Tag Archives: medieval architecture


Genève médiévale II: atop the cathedral

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Apologies for the lately-renewed delay: I had promised to review a couple of volumes, the time has only lately become free to do so and it feels rather as if the first one is trying to kill me… But we … Continue reading

Letting in the lowly in Lournand

In the first chapter of his controversial little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000, Guy Bois mentions a church in the tiny area of Burgundy that he chose for his micro-study, a “tiny, pre-Romanesque chapel… without… any significant alterations”, at Collonge in Lournand.1 Now, in this day of Google Image search, such a footnote is an invitation full of search terms, and especially for me, because the Romanesque rebuilding hit Catalonia very forcefully and there is really not much pre-Romanesque building left up there. (It’s usually assumed it was largely in wood anyway, but there are cases of doubt.2) Thus, if I want to know what the churches of the kind of people I write about were like, I have to start by looking elsewhere, so I did.

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

Bois gives no reference for the date of the chapel, which seems to be dedicated to Saint Laurent, and the website I found for it thinks it’s actually fourteenth-century Romanesque, again with no authority cited. Looking at the pictures, it seems to me that it’s so basic that it could readily be either, and only the bell-tower is very indicative, that being Romanesque in original style despite its modern patch-up but also quite possibly an addition, as these things often are in Catalonia. So the jury, unless there is a Burgundian equivalent of the Catalunya Romànica of which I don’t know, is probably out. It’s so basic that if all you wanted was an idea of what the tenth-century church would have been like it might serve anyway.

Interior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing altar

Interior of the chapel

However, the date of the chapel is not the big question that Bois is using it for here: his query is instead whether slaves were allowed in in the tenth century. That raises questions that are larger than simply, “was this building even standing then?”, such as “were there still slaves then, or should we be talking about serfs?”, “what’s the difference anyway?” and, what Bois is concerned with, “what human rights did slaves have in this era?” The “what’s the difference” question has a neat semantic answer, to wit, a serf can be sold with land he or she works, but a slave can be sold as goods in their own right, but as with definitions of aristocrat that work on whether the person works land themselves or not, while this may be consistent it’s not necessarily historically relevant to the period in question.3 If a slave has a house and some kind of agreement with her or his master about what work they do on a normal basis, and if a serf isn’t guaranteed that his or her children will inherit the holding, it could be quite difficult to draw lines between their status. Bois does so more or less at control of the children, saying that serfs’ children are their own even if their dependence is hereditary but that a slave’s children are the master’s to dispose of and house as convenient. It’s on this basis that he argues that Lournand pre-1000 was still a slave society, because its holdings are all one family to one homestead which is too convenient to be anything but arranged.4 That seems to me to rest on an idea that all homesteads are equivalent and that we could somehow tell if two were an old single one divided, whereas my limited experience of the Cluny charters suggests that measuring these plots isn’t really possible. It’s not clear to me where a lot of Bois’s numbers come from in this chapter, indeed, but I’ve worked with Cluny boundary clauses a bit and I don’t think you can map them continuously between generations, so I’m inclined to mistrust the logic here.

Exterior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing portal and bell-tower

Exterior view showing portal and bell-tower

However, the question about admittance is one that he raises justly, and does so moreover on the basis of work by Pierre Bonnassie, to whom I am more generally sympathetic. Bonnassie and consequently Bois both make admittance to worship in church a big part of the decline of slavery.5 Even though the Church itself is a big landowner and runs a lot of slaves, albeit often on quite privileged terms, the basic starting point that a slave too has a soul that must be saved makes important breaks in the legal idea that a slave is a chattel, a possession and not a person. Christian doctrine is pretty kind to the humble anyway, so there’s just a certain basic level below which anyone who may approach the altar can’t slip, but there’s also the question of Church marriage, which once applied to slaves seriously impinges on the master’s right to arrange his or her labouring population and their reproduction as she or he chooses. As a good Western liberal, I’ve never really got how people can class other people they live with and see daily as somehow not-really-people, but obviously that distinction is inherent in a slave system, and if such non-people are then allowed to become partakers in your religion’s principal rite of union with your god, that’s something of a blow to that distinction, to say the least. So, it’s a crucial step away from subhuman status to have been able to go to Church in the Middle Ages. (In my area, where slaves were often Muslim prisoners of war, it wasn’t an easy step to take either.) There really wouldn’t have been a lot of room in the tiny chapel at Collonge or, presumably, any precursor it had, but who was in that space would have at some point, be it fifth-century or eleventh-century or somewhere between the two, been a very sharp social issue, and one that we can say almost nothing about.

1. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992) pp. 28-29 & n.

2. My pet case here is the now-twelfth-century Sant Andreu de Tona, where the stone structure located by digging in the 1940s was dated to an otherwise unattested reconstruction in the eleventh century precisely because it was stone, the assumption being that the well-attested building of 889 put up by Romanising notables on a hill basically made of building stone would nonetheless have to have been wood. See Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Antoni Pladevall i Font, Albert Benet i Clarà, Dolors Arumí i Gómez, A. Cavallé i Crivillers & R. Espadaler i Parsarises, “Sant Andreu de Tona” in Jordi Vigué (ed.) Catalunya Romànica III: Osona II, ed. Vigué (Barcelona 1986), pp. 639-44 and cf. J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 106-108.

3. The go-to for this terminological discussion for me, because it set out explicitly to compare ancient, medieval and modern usages, is Michael Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage (London 1986), where the papers by Stanley Engerman and Wendy Davies (but of course) might be the most use, but I think this definition is my own, all the same.

4. Bois, Transformation, pp. 18-20.

5. P. Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, online here, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

Did you see that? Surely not! But yes! It was a post about my research area! But it went so quick you may have missed it because now it’s back to Anglo-Saxon England again, which does seem to be most of what I spent the spring of 2013 reading or hearing about. I did go to one other seminar between this and the previous one reported, in fact, but it didn’t really give me anything to work with so instead we pick up where we left off with John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, here with his sixth and final lecture on the 22nd February, “Landscapes of the Mind”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

This lecture revolved around the worthy contention that it’s only really possible to understand how people in the Anglo-Saxon world were using and changing their landscape if we also have some idea how they thought about it, easy to say but rather less easy to do! There are some obvious texts, and some less obvious ones: John did not, for example, use The Ruin, a poem which seems to be about what was then left of Roman Bath that even I have worked to death in a teaching context but which seems, well, kind of like a literary construct, but he did use The Wife’s Lament to open up for us a world constructed in zones, in here and out there, safe versus wild, the hall, as we might (and John did) put it, and the sparrow. As I say, the literary and textual evidence for this kind of thinking has been well worked over but there is these days also the possibility of doing more, and recently much more, with the archæology.1

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Tæppes hlæw, Tæppa’s Low, built within an Iron Age fort and later, as we now believe, equipped with a church

One of the things that becomes obvious when you approach the matter like this is that the Anglo-Saxons were keen reusers of sites that had associations with the past. Despite the otherworldliness felt by the narrator in the Ruin, or rather, because of it, they built in old monumental precincts, they buried people in Iron Age or Bronze Age burial mounds, or, as at Taplow above, built new burial mounds within Iron Age structures. It seems unlikely that the people reusing such sites can have had more idea what their original purpose had been than do we, but that they connected with something unusual may have been enough. After conversion to Christianity, also, as we’ve seen before, these sites retained old associations so that executed criminals might be buried there, or, The Wife’s Lament suggests, the living imprisoned there as exiles from normal space. Those were, however, some kind of official response, and for people without a full understanding of Christian practice such places presumably shared their significance with newer places of contact with the beyond like churches, all being points of access to the sacred or supernatural.

Crop-marks of a 'woodhenge'-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire

Crop-marks of a ‘woodhenge’-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire, a point which became the main entrance of the Saxon settlement, which, John told us, also backed onto a Roman road, had burials at all its entrances and was laid out on a grid-plan

Both churches and older constructions could in fact be seen as replications of antiquity, John argued, the stone structure of churches calling on Roman antiquity and Anglo-Saxon mounds calling on the older landscape in which their builders found themselves. These ‘structures of eternity’, perhaps also reflected in stone cairns, contrast sharply with the ephemeral, transient traces of the structures of the living, timber houses that would move over generations as one mouldered and a new one replaced it nearby, and that would be opened and closed by rituals we see in the form of placed deposits of materials, animal remnants and so forth.2 These also had their life-cycle, whereas the landscape of the beyond worked in terms beyond mere life-times or generations.

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth, with a distinctive fabric that may result from the imitation of building in wood. Photo by the author, more of these in a future post…

Much of this, however, seems to have changed, wouldn’t you know it, around the year 1000, when the building of churches on a much wider scale really got going, many of which were probably therefore of wood; they start to have stone fonts, too, which is hard to show earlier when baptism may have been done in lead or wooden tanks. Stone bridges begin to be known, by the twelfth century stone houses too, whose generational perambulation around sites was thus arrested.3 In the 1050s, as discussed here before, we also seem to start seeing fortification in stone. The landscape now became permanently occupied, unlike the light, precise and ephemeral imprint left on it by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultures. John, closing with these ideas, was careful to stress extensive local variation, made worse by the fact that our texts, largely from the West Saxon milieu, tell us little of the areas where we can see most investment in material culture, the Wash catchment area he’d identified in earlier lectures. For some areas, especially the West Midlands, there is for some periods just no settlement evidence at all, and almost everywhere there is still much more to do. But, a cheering thought, with so much of what is being done now a matter of digital record, we can proceed to do this more with a much better and easier grasp of what there is to do it with.

1. A first attempt at both in Sarah Semple, “A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England”, in World Archaeology Vol. 30 (London 1998), pp. 109-126.

2. Most of what I now know about such things I know from sharing a Common Room for two years with Clifford Sofield, whose work has been mentioned here before but from whose thesis, “Placed deposits in early and middle Anglo-Saxon rural settlements”, unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012, we should expect interesting publications.

3. On the explosion of church-building the best place to look is, of course, John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), forgive no page references but I’m away from my notes as I write this. On bridges, the best and almost only thing is Nicholas Brooks, “Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1381” in Nigel Yates & M. James Gibson (edd.), Traffic and politics: the construction and management of Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993, Kent History Project 1 (Woodbridge 1994), pp. 1-20. Where you go for stone houses, I’ve no idea, it’s after my period; wait for John’s book!


Out here, on Sundays, they leave the churches open

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The summer is pretty clearly ended, and so is my time in Oxford. As I indicated a while back, some time elsewhere has thankfully been found, and as enquirers on other matters have cleverly determined, there is news on other … Continue reading


In praise of Wells Cathedral

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Sorry for the gap between posts, the times they are dispiriting; I shall return to happier ones. The second step on that short medievalist tour I and two other scholars undertook last summer was Wells. Whereas I had a hook … Continue reading

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.

1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

Seminars CXXII-CXXIV: British heresy, pagan burial and Norman profanity

It’s time for another of the catch-up seminar jam posts in which I try to clear the ridiculous backlog that leads me still to be writing about things that happened seven months ago!

British heresy

A thing that happened seven months ago, and which I believe I promised to Magistra that I would write up, was a paper by Alison Bonner at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in the Institute of Historical Research in London, on 8th February 2012. Its title was “The Manuscript Transmission of Pelagius’s Ad Demetriadem“, and maybe that sounds a bit hardcore as Magistra and I were among the very few people who came out, which is a pity as what we got was an approachable and thorough treatment of one of the late ancient world’s more interesting characters, the British heresiarch Pelagius. He got to be a heretic substantially because he got into argument, about whether one was damned without God’s grace, however well one might behave, or whether one could in fact save oneself by good Christian conduct alone, with future saints Jerome and Augustine whom later ages have come to see as pretty much impeccable (ironic eh?), or at least so it seemed to me when I first learnt about him. (The future saints took the former of the theological views.) On the other hand, he also seemed to have spent much of his time talking doctrine to wealthy women in Rome’s equivalent of society drawing rooms, so I also wound up envisioning him as something like a Roman George Bernard Shaw, annoying principally because he was working the orthodox theologians’ circuit better than they were and claiming a moral high ground they felt dubious to boot, as well as being British, which annoyed the Romans for different reasons than it annoyed Bernard Shaw’s contemporaries but is still a common label. This perspective was probably always going to be inaccurate, but, as even Wikipedia currently tells you, recently opinion has swung towards the idea that Pelagius’s doctrine may not have been fairly represented by his opponents, not just because they were his opponents, but because his disciple Cælestinus seems to have run rather further with Pelagius’s ideas than the man himself and the opponents were attacking him too. Augustine, indeed, accused Pelagius of using Cæstinus as a mouthpiece for that which he dared not say himself but truly thought, so he wasn’t really being attacked for what he actually preached and thus it’s quite hard to know what that was. Whatever it was was not enough to get him condemned in two of his heresy trials in 415 and 418, and though one pope was convinced by Augustine to condemn him the next one was convinced by Pelagius to repeal that, so it’s possible, you know, that he wasn’t actually heretical in the eyes of the wider Church. (Something I raised in questions was that it’s weird that two popes choose the name later if it were so indelibly associated with EVIL.)

Portrait photograph of George Bernard Shaw


Non-contemporary portrait of British heresiarch Pelagius


Getting to the bottom of this means closer contact with his actual works, and these are limited in their survival: there is a commentary on Paul’s Letters, and then there is an actual letter to a young lady named Demetrias, who was also being advised by Jerome, so it really was competition for patrons here. This letter was really quite widely copied, which was what Ms Bonner had come to tell us about. Specifically, there are 110 known copies of it, as against 148 of Jerome’s letter to the young lady. Pelagius’s other works survive astonishingly well, too, and while some of this may be because the letter has tended, ironically, to be identified as Jerome’s (what with being addressed to the same lady), there is more going on or so Ms Bonner told us.1 Basically, the picture that she developed (as I understood it or now understand it from my notes) was that even though Augustine came to think that he had the answer about free will, and that his impact was such that eventually everyone else thought he did, there was first a long period in which that doctrine was not clear to many people and it was not clear either that Augustine was right or that Pelagius was wrong, especially since texts existed in such numbers in which he denied saying what Augustine had said he said. There was debate. That said, quite a lot of the preservation calls the author of the text a heretic (though not always with his right name) but obviously had copied it anyway. This might be, theorised Dr Bonner, because the Letter is good ascetic literature aside from the theology, advocating all kinds of humble behaviour, and they cared more about the life examples than the theology, which is confusing. (The problem that God already supposedly knows the outcome of a person’s attempt or not to be saved, because He is outside time and they are not, does after all remain a rather difficult one, and it bothered plenty of people after this.) Possibly they should have cared as, of course, if good works are not what it’s about and faith alone is enough, then the whole practice of locking yourself away in a monastery and living as ascetically as you can loses its basis somewhat, but, the preservation is hard to argue with. He was popular; he had some popular opponents who didn’t believe him about what he claimed to believe and had convinced themselves this man was a danger to society; and they became the principal guides of the medieval Church so the weird Briton became a famous heretic. At the time, however, he was mainly just famous, or so we might now think, and that went on for a while.

Pagan burial

Somehow after that I went 12 days without hearing an academic presentation and then came back to earth, quite literally, when Chris Fern came to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar in Oxford to talk with the title, “The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Tranmer House (Sutton Hoo)”. You could be forgiven for thinking we know all about Sutton Hoo by now, given the size of the site report and supporting literature, but the thing is that though the big site with the mounds on has been pretty much done over, yes, it is cemetery number two on the site, and number one, across the path at Tranmer House, was dug in 2000, but the finds are only now finishing analysis.2 It had previously yielded artefacts that showed there was a cemetery there too, and likely an earlier one, so, what do we know now?

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Well, paraphrasing from my notes, the site goes back to the Neolithic, and there was a Bronze Age barrow detectable under the cemetery, though there was also an Iron Age enclosure (as would be expected from similar signs under the mounds to the south) and the cemetery may actually have been limited by that, not focused on the mound. The burials found are both inhumations and cremations, the former often with weapons and one or two of the latter with detectable pyre arrangements and in one case a whole cow and whole horse and at least some of a sheep and a pig burnt with them and the remains distributed between a bronze bowl and four pots for the animals. The cremations may be the later but inhumations go on afterwards, if you see what I mean. A number of cremations contain both cow and horse bones too and they seem to have been female burials; also, they focus on the Bronze Age barrow. There’s some showing-off here, in short, and power signalling, and in the late sixth century that seems to have led to a large burial mound being put up at the edge, so looking very much like the prequel to the move across the wall and into what is now the next field for the really big guys in what had obviously by then got to being a well-stratified society, whether it was before or not. It seems likely that burial had begun at the other end of the site, and may have carried on there for many but that we have here a generation or two of warband members and their bosses, who eventually had to have their importance stressed so much that they needed to be fully separate from the ‘folk’. (Though the female presence in the fancy cremations does raise questions about exactly who the bosses were, what with these women surrounded by dead warriors…) Martin Carver will be pleased with some of these findings as the increase in hierarchy and shift of site is pretty much what he guessed in the report on the newer site, and the radiocarbon dates might so easily have made them contemporary, but he will be less pleased with the fact that the dates push back a change in burial rite he likes to see as being carried out in opposition to Christian conversion’s success to a point when that is less plausible. One now wants to know quite a lot who got buried in the rest of that enclosure, how, and how long for, of course. Hopefully we will get to find out.

Norman profanity

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Then lastly, that same day, Timothy Hunter addressed the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “‘They Made No Difference Between Sacred and Profane’: images of Norman knighthood in Romanesque art”, which obviously as a member of Team Romanesque I had to see. What this was about was essentially one piece of artwork, a battle scene on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari showing knights on horseback attacking armed men on foot who surround a castle with two men in it. This has been read as a record of the Norman capture of Bari or as a Crusade scene but neither side look to be differentiated by their wargear so as to be Muslims or even Greeks (I mean Romans); a small clutch of sort-of-similar scenes are identified as being Arthurian but the late 1080s, when the church was rebuilt, seems awfully early for that in Italy. Consequently, there has been argument about whether this portal belongs to the rebuild or if it was put on later, and it’s all circular. Dr Hunter argued that the other parts of the church look likely to have been done by the same masons, so it’s probably early, that it’s therefore not Arthurian or even a depiction of Guillaume d’Orange whom he would identify in similar carvings at Angoulême cathedral, and so he suggested that it might, just, be the Normans coming to rescue Gregory the Great from would-be-Emperor Henry IV in 1084. One of the men in the castle does appear to be a ‘civilian’, it was a famous Norman deed at the time and Pope Urban II, opponent-in-succession to Henry, came here a lot… Now, this caused some argument because it’s very nice and clever but if a mason wanted to depict a pope you’d expect him to identify him with headgear, surely, and this shouldn’t be a thing about which one could be confused, but still, it fitted better than any of the other answers. I’m still not sure myself, and of course I haven’t given you the full arguments here anyway, but I wonder what you think?

1. New interest in Pelagius in recent years has led to his works being substantially translated, should you care, in Brinley Roderick Rees (transl.), The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge 1991) and Theodore de Bruyn (ed./transl.), Pelagius’s commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford 1993).

2. A very preliminary analysis in C. Fern, “New Dates for Early Sutton Hoo” in Saxon no. 52 (Woodbridge 2011), online in PDF here, pp. 1-3. The full site report of the better-known cemetery is Martin Carver (ed.), Sutton Hoo: a seventh-century princely burial ground and its context (London 2005), and that contains preliminary data on Tranmer House in J. Newman, “Survey in the Deben Valley” in Carver, Sutton Hoo, pp. 477-487 at pp. 483-486 and in Carver, “Sutton Hoo in Context”, ibid. pp. 489-503 at pp. 489-490. A more accessible introduction to the more famous site and its finds is Carver’s Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998) but the full report does update that somewhat.