Tag Archives: Mary Chester-Kadwell

Leeds report 1 (Monday 13th July)

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

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

1. Keynote Lectures 2009

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

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

105. Charters and Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

401. Special Lecture

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

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

Seminary XXV: why your Anglo-Saxon settlement maps need some rethinking

Archaeologist at Work, by Mary Chester-Kadwell and copyright to her

I have once before here mentioned my, well, friend is fair I think, Mary Chester-Kadwell, of whose research I am something of a fan. She works on archaeological landscapes in Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, but her approach is very technology-intensive and gets us a bit further than Myres’s distribution maps, and more towards what the context of our archaeological material is and how that explains some of what we find. This is in many ways the basic groundwork of archaeological interpretation, much like the basic `consider the author’ level of textual analysis, but it’s much harder to do in archaeology because you need so much context. Mary’s work draws on vast piles of records in archaeological archives and also, importantly, the ever-increasing body of metal-detector finds. Now there are arguments about the regulation, or lack of it, in British law about metal-detecting, and it is unquestionable that much more is found than is reported, but all the same the extra evidence we have because of this loose policy is undeniable. And on May Day Mary was at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge speaking to the Graduate Archaeological Seminar to the title: “The landscape of early Anglo-Saxon Norfolk: cemeteries, settlements and metal-detected finds”.

Mary is one of a number of scholars looking at approaches like this that involve a fairly serious reevaluation of our evidence. She is currently working on various forms of publication of her work, so rather than tell you what’s in it I’ll just give a few examples of the sorts of concerns she raises and therefore why I think her stuff is important. Her mapping is very dense: whereas many earlier interpretations of Anglo-Saxon settlement patterns tended to correlate only a few factors, settlement location against river access, against Bronze Age or Roman sites, against soil types, and so on, Mary is bravely trying to get all these things and more into play at once, and it is educational. In particular she was showing that we could, with such techniques, try and test some of the common assumptions about Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area, such as (i) that it’s usually riverside, (ii) that cemeteries often overlook significant places or routes, (iii) that the Anglo-Saxons favoured light well-drained soils because of not having the heavy plough, and (iv) that cemeteries are often placed near previous funerary monuments like barrows. Rather than just mapping the two things against each other and going, “Ta-dah! match!”, however, Mary computes baselines for a average distribution of, say, distances from rivers that are possible in Norfolk, and then applies the Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test to see how significant the data’s deviation from that expectation is. And in fact, in that instance, she finds that there is a stronger-than-expected tendency for settlement sites to be within 100 m of a river, for inhumation cemeteries to be about 200 m of a river, and cremation ones about 300 m from one, but that these are only trends and are easily countered with examples that form the tail of the distribution curves. So in that instance our understanding needs to be more complex. And this is the next step we have to be taking with evidence like this to start understanding what was really happening on the ground.

Saham Toney Terrets illustration

This sort of caution also allows one to start really facing the biases of the evidence. Example one: in archaeological digs of cemeteries, the metalwork that comes up is about as much iron as copper alloy. Metal detectorists don’t search for iron, though, so almost all of what they come up with is copper or precious metal, which means that sites only found by them look very different and perhaps shouldn’t. Example two: a very large proportion of Anglo-Saxon sites in the area are associated, or at least noticeably near, a Roman-period site. But there are shedloads more Roman sites known than Anglo-Saxon ones so that probably isn’t significant; it would be odder if they were not so associated just on probability. Example three: it is certainly true that a great proportion of Anglo-Saxon sites excavated have been on light well-drained soil. It is also however true that a vast proportion of all sites dug have been on such soil too, and there are plenty, if fewer, sites known from clay areas too. So we have to ask if really, that correlation isn’t more to do with where is easy to dig than where the Anglo-Saxons actually liked to live. Example four: there is a strong correlation between Anglo-Saxon mortuary sites that have been excavated and older barrows or barrow-like formations. But this correlation doesn’t exist with metal-detected finds, which suggests that the archaeologists are digging especially where there are barrows (as you’d expect), that the detectorists are avoiding such sites (which, since they’re not flat, I could understand) or both (which is probably the truth of it).

It all sounds terribly revisionist and destructive when I put it like that, I suppose, but firstly there is the usual argument for revisionism in such contexts, that it stops us saying things that are basically just plain wrong, and secondly there is the much more powerful argument that by trying to understand the complexity of the societies we’re looking at in all its horribly messy glory, using the sort of dense mapping techniques and data collection that Mary has done, we are likely to get further than we ever could by over-simplifying out most of the information. This way, I reckon, lies progress of a sort we previously couldn’t have made.