Tag Archives: medieval art

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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Gallery

I’ll just draw it for you

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Sometimes I have no better excuse for a post than, “I found a shiny thing”, and this is definitely one of those. If I have a wider point, though, it lies in the way that the ongoing digitization of historical … Continue reading

Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth

Term in Oxford started early this year, and as a consequence is now over. (If you work anywhere else in higher education, I’m sorry to dangle that in front of you.) This term has been energising but also frantic, and I’ve not been coping well with the to-do lists outside of teaching because various bits of my family have needed a lot of attention in the background, as well my general disorganisation. To stay afloat in my seven to eight hours contact time a week across six different courses, it does rather seem as if I had to sacrifice blogging, and indeed social e-mail. Well, I’m now sort of caught up on sleep and so I’m going to try and get some posts up. I have loads part-written, so hopefully this isn’t a vain promise, because after all I have a heck of a backlog. And first in it, chronologically, is the fact that I went to see the British Museum’s exhibition about saints’ relics in the Middle Ages, Treasures of Heaven on the 8th October last year, narrowly before it closed, and I wanted to say a few things about it.

Cover of the catalogue of the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven

Cover of the catalogue of the exhibition, showing the reliquary of an unknown female saint who became the face of the exhibition, and whose actual picture is firmly copyrighted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she now once more resides

I thought this was a very good exhibition, actually—and I suppose I should mention that one of my best friends helped set it up, so I may be biased, but they had no control over what went in or how it was displayed—but not everyone I’ve spoken has agreed. There’s no question that explaining the cult of relics, or even the cult of saints more broadly, to a modern secular audience is problematic; the beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman a few years ago put this in front of the journalists and it’s still true. This is an affair mainly of belief, of ideas and notions that are largely intangible – an identifiable person in Heaven with whom the believer has some basis to feel a connection, and whom they can therefore use or conceive of as a conduit to Heaven that has special personal relevance and personal effectiveness.1 I can say that, but if you don’t believe in Heaven or worry about your salvation, then it’s still not going to be easy to take on board. Some people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to think that the British Museum tried hard enough to get the ideas across. My immediate reaction to that, as an ex-museum person, is to bluster about how hard it is to represent ideas with objects, but actually, for a start that’s exactly what these objects were for, and secondly, on reflection, I think the BM did a pretty darn good job of it, actually (and my museums experience has not always inclined me to speak kindly of the BM, so it costs me something to admit this).

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre; not so many of the actual objects from the BM exhibition are online, and this one actually makes my point better as it's not Christian. It's also from Wikimedia Commons. The guy had problems with his eyes and a foot, it seems.

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry, from Wikimedia Commons; click through for a British Museum video presentation of it

So they started with burial customs in the Roman world, and included as well as the ornamental sarcophagi that help give some idea of an Antique afterlife to the viewer, some votive plaques that open up the idea of communicating with it. Now after that, I will admit, it all went maps for a bit and I’m not sure the average viewer will have understood why they were important; I suppose that the idea was quite literally to put Christianity on the map and thus explain how ideas born in the Middle East came to be of such relevance in the areas that the exhibition largely featured, which were substantially Germany and the Low Countries although many other places too. But the context was set quite early, and after that it became much more of an art-historical progress than a religious-historical progress. I thought this was fair enough, because most of the objects were amazingly beautiful, and the mere fact that people had put that much effort and feeling into creating treasure houses for tiny bits of dead people was itself pretty religious, and there were changes in the way people worshipped revealed in the way the relics were housed, displayed and set up for use, not least because the objects displayed deliberately overlapped the Reformation and printing, and the captioning brought those out.

It’s not that I had no problems with the exhibition at all, obviously, this is me. I would have liked a few more instances of relics that weren’t body parts or bits of the True Cross, but instead things like dust and stones from the Holy Land, and so forth. There were some of these, but they were easily missed, especially as there was a number of containers for such things on display from which the actual relics had long been removed. Of course, such objects were kept bagged and even if displayed the viewer wouldn’t be able to see what they were, so I can see why not, but they were, it seems, by far the commonest sort of relic, so I thought that could have been further up front.2 There were also some issues with actual display I had. In particular I kept finding myself crouching at the edges of cases, because the lighting from above seemed to work best if one viewed the objects from below – that presumably can’t have been the intent. I know how hard this is to do, of course, especially when one’s objects are so damn shiny, but also not least when there are fabrics and perishables involved that you mustn’t subject to bright light. All the same, I expect the BM to get these things right, and I personally felt that these were only nearly right. Is the answer perhaps small lights at the corners of the cases, sometimes?

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral; this was on display, but the image is borrowed from Columbia University, whose zoomable version is linked through. The actual fabric, unlike St Amand, is Middle Eastern

The other thing that niggled was the persistent recurrence of the phrase, “It was thought…” to explain the beliefs behind the pieces. This became especially tricky as we approached the Reformation but it also made absolutely everyone implied by the phrase as credulous as each other. Now, when students try and tell me, Terry Jones style, that medieval Christianity was basically a massive scam dream up by the Church to feather its own nest by encouraging fearful donations, those students do not fare well, but nonetheless, saints’ cults were huge earners sometimes, and people involved in them did do things to maximise their cults’ popularity and saleability.3 And if you read, for example, Chaucer, you can find people mocking this, well before Calvin’s bit about there being enough fragments of the True Cross in Europe to build a warship. Not everyone, even if Christian, reckoned all this stuff to be genuine. So, sometimes I’d have been happier to see, “It was claimed that…” or even “Some claimed that…” in these labels, just to put a bit of an edge on this `Age of Faith’ interpretation. But, mainly, I thought this exhibition was an amazing treasure house, and one that (unlike some others) it was just about possible to tour in one go. Also, the exhibition catalogue, which I caught on half price (and so can you), is absolutely gorgeous, and even if it does contain another piece on saints’ cults by Arnold Angenendt—which I’m sure many people think is a good thing—there is lots of interesting writing alongside the amazing objects.4 So I’ll finish this with a selection of some of the objects I was most struck by (where images of them are legitimately available on the open web, at least).

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel, fifteenth-century shrine round a seventh-to-eighth-century bell; again, from Columbia Art Museum's Treasures of Heaven pages

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

I liked this one so much not because it is individually special, though it is, but because the label in the case with it stuck it next to the church I’ve shown it with here, in the same kind of juxtaposition, and the similarity of form did more than words could have done to put the intentional echoes actually before one and in a quite literally founded way. I would have been well pleased with coming up with that idea.

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph, image at Columbia University

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph, likewise from Columbia University, full zoomable version linked through

These, which are twelfth-century reliquaries of two bishops of Maastricht, I just loved because, as the catalogue says, each of the dead bishops is, “twisting energetically as if ready to leap from his tomb”.5 As the resurrected Saved would presumably be pleased to do! Full of personality, these.

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, here from Columbia University and therefore again linked through to a zoomable version which is totally worth the time you'll spend goggling at it

And this because it has so many things going on: papal sponsorship, robbing of Byzantium (because the icon—which is a mosaic!—is Byzantine but the case is Italian from decades later), non-physical relics (not that you can tell, as I admitted above) and immense artistry for a fairly small audience. If this was shared, it was shared among a very select group of people. The best of this exhibition for me was, thus, a way to step harmlessly into the private devotions of a great many people to whom these objects were more than just treasure.


1. The entry text for this whole phenomenon is undoubtedly Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (London 1981), which is one of those books that decides students on an academic career, so brilliant is it.

2. I make that assertion based largely on a couple of papers I’ve seen Julia Smith give about such objects, but as yet I think the only part of that research that’s published is “Rulers and Relics c.750-c.950: Treasure on Earth, Treasure in Heaven” in Andrew Walsham (ed.), Relics and Remains, Past and Present Supplement 5 (Oxford 2010), pp. 73-96, so what this means is that I might have got this fact wrong as I can’t look it up where I think I got it yet.

3. For that sort of shenanigan, your book of reference should be Patrick Geary’s Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1994), which is kind of a bumper resource for weird-seeming medieval customs involving dead people.

4. To give it its full citation, Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann & James Robinson (edd.), Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion on medieval Europe (London 2011), including Arnold Angenendt, “Relics and their Veneration”, pp. 19-28, which I will up and admit might be excellent as I haven’t yet read it.

5. Martina Bagnoli, “Reliquary of St. Gondulph” and “Reliquary of St. Monulph”, ibid. p. 177. They abbreviate “St.” thus throughout, even though it’s not a suspension so shouldn’t carry the stop. Is this a concession to American usage?

Book bit bullets III

I expected that the end of teaching would free up some time, but somehow before Kalamazoo I still have to finalise a paper for print, write another one for Kalamazoo itself, fend off my book’s editor with answers to a range of queries, apply for twoa jobs and stay employed in the current one. So content may be a bit thin here for a while. For the moment, therefore, I offer the tried and trusted bullets inspired by recent reading!

  • I had not realised it from his later work on charters, but Hartmut Atsma when young appears to have been the German David Dumville, in as much as almost every section of a large part of his thesis printed in Francia for 1983 ends with a quick round-up of the ways other scholars, especially Friedrich Prinz, were wrong, specifically about the evidence for the early Church in Auxerre. “Es zeigt sich also, daß der von F. Prinz und R. Borius abgenommene kausale Nexus zwischen der Beeinflussung des Germanus durch das lerinensische Mönchtum und seiner Klostergründung nicht in einen plausibilen und durch die Quellen begründbaren chronologische Zusammenhang zu stellen ist.” So there!1
  • Also in that volume, apart from the edition of the Vita sancti Marcelli I mentioned last post and the excellent Jane Martindale article I actually got the volume out for, is a lengthy article by Hans-Werner Goetz about the ideology of the investiture controversy.2 Meanwhile, in a different book that I had out for an excellent article by Jinty Nelson, I find another paper by Hans-Werner Goetz.3 The former is about fifty pages of elaborate German in a style I’ve mentioned here before, in which sentences take up four or five lines of print and contain eight clauses and at least four compound nouns I’ve never seen before; the latter is English, clear and only slightly literary, and is fourteen pages including tables, albeit that is on the long side for the volume. I’m not entirely sure there aren’t two Hans-Werner Goetzes (Goetzen?) who write in one language each.
  • While I was still teaching I had to deliver a lecture on art and architecture, about which I had a rough idea due to how much I’ve wound up reading about Romanesque churches, but where some orientation seemed like a good idea, and so I fished out of the library the only likely-looking thing, Art of the Middle Ages by Janetta Rebold Benton.4 While this was up in the Currently reading… sidebar section there I had it linked to a fairly negative review by Joanna F. Ziegler, which describes it as, “a quite staid reiteration of the voluminous, but uninspiring, factual minutiae that has permeated the genre”.5 And, well, yes, it’s not deathless prose and does tend to take one or two exemplary objects or sites per trend, briefly explain them and then list all their siblings. But I’m still thinking about getting a copy, because what that tendency makes it is a volume to look things up in when you already know the basics. Inspiring read? No. Handbook with which to hit up Wikimedia Commons for high-class imagery? Absolutely. Its own plates are also rather lovely. And the final chapter on art in everyday life nearly makes up for the high-culture architectural concentration of much of the middle.
  • And, lastly, I have a well-documented tendency on this blog towards protochronism. You may all remember the thirteenth-century notary called Catto whose authentication mark was a dog, well, this is from 906 and Vic:
    Scribal signature from Junyent, Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic segles IX i X, no. 37, by Teudila

    Scribal signature from Junyent, Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic segles IX i X, no. 37, by Teudila

    It’s not actually an authentication mark, just an elaboration for fun of a signum which began, long before, as a triple S with a double abbreviation bar drawn through it, meaning S[ub]s[crip]s[i], ‘I have signed’, but it is, nonetheless, a critter. And as you go through the Vic material you can find weirder and weirder ones, rabbits, chickens and some unidentifiable things we had probably best call zoomorphs, as well as artistic pen-drawn initials full of interlace. I don’t think these things are consistent per scribe, I think they’re just whimsy, but I wouldn’t like to rule out someone doing a study of them and proving me wrong.6


1. H. Atsma, “Klöster und Mönchtum im Bistum Auxerre bis zum Ende des 6. Jahrhunderts” in Francia: Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte Vol. 11 (Sigmaringen 1983), pp. 1-96, quote from pp. 54-55.

2. Referring to, respectively, François Dolbeaux, “La vie en prose de Saint Marcel, Évêque de Die : Histoire du texte et édition critique”, ibid. pp. 97-130; J. Martindale, “The Kingdom of Aquitaine and the Dissolution of the Carolingian Fisc”, ibid pp. 131-189; and H.-W. Goetz, “Kirschenschutz, Rechtswahrung und Reform. Zu den Zielen um zum Wesen der frühen Gottesfriedensbewegung in Frankreich”, ibid. pp. 193-239.

3. Respectively J. L. Nelson, “Gender and Genre in Women Historians of the Early Middle Ages” in J.-P. Genet (ed.), L’historiographie médiévale en Europe : actes du colloque organisé par la Fondation européenne de la science au Centre de recherches historiques et juridiques de l’Université de Paris I du 29 mars au 1er avril 1989 (Paris 1991), pp. 149-163, and H.-W. Goetz, “On the Universality of Universal History”, ibid. pp. 247-261.

4. J. Rebold Benton, Art in the Middle Ages, World of Art (London 2002).

5. Joanna E. Ziegler, review of ibid. in The Historian Vol. 66 (Tampa 2004), pp. 179-180, quote from p. 179.

6. Miquel Sants Gros i Pujol, “Làmines” in Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic, segles IX i X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-96), làm. 22. Anyone wanting to work on this stuff probably ought to start with Rafael Conde Delgado de Molina and Josep Trenchs Odena, “Signos personales en las suscripciones altomedievales catalanas” in Peter Rück (ed.), Graphische Symbole in mittelalterlichen Urkunden. Beiträge zur diplomatischen Semiotik, Historische Hilfswissenschaften 3 (Sigmaringen 1986), pp. 443-452, which I have to admit I haven’t. Maybe in July.

From Roman to Romanesque, or from Catalonia to Austria by obscure processes

Sant Julià de Sassorba in the early morning, being overflown by a hot air-balloon

I mentioned that I’d been reading a very clever article by Jerrilyn Dodds that I wanted to respond to. If what follows is quite dense I apologise, but I’m keenly conscious that it could balloon to many pages if I let it. I want to try and summarise the article, if only to make sure I understand it well enough to express, and then to raise a tiny finger of query about the thesis. Dodds was writing an article for an exhibition catalogue (I’ve praised the volume before) whose subtitle was “art and culture before the Romanesque”, which for those of you who haven’t met the term is the Continental artistic and architectural phase that comes before Gothic. Dodds therefore set out to problematise as well as explain the idea of pre-Romanesque architecture, by saying that the term (much like ‘medieval’) denigrates by implying that the thing it describes was only an opening act rather than a thing of its own, and by suggesting that a European phenomenon can be encapsulated in all its diversity in one term. With these reservations expressed, Dodds then draws architectural history in three broad phases, and does so in an implicitly Marxist way, which is very interesting: her criterion is, more or less, who controls the means of production, or at least sets its aspirations. So, she sets out a late Antique phase when an increasingly individual and abstract late Roman style is adopted by a range of incoming élites and particularised with their own local and traditional motives and ideas. (She refuses to entertain the word barbarian for this work, as you might expect.)

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007. Follow the link for some examples of exactly the sort of adaptation Dodds is talking about...

Then, argues Dodds, there come the Carolingians and a centralising authority with its own ideological project, and since art follows patronage and patronage requires wealth, which tends to come from power, that ideology bends art towards its chosen ideal. Adopting Carolingian styles, or the particular form of imitation of Rome and late antique culture that the Carolingians like to present, is a way of stressing one’s membership of this unity, but as that membership becomes less desirable and the élites of the regions lose interest in the centralising power, the force of local identity is let loose on this style, meaning a new diversification of Carolingian art and building styles in the various places they no longer control, although before long one of these variations becomes a new hegemony under the Ottonians.

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris


Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Of course Dodds is notionally writing here about Catalonia, and here is where Catalonia fits in, because it is a region where the Ottonians do not rule, and so is left to develop its own artistic version of the European vague without much outside pressure to normalise. Furthermore, it is just across the border from another polity with its own powerful normalising artistic project, the Caliphate of al-Andalus, so its local versions have some peculiarity to them. That said, when the style settles it’s less Muslim and much more rural Italian; the Romanesque churches of Catalonia have a lot of Lombard parallels, to the extent that it has been hypothesized that actual Italian craftsmen must have been working here. (Since the exiled Venetian doge Pietro Orseolo retired to the area, there were some connections.) And what Dodds finishes by emphasising is that this fairly rural style, massive blocky buildings with round arches and a particularly characteristic way of marking off stories with ornament and doubling their windows, becomes part of the next ideological project, the supposed reform Church promoting the primacy of Christian religion and allegiance to Christ over all secular ties through its building and other forms of artwork, and thus a regional style winds up all over Europe. (It’s certainly true that Romanesque as it survives is overridingly a religious architecture, but then secular buildings of any kind from this period are incredibly rare, so I don’t know if that’s meaningful.)

Apse and tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

Apse and tower of Romanesque church of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

I find this a very powerful explanatory paradigm, and as I said when I first mentioned this article it serves to remind one, very convincingly, that art really can reflect power strategies, especially in this era when wealth is so concentrated and art so expensive. That said, I feel discomfort with the tightness of the envelope and I’d like to think some of this stuff out more. I know, for example, that there is a school of anthropological thought that argues that borders are very often sites of cultural production, and that what the border originates the centre will often follow. (The name I have been told is Gloria Anzáldua and her book Borderlands but I have yet to take my anthropologist-of-resort’s exhortations to actually read it far enough to heart, alas.) Quite where that leaves the idea of centralising artistic projects I’m not sure, and I wonder if Dodds and Anzáldua’s paradigms could actually be brought into dialogue here. Rome, I presume, is what bends things here; all these projects are some variation on Rome in Dodds’s view. Secondly, there is the problem that Romanesque really does spread. It’s rare in England I believe, where ‘Norman’ as a style is affected by it but not quite the same thing. But compare the below, which are from many many hundreds of miles apart, one from inside the Ottonian domains (though later) and the other from outside even the Carolingian ones.

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria


Panoramic view of Santo Toribio de Liébana, Cantabria, from Wikimedia Commons

I could find more, and they would stress, yes, diversity, but not enough diversity that you would necessarily be able to say, without knowing that the tower of Sankt Hippolyt there has a peaked wooden roof and the tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb up above has a spire, which of the two was from where. And although Santo Toribio’s tower is hardly there you can see from the fabric and the windows that the building is basically part of the same project, and indeed if you go out to Catalonia and wander you will find that people were still building in this basic style for the next eight hundred years, give or take, and that guessing whether something is medieval or not comes down basically to weathering or finding the tourist information plaque. Can this really all be explained by power relations and the universal church? And if not, what on earth does explain it? Dodds’s answer is the best I have seen, but clashes with some of what we know of medieval political identity and rivalry. Or does it? It may be, instead, that I am just a bit too soaked in my region and my medieval world-view is too shrunk to accommodate something this big. Or, it may be that the élite culture is in the end mostly useful for talking about the élite and that stepping into such a building would not have made the average worshipper feel connected, or Roman, or Catholic, but just apprehensive and God-fearing. That is, I wonder if the primary purpose of this art really is political, even if it may still reflect political choices. As you can see, Professor Dodds has given me plenty to think about, but I’m not finished yet.


That article, again, is J. Dodds, “Entre Roma y el Románico: el mito de Occidente” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: Arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 147-155, transl. as “Between Rome and Romanesque: the myth of the west”, ibid. pp. 492-496. For the story of Pietro Orseolo, however, I’d need to go back to Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. J. Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents XIII-XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, II pp. 141-277, though I’m sure it must be covered elsewhere too.

I should have read this the moment I bought it, VIII

9780754662549

All right, last one of this series as I finally reach the end, blog-wise, of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. The last section, two articles and a commentary paper, is entitled ‘The Intellectuality of Early Medieval Art’. It’s led, apart from the McCormick introduction, by the redoutable Mayke de Jong pondering the structure of the upper reaches, quite literally, of Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen, the solarium that so many of that family seem to have had problems with in times of evil auspice (as recently mentioned by Magistra et mater).1 Mayke perhaps works too hard to imbue the royal balcony, where few are allowed and from which everyone else can be seen, in Notker‘s Panopticon-style depiction, with symbolic significance, but the political significance of access to the king’s private counsels and the visibility of that access is very sharply drawn out, along with the way Einhard makes it clear in his Translatio Marcellini et Petri that he enjoyed such access. Thomas Noble quibbles about the architectural details in the response paper but is basically in agreement.2

The cathedral of Aachen as it stands today

The cathedral of Aachen as it stands today

I have to question the importance that both place on the term solarium itself though. Mayke spends a few pages demonstrating that the term is used almost, if not actually, exclusively of buildings that the king might be in, palaces and royal vills and so forth, and Noble compares usages in Rome and concludes, “Perhaps solarium was not a common word”.3 This may well be true for the central Carolingian zone and the ninth century, I certainly wouldn’t want to try and prove otherwise, but on the other hand, it takes me only two or three minutes to find this, from rural Catalonia in 921:

In nomine Domini. Ego Atto et uxor sua Virgilia, que vocant Druda, vinditore sumus tibi Amblardo et uxor tue Eldregodo, emtores. Per hanc scriptura vindicionis nostre vindimus vobis terras cultas et incultas, vineas edificatas vel ad edificare, regos et subreganeis, nostro proprio, qui nobis advenit per nostro comparacione quod nos emimus de te ipso emtore vel iamdicta uxori tue. Et sunt ipsas terras cultas et incultas, vineas edifikatas vel ad edificare, regos et subreganeis in comitatum Ausona, in valle Ausore vel infra ipsos termines. Sic nos vobis hoc vindimus hec omnia quod nos de vos comparavimus in predicta valle Ausore vel infra ipsos termines, exceptus ipsos domos vel ipsos solario cum curtes et ortos et terras et vineas et cultum et incultum, qui fuerunt     de condam Geirardo, quod vos ipsos comparastis de condam Geirardo vel de filios vel filias suas, vel de eredes illarum…

Yes, OK, sorry, perhaps too much Latin, sorry, I got carried away.4 (The superscript addition and the gap are in the original, the emphasis is not.) Rendered into breezy English though, a curious tale emerges:

In the name of the Lord. I Ató and his wife Virgilia, whom they call Druda, are seller to you Amblard and your wife Eldregoda, buyers. By this our scripture of sale of do we sell to you cultivated and uncultivated lands, vineyards constructed or to be constructed, streams and pools, our own, which came to us through our purchase that we bought from you the selfsame buyer or your already-said wife. And these cultivated and uncultivated lands, constructed and to-be-constructed vineyards, streams and pools are in the county of Osona, in the Vall d’Osor or within its term. Thus we sell this to you, all these things that we purchased from you in the aforesaid Vall d’Osor or within its terms, except those houses and that solar with courtyards and barns and lands and vines both cultivated and uncultivated, which were       of the late Gerard, which you yourselves bought from the late Gerard or his sons or daughters, or [his daughters’] heirs…

So, OK, it pains me but let’s leave aside the question of why Ató and Virgilia, I mean Druda, are selling back this land that they bought from these same guys, less what sounds like a plum and well-developed little farmstead that had belonged to another guy before that. Mainly I am willing to leave it because I don’t have the index volume of the relevant charter collection to hand so I can’t look any of these people up easily. The point is that Gerard’s old farmstead has a solar, as I usually translate it, an upper storey partly open to the sun; balcony might do but we’re talking a whole floor here, I think. This is not an uncommon thing; it’s uncommon enough that I had to search a bit, and you could, given how rattly and distorted the Latin of this document is, agreements all over the place, orthography varying and so on, argue that this is just a formula. Certainly the word is unusual, but on the other hand it is clear that these things are cut about to fit the circumstances of the document’s issuing. What I mean is, most transaction charters in this area don’t mention houses with solars. When they do, the most obvious reason is, it seems to me, is that there is one, not that the scribe that day has a model charter or a formula which covered that. If that was the case I’d expect a range of other gear that sometimes turns up too, dovecotes, winepresses, sheds, meadows. The fact that these things are not here but a house with a solar is, for me, best explained if they were actually selling a house with a solar. So I think Ató and Virgilia’s house had one, and so did a few other places.5

Map of central Osona and the Ripollès, Catalunya, <i>c. </i>950

Map of central Osona and the Ripollès, Catalunya, c. 950

Now, Osor is not an area full of palaces. It’s a bit up in the mountains: on the map there, if you can see Sant Llorenç near the middle bottom right, the Vall d’Osor is the next river valley south-east. So it’s probably two days’ walk to Vic, less if you don’t mind crossing some 800 m-high mountain ridges but it must be 35 km if you stick to the valleys. It’s a decent day’s walk down to the Ter too, and the Ter bends so much upriver that rowing wouldn’t get you anywhere any faster unless you had to cross anyway. Osor seems to have been well-settled at this point, there’s no new land being taken in even if it’s not all being used, but it’s some way off being top-rank.6 There are a couple of reasons to suppose that these are well-to-do people, though, not least because they get 50 solidi for the land they sell back, which gives us a sort of ballpark figure for the worth of what they keep, in as much as the way they’ve described things only makes much sense if the lands that they retain are enveloped within what they sell, so it must be smaller. 50 solidi is a fair bit of money by local standards, but it’s an order of magnitude smaller than what places that get called palaces go for out here.7 The other sign of status is that Ató apparently signs the document himself, which implies a certain amount of leisured education, though around here it’s perhaps not all that far out of the ordinary. Anyway, there really isn’t any prospect of the king or probably even the count turning up at Gerard’s old house. And this is a big one; I could find you other (less interesting) examples that are worth lots less.8

View down the Vall d'Osor, viewed from the source of the river of the same name, from the Catalan Wikipedia

View down the Vall d'Osor, viewed from the source of the river of the same name, from the Catalan Wikipedia

So, well, I don’t want to be over simple but I think there may be two things going on here that decrease the significance of Mayke’s royal balconies: firstly, as ever, we’ve just got more data out here and that means more odd stuff turns up, whereas in the north big estates are much more common per charter survival because the little stuff hasn’t made it down to us. Secondly, well, weather, quite frankly. I’m sure they have some lovely summers around the Meuse and Aachen, in fact Gabriele at the Lost Fort will doubtless have pictures of half the relevant areas in blazing German sunshine, but you still might not build for it in the same way as you do nicely south of the Pyrenees. I think we can expect to see more solars in Catalonia than in Francia because there was just that much more sun, to be honest. This doesn’t diminish the significance of Mayke’s points about access to the king and the articulation of power in architecture at all, of course; but it does warn us about arguments that include silence. There is so much dark matter in statistical use of medieval documents, because we never know what we might have if the preservation had been kinder.

(Edit: extensive argument with me in the comments below reveals that several people think I’m being anachronistic here and that what tenth-century Catalans are calling solaria has nothing to do with what the word meant in ninth-century Aachen. I still think plural uses, however far across Western Europe they are from each other, indicates a word that could mean more than just ‘palace balcony’ and don’t think the word itself carries Mayke’s symbolic significance, but I must admit that opinion is generally against me here so you should consider that I may just be being hidebound here.)

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14000, the so-called Codex Aureus

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14000, the so-called Codex Aureus

Anyway. The second paper in this section is a lavishly-illustrated one (though colour would have made such a difference here, especially as it features in the argument in places; the above manuscript’s cover makes Kessler’s plate 2, and it may be clearer in grey-scale, but, well…) by Herbert Kessler about depictions of Christ in the Carolingian period.9 This was a sticky issue, as you may be aware, because of the response to the Byzantine controversy over the use of icons in worship. The problem is the Biblical prohibition on idols, of course; is a picture of God, even in human form, really even slightly holy, or is it a graven image that distracts the worshipper from the real divinity that can only be experienced in the mind and the soul? Christ was after all a man, and one can depict that, but can one depict the God that that man also was, or is to draw Christ actually to deny one of his natures? One of the great merits of this paper is that it actually provides a reasonably accessible way into these debates for the laymen by marrying up text and image and showing how the images try to get round the problem or confront it, individual artists making informed choices of presentation such as leaving some of Christ out of the picture, vanishing out of the top of the frame at Ascension as below (the manuscript that sources Kessler’s plate 7, but even this tiny image is more fun to look at than the greyscale) and so on. Not only does one get a sense of craftsmen at work on something highly intellectual, rather than just colouring nicely as medieval art sometimes gets presented, but one also sees how these images were taking positions in a debate of the day and, not least important, genuinely concerned with Salvation and how best to help someone towards it rather than hinder them.

Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Y6, fol. 81v.

Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Y6, fol. 81v.

This therefore supplements the somewhat less successful section on religious practice earlier in the book and winds the volume up, after Noble’s few adjustments, very nicely.10 My initial bedazzlement with the volume has worn off slightly after this much detailed analysis and reviewing, but really, it’s still a very worthwhile volume. It’s also physically nice: the paper is gloss and heavy, the binding tough but good-looking and the dust-jacket is glossy and thick too. The illustrations, where they exist, are good (though, yes, greyscale) and there are, as far as I noticed, almost no typoes. There are fully 18 pages of index, whereas with most edited volumes there wouldn’t be any, suggesting that the publishers or the editors recognised that it will have reference value as well as reading value. Furthermore, though some of the papers are not quite there and some areas are definitely less covered than others, it really is a pretty all-round state-of-the-question assemblage of work on Carolingian Europe and so, I continue to recommend its purchase to those who might want such a thing.


1. Michael McCormick, “The Intellectuality of Early Medieval Art” in Jennifer Davis & idem (edd.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 275-276; Mayke de Jong, “Charlemagne’s Balcony: The Solarium in Ninth-Century Narratives”, ibid. pp. 277-289.

2. Thomas F. X. Noble, “Matter and Meaning in the Carolingian World”, ibid. pp. 321-326 at pp. 321-324.

3. De Jong, “Charlemagne’s Balcony”, pp. 282-284; Noble, “Matter and Meaning”, pp. 321-322.

4. Text from Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, I doc. no. 232.

5. For example, Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I doc. no. 214, “… vindimus tibi casas cum curtes et ortos, cum solos et superpositos et terras cultes et incultes, nostras proprias…“. But, you say, a solum is not the same thing as a solarium! Check it in the new online Lewis & Short, man! To which I say, firstly, du Cange says you’re wrong, at least sometimes: Charles du Fresne du Cange & D. A. Carpenter, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, ed. G. A. L. Henschel, re-ed. L. Favre (Paris 1886), p. 523, “SOLUM, ut supra Solarium, Locus idoneus solarium ædificando”, and secondly, well, that’s why my first example had “solarium” instead innit.

6. This sort of assessment is much easier for owning Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado (edd.), Atles del comtat d’Osona (785-993) (Barcelona 2001); the map on pp. 44-45 is most useful here.

7. For example, in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV I doc. 419 Bishop Radulf of Urgell and his son Oliba sell an estate at a place called Palau to the bishop’s brother Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona and that goes for 1000 solidi. This isn’t going to have been a royal palace, but given that Abbess Emma also has land next-door it is clearly comital family land, and that and the name suggest strongly that this was a fiscal estate, a big hall and its demesne or similar. For the suggestion that place-names in Palau (‘palaciolo‘ or similar) refer to such establishments, see in this case A. Benet i Clarà & A. Pladevall i Font in Pladevall, J. Sarri i Vilageliu, Benet & D. Arumí i Gómez, “Santa Maria de Palau” in J. Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I, ed. J. Vigué (Barcelona 1984), pp. 230-235 at pp. 230-231, and more generally Ramon Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconnaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166, citing Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Debax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-70.

8. For example, that mentioned in n. 5 above went for only 15 solidi and the solos are only part of the estate there.

9. Herbert Kessler, “Image and Object: Christ’s Dual Nature and the Crisis of Early Medieval Art” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 290-319.

10. Noble, “Matter and Meaning”, pp. 324-326.

Look shiny! Links to food for brain and eyes (featuring a lot of gold added at the last minute)

Your humble author was, at the time of writing the first part of this, doing a caffeine detox and so was having trouble constructing reportage and opinion at his usual standard of prolixity and perceptiveness. Here therefore is some distraction:

First of all, here is a fine collection of observations through the ages on the now-vanished Anglo-Saxon bishopric of Dunwich with some sobering musings about what else could go the same way. I can’t remember where I got this from but somebody isn’t getting a hat-tip that they deserve, sorry.

I’ll repair that by giving decent credit here. Emma at Past Presenters linked to a blog I don’t otherwise know called Ancient Tides, and they had a short post about and linking to this article about research at Cornell suggesting that monks who did fine illumination had learnt special stereoscopic focusing tricks so as to be able to work at something approximating 30x magnification. I would love to hear from someone with enough biology nous to say whether this is plausible.

Then, a housemate points me at this, which is a site allowing you to make your own historical tapestries digitally, using the cast of the Bayeux Tapestry. Needs Flash, so don’t blame me if your browser crashes, but it’s really well done inside that limitation.

Too trivial? Well, okay, remember the time I got into a fight about postmodernism because of how excited I was at discovering Carl Becker? Relive the good bit of that experience by reading this, Carl Becker’s Presidential Address to the American Historical Association from 1931, and then consider all the debates that have been had here or at Modern Medieval or In the Medieval Middle or other such fine blogging establishments about just what it is that we historians do and why it’s important, and how we can prove that, and ask yourself again if this man wasn’t nearly a century ahead of his time. This, I owe to Edge of the American West once more. In particular let me entice you with these quotes:

Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none.

Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.

and, most important of all perhaps:

Nor need our labors be the less highly prized because our task is limited, our contributions of incidental and temporary significance. History is an indispensable even though not the highest form of intellectual endeavor, since it makes, as Santayana says, a gift of “great interests … to the heart.”

I’ll never match that, but I love it anyway.


Gold strip with Biblical inscription from the Staffordshire hoard

Gold strip with Biblical inscription from the Staffordshire hoard

Lastly, and added in the final stages of editing this much-delayed post, of course you’ve already seen this? If you haven’t, the biggest ever hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold was found back in July somewhere undisclosed in Staffordshire and the news was allowed out yesterday morning. Past Horizons has the press release, the BBC story that is linked through the picture has the simple version and some more pictures, but if you want them the whole hoard is available in Creative Commons-licensed photographs on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Flickr stream. There is a lot of gold. Now obviously there has been talk of little else in my department since we got the news (which was no sooner than anyone else, in fact, probably because there are no coins in the hoard even though the Guardian was claiming that there were) and I’m pretty sure what I think the interpretation should be, but I have twelve (12), my god, twelve posts queued up here, which I let Professor Deyermond’s obit jump because that was the least respect demanded but which I would like not to let anything else delay. So you’ll have to wait a few days for my opinions, but that’s OK because it’ll take you at least a week to finish looking at the 615 pictures…