Tag Archives: material culture

Seminar CCXXXIII: the limits of Byzantine contact with India

My backlog now crawls back towards a ten-month lag as I reach March 2015! Either I was busy during the early part of that month or not much was happening, but on the 11th I was in London at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because Dr Rebecca Darley, then still at the Warburg Institute, was presenting with the title “‘A Sign of God’s Favour’: Byzantine gold coins in Indian Ocean trade”. Now, as those who know me will probably be aware, there are good reasons why I can’t pretend to objectivity in discussing this paper, including my continuing collaboration with the speaker over our All That Glitters project, but hopefully you are not here for critique so much as for information, because what Rebecca knows is not stuff most medievalists do so there’s plenty of information coming…

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

But let’s start with this, a perfectly normal and respectable solidus of Constantine I but unusually pierced. This is, we were to learn, how Byzantine gold coins usually occur in India, which is a thing that happens. Roman gold is rather more common (which is to say, still pretty rare): Roman silver coins of Augustus and Tiberius are far from unknown from Indian findspots, as I remember discovering while cataloguing some at the Fitzwilliam years ago, and from Nero onwards gold also starts to turn up, and even some bronze, but the silver dies away quickly. The finds of coins from Constantine’s time are almost entirely solidi (for some quite special values of ‘almost entirely’ that I’ll come back to) and are much rarer, especially after the fourth century, and very often pierced twice, like this, over the portrait and from that side, as if to be stitched to costume as, indeed, coins still often are in India today. And this goes on more and more ephemerally till the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century when the supply seems to dry up. So what was going on?

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I, struck who knows where but most likely in India during the sixth century I suppose

Well, inevitably given how archæology looks for connections and everyone has been very keen to emphasise contact and cooperation in world history over conflict and disengagement since the Second World War, if not before, the normal reading of these coins is that they are evidence of trade. There are texts that have been used to support this as well, but we should, argued Rebecca, be suspicious of this picture. This is at least partly because of the famous Grierson Objection, much beloved of this blog, that coins can be transferred by many processes that are not trade, partly because the texts are not as well-informed or objective as they have been thought to be, but the best argument against it is really the coins themselves, because when that supply dries up (or even before! Datable contexts for these finds are sadly almost entirely lacking) what seems to happen is that people in southern India at least start making imitations of these coins to supply the gap, as you see above.1

Imitation of a Byzantine gold solidus, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Imitation of a gold solidus of, well, let’s face it, it’s just ‘a Byzantine emperor’ isn’t it? The die-cutters here were not after exactitude but impression. I have this image by the kindness of Rebecca herself, it being R. Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Gold imitation of a Roman sestertius, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A. D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 57

This one is even better, because not only is the type hardly visible, but what you can see appears to have been copied off a Roman copper alloy sestertius; note the ‘S C’! Undatable as well as untradeable! Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade”, cat. no. 57.

Well, you might say, perhaps that shows that these coins had now become part of an exchange system and had to be supplied once they were no longer arriving. To which one can only offer the above, not imitations anyone cared to make terribly convincing in size, weight or imagery, and say, probably not really, not if gold value is what it’s about. Besides which, in so far as as we have findspots at all, which is not often, Rebecca showed us that they don’t map at all well to known port sites, usually being inland for a start. They might map slightly better to temple sites, and a few had red residue on that could be puja dust from ceremonies (though if so that could be much much more recent), but mainly what these coins, with their piercings and varying degrees of precision in replicating a portrait coinage with foreign lettering on, seem to suggest is some specific kind of personal ornament which it was important to have for who knows what purpose, in whatever quality you could afford, be that a real one, a best-level fake or the thin uniface knock-off or anything in between. They are not, in and of themselves, very convincing evidence for levels of trade, though obviously coins coming in at all implies some minimal level of contact.2

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So what about those texts, you may now ask? Well, there are two obvious candidates, one being the originator of the above, Kosmas Indikopleustes, whose scholar-given byname means that he had been to India but had actually as far as we can tell not got closer than the East African empire of Aksum, where he had met people who had, probably. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that what Kosmas was writing was a treatise to prove that the world was flat, you can see from the above map that he was not afraid to fit his world into a particular scheme as dialectically necessary, and the point of his relevant story is that even the unknown rulers of Sri Lanka who have no meaningful contact with the Roman world can see that the Roman gold a traveller brings with him is way way better than the silly Persian silver coins that happen to have arrived at the same time.3 It’s not what you’d call neutral reporting on the balance of payments. Furthermore, it also sees to be more or less lifted from Pliny’s Natural History (which does seem to keep coming up these days), who told a similar story about Roman coins impressing the Orientals, except that then they were silver.4 Gotta move with the times! Meanwhile Indian texts, and indeed Sri Lankan ones of which there are rather more, simply don’t mention Roman traders at all.5 And while we’re at it, there are as far as Rebecca knows no Persian coins in southern India at all, and though there are some Persian ceramics known from Indian sites, it is of the order of a millionth of the evidence from those sites.6 Oddly, or perhaps not, there is a little bit more evidence for contact with Aksum, whose coins also got imitated locally. Obviously they would do as well!

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400, with the double piercing again

So Rebecca here positioned herself explicitly against pictures of the early medieval world which are constructed on connectivity and a fledgling form of international relations, pitching instead a picture of low or missing connectivity, in which indeed rather than encourage trade and contact with foreign countries the big empires of the time actually sought to stop it where possible.7 And when objects did make it across the sea, their use, at least these ones, was not primarily economic. This of course provoked some lively discussion, not least because of the limited but significant evidence for commodities from the East reaching the West: as Edward James pointed out, Bede had a box full of pepper he was able to bequeath at his death, which must somehow have come from Kerala because pepper does, at least if it really was pepper.8 So it’s in some ways an argument about how much contact there has to be to count as significant, but I think that Rebecca would rather argue about whom it was significant to anyway, and why, and this paper put that alternative case very strongly.

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy ,Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

One little thing, though, or not so little in some ways, did stick in my mind. This was a paper about gold coins, primarily, not least because silver and bronze Roman or Byzantine coins aren’t found in significant numbers in India, except that in one or two places fourth-century and fifth-century Roman bronze kind of falls out of the river at you, and known examples from these places now number in the thousands, which is an order of magnitude more than the total Roman and Byzantine gold preservation across the whole subcontinent.9 As Rebecca said, it is possible that these all stem from maybe two deposits, just slowly washing down the river over the centuries, and without actually knowing where the deposits are or were, it’s very hard to say any more, but whatever the overall picture is it must, it seems to me, be made different by this. Gold is high-value, prestige, small, might travel singly and sporadically and yes, for non-economic reasons. What the reasons might be for shipping what must have been rather a lot of late Roman bronze across the Indian Ocean and then burying it, as even a minimal interpretation of this would have to involve—a maximalist one, which I’m not putting forward, would presumably be that this stuff was actually commonly shipped over, it was a circulating medium and the coins are either hoards or genuine losses from that circulation—we obviously can’t tell.10 Maybe it was only ballast! But it seems difficult for those reasons to be the same as for the gold. Rebecca could obviously be right about the gold, especially by the sixth century, and this be something else entirely, but I can’t help feel that a ‘global’ picture of Indian Ocean contact will have to account for this stuff as well, somehow.

1. For the Objection, as perhaps only I in this world call it, see P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II. On the coins in India, meanwhile, you can now see R. Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman Coins in South India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A. D.)” in Himanshu P. Ray and M. Palat (edd.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: landscapes in early medieval South Asian history (London 2015), pp. 60-84.

2. For details here see now ibid.

3. The Greek text is published in Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographie chrétienne, ed. W. Wolska-Conus (Paris 1968-1973), 3 vols, XI.17-20; I here précis from the translation in Rebecca’s handout, however.

4. Pliny, Natural History, ed./transl. H. Rackham (Cambridge MA 1942), 2 vols, VI.24.

5. I did not realise till I started talking to Rebecca about such things that there was a Sri Lankan chronicle tradition that seems to have compiled a nine-hundred-year long history in the fifth century A. D.! I also have no clear idea of where the historiography now sits on its actual composition and reliability, either, but you can read it, as Wilhelm Geiger (ed.), Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon, transl. Geiger & Mabel Haynes Bode (London 1912) and Geiger (ed./transl.), The Culavamsa, being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa (London 1925), with all being online here.

6. A synopsis of available information here, I think, would be Roberta Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: from post to pepper (London 2009).

7. Procopius, De Bello Persico, ed. & transl. H. B. Dewing in Procopius, History of the Wars (London 1914), 5 vols, I.20.

8. Cuthbert, Epistola de obitu Bedae, transl. in Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert, transl. Roger Collins and Judith McClure (Oxford 1990), pp. 299-303 at p. 302.

9. R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), is the only collected write-up of this material, which I should make perfectly clear I would not be able to cite without Rebecca having made her own copy available to me.

10. Ibid. pp. 10-17, while not taking a position in this debate, quotes a number of works that seem to align with that maximum view.

Seminar CCXXIX: complex identities in the later Roman Empire

So where am I now with the backlog in seminar reports? Later February 2015, it seems, so about eleven months behind still alas, but despite the disjuncture between this and the stuff of my own on which I have also been reporting, this post gels quite nicely with the previous one, as several of the same questions of what was maintained that was Roman when Roman rule ended in the West are covered in it. The occasion on this, er, occasion, was Simon Esmonde Cleary‘s inaugural lecture as Professor of Roman Archaeology in the University of Birmingham. Professor Esmonde Cleary’s is a name I knew of old by this point but I had never heard him speak or knowingly met him, and the title seemed to promise a fun lecture: it was “A Funny Thing Didn’t Happen on the Way to the Forum: archaeology and the refashioning of the late Roman West”. Now, in some ways I don’t need to say anything here because the lecture, which was indeed one of the better hours I’ve spent in a lecture theatre, was quickly put online, so if you have a spare hour you can in fact just experience it yourself nearly as well, and arguably should especially if you like your humour wry and British.

But, maybe you don’t have an hour, maybe you read this at work and can’t put sound on, maybe in fact you want to know what I thought about it beyond that it was good, so perhaps a brief post won’t hurt. The lecture trod quite a neat line between making statements soothing to ruffled interdepartmental feathers within the University, which is probably evident even to the outside listener, and making points that emphasised the necessity of comparative and interdisciplinary understandings of historical periods for the most meaningful conclusions about them, as well as Professor Esmonde Cleary’s unusual familiarity with the materials of those understandings. On this occasion those conclusions centred especially on the political import of material culture and on the complexity of personal and political identities, and the interest of the later Empire in ensuring and maintaining that complexity to its own advantage, particularly where that complex enveloped civil, military, Roman and ‘barbarian’ aspects. Professor Esmonde Cleary did this largely through a series of particular episodes and sites that helped make his points, and I will just pick three that spoke particularly to me. These are Séviac, in what I think of as Aquitaine, South-Western France to the modern reader, Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, not far away, and Lankhills in Hampshire in England.

The Gallo-Roman site of Séviac as it currently is, seen from the air

The Gallo-Roman site of Séviac as it currently is, seen from the air

Séviac is a villa complex, with rather impressive mosaics and a bathhouse, and most of the complex is fourth-century.1 This itself is not too unusual, especially in that part of the world (and, as Professor Esmonde Cleary pointed out, in Southern Britain) but it is evoking, and enabling, a very particular form of Roman élite life in which essentially civilian affluence is expressed by having a country residence with agricultural revenue in which you spent money on displaying your familiarity with Classical culture such as the scenes in the mosaics, even though by the time this was all being put up, much of the ruling class of the Empire had had a military background, including many of the emperors who nonetheless spent their time in the provinces in such buildings and whose own buildings this one was mimicking. There is nothing military here. At Séviac it was still important to display one’s training in Romanitas in its essentially literary and civilian aspects, even in the era of the Tetrarchy and the spread of Christianity.

The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the distance, with the Romanesque church of Saint-Just de Valcabrère in the foreground

The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the distance, with the Romanesque church of Saint-Just de Valcabrère in the foreground

Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, I will admit, my heart leapt a little bit to see just because of the Romanesque church, which is one of my signs of home turf, but it is also a fascinatingly complex site. At the core of it is a tall cathedral, as you can see, which is also Romanesque with Gothic additions (apparently, says Wikipedia, actually put there by someone called Bertrand de Goth, which is kind of hard to beat), but it sits in the middle of a walled town and those walls are, at base, fifth-century, which is unusually late for the Western Empire and speaks instead to the military side of things.2 There was also, however, a Roman villa outside at what is now Valcabrère, much of whose stonework went into that there church of Saint-Just. The Roman walls were also topped up a couple of times in the Middle Ages. This is the other sort of Roman continuity, where adaptation is very close to scavenging, and one with which I’m much more familiar.

Burial under excavation in the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester

Burial under excavation in the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester

Lankhills increased that sense of familiarity still further. Although the late Roman cemetery there seems to have ceased being used by about 400 A. D., so that it’s hard to call it early medieval, still the occasional burial goods and the questions that have been asked about the site (which was the first one on which Professor Esmonde Cleary had dug, as a teenager) all seemed very familiar to me from my years teaching Anglo-Saxon history and archæology in Oxford. This was not least because when the site was first dug, art-historical comparisons of the grave-goods found in some of the grave led the then-excavator to hypothesize that he had found barbarian recruits into the Roman army from around Pannonia, settling in the area as the Empire that had paid them left the area.3 This was more or less plausible given understandings of that period at the time and seemed to fit the goods, but now it is possible to check that assumption by means of isotopic analysis of the skeletons. What this has revealed is that a quarter of the test sample put to examination seemed to have grown up somewhere other than the locality, but that some of the notional ‘Pannonians’ as suggested by their kit were locals whereas others were not, while three of them came from much further south, one possibly Africa (and he, helpfully, did have some African-provenance stuff with him too, just to emphasise that sometimes this actually happens even when no-one else is doing it), while on the other hand many other non-locals, including women, did not have their origins signalled by such grave-goods at all.4 This sets up all kinds of interesting possibilities about local group identities and second-generation immigrants but it also makes Guy Halsall‘s suggestion that certain army units had brandings which had nothing to do with their recruits’ origins seem as justifiable an explanation here.5

A selection of late Roman military belt buckles

A selection of late Roman military belt buckles, which one imagines that soldiers did not usually get to choose themselves…

So at the end of this round-up you can see how many things came up here that I have thought with before but with new evidence that these were good things with which to think: identity displayed but not necessarily as a deliberate statement or single entity, attempts indeed probably to look like someone different from whom you’d started by deliberate deployment of material culture, and a state apparatus for which the ability to acculturate, to erase signs and habits of origin in favour of its own traditions of education and behaviour had always been important, but over a period of centuries, failed it. All of this and jokes too! This is why you should watch the lecture, really…

1. Obviously, Professor Esmonde Cleary was not stopping to do footnotes, but mostly it has been easy for me to find the works he was using, not least as they were often his own. On Séviac, however, I have drawn a near-blank; its museum is obviously a good place to find out lots about the site, but further publication of its finds is very difficult to search up. An initial report of the first digs there is R. Métivier, “Fouilles des ruines gallo-romaines de Séviac, près Montréal” in Bulletin de la Société archéologique du Gers Vol. 14 (Auch 1913), online here, pp. 146-149, but it’s not what you could call comprehensive. Besides which, the site was gone over for a decade starting in the 1980s (the museum pages tell one) and one feels that should have resulted in some publication, but all I can find is R. Monturet & H. Rivière, Les Thermes sud de la villa gallo-romaine de Seviac (Paris 1986) and some suggestion that there is coverage in Catherine Balmelle, Les demeures aristocratiques d’Aquitaine : Société et culture de l’Antiquité tardive dans le Sud-Ouest de la Gaule, Mémoires 5 (Bordeaux 2001).

2. Here, however, it seems clear that the work you want is A. Simon Esmonde Cleary & Jason Wood, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges III : Le rempart de l’Antiquité tardive de la Ville Haute (Bordeaux 2006).

3. G. Clarke, Pre-Roman and Roman Winchester. Part II: The Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester Studies 3 (Oxford 1979), pp. 377-398.

4. H. Eckardt, C. Chenery, P. Booth, J. A. Evans, A. Lamb & G. Müldner, “Oxygen and strontium isotope evidence for mobility in Roman Winchester” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 2816-2825, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.010; see also Paul Booth, Andrew Simmonds, Angela Boyle, Sharon Clough, H. E. M. Cool & Daniel Poore, “The late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester: Excavations 2000-2005”, unpublished project report (Oxford Archaeology 2010), online here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 101-110.


Crusaders and money, seen in a different way

This gallery contains 10 photos.

This strategy I have adopted of putting the current content up top and the backlog below is getting somewhat top-heavy, but there is just one more thing to announce, and then I expect actually to start letting some of these … Continue reading


An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

The Carolingian Frontier III: points north and east

Picking up the now-legendary backlog once more we find me still in Cambridge in early July 2014 for the third day of the Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference already described. This was the morning only, and so there were only four papers, in two pairs as follows.

  • Robert Smith, “Hedeby after Ansgar: the continued contacts with Carolingian Christianity in the border emporia of Hedeby”.
  • As you can see we started in Denmark, and indeed we were not wholly to leave it for the rest of the day. We started in Hedeby, founded by an aggressive transplantation of traders from the Baltic seaport of Reric by King Godefrid of Denmark in 808, and the last paper would come back to it. Mr Smith’s paper was however about how deep the impact of the Carolingian mission to Denmark in the 820s and 840s-850s was, and in fact there is thin evidence for continuing Christianity in the town into the 880s and beyond. It’s always hard to assert religion from material culture, especially when one’s main evidence is burials because the dead don’t bury themselves, but one surprising piece of evidence is a pair of church-bells that have been recovered from the harbour, one cracked as if the other might have been its replacement. I’m not sure how we date them, mind…

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour, dated by the website where I found it (linked through) to 850, but seriously, how?

    Mr Smith’s point was that conversion did not bring any kind of political control, but that cultural exchange and mixing happened all the same. This raised the question of whether we were in fact on a frontier here or just at a port, but I think it’s probably arguable that a port of entry is a frontier of sorts… There were also arguments about whether coin finds necessarily demonstrate trade, which of course they do not, but that took us into the next paper.

  • Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian coins in Denmark: commerce and prestige”.
  • For Dr Moesgaard, his initial scepticism about that question had now somewhat reluctantly turned to acceptance; for him sites like Hausmarken, which has so far thrown up twenty single-finds of Louis the Pious deniers, are approaching the inarguable, so we have to accept that there was trade between Denmark and the Carolingian Empire coming through the Danish emporia, but he also noted that it very much died off in the 840s, and coin finds then become rarer as well as more international (and also less: Hedeby and Ribe start minting their own in the later ninth century, and Ribe seems never to have kept Carolingian coins so as to deposit them). That doesn’t however mean that all Carolingian coin finds are relics of trade, not least because as the discussion drew out, they seem often to have been recovered from relatively wealthy dwellings and also treated differently, being very rarely cut, unlike Islamic dirhams. That might be because they were largely arriving earlier, or it might be, well… Many possibilities remain but here there is at least the chance of a continuing increase in evidence to make patterns clearer.

Then there was coffee and then we resumed with what turned out to be quite the longest haul of the conference.

  • Joachim Henning, “The Fortified Carolingian Border Line with the Slavs along the Elbe and Saale: military defense and cultural exchange”.
  • I am quite conflicted about this paper, because it was extremely interesting and you can see how it would be vital comparative data for some of my interests, but on the other hand it was also twenty minutes longer than it was supposed to have been. It also raised some quite important questions that somehow never got asked, onto which I will come. We were introduced to a series of problems that have dogged the interpretation of fortress archæology on the German-Slavic border of the Carolingian Empire as was which modern archæological techniques, especially scientific dating, are beginning to solve. One has been even finding very many Slavic fortresses, which as we were told began to unstick once it was realised that they were probably small and earthen-ramparted rather than being big stone structures. The second has then been dating them, but with enough animal bone and radio-carbon tests that is also now being done and the problem is now that there are almost none to be dated before about 900. This apparent sudden fortress boom could be a reaction to campaigning by the Ottonians, as some would indeed have it, but raises some questions about what this frontier was like before then which are now harder to answer.1

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe, where the fortress dug by Professor Henning has now gone under the Autobahn, if I understand the German article linked through correctly. Photo by Sigrun Tausche.

    Professor Henning did have some suggestions, however, including that Hohenwarthe, upriver from Magdeburg in Saxony, may be one such early Slav fortress in some sense. It was raised during Frankish campaigns of 806 according to the Chronicle of Moissac but according to the finds evidence is much older, going back to the second century. Other such fortresses built by others and thus hard to identify as Slavic typologically can be added to such a list: Professor Henning named Höhbeck and Potzlow, where there was also a battle grave including men, women and children, some killed with what seemed to be Viking arrowheads. All of this would indicate how dangerous an area and how many players there might be in it (and the next paper would also work to this effect), if I was only sure that identifying the users of a site by a culture remained viable now that archæology accepts that material culture was a choice made from what was available for many reasons that don’t have to be to do with ethnicity, and that doing so by the shape of buildings (since Professor Henning was ruling some sites out of being Slavic, whatever that would actually mean, because they were “too rectangular”) can survive in a context in which fortified settlements were being reused by forces other those that had built them, and could very easily change hands in quite short timeframes. As it was, while I’m intrigued by the empirical quality of this data—there’s lots of it, it’s been very well recovered and thoroughly analysed—this paper made me more, not less, suspicious that we cannot, in fact, say who was in any of these sites without resorting to textual evidence that we already had…

  • Daniel Melleno, “Between Borders: the place of the Slavs in the northern politics of the Danes and Frabks in the ninth century”.
  • In the little time that was left him, Dr Melleno then took us succintly through the various testimonies of the narrative sources for the groups we think of as Slavic who were part of the political contest between the two kingdoms of Franks and Danes in the long ninth century. His basic contention was that the Obodrites, a difficult group to pin down as we have discussed, were the most successful of several such groups in profiting from Carolingian support as a buffer state to get into a position where they were actually coherent and united enough as a polity to start interacting with the Carolingians, and indeed the Danes, on their own terms. Unfortunately for them, this left them much more obvious targets than the Franks once the Danish kingdom descended into Frankish-backed civil war in the 820s and they more or less ceased to be that coherent polity in the subsequent warfare. My only complaint about this paper was that it took everything in any source used as absolutely straightforward, and I did wonder what might have come out of trying to read the Carolingian presentation of these groups as either faithful or faithless allies as a product of the annalists’ political stances, rather than the Obodrites’.

Still, it was reasonable to close with a reminder that we had almost all, coins, Christianity and trade not withstanding, seen the Carolingian frontier as a warzone first and foremost. Dr Melleno was right to end with the famous line from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne: “have a Frank for a friend, not for a neighbour”!2

1. This is a conclusion warmly adopted by, for example, David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), where see pp. 24 & 151.

2. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), online here, transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), pp. 17-44, cap. 16.

Seminar CLXXXVII: relics, angst and agency

Now that I’m back into reports from the academic year now expiring, rather than the one before, you could be forgiven for thinking that I spent last autumn ignoring everything that was going on in my new home institution in favour of disappearing to London every week. Not so, gentle reader, for Birmingham boasts a CEntre for the Study of the Middle Ages which, at that point at least, t was running a weekly seminar, and on 21st October 2013 Birmingham’s own Dr Simon Yarrow was speaking to it, with the title “Varieties of Christian Materiality: relics and saints’ cults in Anglo-Norman England”. And since Simon’s work was one of the things people lauded when I got this post, I made sure to be there.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Simon’s paper was exploring one of the tensions inherent to Christianity, that between body and spirit, the material and non-material that is indissoluble from a religion that centres on its God becoming a man. Many a splinter from orthodoxy has tried to separate the two but for those who remain orthodox, the material world presents difficulties when objects are held to be holy in some way or other, something that can obviously extend to the bodies of the faithful and therefore reaches a particular point of extremity when one is faced with saints’ relics, physical items that are supposed to be connected to a non-physical soul now in Heaven. Again, the extreme position here is one of schism, a Calvinist rejection of the spirituality or power of such objects, but when you don’t go so far, what options are there?1

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By way of answer Simon took us through the positions of two twelfth-century writers, Guibert of Nogent in his De pignoribus sanctorum and Goscelin of St-Bertin’s Liber confortationis.2 Guibert has some scepticism about relics, all right, and stresses that the object that is most real in its holiness is the Eucharist, compared to which everything else in the physical world is rather one- dimensional and of course, may not be real, whereas with the Eucharist you always know it’s Christ. Goscelin was walking a rather more difficult line, in as much as he was writing spiritual fortification to an anchoress, a woman whom he had known before her enclosure; his approach, that she was herself now a living relic, an object made holy and put beyond life in the world by its ‘burial’, does not remove the clear sense of personal connection he felt to her and indeed missed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a lot of the questions were about agency, a theme that Simon had briefly brought up at the beginning of the paper. A living object obviously still has some agency, even if within four close walls it’s somewhat constrained; she could not have written back, for example. Relics also raise this issue, however, as tokens of a holy presence whose whole point is that it retained power to cause action in the world.

Blocked entry to an anchoress's cell in the north wall of St James's Shere, Surrey

Blocked entry to an anchoress’s cell in the north wall of St James’s Shere, Surrey

As a result, Simon’s position that objects only act as wielded by persons seemed to me to butt against his initial and sharp observation that our sources only let us see the psychological effects of objects on our authors rather than any real action, or, rather, to form a circle with it. Perhaps it’s just that I have seen the clever people at In the Medieval Middle invoke Deleuze and Actor Network Theory by way of giving objects agency too many times not to wonder whether the position Simon took gives us a full picture of the way medieval people experienced the material world (and perhaps he would say that we can’t get one with the sources we have). Also it’s that when the agency of relics comes up I think of Charles West’s excellent paper about mystery relics at ninth-century Dijon that threw people to the floor with an invisible force no-one dared identify, a brilliant case because reported to us not as propaganda but as a request for help from the person trying to deal with it.3 Because this interests me, and because I wanted my new colleagues to know I could think, I may have made more of a nuisance of myself in questions than was entirely fair, since this wasn’t the particular point of the paper, but I still think it’s interesting to think about and Simon’s thoughts made it all the more imperative to join in.

1. Simon cited William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature (London 1902) here; it’s online, if you want to look.

2. Guibert’s work is translated in his Monodies and On the Relics of Saints. The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades, transl. Joseph Mcalhany & Jay Rubinstein (London 2011); Goscelin’s can be found as Liber Confortatorius: the Book of Encouragement and Consolation, transl. Monika Utter (Woodbridge 2004, repr. 2012).

3. See Charles West, “Unauthorised miracles in mid-ninth-century Dijon and the Carolingian church reforms” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 295-311.

Cat of four silver tails

The last few posts’ illustrations have been extremely manuscript-heavy. I make no apology for that but all the same some variety is nice: what do you make of this?

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

I think it’s fair enough to say you don’t see this every day, even if you work at the British Museum, since it’s in store, but also because it’s pretty much unique. It was part of a hoard of silver objects found in 1774 in a streambed running out of some tin workings at Trewhiddle in Cornwall, these objects having come to be the types of a particular style of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which they embody, but this scourge is not really in the style since, as you can see, it’s hardly ornamented at all. It’s very fine: what you’re looking at is strands of silver chain held together by loops and broken out into four strands with plaited lumps at the ends, and a loop at the other end, presumably for hanging the thing up? But it’s not sophisticated, and it seems to raise a lot of questions, not the least of which is what it was for.

Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410

The rest of the hoard items as now conserved. I count a chalice, two buckles, three lengths of ornamented silver strip (two curved, all toothed), three silver pennies (one in fragments), a hook-tag, one sword-pommel, two diamond-shaped mounts, two strap-ends, the scourge and the two bits that look like fragments of some apparatus of rods at top-left, including the one with the peculiar dodecahedral termination. But there was more! British Museum 1880,0410.

Now, OK, you might think the answer to that is obvious: it’s a scourge, it’s for hitting people. But really? It’s silver. I don’t have a lot of experience myself with whips and flails but from what talking I’ve done with people who do, I’m pretty sure this would draw blood if used in any kind of anger, and blood is hard enough to get out of most things, let alone plaited silver wire. Anyone who owns any silver will know how hard it is to stop it taking a tarnish; now count that difficulty strand by strand and tie them all together… I don’t know what one would have cleaned silver with in the early Middle Ages: I guess a pad of wool soaked in urine would get most stuff off, but what you’d polish up with afterwards that would stop the effects of even that mild acid I’m not sure at all. If this had ever been used to strike people with, even if then cleaned, I’m pretty sure the ends would be blackened in a way that even the best metals conservators couldn’t remedy, at least after nine hundred years in the Cornish ground to finish the job.

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

So, OK, if it’s not for use it must by symbolic, right? And indeed my son, when I described it to him, immediately thought of the flail borne by the Egyptian pharaoh in depictions, presumably (though not certainly) to symbolise his power to punish. And that makes extrinsic sense but in an Anglo-Saxon context, as Trewhiddle is usually seen, it’s still weird, because in Anglo-Saxon law corporal punishment is really something done only to slaves. Freemen paid fines, or were reduced to slavery if they couldn’t, and anyone who had slaves had the right of punishment over them, so there was nothing exclusive about it worth symbolising in silver, or so it seems to me. But on the other hand we are not necessarily in an Anglo-Saxon context here. The hoard is no longer complete: when found, as well as the items depicted above, there were some things now lost and a lot of coins whose dates make a deposition date of around 868 seem likely. That was of course a reasonable time for hiding treasure, in as much as there were large numbers of Vikings about, but the goods also send mixed signals, as the British Museum website now points out.

“The accompanying metalwork presents an intriguing mixture of ecclesiastical and secular material, and in addition to its obvious and predominant Anglo-Saxon components includes one brooch of Celtic origin.”

That brooch was I guess not wholly of silver and thus now stored somewhere else in the BM? In any case, it’s not obviously in the picture borrowed above. But, aside from the odd bits of broken stuff, there are some unique things. One is the scourge, which seems to have attracted really very little commentary, but the chalice is another, the only known Anglo-Saxon silver chalice says the BM website (though it also says that the interior was gilded), and its best parallels all come from Ireland. And all this reminds me that this hoard was in Cornwall, which had at this point been under definitive Anglo-Saxon control only for a generation or so but which prior to that had been the rump of the British kingdom of Dumnonia. While it’s absolutely true that much of the material in the hoard is culturally or at least artistically Anglo-Saxon, other symbol libraries were surely available in this area, and that scourge is so simple of manufacture that it’s pretty hard to date… It could be a deal older than some of the other things in the hoard. Is there, I wonder, anything in Welsh or Cornish myth that gives a whip or scourge some important rôle? Early medieval Welsh law, in so far as we really have it, is firstly still supposed to be later than this and secondly just as compensation-focused as the Anglo-Saxon ones, but I wonder if some royal or ex-royal family had a story about themselves that made this tool an important thing to display…

I stubbed this post when I met this item in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 246 (b), and that’s still quite informative but the website link I’ve given here has all that material and more up-to-date references, so I see no point in my usual array of footnotes for once…