!) without thinking that the deceased or those burying them must have just got something wrong; rather, they were about showing off riches and ‘Christian’ material culture was one of the fashionable labels in that society. And when churches came to be put up where these burials, among others, were made, it was likely more because that’s where the power was than because that’s where the ‘Christians’ were buried. This was all very interesting stuff, and the theory put to good effect, but I should have begged a bibliography from Ildar because I’d never heard of any of what he cited…

Failures to extend authority in early Islam

Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik: 'Caliphal Image solidus' or Standing Caliph solidus struck from 74-77 AH. Based on Byzantine numismatic traditions

Obverse of an Umayyad dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, showing the Caliph standing with sword, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on the 31st January and the 2nd February Oxford got two papers by the same man, Andrew Marsham, the first entitled, “God’s Caliph: authority in the Umayyad Caliphate”, which he presented to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar, and the second, “Public Execution with Fire in Late Antiquity and Early Islam”, given to the Late Roman Seminar. The former of these was a study of the Islamic ruler’s title ‘Khalifat Allāh’, successor of God, rather than the now-more-conventional succesor of the Prophet. This title seems to appear in usage in 743 and run until the ninth century in various contexts before becoming theologically inadmissible. Dr Marsham explored the possibility of late Antique roots for it, a kind of contesting of importance with the Byzantine emperors or even simply part of an ideological struggle with the ‘community of the faithful’ over whether the Caliph was subject to law or not, but if that’s what it was, initially at least he appears to have lost. The latter was a similar sort of enquiry in a way, trying to work out if there might be effective late Antique precedents for the unusual and controversial occasions in early Islamic history in which people are judicially killed with fire. The interesting suggestion was involved here that these executions were failed rituals, in which someone in power decided that this case merited messing round with some old precedents now tinged with the echo of Hellfire, but which was always felt by the wider community to be too awful to become established. Both of these papers were interesting but I don’t have the kind of background that could evaluate Dr Marsham’s rather tentative conclusions so I just plug some of his work and move on.3

The ‘Three Orders’ in China, if China it were

Then the next week, on the 6th February, I made sure to come to the Medieval History Seminar because Naomi Standen was speaking. I know little to nothing about China but some of what I have read on it has been by Professor Standen and besides, I wanted to know what on earth a paper with a title like “Politics, Piety and Pots: shared repertoires across Continental Asia in the 7th to 12th centuries” would actually be.4 Really interesting, was the answer: fed up with divisions and mappings of medieval China that attempt to plot political groupings, ethnic divisions (most especially Han Chinese, very hard to define historically), agriculture and religious populations, all of which break down in various ways when examined closely, Professor Standen had elected to try and take a horizontal approach (and you know how I love that) and analyse this supposed unit socially. Taking a defined geographical expanse in which the climate was roughly similar, and thus leaving aside the far south-east, she started with leadership, differentiating a chieftain-style leadership of fictive ‘peoples’ from the more official one found in towns where society was multi-functional enough that influence could be had in other ways, but stressing that in the right places and at the right times officials could run tribes or chieftains towns and that some nomad groups notionally within the Empire had no leaders at all. Polities thus being dismissed as too structurally flexible to constitute differentiable zones, she moved onto religion, plotting a McCormick-like network of Buddhist contacts and travellers which though connected was not uniform and stretched as far as India and Japan and survived imperial collapses more or less safely.5

Map of China under the Liao dynasty

A traditional perspective

The political structuration being too granular and the religious one too variously-shaded and extensive, she lastly tried to look at the peasantry by means of ceramics, and although this suffers from the fact that the ceramic sequence is so poorly-studied here that there’s no real chronology of the stuff between 200 and 1200, that is also because a remarkably uniform grey ware was in use right across her ‘Continental zone’, and while other ceramic styles of higher quality came and went in certain areas, especially where the Silk Road reached, this at least did look like a kind of cultural unity, albeit one in which the ruling élites were very probably completely uninterested. Of course, that unity was not we think of as China or any ethnic group’s supposed territory, but the point of this paper was roughly to assert that nothing was, and it was really well done. (And yet of course the idea of a China was incredibly powerful throughout the period and beyond: Chris Wickham described it as a “continuity of potential disintegration” in questions, which struck me as being just right at the time.) But what I mainly loved about this paper, I admit, apart from being so well led into a field about which I know so little, was seeing the Three Orders in another context, because, as I pointed out to Professor Standen afterwards, that was what her three categories of analysis were, Those Who Fight, Those Who Pray and Those Who Work. She said she hadn’t done this consciously but it’s one of several things lately that have made me wonder why it is medieval historians don’t export theory rather than import it. This was a tenth-century set of categories doing useful analytical work still, was this; Adalbero of Laon would have been proud…

And finally women in men’s clothing

Lastly in this batch, on the 7th February I had the chance to hear Judith Bennett speak to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar, and I did so, partly because of the numerous people who’ve told me I could learn from her, but also because her title was “Early, Erotic, and Alien: cross-dressing in late medieval London”. This was work that Professor Bennett had done with one Shannon McSheffrey, of whom I’m afraid I know no more than this web-page offers, and it analysed 13 cases of persons brought before the courts in London between 1450 and 1547 for offences that included dressing in the clothes of the opposite gender. Only one of these was a man, and only two of the women appear to have actually been trying to pass as men, so the question opens up straight away, what was going on and was it a particular thing that can be described as a unity? This involved some foreign comparisons – for some reason Florence recorded a lot more of this than most places, albeit in the fourteenth century – but it also meant excluding things like saintly women trying to escape their biological sex and, well, ‘man up’, and also the kind of inversion beloved of festivals and so on. Aside from one fascinating case of two women who shared a bed, one of whom dressed male (because they felt one of them had to?), most of the cases that went before court appeared to be have aimed to titillate or disturb men, being displays at parties or in brothels and so on, and so some erotic charge was presumably involved,6 in which case it might fall into a rather wider category of queer dressing, cross-class, cross-profession, cross-age (maidens as matrons or vice versa). Another common factor, however, was that many of the women were foreigners, and this raised questions of whether being rootless or indeed without protection might allow or compel such reinvention of one’s presentation. For the London judiciary, all these cases were sexual misconduct, but Professor Bennett showed the range of possibilities that might lie behind such choices, from fear right the way through to fun (and not necessarily the fun of others only). From an early medievalist’s point of view it’s frustrating to discover that even when we’re dealing with sources that come as close as it’s reasonable to expect to actually being interviews with the people concerned, we still have to guess what was in their heads, of course, but there was more to this paper than just entertainment. As Andrew Marsham had also argued about executions by fire, these very unusual occurrences can be used to show up what was thought to be usual in better relief, and the odd thing here was that the courts saw a pattern where we, with much scantier and less detailed evidence than they had, can’t.


1. Those being Garipzanov (ed.), Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery: Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central, and Eastern Europe (c.1070–1200) (Turnhout 2011) and Ildar Garipzanov & Oleksiy Tolochko (edd.), Early Christianity on the Way from the Varangians to the Greeks: Christian Identities, Social Networks (Kyiv 2011).

2. I had to choose that phrase very carefully. If his ghost will forgive the association with it, I suppose the traditional perspective would ultimately be that of Adam of Bremen in his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, transl. of choice being that of Francis J. Tschan (New York City 1959, repr. with intro. and notes by Timothy Reuter 2002).

3. Such as A. Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: accession and succession in the first Muslim empire (Edinburgh 2009) and specifically for his second topic, “Public Execution in the Umayyad Period: early Islamic punitive practice and its late Antique context” in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies Vol. 11 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 101-136.

4. What I’ve read is Naomi Standen, “(Re)Constructing the Frontiers of Tenth-Century North China” in Daniel Power & Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 55-79, but what I probably should read had I but world enough and time is Standen, Unbounded Loyalty: frontier crossings in Liao China (Honolulu 2007) or eadem, “The Five Dynasties” in Denis Twitchett & Paul Jakov Smith (edd.), The Cambridge history of China, Volume 5, Part 1: The Sung dynasty and its precursors, 907-1279 (Cambridge 2009), pp. 38-132.

5. Referring to Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2001).

6. I wanted to include here a salacious example, but I notice at the last minute that Professor Bennett’s hand-out has a request not to cite or quote it without permission and I haven’t thought to get same, so you’ll have to do without it, sorry.

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Feudal Transformations XI: Chris Wickham takes still another (at)tack

The last time I could get into London for a short while was Monday 17th November, and I dithered over it but eventually went because the occasion was the Institute of Historical Research‘s Creighton Lecture, which Jinty Nelson told the attendees was, they liked to think, the most important lecture in history in the UK, and more to the point, speaking was Chris Wickham, to the topic, “The Culture of the Public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution'”. Conrad Leyser had the week before asked rhetorically if anyone still thought the feudal transformation was an interesting topic, and I realise this sits ill with my posting record but I half wanted to agree with him that it isn’t. The trouble is that although it has become somewhat tedious even to me, we still haven’t solved it. Something does happen to Europe in the centuries either side of 1000, and we don’t seem to be able to agree on how much, what, or what importance it has. Yet, as I’ve argued, there must be an effect of the collapse of such a superstructure as the Carolingian Empire. What is it, and why is it so hard to pin down? The answer to the latter question of course lies in local diversity, but the former we haven’t yet got.

The Great Hall in King's College London, arrayed for another occasion

The Great Hall in King's College London, arrayed for another occasion

Once having settled in a rather under-populated Great Hall at King’s College London (the IHR doesn’t have enough space for this large a gathering, though it might have been able to cope with the numbers who actually turned up), I was not a little pleased to find Chris saying very similar things, but he has a new way into it, or at least perhaps a more profitable one than my various attempts have so far been. Observing that something that changes that almost all parties agree upon is the state of balance between public and private authority, he was looking at the main forum for expression of such things, the assembly. Referencing a particularly lucid article of Timothy Reuter’s, which explains the whole idea of assembly politics in the Middle Ages in a way that we’re very happy to point students at but mostly have to disagree with from our own material (reminds me of GCSE), Chris started from his recent work on Rome to ask in more detail what changes in assembly politics over this period and whether it helps us explain anything.1

Ruins of the Roman forum as they stand today

Ruins of the Roman forum as they stand today

His key points were, roughly, that the ideal of an assembly of free men giving you as ruler legitimacy in your actions is always important, and that throughout the Middle Ages someone doing something can add legitimacy to their action by arranging that it happens in public before witnesses.2 Despite this, large-scale public assemblies stop.3 Local courts remain roughly the same, but the top stratum of the social stratification is lost. (You see the similarity to my earlier pitch.) The new assemblies of, for example, counts and their followers, don’t have the same function of placing actions in public, because they are closed; the ‘public’ are disenfranchised and it doesn’t seem to matter, although in Rome at least some of the ‘closed’ gatherings get so big that they arguably include most of the political actors, and for Italy generally the commune is just such an organisation, of all those with power if not the whole public. They don’t do public judgements, but there are other ways of involving a (more restricted) public; they do political debate, the rather more repressive old Roman Empire had used processions and spectacles for the same kind of public access to the powerful, and of course bishops continue to use such tactics throughout the Middle Ages when they need to take some action onto a higher level, the best examples being the councils behind the Peace of God. So there are many ways to deploy a public gathering in the pursuit of the reinforcement, or indeed the destabilisation, of power.

A depiction of the Council of Clermont from the <em>Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer</em> of <i>c. </i>1490, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, here found on answers.com

A depiction of the Council of Clermont from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer of c. 1490, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, here found on answers.com

His conclusion was however that the most effective assemblies are regular ones. An assembly that someone knows is going to happen gives them stability. They can bring the case then, so they don’t need to ravage your lands now; they will be able to protest, albeit in a stage-managed fashion, so violent action now is both less legitimate and less necessary. On the other hand, ad hoc assemblies show weakness, and are often disrupted or produce unexpected results (“Dieu le veult! Dieu le veult!“) With observations like this, and more work on how assemblies are used both by their organisers and participants, we might have another wedge with which to open up this topic over which we continue unwillingly to trip.


1. Timothy Reuter, “Assembly Politics in Western Europe from the Eighth Century to the Twelfth” in Peter Linehan & Janet Nelson (edd.), The Medieval World (London 2000), pp. 432-450; Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, 400-1200 (London forthcoming).

2. As often happens, it seems, I am already reading about this somewhere else, in an article that I’ll come back to next post, Isabel Alfonso, “Judicial Rhetoric and Political Legitimation in Medieval León-Castile”, transl. Carolina Carl in Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 51-87.

3. Chris here referenced a book I now apparently have to read which I only recently discovered, Thomas Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton 2008).

Metablog V and some more seminar announcing

Last first, I have now got mail alerting me to, as well as the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, the new Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar and the forthcoming medievalness of the Creighton Lecture, the University College London Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar, which is being kicked off this year by no less a figure than Michael Wood, finally bringing his work on England and his work on India together. That looks exciting enough to drag me to what will be the first of three seminars that week, my goodness but it is happening. The webpage I’ve been directed to by this mail is not there (argh), so I give the programme below. I’m told that the London Society for Medieval Studies also has a very lively programme with Wendy Davies among others in it, but until they actually get their fingers out and get it on the web (academics! learn how to edit HTML! for heavens’ sake!) I can’t tell you more.

Autumn Term

27th October 2008

Michael Wood (Broadcaster & Historian) – Cholans & West Saxons: kingship & court culture in Tenth Century India & England

24th November 2008

Jane Garnett (Wadham, Oxford) & Gervase Rosser (St Catherine’s, Oxford) – The presence of miraculous images in the Middle Ages

Spring Term

19th January 2009

Joe Canning (Cambridge) – Power & authority in the political thought of Marsilius of Padua

2nd of February 2009

Peter Biller (York) – Putting heretics to the question: the case of Bernard Gui

16th March 2009

Eamon Duffy (Magdalene, Cambridge) & David d’Avray (UCL) – Mary Douglas among the historians: reflection, response, insight

Summer Term

18th May 2009

Matthew Kempshall (Wadham, Oxford) – Rhetoric & the Writing of History, 400-1500

There’s some pretty good stuff there, and even that which might not interest me normally is being given by such good people that I will go, like as not, just because I might learn something.

Now, onto matters more local. You’ll doubtless have noticed if, like a tiny fraction of the readers here, you ever click any of my links, that WordPress runs this Snap program which pops you up a preview window of the site you’re about to visit. I find this gets in my way something terrible, but is conceptually quite cute, and I’ve retained it believing that it might be useful to you the readers. Now, however, I learn that it’s giving, for one, Professor Nokes of the Unlocked Wordhoard difficulties because it clogs his computer, and though he is getting a new machine, I wonder if there are more of you. I won’t be at all sorry to switch it off (like most WordPress features, it’s configurable), but would anyone reading miss it? Speak up if you want it retained, otherwise I’ll junk it once this post moves off the front page.

I’m sure the next post will be more medieval, but at the time of writing I’ve only got a book review that I probably shouldn’t even write to think about, so I can’t guarantee anything…

Calling the US medieval bloggers

Here, large numbers of you US blogospherists seem to be hitting London this month, er, jury service permitting (argh!). Something social should perhaps be done. I’m going to be busy till Leeds and the weekend following, but I suspect that Wednesday 16th could be a British Library day and I’m flexible around that date. If people would like, I can do some restaurant or pub arrangement for that or another evening? Speak up for numbers if interested, either here or at my work e-mail address (my main one can’t be reached from or reach Hotmail), and I shall make it so… Feel free to specify favoured cuisine etc… Also, if anyone finds that they need stuff which is only in Cambridge, and if it’s realistically reproducible, I’ll see what I can do. So notified!