Tag Archives: medieval economy

Gallery

Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

This gallery contains 23 photos.

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.


1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

Hay, flax, chickens and cash

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day, managing to pursue both causes at once, from the Leeds UCU Twitter feed

Despite our still being on strike, it has been oddly hard for me to block out time for blogging these last few days, partly because of well-timed family celebrations but also because I have been taking the chance to fulfil promises that work had prevented me from answering. This means, for example, that I spent almost all of yesterday rewriting and editing numismatic scholarship for people in China, all of which would make my managers despair if I did it on work time rather than marking assessments or finishing one of the two articles I’m supposed to be prioritising just now in the time I can’t protect. This writing has actually involved some of my better work, I think, and I look forward to sharing it with you when it comes to fruition. Today, however, I want to go back to late October 2016, before the workload mentioned a few posts ago had completely smothered me, when I was apparently still reading Italian estate surveys in preparation for the supposedly-final version of my eventual article on early medieval crop yields.1 The aim here was simply to make sure that I wasn’t missing any data from which such yields might be derived—Georges Duby did, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake while setting out why he was wrong—but one can’t help noticing things as one reads, even if they don’t end up being especially useful…2

View of the medieval centre of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

View of the medieval centre of modern-day Verona, by Jakub Hałunown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus it was that I was reading a partially-preserved list of renders and dues once belonging to the bishopric of fair Verona.3 You may remember, if you go far enough back with this blog, me getting all excited about the potential of the similar records from San Salvatore di Brescia to reveal not just local peculiarity and human interest stories (though plenty of them) but also the actual recording process—they were using a form, which otherwise we suppose Charles Babbage to have invented!4 The level of standardisation was surprisingly high, though it could accommodate personal variation all the same. At Verona, we have a different situation. The record, which probably dates to the mid-tenth century and survives on four-of-we-don’t-know-how-many pieces of parchment sewn together, is actually quite variable and doesn’t have the kind of formulaic language. It’s not that it’s not all by the same people, but just that they didn’t have the same kind of desire to keep it exactly consistent, and who’s to say they weren’t happier for that? But patterns do emerge, all the same, perhaps because certain areas of the bishopric’s property had arrived in lumps, with different terms for each batch.

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

The overall picture looks roughly as you’d expect: the normal estate rendered a third of its wine production, a quarter of its grain, paid a few deniers on Saint Zeno’s day and owed some other stuff, flax, linen, hay, beans, chickens and eggs, fish or whatever, depending on the estate and what it had, presumably. In many cases the tenants did a few days’ labour on the bishopric’s own land too. Certain bits stand out for oddity: some estates had to render particular sorts of cereal, for example—millet and sorghum in San Vito di Castilione, wheat, rye and millet in Bonerigo and wheat, fava beans, rye, millet, panic and sorghum in Arcila, since you ask—whereas most of the rest just rendered “grain”.5 A very few places rendered partly in hay, presumably only at some times of the year; the interesting thing there is that they all render to the same place, not the cathedral but an estate centre at Legnago. Did the bishopric have a stock-raising operation there which needed a lot of animal feed?6 A lot of places rendered in flax, but the state it arrived in varied: raw flax was acceptable from some places, but others had to render prepared flax and some actual woven linen.7

Flax fields near Bergamo

Modern flax growing near Bergamo

Apart from the delightfully variegated texture of human endeavour across the Veronese landscape which this gives us, it also makes it clear that the bishopric of Verona was a commercial operation in a commercial world, whatever the historiography would wish to tell you about the dates we can use such words.8 Much of what they were getting in was provisions, for sure, and they might have had a lot of people to feed even beyond the cathedral canons; the urban Church was what there was in the tenth century by way of poor relief, after all.9 But I don’t think they can genuinely have needed quite that much linen all by themselves, which implies that they were selling it as material for the textile industry for which the area would be famous later on. There’s nothing surprising about that, either, because the number of renders in cash show that there was obviously a money economy of some sort in operation and if they could in fact spend those coins, then others must have been able to buy as well, or what would the good of the coins have been to them?10 None of this seems very odd, perhaps, but it is nice to be able to show it for definite.

Ottonian denaro from an Italian mint, perhaps Verona

Some of that same cash, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck perhaps at Verona in 962-973, Münzen Sänn, 3731900816, now in a private collection

Furthermore, the overall pattern was not controlled; the cathedral wasn’t turning certain parts of its property into specialist provision, or I think the picture would be very much more differentiated. What they mainly wanted was wine, grain, chicken and eggs and money, and those were probably also partly for sale (because yes, you can sell cash, it’s something banks do, we just don’t call it that when they do it). Where there are signs of specialisation, therefore, it’s probably fair to guess that they had been set up by the people who’d owned the land before it came to the cathedral, which is to say that this kind of economic optimisation had been a lay pursuit too for a little while by circa 950. I’d have to work harder to prove this, and I suspect it’s already been done, but with this kind of material, it can be, you see.

Medieval statue of Saint Zeno of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

Saint Zeno, as depicted in a later medieval form still on display in Verona. (He was from modern-day Morocco, according to legend anyway.) Image by Mattanaown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The goods may have been for sale, then, but they were also for show. Remember that a lot of this stuff was to be brought to the cathedral on the feast day of its patron saint, Zeno (12 April, apparently). I imagine there was a feast, too, and perhaps the tenants got to eat some of what they had brought, but mainly, I imagine, they all saw each other paying up and were inescapably reminded who their lord was, how powerful he was and how much help he could draw on if he needed to (or you needed him to). A very few places also rendered single lambs, and just as I did at Brescia I wonder if those were to be delivered at Easter, but I can’t prove that whereas the big gathering on Saint Zeno’s Day looks pretty undeniable. It’s not quite conspicuous consumption, but one could call it conspicuous stockpiling, I guess, and the audience may have been the city population who might need the bishop’s charity in the tough months before the harvest as much as the tenants who had, presumably, still kept most of what they’d grown or raised. One could link this to the ancient role of bishops as civic patrons or remember that the English word for ‘lord’ comes from an Old English word hlaford meaning ‘loaf-giver’, but either way the person who can feed the poor when the poor need him is in a powerful position, and that’s what this ceremony must have set up in Verona.11

I can’t do anything especially novel with any of this, and the document didn’t have the smoking guns of crop yields for which I was searching. If I’d been one hundred per cent focused on the research outcome, I’d regret having read this estate survey. As it is, though, even though I will probably never really need to know anything about how tenth-century Verona hung together and what its citizens for sale saw in their marketplace, I have a quite lively mental picture of another corner of tenth-century Europe all the same, and that will do nicely for me, thankyou!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. The yields he missed were in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), “S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi (Roma 1979), pp. 193–198, discussed even before publication in Vito Fumagalli, “Rapporto fra grano seminato e grano raccolto nel politico del monastero di S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Rivista di storia dell’agricoltura Vol. 6 (Firenze 1966), pp. 360–362, just too late for Duby’s big works. See Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, p. 25 for discussion.

3. Castagnetti (ed.), “Vescovato di Verona” in Castagnetti, <u<Inventari altomedievali di terre, pp. 95–111.

4. The Brescia materials are printed in Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia”, ibid., pp. 41–94. As for Babbage, the claim rests upon Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (London 1832), pp. 114-118, online here.

5. Castagnetti, “Verona”, pp. 107, 106-107 and 108 for the specific cases.

6. Ibid., pp. 103-104.

7. For example, linen from a half-colonica held by Atto in Cennserava and one colonica belonging to Tonono in Castolisine (ibid., pp. 104 and 106), prepared flax from another of Atto’s colonicae in Cennserava (ibid. p. 104), but raw flax from one of Legnago’s dependencies (ibid. p. 101), with many more examples available.

8. I refer of course to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971), for whose narrative we seem here to be slightly early.

9. On poor relief you could see Peregrine Horden, “Poverty, Charity, and the Invention of the Hospital” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford 2012), pp. 715–743.

10. This isn’t even that new an idea: the best cite I can immediately pick up for it is Gino Luzzatto, “Changes in Italian Agrarian Economy (from the Fall of the Carolingians to the Beginning of the 11th Century)”, trans. Sylvia L. Thrupp, in Thrupp (ed.), Early Medieval Society (New York City 1967), pp. 206–218.

11. On bishops and cities, try Claudia Rapp, “Bishops in Late Antiquity: A New Social and Urban Elite?” in John H. Haldon and Lawrence I. Conrad (edd.), Elites Old and New in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Papers of the sixth Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Near East 6 (Princeton 2004), pp. 149-178.

Two fields, three fields, four fields, five…

Today is one of those occasions when I need to correct, or at least update, something I wrote here years ago, and this time the subject is that ever-enthralling one, crop rotation. Don’t hide it, I know you’ve all been waiting for more on this… That said, last time I wrote on it there followed quite the conversation and people still wind up there from search engines, so I guess there may be interest there, in which case it’s quite important that they know that the research for (ahem) my recent article on early medieval agricultural productivity revealed that that post was badly behind the times. Thus, an update.

Organic winter wheat growing with red clover in an experiment by the Moses Organic Project

Organic winter wheat experimentally growing with red clover, image from Katja Koehler-Cole, “Research evaluates green manures as fertilizer in organic soybean-winter wheat-corn rotation” in Organic Broadcaster Vol. 23 no. 5 (Spring Valley WI 2015), pp. 9 and 12, online here, p. 9

So, firstly, what am I even talking about? Well, you may be aware that when you’re growing stuff in the ground for food, the earth only gives of her best for a short time before the land needs refreshing with the various nutrients that make stuff grow well. Historically, there have been two basic ways of dealing with this decline of productivity in the soil: either you give up on it and go and clear somewhere else to farm (slash-and-burn agriculture), or you let the land lie for a bit till it’s built up the things you need again, possibly encouraging that process by growing something different (like legumes) that fix nitrogen in the soil. This practice we call fallow. Now, in the traditional kind of literature that last time I was writing about, it used to be considered that in Iron Age and ‘primitive’ agricultures, if fallow was done at all, it was done one-year-on-one-year-off, so that if you had two fields, one of them was growing and one of them was lying fallow and then next year you switched them over, a two-field system. The alternative, to which European civilisation at large slowly supposedly switched, is a three-field one in which one field is growing a crop that needs all year to grow, such as wheat, one is growing a less exhausting spring crop such as barley or oats, and the third is lying fallow, which means that each year you’re getting two crops not one and are thus more productive and less dependent on a single harvest.1 And in that long-ago post I was wondering if that change might have underlain the apparent increase in economic power that seems itself to have underlain the various social changes of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe that we still sometimes see called ‘the Feudal Transformation‘. OK? Now read on…

So, predictably, deeper reading told me two things. Firstly, I was by no means the first person to think of that causation, something which really I knew and should have remembered (but sometimes, of course, one learns these things so deeply that you forget that you ever had to be taught them—this is how patriotism and stereotypes usually work…).2 Secondly, and inevitably, things were more complicated than that. In order to write my article, as I think I mentioned already, since it was principally aimed at destroying an argument of Georges Duby’s (an argument, mark you, which rested on arithmetic that completely ignored the need to fallow growing land even though that was the immediately previous thing he had written about in the relevant book…), I wanted to make sure that what he’d written in the 1960s he’d never in fact gone back on before his death in 1996.3 In fact he hadn’t, really, but this led me onto a special issue of a journal he’d helped to found, Études rurales, celebrating, reprinting parts of, but also updating his work.4 And there I found two articles that changed my picture.5

What does the new picture look like, then? Well, firstly, the basic progress from two-field to three-field is, predictably, deeply questionable. Our information is more limited the further back one goes, obviously, but it doesn’t look as if there was ever a time when you can’t find people doing either or even both, depending on what they were growing where.6 This comforted me in a way, since unlike the equally lame argument about the heavy plough, this one wasn’t even technological determinism, where once the right invention had been made the world changed but without it could not; for the two-field/three-field progress to be made a whole world of people whose lives rested on the fields had to have collectively been too stupid to think of this different way of managing them, despite all the work we have on the later Middle Ages that is obsessed with medieval peasants as rational economic actors planning for survival…7 Even now, in some areas of the world, with some crops, two-field systems yield better than three-field ones that can just exhaust the land more, and of course the imperatives of the market can alter everything, so that old argument also basically relies on the absence of market forces. All of this belongs to the world of Lopez’s so-called Commercial Revolution, in which capitalism was effectively born in the cities of high medieval Italy and Flanders and before that no-one had ever thought of doing anything for profit, and it’s time we managed to think outside that teleological box in which, like the heavy plough or indeed money, once capitalism’s invented no-one can possibly not do it.8

Ruins of the TEmplar Commandery of Ruou

Ruins of the Templar Commandery of Ruou, image by Edouard-RainautTravail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But the other thing I now understand is that a two-field/three-field binary was never going to be enough. For a start, it ignores the supposedly ‘primitive’ slash-and-burn method, which is effectively a one-field system that moves, and where the land is always fresh and at its most productive. If you have the space and don’t mind being a bit nomadic, this is the most productive system there is, so why wouldn’t you? But equally, some land just needs more time to recover from agriculture. Fourteenth-century render lists from mountain estates that paid into various Templar commanderies whose records survive—records that Duby himself first put to use, so he did know—show some farmers running a four- or even five-field system across their scattered and marginal lands, with most of their land fallow most of the time. Other examples also exist, but these are the one that made me stub this post.9

And, of course, there is and was nothing to stop someone using several of these systems at once. Only the other day, for reasons I won’t bother you with, I was being towed around a farm in a tractor’s trailer with the owner explaining to the assembled gathering how he was, effectively, running part of a four-field system in the middle third of this large field to maximise vegetable crops, while running a two-field one in the field next door for different vegetables and growing cereals on a decent part of the rest of the farm, presumably on a two- or three-field rotation. Those weren’t the terms he used, but it’s what they amounted to. This was an organic farm, too, so not using modern chemical means of boosting soil productivity.

Modern polyculture in a single field

Another example of such modern polyculture, from “Crop Rotation”, Farm and City Centre, 15th September 2016, online here

In short, farmers can vary their practice a lot. The fact that really big Church estates of the early and high Middle Ages preferred things more uniform than that probably tells us more about their desire to be able to count their dues properly than of their keen eye on market productivity, therefore; as so many top-down states have discovered over time, if your first goal is for your farmers to grow a lot, rather than to organise how they grow it, then the best thing to do is to let them decide how to do it themselves. Of course, that probably means you have less idea of what they’re growing and how much of it you are owed; the estate managers, too, make their own choices, but once again, they aren’t necessarily capitalistic ones. This shouldn’t surprise us; but it did me, perhaps it will also you, and maybe that surprise explains the historiography that meant my article needed to be written in the first place. I continue to think that might be an important piece of writing…10


1. This traditional narrative can still be found all over the Internet (I’ve linked an example above), but in the posts I’m referring to I was getting it from Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275–290. You could also get a more introductory version from, say, Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd ed. (London 1994), which is about as up to date as such textbooks get even now.

2. In fact, the obvious person to whom to draw back the idea was none other than he whose work my article was written to oppose, Georges Duby, at first in his “La révolution agricole médiévale” in Revue de géographie de Lyon Vol. 29 (Lyon 1954), pp. 361–366, but more systematically and accessibly first in idem, “Le problème des techniques agricoles” in Agricoltura e mondo rurale in Occidente nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 13 (Spoleto 1966), pp. 267–284 and in the book that was subsequently translated as idem, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968).

3. As close as he came was a note in his engaging little academic autobiography, Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, that he now accepted that he had not known enough about agricultural systems when he wrote the above works, but he stopped short of saying what he’d then have changed.

4. Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here.

5. Those being Benoît Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud en 1338 : Sur les traces de Georges Duby”, ibid. pp. 113–132, online here and Mathieu Arnoux, “Paysage avec cultures et animaux : Variations autour du thème des pratiques agraires”, ibid. pp. 133–145, online here, though Maria Ocaña i Subirana, El m&ocute;n agrari i els cicles agrícoles a la Catalunya vella (s. IX-XIII) Documenta 1 (Barcelona 1998) and Bruce M. S. Campbell and David Hardy, “The Data” in Three Centuries of English Crop Yields, 1211-1491, online here, subsequently helped confirm it and I was subsequently pointed to Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdahl, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, which might now be the best place to start for the few who can afford the book.

6. On this, to Devroey & Nissen, “Early Middle Ages”, add Alexis Wilkin and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Diversité des formes domaniales en Europe Occidentale” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 90 (Bruxelles 2012), pp. 249–260, online here, or Marie-Pierre Ruas, “Aspects of early medieval farming from sites in Mediterranean France” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 14 (New York City 2012), pp. 400–415.

.7 Most obviously now David Stone, Decision-Making in Medieval Agriculture (Oxford 2005), but long-term readers may also remember me having a go at C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, DOI: 10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

8. Referring to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971); as for money, for examples of cultures where it might not be much use see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 67–92. Basically, money needs to be easily available, or the transactional costs of actually getting the means of payment render it uneconomical.

9. Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud”, modifying both Duby, Rural Economy and Georges Duby, “La seigneurie et l’économie paysanne : Alpes du Sud, 1338” in Études rurales Vol. 2 (Paris 1961), pp. 5–36, online here.

10. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (2019), pp. 1–28.

From the Sources XV: Trading in nostalgia in 11th-century Pavia

Posting here with any regularity continues to be difficult; the gaps pretty much coincide with the arrival of marking, and last for as long as it does. None of this is reducing the queue of things I want to talk about, but this post will at least get something out of it. I’ve been meaning to write something about this particular source for three years or so, since my second semester here at Leeds in which I found myself the convenor of an old module that I still run, called ‘Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries’. This is more or less a late antique survey of essentially political content, with some pauses to consider other issues, and one of these other issues is the venerable Pirenne thesis, the argument of the early twentieth-century historian of towns Henri Pirenne that despite its political breakdown the Roman world remained an economic and cultural unit until the rise of Islam cut northern and western shores of the Mediterrean off from eastern and southern and ended the commerce on which the whole thing ran.1 I used to worry about teaching the Pirenne thesis, because it seemed to me like a dead debate and I think focusing on those artificially is a bad illustration to students of what we do, but a recent article by Bonnie Effros has revived it somewhat or, at least, shown why it’s still current, and coincidentally makes a great key secondary reading! But the question I was faced with was what to use as a primary source. How do you show a class with no foreign languages a large-scale economy over the course of a century from which there’s very little relevant written evidence?

Sixth-century imported kitchenwares on display a few stories above the rubbish pits in which they were found in the Crypta Balbi, Rome

Sixth-century imported kitchenwares on display a few stories above the rubbish pits in which they were found in the Crypta Balbi, Rome, photo by yours truly. I have honestly thought of compiling these photos, dodgy though they are, and transcriptions of the museum captions into a source-pack, but thankfully have so far stopped myself. Why isn’t there such a write-up?

Obviously, you have to focus on a case study. My first thought was that I wanted a short clear piece of English writing about the ceramic deposit from the rubbish dump in the Crypta Balbi in Rome, which dramatically shrank then stopped over the seventh century. As far as I can see, though, there isn’t such a piece of writing: I could find use of it as an explanation of stratigraphy in a two-page appendix on ceramics in the period in general, or else just diagrams, and everything else is in Italian.2 I even asked someone knowledgeable at the British School of Rome and the best they could suggest was the museum guidebooks, which I duly ordered and were, alas, no use at all for my purposes.3 (The photos came later, and I’ll tell that tale in due course.) So, in the first year I went with the list of travellers from the appendices of Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy, but they’re almost impossible to understand out of the context of the book.4 Next year, inspired by a then-recent paper of Chris Wickham’s, I used the letters of Pope Gregory the Great that talk incidentally about Mediterranean shipping, but that wasn’t ideal either because Gregory was pre-Islamic, so could only show a before, not an after.5 Now I use a charter supposedly issued by King Chilperic II about tolls on shipping at Marseille, and that sort of works, but it took me a while to find it and it’s still not quite ideal because of its complex textual history and some dubious features.6 But this post is about none of these things—though any suggestions and comments would be most welcome—but something I found while looking. (Pirenne does come back at the end, though, there is a plan of sort at work here, honestly.)

Paris, Archives nationales, K3/17

This is not the right charter of Chilperic II, but it does do some of the same things; this is a grant to St-Denis from 716 that survives as Paris, Archives nationales, K3/17, image from ARTEM via Wikimedia Commons

If you are a teaching medievalist, or even just a determined enthusiast, you will of course be familiar with that marvellous phenomenon, the old source reader. While either Patrick Geary’s or Barbara Rosenwein’s big newer ones serve teaching purposes very well, the tradition in which they stand is a very long one.7 If you’ve really looked at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook you may have noticed quite how much of it has names like Henderson, Thatcher, Ogg and so on attached to it, and to be honest while he’s added to the basic corpus, so does Geary’s in many places, and so indeed does pretty much every other modern anthology I’ve used.8 And while the commonest ones are all from the early twentieth-century USA and carry pretty much the same basic content, with a religious and constitutional focus unsurprisingly enough, when you start poking around not only does each of them have one or two things in that only their translators thought were interesting, but also there are some specialist ones constructed because of that thematic focus, these usually being economic.9 And in those latter there’s some really interesting stuff, things that not only have people not translated but which not that many people know exists.10 At least, I didn’t (which I realise is not the same thing). And this post, he finally announces three paragraphs down, is about one of those.

Cover of Robert S. Lopez and Irving W. Raymond (edd./transl.), Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World

Cover of Robert S. Lopez and Irving W. Raymond (edd./transl.), Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World

The anthology in question is about medieval trade, and like most sourcebooks it’s out to provide documentation for a historical argument—I guess they all are, really, if one accepts that ‘these are the roots of our culture and liberties’ is an argument. That argument is the one of the so-called Commercial Revolution, and accordingly the sourcebook is by the man who came up with that, Robert Lopez, along with some help from one Irving W. Raymond.11 And while the things you’d expect to be there—bits of Genizah documentation, letters from Genoa and so on—are here, so is some really interesting other stuff. I was going to do a run of From the Sources posts about these, but then remembered that because there is a second edition of this book, updated by the late lamented Olivia Remie Constable, they’re all still under copyright.12 So you can’t have the Lombard slave sale I thought was such a clear example of people-dealing in the early Middle Ages, but I do want to say something about what Lopez and Woodworth bill as ‘Regulations from the Royal Court at Pavia’.13 I can’t give it you in full translation, because as I say what Lopez and Raymond gave of it is protected by law, but they didn’t use all of it, so I can give you the rest, and when you have that it starts to look like quite a different, and fascinating, but awkward, source. So, here are some rules that someone in Pavia wanted written down, with the bits that Lopez and Raymond covered in square-bracketed summary with references.14 As ever this translation is fast and could probably be improved, but I hope it’s accurate enough to justify the argument I’m going to pull from it.

    “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever-eternal God. These institutes of the kings of the Lombards, these royal fasces, these honours of this ancient city of Ticinum should be fixed in solid white marble, lest long age should anywhere succeed in abolishing them. This city, the first to hear Christian words and on this account blessed with the Lord among other cities, Saint Syrus did bless at the beginning of his introduction and said: ‘O blessed city, read! No little, but greatly and copiously shall you be called upon within the limits of cities among other towns, praise shall come to thee from the furthest mountains.’ Rome named Pavia and called it her daughter. And just as Rome crowns the emperor in the church of San Pietro with her pope, so does Pavia with her bishop crown the king in the church of San Michaele Maggiore, where there is one round stone with four other round stones. The royal palace is in this city of Pavia, to which and to the royal presence therein are bound to and should come all the princes of Italy, for so fortune stirred up from the deeds of Ausonia councils to be celebrated with mature deliberation and whatever should have been deliberated in the said council to be observed under the beneficence of the king. For Pavia ought to have counts of the palace, who should hold audiences or courts of law for the whole of Italy in every place as if it were before the emperor and to do justice unto everyone; and she should have a missus of the king, and he should resolve disputes throughout Italy according to precept. Pavia should have a royal advocate and palatine judges. Moreover all the judges of Italy should settle cases by sentence. For they used to come to the general school of this blessed city of Pavia from all the cities of Italy to study in the civil law and to learn the laws, and the best and most honoured were the judges of Pavia. The bishops of Pavia stand out from all the cities of Italy. From all the priests of the church of San Siro, from all the clergy who were of this city, there were vouchsafed many divine graces and blessings.

  1. “All of you whom touch the love, utility and honour of the kingdom of Lombardy, hear with light and equable spirits, how all of the duties that pertain to the royal chamber and palace and all the royal rights of the Lombards were instituted in ancient times!”
  2. [Merchants entering the kingdom paid a tenth of most sorts of produce (horses, slaves, cloth, some metals) at any (maybe all?) of a range of listed toll stations; pilgrims to Rome are exempt.15]
  3. [Anglo-Saxon merchants were also exempt, because they raised so much trouble and complaints that a treaty was brokered by which their king sent a load of luxury goods (silver, dogs (wearing silver), cloaks (probably silver-embroidered…), shields and so on) to the Lombard king every year instead.16]
  4. [Venice had a similar arrangement by which fifty pounds of silver deniers annually and a big cloak buys their merchants free access to all Lombard ports.17]
  5. [Despite that, Venetian merchants coming to actual Pavia paid every fortieth solidus they carried to the monastery of San Martino there, and a delegation from Venice still brings the royal treasurer a pound of pepper, one of cinnamon, one of galanghal and one of ginger annually, plus a comb and mirror or twenty deniers for his wife.18]
  6. [Salerno, Gaeta and Amalfi had the same deal for access to Pavia.19]
  7. [Pavia’s own merchants carry an imperial safe conduct which should get them trouble-free access to all markets in Italy, on pain of a payment of 1,000 mancuses.20]
  8. [Pavia’s mint is farmed out to nine masters each year, who are in charge of the moneyers and pay 12 pounds each to the royal treasury annually for the privilege, and another four to the count of the palace; they are to cut off the right hand of any moneyer making false coin.21]
  9. [Milan can make coins on the same standard as Pavia as long as they pay twelve pounds of them to the royal treasury in Pavia every year; the same rules about forgers apply.22]
  10. “Also there are all the gold-panners who send a levy to Pavia, and they never ought to sell gold to anyone under oath, and they ought to consign it to [the king] and the chamberlain. And they ought to buy all that gold at a rate of two solidi, that is an eighth of an ounce, that is two and a half deniers, for sixteen solidi, that is eleven ounces, in the rivers where they pan for gold, which are these: Padus, Ticinus, Dorica, Sicida, Stura, Misturla, Octo, Amalone and Amalona, Celo, Duria, Blavum, Urba, Salvus, Sesedia, Burmia, Agonia, Ticinus from the Great Lake that runs into Padua. There are also these rivers: Abdua, Oglius, Mentius, Sarno, Adexe, Brenta, Trebia. And they ought to pan for gold in all the other rivers aforesaid.
  11. “There are moreover fishermen in Pavia, who should fund one master from all their goods, and they should have sixty ships, and for each one of the ships they ought to give two denari every Kalends; the which kalendular denari they should give to their master, and they ought to make such savings that, when the king is in Pavia, they may use those denari to buy fish and at the same time bring them honourably daily to the court and to give fish to the chamberlain every Friday.
  12. “There are also twelve tanners, makers of hides, with twelve juniors, and they should make twelve of their hides from the best cows every year and give them to the royal chamber, so that no [other] man be allowed to make hides. And whoever infringes this, let him pay a hundred Pavian soldi to the royal chamber. And when any one of these tanners first enters, the greater ones ought to give four pounds, half to the royal chamber and half to the other tanners.”
  13. [The local boatmen and shipowners also appoint masters, from whom the king and queen each have pre-emption of one ship when they are in Pavia, along with a smaller pilot vessel to clear their passage, all of whose expenses are borne by the court.23]
  14. “And there were soapmakers in Pavia, who used to make soap, and who gave a render every year to the royal chamber of a hundred pounds of soap, and ten pounds of soap to the chamberlain, so that no-one else should make soap in Pavia.
  15. There is also a custom with those women, who are rich, but who do not have tutors or guardians, and who wish to marry, that they should come and entreat the chamberlain, so that he may act for god and for the soul of the king, and give them a tutor or guardian and license to marry whom they wish, according to his law; and that woman ought to offer there a best-quality shield and lance, to give to the chamberlain.
  16. “There is moreover in the church of San Siro a brass lamp, where the chamberlain ought thrice yearly, at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, for each one of those festivals, to give a pound of Pavian denari in oil, so that that lamp may be filled and lit for the soul of the king. And the twelve retainers who are wardens in the church of San Siro, ought each one to receive linen clothes and each one a pair of boots and at Easter each one a cloak and cord shoes, so that they guard the emperor’s light well; and as many times as the king enters the church of San Siro in procession, thus he ought to give to those same twelve retainers every year for the king’s soul, so that God may answer their prayers. And two of the retainers of San Michaele Maggiore should receive clothes, just as do the retainers of San Siro.”
  17. [No-one is allowed to undertake any of these roles without license from the court, on pain of the bann, and Pavia’s merchants always get first choice in the markets here.24]

Lopez and Raymond stopped there, but actually there’s a load more, and it’s metaphorical gold:

  1. “And the abovesaid men, who hold these duties, which are written above, ought not to arrange or hold any meeting except before the king or the chamberlain.
  2. “And of all these duties, which are written above, the tenth part belongs to the royal chamber, as a benefice, note, the tenth as a benefice of the king, and from all those same duties that pertain to the king, his wife the queen ought to have the third part.
  3. “Know you this, that Gisulf the chamberlain, who was noble and rich, received all those same duties with all honour in the time of King Hugh and his son King Lothar, husband of Adelaide, and in the time of the first King Berengar and in the time of the first Emperor Otto. Once that Emperor Otto was dead, that Gisulf held the chamberlain’s office and his son Ayrald held it after him with all honour, just as did his father, up till the second and third Emperors Otto. With Ayrald the chamberlain having died, Agisulf his son ought to hold the chamberlain’s office, just as his father did.
  4. “Then there came that devil who is named John the Greek, who was a very apostate and a heretic, the Bishop of Piacenza, and he was a counsellor of the Greek empress and her son the third Emperor Otto, who was a child, and the king bestowed all those same duties on John the Greek, and he wanted to hold all those same duties which belonged to the royal chamber in his own hand. And he emplaced two of the Greek empress’s slaves, one of them named Siccus and the other Nanus, and gave them all those duties that are written above. And then that accursed John the Greek did not know the difference between the honours of the chamber and the profits of the royal chamber. And then that John and the bad ministers of the Greek empress with her son Otto, who was a child king and a young man, began to put the royal duties up for sale and to give them out in perpetuity and to disperse all those same duties, and those same duties were never afterwards honourable. And Emperor Henry sold many duties, which, since he had no son, the chamber should have inherited as a royal honour. And if he had been a prudent and honourable emperor, such as the empire should have, he would have had all those grants that have been made from these duties of the chamber cut up and the royal chamber assured of its status and permanence, just as it was from ancient times.
  5. “All these honourable duties and very many others should be in Pavia, with the mercy of God and Holy Mary and Saint Syrus, who sends her bishops to Rome so that they ought to receive blessing and unction and consecration from the hand of the Pope. Just as the Apostle who raised the dead is in Rome, so there is Saint Syrus in Pavia who raised three men from the dead and gave sight back to a blind man, which we have never heard that any of the apostles did, and he did other beautiful and marvellous miracles too. In Rome there is one of the four doctors, Saint Gregory. In Pavia is another holy doctor, Augustine. Also by the mercy of God there was a bishop of Pavia who was from the apostolic see in Rome, who was called Peter by name. O glorious city of Pavia, endowed with a hundred and twenty-seven churches and sixteen monasteries, which are well staffed by night and by day and busy praying to the Lord, so that thou may always be saved with the men and women who are in thee, and with the animals and all the goods!”

You see, isn’t it more interesting when you know how it ends? So, let’s consider here. Lopez and Raymond billed this as “a nostalgic list of the rights and incomes lost by the royal treasury in Pavia”, and seamlessly stitch it together with a tale of burgeoning economic forces that made such royal control of trade impossible: the free market and the communes were coming, and tradition could not stand in their way!25 They offer it, therefore, as a source for what had once been, which apparently included royal trading treaties not unlike ones we’ve looked at here before and a variety of things we might reasonably call guilds, somewhat precociously. Predictably, as we can see, Lopez and Raymond were much more interested in anything that was sold or shipped than anything that was not, especially if it looked like royal throttling of free market exchange; their story was of the triumph of the market. But once you have the coda, it’s clear that that was not what the compilers thought was going on. I think, given how much he comes up, it is clear that those compilers were at the church of San Siro, and it looks rather as if they had somehow wound up either inheriting or championing the claim of the would-be third-generation chamberlain Agisulf to whatever rights they themselves didn’t get, which is why we have this odd mish-mash of commercial and ecclesiastical prerogatives. Clearly, what they thought had happened is that a foreign regime with no respect for their rights had barged in and sold all the offices off. They were still out there, the duties were still being charged as far as we can tell; those sailors were probably still paying their denari, the fisherman were still likely piling up money for fish for the court and for all we know twelve really good hides were still dumped at the palace every year, but San Siro and Agisulf weren’t seeing the profits, and that was the real issue.

Romanesque church of San Michele Maggiore di Pavia

The Romanesque church of San Michele Maggiore di Pavia, as rebuilt at the end of the eleventh century, a fact that will shortly become significant! Image by Slawojar and licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

What does this mean for the source as used by Lopez and Raymond? Well, firstly it means that since the rights were no longer held by the people who claimed them, we can’t be sure that they all ever were. Presumably they did exist, or granting the claim would mean setting up new infrastructure to try and exact them, and there are other sources we’ve looked at here showing extensive market trade in tenth-century Pavia; but lots of these things might not actually have been effective royal claims. For Lopez and Raymond that maybe didn’t matter; as they said, “it commemorates a regime that was already doomed as the document was drafted”.26 And they may have been right about that, but they were also wrong, or (since Lopez knew his Italian history) more likely quietly misleading, about why it was doomed.

Byantine ivory showing Christ crowning Emperor Otto II and Theophanu in 982, Paris, Musée de Cluny

Byantine ivory showing Christ crowning Emperor Otto II and Theophanu in 982, Paris, Musée de Cluny, image by Clio20, licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

The deeper context here, you see, is not economic at all.27 As the source says, Otto III succeeded as a child after his father’s untimely death in 997, and his mother, the Byzantine princess Theophanu, became regent. Perhaps, indeed, she and her cronies didn’t understand how great and magnificent Pavia was supposed to be—from the beginning and end of the source it seems like maybe no-one really can understand this enough. But the problem was not that they gave in to market forces and the clamouring demand for capitalist liquidity; it’s that they didn’t hold court at Pavia. In fact, no-one had done that with any regularity for quite a while. Hugh and Berengar I did, but kings from over the Alps then became Kings of Italy as well as Kings of the Germans with the Ottonian takeover, and obviously then they weren’t there as much. Otto III actually set up in Rome (whose apostles, as we are told here, aren’t a patch on Saint Syrus) and Henry II was barely in Italy at all. Furthermore, when he first came, it was provoked by the need to remove from it a new local king, Arduin, who had been crowned guess where? In Pavia, in San Michaele Maggiore to whose churchwardens the king should be giving fresh linen three times a year but which was actually at this point lying partly ruined after its destruction in 1004, hence the Romanesque rebuild shown above! (You’ll notice there’s no mention of that, or of Arduin, in our source…)

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4456, fol. 33

I mean, you can see he had his hands full… Coronation image from Henry II’s own sacramentary, now München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4456, fol. 33, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

So Henry was understandably not friendly with the royal city of the Lombards and in any case, he was largely busy elsewhere. Pavia had just ceased to be a major royal centre. The king or emperor didn’t come and eat the fish any more, no-one needed the hides; even the Anglo-Saxon silver, if it was still being sent, was presumably being sent somewhere else. The disconnection and disenfranchisement of the old capital would become such that, as very very long-term readers may remember or else maybe you already know, in 1037 the citizens would actually burn the palace and then claim, when called to account for it, that since there had been no king at the time there was no blame attached to such actions. King Conrad II thought otherwise, and in so judging sort of invented the idea of the king’s two bodies, but that would be a story for another time.28 The thing is, it wasn’t economic change that had made a backwater out of Pavia, it was good old-fashioned royal dynastic politics. Lopez’s Commercial Revolution has quietly stood the test of time nearly as long as Pirenne’s thesis with which we began this post (remember?), but it’s things like this that make me wonder whether, if we poked it, it would begin to come apart in the same way. It makes you wonder why no-one has tried, doesn’t it…?


1. Referring of course to Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. Bernard Miall (London 1939). For historiography on it (huge!) see Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. 184–208, with many many references.

2. Stratigraphy training: Olof Brandt, “Interpreting the Archaeological Record” in Philip Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford 2009), online here, pp. 156-169 at pp. 160-161; diagrams in Simon Loseby, “The Mediterranean Economy” in Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume I: c. 500‒c. 700 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 605–638 at p. 609. I think the Italian work of reference would be Daniele Manacorda, Lidia Parola & Alessandra Molinari, “Diletta Romei: la ceramica medioevale di Roma nella stratigrafia della Crypta Balbi” in La ceramica medievale nel Mediterraneo occidentale: (Atti III Congresso Internazionale della Università degli Studi di Siena) (Firenze 1986), pp. 511-544, but I will admit I haven’t read it.

3. I got Daniele Manacorda, “Excavations in the Crypta Balbi, Rome: a survey” in Accordia Research Papers Vol. 1 (Firenze 1990), pp. 73–81 and Daniele Manacorda et al., Crypta Balbi: Museo nazionale romano. English edition, trans. Joanne Berry and Nigel Pollard (Milano 2000), but while both are good, I was after something quite specific.

4. Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A. D. 300-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 799-810.

5. Now best found, despite some reservations, as John R. C. Martyn (trans.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated, with introduction and notes, 3 vols (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004).

6. Theo Kölzer, Martina Hartmann and Andrea Stieldorf (edd.), Die Urkunden der Merowinger, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Diplomata regum ex stirpe merowingicarum) (Hannover 2001), 2 vols, I doc. no. 171.

7. These days available as Patrick J. Geary (ed./transl.), Readings in Medieval History, 5th edn. (Toronto 2016) and Barbara H. Rosenwein (ed./transl.), Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium and the Islamic World (Toronto 2014), so Toronto profit whichever you buy!

8. Referring respectively to Ernest F. Henderson (ed./transl.), Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London 1903, many reprints), online here; Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar Holmes MacNeal (edd./transl.), A Source Book for Mediæval History: Selected Documents illustrating the History of Europe in the Middle Age (New York 1905), online here; and Frederic Austin Ogg (ed./transl.), A Source Book of Mediæval History: documents illustrative of European life and institutions from the German invasions to the Renaissance (New York 1907), online here.

9. The one of these I’m not using here, hard to get hold of but very interesting, is Roy C. Cave and Herbert H. Coulson (edd./transl.), A Source Book for Medieval Economic History (New York 1965).

10. Though none of them seem to contain the Raffelstetten Inquest. Why not? You’ll just have to carry on getting it here I guess…

11. Robert S. Lopez & Irving W. Raymond (edd./transl.), Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents Translated with an Introduction and Notes (New York 1967). From this would soon come Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950–1350 (New York 1971), which is therefore I suppose an example of teaching-led research.

12. Robert S. Lopez, Irving W. Raymond & Olivia Remie Constable (edd./transl.), Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents Translated with an Introduction and Notes, 2nd edn. (New York 2001).

13. Leeds only has the first edition, so the following cites all come from Lopez & Raymond, Medieval Trade, not Lopez, Raymond & Constable. In that first edition the slave sale is doc. 13, pp. 45-46, a Lombard sale of a “boy from the Gallic people”. The “Regulations” are doc. 20, pp. 56-60.

14. The Latin can be found in A. Hofmeister (ed.), “Institvta regalia et ministeria camerae regvm longobardorvm et Honorantiae civitatis papiae” in H. Kaufmann, Hofmeister, G. Leidinger, W. Levison, G. Smidt & E. Assman, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores in folio XXX.3 (Leipzig 1934), pp. 1444-1460, online here.

15. Lopez & Raymond, Medieval Trade, doc. 20 at pp. 56-57.

16. Ibid., pp. 57-58.

17. Ibid., p. 58.

18. Ibid.. I have to admit that this seems very very early to me for galanghal to be coming west, which might make us want to ask about the fourteenth-century preservation of this apparently-eleventh-century text (acknowledged Lopez & Raymond, Medieval Trade, p. 56 n. 26). But I’m not going to ask about it now, because this post is already a massive monster…

19. Ibid., pp. 58-59.

20. Ibid., p. 59.

21. Ibid..

22. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

23. Ibid., p. 60.

24. Ibid..

25. Ibid., p. 56, inc.: “The new economic forces help the bishops undermine the power of the emperor and king, but at the same time they also prepare the future downfall of both bishops and imperial officials and the victory of the free Commune.”

26. Ibid..

27. For what follows see most simply Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume III: c. 900–c. 1024 (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 346–371, and more deeply Giovanni Tabacco, The Struggle for Power in Medieval Italy: structures of political rule, transl. Rosalind Brown Jensen (Cambridge 1989), pp. 144-222.

28. For this, as well as Tabacco, I’d still cite Hagen Keller, “Das Edictum de beneficiis Konrads II. und die Entwicklung des Lehnswesens in der erste Häfte des 11. Jahrhunderts”, in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 227-261, though I realise that that’s not a massively helpful reference to the casual enquirer.

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 3

Continuing the press through my reporting backlog, we now reach the third day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies, or as it’s otherwise known, Kalamazoo, 16th May 2015. Time is as ever short and the subject matter ageing, so I shall try and just do my brief list-and-comment format and I’m happy to provide more if they tweak people’s interest. But this is what I saw and some of what I thought…

Early Medieval Europe III

Obviously not one I could miss, given the participants:

  • Eric J. Goldberg, “The Hunting Death of King Carloman II (884)”
  • Cullen J. Chandler, “Nationalism and the Late Carolingian March”
  • Phyllis Jestice, “When Duchesses Were Dukes: female dukes and the rhetoric of power in tenth-century Germany
  • Professor Goldberg made a good attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of King Carloman II, who did indeed get himself killed in a boar-hunt thereby wrecking Western Francia’s chance of Carolingian security, but who had also received the text of advice we know as the De Ordine Palatii from Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims and the acts of whose single council speak in moralising terms of reform and a return to old law in a way that suggests he had taken it to heart, and intended to rule like the right sort of king had the boar not won in one of the court’s fairly essential mutual displays of valour; it might justly be noted, as did Professor Goldberg, that the hunt was happening on a royal estate freshly recovered from the Vikings. As usual, it turns out not to be simple. Cullen made a fresh attempt at explaining the details of Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s undesired escape from Frankish over-rule in the years 985-987 without the national determinism that the standard Catalan scholarship has attached to those events, painting Borrell’s position as one of local legitimacy via multiple fidelities to powerful rulers rather than independència; I might not quite agree, preferring to see something like a serial monogamous Königsfern (to use Cullen’s own concept), but there’s no doubt that nationalism distorts all our perspectives.1 Lastly Professor Jestice looked at three German noblewomen, Judith Duchess of Burgundy, Beatrice Duchess of Upper Lotharingia and Hedwig Duchess of Swabia, over the 960s to 980s, during which time all of them were in various ways in charge of their duchies in the absence of an adult male ruler, and who were all addressed as dux, ‘duke’ as we translate it, in the masculine, in that time, and were awarded charters and held courts like the rulers in whose places we usually consider them to have stood. As Professor Jestice said, it’s a lot easier just to say that they exercised power in their own right, isn’t it? After all, when Duke Dietrich of Lotharingia threw his mother out of power, the pope imposed a penance on him, so you have to wonder if their categories were where we expect them to be. Questions here were mainly about the gendering of the language, and whether it actually has significance, but the point is surely that we can’t mark a clear difference between these women and their male counterparts, so should maybe stop doing it.

432. Money in the Middle Ages

Another obviously-required choice, with later ramifications I couldn’t have anticipated.

  • Andrei Gândilâ, “Modern Money in a Pre-Modern Economy: Fiduciary Coinage in Early Byzantium”
  • Lee Mordechai, “East Roman Imperial Spending and the Eleventh-Century Crisis”
  • Lisa Wolverton, “War, Politics, and the Flow of Cash on the German-Czech-Polish Frontier”
  • Andrei opened up a question I have since pursued with him in other places (thanks not least to Lee, it’s all very circular), which is, how was Byzantine small change valued? From Anastasius (491-518) until the mid-ninth century Byzantine copper-alloy coinage usually carried a face value, which related to the gold coinage in which tax and military salaries were paid in ways we are occasionally told about, but its size didn’t just vary widely, with old 20-nummi pieces sometimes being bigger than newer 40-nummi ones, but was occasionally increased or restored, while old Roman and Byzantine bronze coins continued to run alongside this stuff in circulation at values we don’t understand.2 It seems obvious that the state could set the value of these coinages in ways that look very modern, but the supporting economic framework is largely invisible to us as yet. Lee, meanwhile, retold the economic history of the eleventh-century Byzantine empire, which is as he observed often graphed by means of tracking gold fineness, but could instead be seen as a series of policy reversals by very short-lived emperors that only Alexios I Komnenos, hero of that particular narrative, even had time to address in a way that had a chance of lasting.3 Lastly Professor Wolverton pointed at how often money was involved in the making and breaking of relations across her chosen frontier and argued that more should be done with this by historians, with which I am certainly not going to argue, although discussion made it seem as if the first problem is going to be the numbers provided by her sources.

Then coffee, much needed, and to the next building for…

472. Rethinking Medieval Maps

  • Rebecca Darley, “Eating the Edge of the World in Book Eleven of the Christian Topography
  • Thomas Franke, “Exceeding Expectations: appeasement and subversion in the Catalan Atlas (1375)”
  • Chet Van Duzer, “A Neglected Type of Mappamundi and its Re-Imaging in the Mare Historiarum (BnF MS Lat. 4995, fo. 26v)”
  • Anne Derbes, “Rethinking Maps in Late Medieval Italy: Giusto de’ Menabodi’s Creation of the World in the Baptistery of Padua”
  • Most of this session was somewhat late for me, though not uninteresting, but as keen readers will know Rebecca Darley’s research just about meets mine at Byzantium. She was here arguing in general that, in the early Middle Ages, maps were not tools to be used to find things but ways of imaging space that could not actually be experienced, and used the sixth-century Alexandrian text known as the Christian Topography as an example. It argues in ten books for a flat world the shape of the Tabernacle but then apparently adding an eleventh using quite different source materials to describe the voyage by sea to India and Sri Lanka, with details of the animals from there that the author had seen or indeed eaten. The thing is that the book’s earlier maps don’t show India or Sri Lanka at all, and the cited animals and foods make it seem that the author wasn’t at all clear where they really were; they were not abstract enough to be mapped, but could be directly experienced. QED!

    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.


    Then Mr Franke introduced us, or at least me, to the Catalan Atlas, a world map made by a Jewish artist for King Peter III or Aragón in 1375 which, according to Mr Franke, encodes in its numerous labels of sacred and indeed Apocalyptic locations and portrayals of their associated persons a message that Antichrist will look like the real Christ and that Jews will not be associated with him.
    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript

    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript, by Abraham Cresques – Bibliothèque Nationale de Fance, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41309380


    Mr Van Duzer, for his part, introduced us to another map-as-conceptual-diagram, not the well-known T-O map but a sort of V-in-a-box that shows the different destinations of the sons of Noah about the continents as per the Bible, developed and more less forgotten in the seventh century but revived in his fourteenth-century example manuscript as a vertical projection of a curved Earth, all of which together is more or less unparalleled.
    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v

    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v, showing the division of the world between the races


    Lastly Professor Derbes described a world map that can be found in the sixteenth-century baptistery of Padua built by the Carrara family as part of a larger effort of showing off the learning and artistry which they could command. As with much of the session, all I could do with this was nod and enjoy the pictures but the pictures were all pretty good.

And that was it for the third day of papers. Once again, I didn’t do any of the evening sessions but instead hunted dinner in Kalamazoo proper, which the waiter told us was among other things the first home of the Gibson Les Paul guitar. This also means I missed the dance, which is becoming something of a worrying conference trend and perhaps something I should combat, at Kalamazoo at least, but by now I needed the rest, and so this day also wound down.


1. Until Cullen has this in print, one can see Paul Freedman making some of the same points more gently (because of being in Barcelona to do it) in his ‘Symbolic implications of the events of 985-988’ in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), 2 vols (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23-24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 117-129, online here.

2. The current state of the art on this question is more or less one article, Cécile Morrisson, “La monnaie fiduciaire à Byzance ou ‘Vraie monnaie’, ‘monnaie fiduciaire’ et ‘fausse monnaie’ à Byzance” in Bulletin de la Société Française de Numismatique Vol. 34 (Paris 1979), pp. 612-616.

Seminar CCXXVII: towards a more relaxed and flexible late Anglo-Saxon monetary system

My mainline posts may be diverging increasingly from my seminar reports in terms of date covered, but you will have to admit that the subject material is fairly coherent as I move onto the next seminar report, because it’s all about money here on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for a while. For lo, on 4th February 2015 my old colleague Rory Naismith, now of Kings College London, was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and so of course I was there.

A silver penny of Cnut, struck by Godman at London, in 1025-1036 from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

A silver penny of King Cnut, struck by Godman at London in 1025-1036, from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

Rory is, as those who know his work will appreciate, a man who gets stuff done, and accordingly when the Committee of the Medieval European Coinage Project (on which, full disclosure for those that don’t know, I sit) needed someone to write volume 8, which will cover the British Isles from circa 600 to 1066, it was to Rory we turned, and now it is in press, so chalk one more of many up to Rory on that one. At the point of this seminar he had just about submitted that text, and so was able to give us some preliminary conclusions under the title, “Coinage and the Late Anglo-Saxon State”, and having thus elected to focus on the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system he was necessarily led to address the legacy of this man.

Portrait of Michael Dolley

The late Reginald Hugh Michael Dolley

Thankfully this was not quite literal, as Rory informed us that Michael Dolley (for it is he) had produced not just 860 research outputs in his career but 6 children, but nonetheless there is a particular vision of the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system that we owe to Dolley, which has become fixed into a view of what James Campbell called the ‘maximum hypothesis’ of what he also called the Anglo-Saxon state.1 According to Dolley, extensive study of the coinage revealed that from 973, in the reign of King Edgar, a system of sexennial recoinage operated in which the whole kingdom’s money was called in, melted down and reissued in a new type at any of a large number of mints scattered across the country for this purpose. This allowed very tight dating of the sequence of what were, then, necessarily single nationwide issues, and from this really quite elaborate hypotheses have been hatched about how the weights of these coins were managed to encourage people to bring them in at the end of the run despite the cut that moneyers took at recoinage, and many other aspects of fine detail management.2 It’s been thought for quite a long time that this must be too rigid but only now has someone been forced to write a replacement account, and of course here he was talking to us.

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, found at Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, late 2014, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, also found at Lenborough, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

So, in the Naismith dispensation, not everything has changed but a good deal has. In the first place, since we have 1300+ finds of coins of this period, we can start to say something about relative frequency of types with some basis, and this shows us that not every type was struck in equal numbers. Some, indeed, especially the Lamb of God issue of Æthelred the Unready as above, were apparently struck in very small numbers—if you find one, be careful with it—and while some hoards have only one type in, others do mix, often containing several types at once, all of which puts serious holes in the idea of consistent and total type-by-type recoinage. Instead, it seems ineluctable that some types were only experimental and ran alongside others, that recoinage was not always total and that people did save up over several reigns even when the coins in their hoards should have been legally useless. In discussion, in fact, I suggested that they were still exchangeable for new coins and so people waited until they had to do so rather than pay the moneyer’s cut several times over, which I think still works. The coinage winds up looking like a much less tightly-regulated fiscal apparatus as Rory sees it, anyway, and acquires an aspect of simple moral broadcasting and the performance of royal power, all of which is very much in keeping with how we now view that kingship in certain other aspects too.3

Silver Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II struck by Sæwine at Salisbury

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge also has one of Æthelred’s Lamb of God pennies, which has suffered a different set of misfortunes but which is described in the article linked through the image. The coin is Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1-2009, and it was struck at Salisbury by Sæwine.

This is not necessarily to diminish the power of that kingship, one should say, lest hearts in Oxford start to quail, but rather to change its aims. Starting with James Campbell but picked up by many others, a good deal of work has gone into establishing the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom as unusually closely and effectively administered, and the coinage has been a big part of that because of the kind of micro-management arguments I’ve mentioned, which would require a very modern-looking grasp of fiscal economics to dream up.4 If the kingship’s aims were actually more ideological than fiscal, that doesn’t remove the fact that apparently it could, on a fairly frequent basis, call in almost all of the coinage and replace it, a thing that almost no other medieval state could hope to do or even see any point in. Indeed, one could follow Rory all the way and see the flexibility of this system, minting coins as needed in places that only sprang into life as mints occasionally and meeting demand where the demand mainly was (London, Lincoln, Stamford, York and Winchester struck between half and three-quarters of any given type, Rory had told us), as a strength, indicating a responsive and adaptable system rather than a rigid and dictatorial one. What it begins no longer to look like, however, is a prototype for English modernity, and that is probably good to make clear.


1. Dolley didn’t really compile a monographic statement of his theory, and the closest one can get to a summary of it is probably R. H. M. Dolley and D. Michael Metcalf, “The Reform of the English Coinage under Edgar” in Dolley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Coins: studies presented to F. M. Stenton on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 17 May 1960 (London 1961), pp. 136-168, though one (and by one I suppose I really mean Rory) has also to take account of updates like Dolley & C. Stewart Lyon, “Additional evidence for the sequence of types early in the reign of Edward the Confessor” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 39 (1967), pp. 59-61 or Dolley, “Some neglected Scandinavian evidence for the ordering of the early types of Edward the Confessor”, Seaby’s Coin and Medal Bulletin no. 693 (London 1976), pp. 154-158. Probably the best place to find the significant references is in fact shortly to be Rory Naismith, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 8: Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1066 (Cambridge forthcoming)! As for the Campbell theory, the starting point is J. Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30, along with several other relevant papers, including at pp. 201-225 idem, “Some Agents and Agencies of the Late Anglo-Saxon State” in James C. Holt (ed.), Domesday Studies: Papers read at the Novocentenary Conference of the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of British Geographers, Winchester, 1986 (Woodbridge 1986), pp. 201-218, and one could also point back to Campbell, “Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 25 (London 1975), pp. 39-54, repr. in idem, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London 1986), pp. 155-170.

2. The extent to which Dolley carried the numismatists of his generation with him is to some extent evident in the number of things about his system that he co-wrote, as witness the cites above, but even in 1976 some disquiet was emerging, evident in Stewart Lyon, “Some Problems in Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 5 (Cambridge 1976), pp. 173-224, while on the other hand people who liked to think in systems were having a ball with it, most memorably for me S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 45 (London 1991), pp. 594-607, which is really special thinking.

3. This new perspective seems to be due not least to Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. Volume 1: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), though some influence from the German scholarship focussed on ritual must also be involved, visible for example in Levi Roach, “Public rites and public wrongs: ritual aspects of diplomas in tenth- and eleventh-century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203. The Lamb of God coinage is especially useful for emphasising this ideological broadcasting, as it seems to have had no real economic rôle: see Rory Naismith & Simon Keynes, “The Agnus Dei pennies of King Æthelred the Unready” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 40 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 175-223, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675111000093.

4. In which respect it’s interesting to compare the works in n. 1 above with Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, about which I wrote here a long time ago but now seems more prophetic than I then realised.

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…


Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Name in Print XVI

[This was originally posted on 22nd November 2014, when its news was hot off the press, but I’ve now reached that point in my legendary backlog, so I unstick this post to allow it to join the flow in the place it should originally have occupied. Besides, I bet you haven’t all bought the book yet…]

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which to find the hours for it, but, raising my head briefly, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.

fsmasbbovo

No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!


Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.