Tag Archives: medieval government

Chronicle VI: October-December 2016

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

Well, just as with the last time I wrote one of these, we are still on strike again, so there is now time to write it. With the trip to Istanbul that immediately preceded the start of term now finally dealt with, it’s time again to look at my life academic as it stood at the current date of my backlog, sadly the end of 2016 but for once I am catching up, and take stock of what was going on and, of course, what of it still merits blogging about! Continue reading

It’s not adultery, but…

Sorry for the break in posting here; I was away on holiday, a holiday that contained some medieval bits and pieces that may show up here in time. For the moment, however, I want to conform much more closely to type with a post about something to do with power I found in a Catalan charter. I can’t remember why it was that I was reading this document, but when I did it chimed with something I covered in an old post long ago. Do you remember a lady in tenth-century León who got fined for eating a vast quantity of cheese with her lover? Well, how could you forget? But the reason I originally heard about that charter was the fact that the local count had somehow managed to claim the fine for this essentially private misdemeanour, as if it was an offence against the public order that meant he, as the public representative, could claim damage.1 This seems to have been what good old Foucault called governmentality, that is, the powers-that-be expanding their reach into areas they don’t really yet control by assertion from a place of strength.2 At that time, this looked to me like a privatisation of public power by the local counts of León, and that was not least because I’d never seen any of my Catalan counts pull this kind of trick, which suggested to me that the background of official power the two areas shared didn’t include this. But now I have found them doing it. As I say in the title, it’s not adultery, but…

Church of the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon as it now stands, from Wikimedia Commons

The scenario is a donation to the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon, which was a foundation by the counts of Besalú to rival the important nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses; I’ve written about this if you need context, but basically the counts did a lot of stealing Sant Joan’s land and then selling it back in exchange for concessions to Camprodon.3 This, however, is not one of those occasions. This time, on 16 May 969, Count Miró Bonfill of Besalú, was giving Camprodon a homestead at Carrera, in modern-day Montagut de Fluvià, and two pieces of land in Campllong, on quite elaborate terms.4 I’m not sure if Miró actually knew how to do things on any other terms, but, for example, he ordained that any infringers of the grant would have to pay back the damage threefold rather than the usual twofold, and has a middling-length consideration of the state of his soul at the beginning and so on.

We're more or less here, presumably somewhere along the main road either west or east of the town...

All this fits onto a page of the edition easily, so it’s not a really characteristic charter of Miró’s, but it does tell us where he got the land, and that’s the interesting bit: “That same alod that is named above came to me through a scripture of sale which Theudered and his wife, Adalvira by name, made to me or through the selfsame theft that they committed.”5 I guess that the couple were fined more than they could pay without liquidating their property. It would be nice to think that they got something back—depending on what they had stolen and from whom, I suppose, which no document records—but we do also have the charter in which they sold him this land, two months before, and despite it being a ‘sale’, vinditio, there’s no price specified or any indication that one was paid. The language of the charter actually makes it sound as if they were paying off a debt, “on account of the selfsame forfeit that we made and on account of the selfsame trial which condemned us and through the selfsame law which we must compensate.”6 We don’t, however, know anything else about the couple, what they had stolen, whether this left them bankrupt or basically unhindered, or even where they otherwise lived; it’s possible that they were now tenants of the count on the same lands, but it’s also possible that they just didn’t sell anything else to anyone whose documents now survive or whose lands were next-door to their old ones, so never show up again.

Signature of Miró Bonfill, later Count of Besalú and Bishop of Girona

We don’t have any pictures of Miró, but we do have his signature in a good few documents; here he is as deacon, Miro leuita SSS, twenty years before the transactions of this post, from Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Pergaminos, Cancilleria Real, Seniofredo 39

So, what does all this mean in bigger historical terms? Well, it means that we have some sign in Catalonia too that the representatives of public power thought that they could take fines on behalf of, I guess, the state for offences that hadn’t directly impinged on their property or rights. Here, of course, there was no higher royal claim to such rights that the counts might be considered to have appropriated as there was in Asturias-León, although I’m not sure that scholars there now see the comital claims to power in their territories in those terms.7 It’s also possible that, just as I have argued that Miró’s cousin Borrell II was claiming rights that his predecessors hadn’t in Barcelona and Osona, and trying to make them sound authentic and legal, Miró had just paid closer attention to the Visigothic Law than his predecessors and found that it entitled the state to make such fines, and decided that, “l’estat, és mi”.8 There may have been governmentality going on here too, in other words, cladding new claims in old language. Or fines like this may have been being taken all along, and since that wouldn’t necessarily involve land transfers if people could pay the fines, we just don’t have the documentation of them. But there are nearly twice as many charters in Catalonia as from Asturias-León, so it seems less likely to me that it has just survived in four or five cases there compared to only one here than that there was actually a difference in how these men were working their power in the two areas. In future work, assuming I ever get to do any of it, I hope that I’ll be able to get closer to what that difference might have been and how to explain it. Till then, this is not adultery, but it might mean something anyway.


1. I learnt about all this from Graham Barrett, “Literacy, Law, and Libido in Early Medieval Spain”, presented at the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 15th May 2010, still unpublished.

2. See Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality’, transl. Rosi Braidotti, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (edd.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, IL, 1991), pp. 87–104, online in PDF here.

3. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 64-71.

4. Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader and Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueolòica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, doc. no. 400.

5. Ibid.: “Et advenit mihi iste alaudes quod superius resonat per scriptura venditionis quod michi fecerunt Theuderedus et uxori sue nomine Adalvira vel per ipsum furtum quod illi fecerunt.”

6. Sobrequés, Riera & Rovira, Catalunya Carolíngia V, doc. no. 397: “propter ipsum forisfactum quod fecimus et propter ipsum placitum que nos condemnavit et per ipsa legem quod nos debemus componere.”

7. The new guide on such issues is Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (Abingdon 2016), where pp. 20-31 cover the power of the counts in court and their right to take this fine, which is called iudaticum. I don’t think “forisfactum” is being used in so technical a sense here, but with only one usage how can we tell? The obvious resorts for such questions in Catalonia, Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca, NY, 2004) and Josep M. Salrach, Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013), don’t as far as I remember cover this.

8. A quick check of S. P. Scott (ed./transl.), The Visigothic Code (Forum judicum), translated from the original Latin, and edited (Boston, MA, 1910), online here, suggests that VII.2.13 would have given Miró all he needed.

Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

As we have often seen already here while dealing with my seminar report backlog, Spring 2013 was apparently a time in which, whether I wanted to or not, I could not get away from people talking about Anglo-Saxon England. Mostly this was in Oxford but even London got in on the act on 6th March 2013, when James Lloyd, then finishing his Ph. D. in Cambridge, came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to talk to the title, “Local Government in Wessex before the Hundred”.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Wessex c.900

Wikimedia Commons turns out to have this quite neat map of Wessex circa 900 available, and I struggled to think of illustrations for this post, so, here you are!

You can perhaps already see how this linked up for me with a lot of things I’d been picking up while in Oxford. There had been lots in my world about the organisation of territory and space in Anglo-Saxon England coming into my mental mill for grinding, but John Blair’s Ford Lectures had focused much more on the area of Mercia than on Wessex, because that was where the bulk of the archæological evidence is to be found, and George Molyneaux’s powerful argument that the structures of the Anglo-Saxon state formed up most obviously in the tenth century raised the question of what had gone before, which Andrew Reynolds’s work on assembly sites had sharpened rather than answered. Mr Lloyd’s work thus not only promised at least some kind of thought about the spaces left out in that assemblage of others’ work but also played to my own interests in what happens in these spaces before, after or between jurisdictions where people had some kind of scope to build their communities as they found made sense in their particular circumstances. All that said, the principal problem with such work is that by its very nature it wants to know about areas outside the procedures of government that usually lead to records surviving. This is essentially why the original plan for my thesis wound up being an article and my thesis wound up being about communities responding to authority rather than the creation of those communities: that’s where the evidence was.1 So, OK, enough about me, how did Mr Lloyd approach it all?

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662, from Wikimedia Commons; as a charter historian I think you should regard this as a dramatisation…

It’s probably best to work backwards and start with Mr Lloyd’s conclusion, which was that Wessex in the late seventh century, “is not a system, it is managed chaos now under overhaul” (my notes rather than his words). At that point was beginning, as he saw it, a process of depressing and downgrading local jurisdictions vis-à-vis the king that would, by means of making royal reference integral to their operation, slowly make them into things that could be treated as groups of similar size and rôles, like hundreds, shires, courts and so forth. This process, begun by King Cædwalla’s defeat of many of the other rulers of the south of England, would be continued by King Ine and later by Alfred and perhaps between times by others of whose work we have less trace, but before that looking for the fundamental structures of West Saxon society is a fool’s endeavour, there were probably nearly as many as there were communities. This is how Mr Lloyd thought we can best explain the fact that in sources before Cædwalla and Ine Wessex appears to us as a territory with many kings or sub-kings whose various jurisdictions and origins can only sketchily be brought into relation to each other; those origins and jurisdictions did not in fact relate, but by the warlike actions of an unusually successful line of kings (with Church backing, not much mentioned not least because Mr Lloyd was looking at the period beforehand, but I think it must be part of that hardly-visible process) people who had been kings were brought to admit they were, for now, sub-kings and part of something larger, and thus slowly a kingdom began to form.2 But what about before?

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r: probably not the whole story of power in Wessex

Well, Mr Lloyd certainly attempted to describe the prior situation, but making sense of chaos gets all the harder when your conclusion is that actually, there was no single sense to make of it. What one could do is to impose some kind of artificial classification which at least shows us how we might begin to explain such variety. Thus, one source of authority, jurisdiction or just local definition might be blocs of territory that had somehow held together from before, Glanville Jones’s multiple estates or Hector Chadwick’s royal estates which acquired dependent territories with which to feed their (very small-scale) kings, but the latter runs into problems quite quickly if one believes that such groupings would have been inherited: we can easily imagine them thus ceasing to be royal, if royal status was in any way marked out from nobility by such rights to demand, and then what would hold them together? At which point, one winds up imagining that such units might have been in fairly continuous creation and fragmentation as a local ‘big man’ managed to establish claims on their components and then lost his grip or died—although perhaps still being reckoned a ‘king’ by whatever records underlie the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this period while he was on top of things—or else that Jones was right and that community adherence long pre-existed the authorities that periodically acquired control of such groups.3 Or, as it might well be in different places, both!

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

The other major category of articulation would however be jurisdiction rather than territory, here again covering a variety of forms. Even if they were not centres of hundreds as they became, we know that there were local meeting sites in the countryside and that people met at them for centuries before hundreds were settled on some of them: Andrew Reynolds’s example of Saltwood is still a good one.4 Presumably, people knew to what site they should go to get a judgement, to find a judge, to carry out a sale with the kind of witness that would prevent it being questioned later. Who would those judges have been, and how were they supported? The Old English word scir helps emphasise the ambiguity here: the root of our modern ‘shire’, when referring to an eleventh-century earl it carries clear senses of geographical territory within which that earl administered top-level justice and called out the army, but at its root it means merely ‘office’, ‘charge’ or similar, and has no necessary relation to any given unit or person. Someone who held a scir could, etymologically, have easily been elected by a folk-moot as a kind of speaker as nominated by a king to represent him in the community. And of course the cunning king would want to turn the former into the latter. In this respect, ealdorman, gerefa and sub-king become almpst inseparable concepts: without the later hierarchy within which we read these titles, they could be words for the same people viewed from different perspectives or distances.5 And of course all this is made harder for us to grasp because at the very outset we have sources that were created not within these small units of either land or people or followings or any two or all three, but at a level where many such units could be seen as part of a larger grouping called the West Saxons (or the Gewisse or both), so that the systematisation has already started before we even have words recorded for any of these things.

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

This all provoked discussion of course, not least a wry comment from Susan Reynolds that she rather thought she remembered writing a book about such processes once upon a time,6 but also a debate around the important question of military service, raised by Stephen Baxter. Cædwalla and others can start to surmount this variety because they could call on men to fight for them: how come? Mr Lloyd felt that there was little sign that such authorities were not ad hoc things grown out of personal house-troops, and someone I didn’t know suggested that such things might be larger and more organised at the edges of territories compared to the centre, which not only fits with the anthropological idea of borderlands and many many a Roman coup by a victorious frontier general but also, if you stop and think about it, the way Mercia came out of almost nowhere in the early seventh century.7 Susan Reynolds also made the sharp point that authority over people and authority over territory are obviously hard to separate when people are settled, and that the only time where the separation might be clear is when populations were moving, so that again by the time we can see communities it’s already too late. Issues like these make it clear that figuring this stuff out is probably doomed to slow if any progress, but it remains so fascinating for people like me and, clearly, Mr Lloyd, that we are probably also doomed to go on trying.


1. The article, J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127; the thesis, Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London 2005, online here, rev. as idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available for purchase here, but you all knew that, right? Sorry.

2. The obvious starting point here now seems to me to be Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester 1995); Mr Lloyd’s handout references D. P. Kirby, “Problems of Early West Saxon history” in English Historical Review Vol. 80 (Oxford 1965), pp. 10-29, as fundamental, and it also reminds me of the annal for 626 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which a campaign by King Edwin into Wessex “slew five West Saxon kings, none of whom was the West Saxon king, Cynegils” (Lloyd’s paraphrase). There might be a number of ways to explain that but none of them will likely work without change both before and after…

3. G. R. J. Jones, “Multiple Estates and Early Settlement” in P. H. Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement (London 1979), pp. 9-34, and Mr Lloyd’s handout also alerts me to Jones, “Multiple estates perceived” in Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 11 (London 1985), pp. 352-363; Hector Munro Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge 1905).

4. Stuart Brookes & A. Reynolds, “The Origins of Political Order and the Anglo-Saxon State” in Archaeology International Vol. 13 (London 2012), pp. 84-93, DOI: 10.5334/ai.1312.

5. My go-to work on this kind of thing nonetheless remains Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237.

6. That book of course being S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

7. Though here cf. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008, pp. 26-34.

Seminar CLVI: mandarin vs. vizier

While I was there, and presumably still since, Oxford’s History Faculty was making a determined attempt to `go global’, and to its credit, this included what seems to me now an unusual amount of people who study non-European places coming to talk to people who study European ones, and possibly also vice versa though I didn’t check. On 21st January 2013, however, this took an unexpected turn in as much as I came directly from the Medieval Archaeology Seminar paper just mentioned to the Medieval History Seminar in order to hear none other than Professor Chris Wickham (who is seemingly never absent from this blog) present on the topic, “Administrators’ time: the social memory of the early medieval state in Iraq and China”. This is, you might think, somewhat off his usual patch, and he described it at the outset as ‘combining my ignorance’, but it was as you might also expect still very interesting.

The restored al-'Ashiq palace at Samarra

The restored al-‘Ashiq palace at Samarra, more or less familiar territory to one of this paper’s sources

In order to mount his comparison, Chris took a small body of writing from comparable people high in the administration of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and in the Tang and Song Empires. For Iraq this was a verbose administrator by the name of al-Tanūkhī who died in 994, for China it was a fellow named Ouyang Xiu who died in 1072 and one Wang Renyu from slightly later.1 The paper consisted basically in characterising these two samples and drawing out careful points of comparison. Al-Tanūkhī’s unstructured collection of anecdotes, as Chris told it, is mainly concerned with cleverness and the pursuit of money. By this stage of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the flow of money (bent by such things as the building of Samarra perhaps) was somewhat unofficial. Although al-Tanūkhī condemns corruption, it is clear that he also expected it to be happening on a massive scale, and so did the administration, which at the change of a régime or the retirement of a vizier would routinely torture the outgoing high functionaries to make them reveal where they had stashed the profits of peculation they were assumed to have amassed. This had reached the point where it was in fact prudent, in al-Tanūkhī’s lights at least, actually to have made sure to have been at least a bit corrupt so as to have something to hand over, and that of course raised the game to how much you could hope to hold onto beyond such a sacrificial restitution. Al-Tanūkhī was certain that this was immoral but was still amused and impressed by people who carried it off. Nothing of this occurs in the Chinese sources: if there was corruption in their administrations it certainly wasn’t a joking matter, indeed it wasn’t even mentionable. This was the aspect that got the most questions, but it also showed the value of comparison. Chris talked up al-Tanūkhī in terms we could perfectly understand, and it would have been all too easy to conclude, “well, that’s just how people are really isn’t it?” were it not for the fact of having a different situation explicitly put against it to show that this behaviour was not actually universal.

The Tang Dynasty's Da Ming Palace, Xi'an, China

The Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, Xi’an, China

That opened up other comparisons, of course. In the ‘Abbasid stories, the notable absence is the Caliph, who appears only at the appointment of viziers and not always then; his military role is acknowledged but the actual operation of the state seems to have little to do with it. By contrast the emperor is omni-present in the Chinese writers, despite having no less a military role; he makes or breaks administrators’ careers, even though the prospect of régime change was so much larger here that an administrator’s career could plausibly outlast a dynasty. On the other hand there were definitely similarities: a strong group identity within the writers’ classes, constituted by education (individual in Iraq, but literate, and quite standardised in China because of the entry examinations for the civil service though quite as literate even so), a great respect for competence that would excuse many other defects of conduct and, what had given Chris his title (though this was a riff on an earlier paper of his, too2) a strange absence of chronology: al-Tanūkhī’s stories are occasionally positioned in one reign or other but they don’t need to be, their point is moral or anecdotal, Ouyang Xiu’s official chronicling still more or less ignores anything any previous régime had done and Wang Renyu is more interested in astrology and good stories than any kind of historical perspective.

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t quite sure this made for a common feature here, but my ignorance of any of these sources is pretty much total and this was a while ago now, so I can only react to this summary of what we were told. Certainly, I suppose, there is implicit in a functional administration the belief that it works, that its system is therefore adequate and that its past or future are therefore of little relevance to its current operation, a feature of such systems that greatly annoys historians and long-established Oxford dons who want people to understand that things were not ever thus and that the old situation might have been better. That also brooks a comparison with our current culture where bureaucracy is automatically assumed by government to be (a) the answer to all problems and (b) to be wasteful and in need of regulation, and makes one wonder if we aren’t currently more comparable to the kind of paranoid state with no option but to escalate its correctives that Levi Roach has seen in the government of Æthelred the Unready2 But I digress. Chris’s points were from far less close to home!


1. Chris didn’t cite particular editions or translations, but I find the following with some quick searches: Abu ‘Alī al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī, The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, transl. D. S. Margouliouth, Oriental Translation Fund New Series 27-28 (London 1921-1922), 2 vols, of which there are a sad number of cruddy reprints available on the web it seems; Ouyang Xiu, Historical Record of the Five Dynasties, transl. Richard Davies, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York City 2004); and Wang Renyu, A Portrait of Five Dynasties China from the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956), transl. Glen Dudbridge, Oxford Oriental Monographs (Oxford 2013).

2. Chris Wickham, “Lawyers’ Time: history and memory in tenth- and eleventh-century Italy” in Henry Mayr-Harting & Robert I. Moore (edd.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis (London 1985), pp. 53-71, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 275-293; others of his works pretty obviously flying about in the intellectual æther during this paper were his “The Uniqueness of the East” in Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 12 (London 1985), pp. 166-196, repr. in T. J. Byres & Harbans Mukhia (edd.), Feudalism and Non-European Societies, Library of Peasant Studies 8 (London 1985), pp. 166-196 and rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 43-74 and James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford 1992).

3. Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258-276.

Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England

I am sorry about the sporadic nature of posting here in recent months. There was Leeds, and either side of that I had house guests, and through all of this I’ve been processing new charter information, which inevitably takes daily time or it doesn’t get done and which, shall we say, starts more projects than it finishes. These things are now all winding down and I hope to spend August determinedly clearing backlogs, among which the posts I have been intending here, lo these many months. This must, I think, require some fairly tough decisions about what seminars to cover, but one that I don’t want to miss is the one that was already next up, when George Molyneaux spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 23rd January with the title, “The formation of the English kingdom in the tenth century”.

The point at which one can sensibly talk about a single English kingdom in the Middle Ages has been a long debate, and actually quite a lot of that debate has been led from Oxford. Names like James Campbell and Patrick Wormald come up, who were in post here when they published the things on this subject which have been influential, or Michael Wood, who started here before going on to greater things, and Sarah Foot, who was not here when she took her place in this historiography, now is.1 One might expect the next step in the debate to be taken elsewhere, therefore, but in actual fact George, one of the scary Prize Fellows at All Souls College, has led the charge from the inside. In the previous stage of the debate King Alfred tended to loom large; George’s first published step into this started the process of diminishing the responsibility of Alfred’s court (itself another Oxford pursuit) and now he is in the process of turning his doctoral thesis into a book which may even finish the job.2 This paper was, I think, more or less a pitch for that book, and it made it sound extremely necessary; I shall try and do the same.3

Sketch-map of England and its parts in the 10th century by George Molyneaux

The hand(out) of George: sketch-map of England and its parts in the tenth century, with added information

I had a very slight advantage over some of the audience for this paper, in as much as George kindly lectures on a course I convene here so I’d already heard some of what he might say. So, what’s the argument? Well, an elevator pitch of it would be fairly simple: it is that the really big work of setting up and structuring a kingdom of the English should be placed in the later tenth century and not before; before that is only a military unity, periodically fractured by a resurgent Viking York or whatever cause it may be, but by 1000 one has structures like shires (only apparent north of the Thames in the last third of the tenth century or so), hundreds (on sites that had often had a focal role from much longer ago but now doing something new, as George qualified in questions), and the courts at both of those levels, fortified towns (as opposed to just fortresses that would later become towns), mints (with a number of new mints set up by King Edgar (959-975), who then got all active mints striking the same sort of coin at once) and many other things. George stressed that he didn’t want to make Edgar into a new Alfred here, not least because for some of this King Edmund (939-946) may also have to bear some blame and presumably there’s also room to rehabilitate Eadred (946-955) and Eadwig (955-959) at least a little bit too, but the opportunity given Edgar by the temporary cessation of Viking attacks must have counted for a great deal, it seems to me; Eadred deserves more recognition than he gets for defeating every, considerable, military threat that arrived but it can’t have left him a lot of time for civil reform.

Obverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R Reverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

A silver penny of the Stamford mint from after Edgar's 973 coinage reform, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

What George ended up pitching here, by means of a comparison of how he saw royal government before and how he saw it after his identified change, was a shift of emphasis from extensive to intensive government, from a peripatetic court with an essentially military and seigneurial dominion to one that commanded through law and through a devolved and consistent structure of administration, as far as local variation would admit anyway. He put this down to an end to the possibilities of expansion now that all the Viking kingdoms were conquered, to the reform ideology of the period pressuring the king to take control for the good of his people and his own salvation, and to the economic growth that was going on everywhere at the time and the intensification of lordship that it fuels, the first argument not unlike that put forward by Timothy Reuter for the Carolingian Empire of course and the last one that readers here will likely recognise though George was getting it from Rosamond Faith, not from anyone I tend to cite.4

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar's laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar’s laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

The result – if George is right about this – was that for the first time the kingdom and the realm of the English were relatively close to being the same thing, as opposed to a people with many kings. It also made England different from its neighbours in a way that was hard to undo: to be under the rule of the English king was a different kind of experience of power, involving a more regimented access to judgement, to markets, to warranty, to protection and (I’m sure John Blair would have added) to the sacred than one found outside its borders, which one might now therefore have been able to define. In England, royalty ruled not just by charisma and self-presentation, but now also by routine. And this, you see, is one of the reasons why the tenth century is where it’s at. It will not be long, I suppose, before the full version of this story as George sees it is available, and I think it’s going to be necessary reading not just for Anglo-Saxonists but for anyone who believes similarly in the importance of the tenth century or wants to know how one goes about forming a state in the early Middle Ages. Because you see, by the end of it that is what we’re talking about and just making that clearer will not be the least of this work’s impact.5

I asked one of my wooliest questions ever after this paper, because at that time I had hundreds on the brain and was still unable to get away from the antiquity of many of the sites where hundred courts were held. By the time I’d stumbled the words out, it all seemed rather obvious and yet it’s not, perhaps, often enough stated: quite a lot of what underlies these processes must, it seems to me, be men (and even women) in power seeing the possibility of turning existing structures to their agenda and converting them into part of the government. I kind of hate this argument because it rings of Foucault, but when you have kings apparently giving the hundred moots, whatever they did beforehand, new jobs and new jurisdictions and limits probably but often on the old sites, or Alfred (yes, I will keep him in this at least this little bit) using the Viking threat to put areas of his kingdoms under obligations to build fortresses and do military service that had maybe before only run in detail in Mercia, I think that these changes have to be seen this way.6 The coinage system must be another thing that can be fitted into that template; Offa of Mercia and indeed Alfred were obviously able, at a push, to call in the whole coinage or at least decree that an old one would cease to be acceptable; Æthelred the Unready, whatever his failings, could do this frequently. (I’m sure George will cover this last in the book, indeed.)

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

In each of these cases, a structure or process that had been occasional or reserved for emergencies wound up serving a new, governmental purpose and becoming a routine operation. I don’t mean to say that Edmund and Edgar and their advisors didn’t think of anything new, not at all, but that the things they carried out were in part dictated by the possibilities of what already existed. If I’m right about this – sorry – there are two important implications, one of which is that those who managed to lay down the precursors should be credited with assisting the later creation of that state we’re talking about, but the other of which is that encroachments on liberty by government can be sincerely meant to be one-off but still open up possibilities for successors who don’t see the constraints so clearly. I’ve been worried about this ever since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in England, and the Terrorism Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act only made those worries worse. It seems unlikely, from here, that people in tenth-century England saw the institution of regular shire and hundred courts as a nosey and potentially dangerous intervention by tyrannical higher-ups that removed their personal liberties, though the attempts of the Anglo-Saxon kings to restrict trade to places where royal reeves could witness it probably seemed more like that sort of thing despite the obviously sensible purpose of limiting the possibility for disputes. And, then as now, if there was opposition, it certainly wasn’t unified, coherent or resourced enough to resist these changes. All the same, there are two ways to see the building of an England in this period, quite apart from the debate over whether it happened thus and then, and I find that contemporary politics make it harder to see the positive side that was perhaps more apparent to those who remembered the Second World War firsthand.7 It may be a thousand years ago and more that George is writing about, but the reasons people may care are very current. It’s not actually necessary, to drive those arguments, that the picture we have of the formation of England be correct, but I take some comfort anyway in thinking that with George’s work we’re a step closer to being correct about it all the same.


1. James Campbell, “Was it Infancy in England? Some questions of comparison” in Michael Jones & Malcolm Vale (edd.), England and Her Neighbours, 1066-1453. Essays in Honour of Pierre Chaplais (London 1989), pp. 1-17; Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a Maximum View” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1995), pp. 39-65, both repr. in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 179-199 & 1-30 resp., and several other chapters of that volume; Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24; Michael Wood, In Search of England (London 1999), pp. 91-106; Sarah Foot, “The making of Angelcynn: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78; cf. Susan Reynolds, “What do we mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’?” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 24 (Chicago 1985), pp. 395–414 and Pauline Stafford, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, identity and the making of England” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 28-50.

2. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323; see also Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23 and cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited”, ibid. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

3. Part of me wishes also for the book that Chris Lewis might write on this, as has been recorded here before, but perhaps the existence of George’s will provoke him!

4. Rosamond Faith, The English peasantry and the growth of lordship (London 1997).

5. Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: the tyranny of a concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, vs. Susan Reynolds, “There Were States in Medieval Europe – a reply to Rees Davies” ibid. pp. 550-555.

6. What I know about legislation around the hundred, I confess, I get principally from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 39. On military service, see Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare, 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but to see this in action (or not!) see Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91 (ed.); for more recent assessment, David Hill & Alexander Rumble (edd.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester 1996).

7. For sharp comparanda for this kind of assessment, see Catherine Hills, Origins of the English (London 2003), pp. 21-39.

Seminar XCV: control of assembly spaces in Anglo-Saxon England

Because Easter was so late this year, everyone’s term more or less started at the same time with a crunch, school and all the universities together. This also meant that I had only a fortnight of university term before being able, just about, to light out for Kalamazoo, and in that fortnight both the Oxford Medieval Seminar and the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had a skip week for various reasons. Two days before I flew the Atlantic, however, Andrew Reynolds of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology came to address the Oxford one on the subject of “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Anglo-Saxon Assembly Sites”, which was coming out of the big ‘Landscapes of Governance’ project he and various others are currently engaged in.

Landscapes of Governance project mastheadLandscapes of Governance project masthead

On this occasion, the subject was mainly hundreds. For those not deeply embedded in English history, the hundred was until the nineteenth century or so a subdivision of the county or shire into which England is apportioned. It used to have a court and so on and various civic responsibilities devolved to it until quite late, which means that we have decent maps of where the final ones were and so on. There are two things generally accepted about hundreds: the first is that the laws of the English kings don’t really start to talk about them until the early- to mid-tenth century, which fits well into a narrative we have about the increasing organisation of government by the kings in that period leading to James Campbell’s maximum state and so on, and the second is that the sites on which these hundreds are centred often appear to be very old, in terms of their names, position on boundaries and very occasionally their archaeology (though that last is known mainly where the sites are at older burial mounds).1 The hundred meeting sites are mainly in the countryside, not in towns, and those that are urban may well predate the towns in question, which they generally stand outside anyway. So, it will not take a genius brain to spot that these two things conflict: are hundreds ancient and popular or are they late and organised by the state? This was roughly what Andrew’s team, using archaeology, place-names, mapping, topography, local history and really anything they can get up to and including sonography, had been working towards here, looking at both the sites and their districts and trying to get everything in play at once.2

Burial grounds of the Bronze Age to Anglo-Saxon periods at Saltwood, Kent

Burial grounds of the Bronze Age to Anglo-Saxon periods at Saltwood, Kent

Now, of course when you map lots of different things together you get correlations, whether you like them or not, and the problem is knowing what’s real and what’s just coincidence.3 Sometimes the associations are really dense and probably genuine: the classic case that Andrew gave, and which I’ve seen him use before, is a place called Saltwood which was in the way of the recently-built Channel Tunnel Rail Link and about which we therefore have some idea. Here, there were four early cemeteries, of which three were centred on mounds, and each of which spanned a full social range in terms of gender and wealth, suggesting that they served distinct communities. The wood between them all however became the centre of a hundred here, and between the cemetery evidence and the governance evidence we can show, from cooking pits dug into the cemetery areas, that people were meeting here occasionally throughout the period of the seventh to the twelfth centuries, that is, from shortly after the cemeteries cease in use till well out of the Anglo-Saxon period. It’s difficult to avoid the idea that a hundred coalesced here around an ancient assembly site that arose at a point of confluence between four neighbouring communities.

It would be nice if this could be generalised out from, but predictably there is huge variation. Patterns do emerge but they are of low-end significance and there is obviously no one-site-fits-all solution. About 10% of hundred sites (which had never before been mapped for all England! but were here being counted from four target territories only) are at mounds, but very few of these mounds appear to have been ancient burial sites—11 of the 12 dug as of 1986 were been empty. 9% seem to have been at famously ancient trees, 7·5% at river crossings, but it’s not much. Andrew noted that very few of their place-names speak of kings or reeves or courts but many speak of the people, of ceorls or folc.

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, which is supposed to be a Bronze Age burial mound and came to be the meeting site for Bradmere hundred, or so says Megalithic.co.uk whence I borrowed the image

In discussion the questions that came up trying to refine this were, well, mine were about burial, which as you know I keep seeing associated with power in my area, and there there is a correlation of sorts, though again far from universal. Chris Wickham and Mark Whittow both also asked questions about durability, and whether any of these sites might be only attempts or short-lived, to which Andrew wisely observed that we can’t tell in most cases, but it seems to me that the ones we can find, we can find because they existed long enough (as something) to become well-known. I also thought that the way the two historiographies can be reconciled is to see the kings trying to take over control of and impose new rôles on an older system of gathering and local arbitration or celebration, but that doesn’t explain where the sites and the practices came from in the first place. Avoiding Volk aus der Maschine answers like ‘Germanic tradition’, we still have a picture of non-urban social complexity, of chieftains versus states, and of what Andrew called dispersed complexity here, and although it’s very far from uniform as I say, it does seem to me as if top-down system creation might explain nearly as much as spontaneous coagulation in some of these cases.


1. I believe it to be be true that the first datable mention of hundreds in an Anglo-Saxon law-code is in what’s cited as III Edmund, of 939, but there’s an undated thing called the Hundred Ordinance which appears to share text with that law, though which way round the borrowing was is another question. Both are translated in Agnes Jane Robertson (trans.), The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge 1925; repr. 2009). For the `maximum state’ argument see James Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30. Literature actually on the hundred system is harder to find, largely because talking about means coping with an incredible amount of local history publication in out-of-the-way places; I still find Helen Cam, “Manerium cum Hundredo: the hundred and the hundred manor” in English Historical Review Vol. 47 (London 1932), pp. 353-76, repr. in eadem, Liberties & Communities in Medieval England (Cambridge 1944; repr. London 1963), pp. 64-90, a good thing to start with but there must, surely, be something newer, and in an ideal world it’d be by Chris Lewis. Regesta Imperii shows nothing obviously synthetic, however, though I note with pleasure that the article on “Hundreds” in Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and David Scragg (edd.), The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1999), pp. 243-244, is by Sean Miller.

2. And by sonography we mean, basically, one of the team standing on the relevant sites and shouting to see how well he could be heard, something for which Andrew told us this person had nearly been arrested several times by now.

3. My cite of reference for this is, as ever, Mary Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

Seminar XCI: dealings with the Fatimid Caliphate

It’s nearly the new term and I haven’t finished talking about the last one yet, again, to say nothing of Catalonia. Therefore, we must speed things up here and so I am going, reluctantly, to say basically nothing of Professor David Abulafia‘s presentation to the Late Medieval Europe Seminar in Oxford on the 22nd February 2011, for all that I have a great respect for David and that he is one of the people to whom some blame for this whole thing my research could reasonably be attached.1 I justify this because although the paper was jolly interesting, it was also a précis of a book that you will soon be able to read for yourselves, should you choose.2 So, instead, let me move on a week and talk about Professor Marina Rustow, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar here with the title, “The Fatimid State as Viewed by Medieval Jews”, on the 28th. You have perhaps heard of the Cairo Genizah? If not, this was an amazing cache of manuscripts of all ages, deposited in a synagogue loft in Fustat between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, which was then slowly opened up to scholarship, and has been so huge that this is still happening. I can’t do any better than quote the web-page of the largest project based on this material by way of deeper explanation:

A genizah is a storage room where copies of respected texts with scribal errors or physical damaged, or unusable documents, are kept until they can be ritually buried. The dark, sealed, room in the arid Egyptian climate contributed to the preservation of the documents, the earliest of which may go back to the eighth and ninth centuries.

That website, which has digital images of some of the texts too (see below) says there were about 200,000 pieces of manuscript in this Genizah, but Dr Rustow was talking in terms more like half that again. This mass of evidence she handled clearly and comprehensibly throughout: she is an excellent ambassador for a field of study about which most of her audience, perhaps, knew very little. (It’s not safe to gamble on what people don’t know, round here.) Most of the sample, she explained, is as you’d probably expect given its preservation Biblical or Talmudic texts, which are themselves of importance for Jewish theologians, but most of the work I know about has been on the actual documents within the sample, of which there are about 10-15,000. Those best known are the ones from Jewish traders from around the Mediterranean that somehow wound up here, showing a criss-crossing set of links and connections that really make the Sea alive with medieval traffic (of which, after all, the Jews were probably only a part; think of all those supposed Syrians!)3 but Dr Rustow’s particular interest was in the fact that among this stuff there is also a certain amount of Islamic government material: letters to officials, petitions, decrees and memoranda, often having arrived in the Genizah after being recycled and written over for some other purpose.4 The Fatimid chancery of Cairo appears to have written big and with lots of space left over…

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 3616 9, recto

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 3616 9, recto. Note the widely-spaced lines of Arabic faded or washed out and the new script written in at right angles. If you follow the link you'll see an entire letter was then written on the other side. Whether this is actually a chancery document I have no idea but this is the process Prof. Rustow described

Why this stuff, and indeed the various documents with solely Christian (Melkite and Coptic) and Muslim (Sunni and Shi’a) participants, wound up in a synagogue loft is a problem still currently unsolved, and a lot of the questions that we raised and that Dr Rustow had for us, indeed, were about preservation and documentary cultures in east and west, who keeps what for what reason and so on. Here it seemed to me by the end of the discussion that we had actually brought East and West closer together, that there are odd occasional caches of original documents, from Sinai and Mount Athos to Catalonia via Fustat or Sankt Gallen, that show that with the right luck this stuff can survive and tell us that it probably did in other places too. Once again we have to face up to just having lost an awful lot of stuff. There is an idea, largely the fault of Patrick Geary and not without some foundation, that the West keeps copies of this stuff instead of originals, but there are enough places that have both cartulary and original documents that I think we can doubt whether the disposal of originals was quite as close on the heels of copying them as he seems in places to suggest.5 The same seemed to be true in the East, with a number of the 400-500 documents that Dr Rustow had found to work with in those of the many many archives over which the Genizah material is spread being copies of documents that had previously been copied by the Mamluk régime of thirteenth-century Egypt, meaning that at that point they had survived three centuries and were still thought worth making new ones of. Dr Rustow thought that this suggested that the documents themselves were only of short-term value, but I wonder if that might mainly be true for the régime and whether those actually holding the kind of land or revenue concession that these documents transferred might have had their own copies that they held onto more carefully, but which of course ultimately don’t come down to us because of that. This would match the situation in the West perfectly well, I think, where again people do have documents but only the actual property-holders usually keep them, which ultimately means the Church. In the Islamic zones that non-state archive institution doesn’t really exist, and so we have lost what it might have held, but that doesn’t make what survives in the West typical of what was actually in use.6 Anyway, I could go on in that vein all day and my questions were, as you can imagine, probably a bit too long. Back to the actual point of the paper!

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 4009 2

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 4009 2v: pen trials

Once they reached the Genizah, however, or rather immediately before, these Fatimid documents appears to have been being kept just as papyrus for pen-trials or as formulae to use in new documents (which is a model I think we have to face in many other places too). There were also a few instances where régime change had apparently led to the previous incumbent’s archives quite literally being thrown out and sold in bulk as second-hand papyrus or paper. What they actually show us, however, is a state apparatus that could be accessed, to a certain extent, by individuals, by means of petitioning. This was an ‘Abbasid innovation, one of the ways in which those high-minded coup-mongers were able to present themselves as being better justified and less tyrannical than the first, Umayyad, caliphs, and acted both as legitimisation and as a check on the state’s officials (much like Charlemagne’s circuits of missi but more centralised, as the Islamic states could manage to be).7 It was presumably much easier to get access to the court machinery of audience with suitable contacts or bribery, of course, but the same was probably true everywhere. Nonetheless, the possibility that a humble person could seek redress from the Caliph himself (which is also littered through The Arabian Nights, you may remember, even though that is kind of the Scriptures of Western Orientalism along with Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra as its New Testament) was a kind of consensus on which the régime could rest. Dr Rustow’s takeaway point was, therefore, that when we actually have evidence for the workings of these supposed Oriental despotisms, we don’t find purely ideological and theocratic justifications of power but a régime that was as interested in giving good justice and being fair, or at least in seeming that way enough to keep its people from revolt as any in the medieval West. In other words, this is no more ‘Oriental despotism’ than the high medieval west is a ‘feudal system’; in both cases there is far too much social theory that lurks around assuming that these two ideal types had more real existence than they did and in both cases that theory needs a sound kick in the paradigms, which it here got. This was a good paper.8


1. Because how, Professor Abulafia used to run an undergraduate paper on Muslim Spain, and taught it to me, and one of the things he set as reading was Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading, IL. 1994), pp. 83-96 and from that I learnt that the Muslim-Christian frontier was full of weird anomalous social groupings and at Masters level resolved to investigate them and well, here we are.

2. It’s called, if I remember, A History of the Mediterranean and covering really quite a timespan.

3. This is classically described in Shelomo Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: the Jewish communities of the world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Genizah (Berkeley 1967-1993, repr. 1999, 2000), 6 vols; a single-volume abridgement (Berkeley 2003).

4. This material is partly published—given how scattered the collections are anything more than partial is a major effort—in Geoffrey Khan (ed.), Arabic legal and administrative documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (1993), but of course, as I have myself discovered, Cambridge is not the whole world.

5. Originally in P. J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985) though Professor Geary has been as enthusiastic as anyone about modifying and refining his suggestions there in conference volumes such as Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle and Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires. Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993).

6. See for the West, of course, Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 and Alice Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom in Early Medieval Francia: the evidence of the legal formulae” in Past and Present no. 193 (Oxford 2006), pp. 7-40.

7. If you don’t know your Umayyads from your ‘Abbasids, the starting point probably has to be Hugh Kennedy, The Age of the Prophet and the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century, 2nd edn. (London 2004). If, instead, it’s the mention of missi that has you in a mither, Matthew Innes, “Charlemagne’s Government” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 71-89 might be the magic.

8. I realise that I do default to this position a bit too readily, even now, but I persist in thinking that it is a reasonable and rational check on theories of human society supposedly based in history to say, “it was not like that at the times and in the places when you claim it was, so I do not think your theory is valid, however lovely it may feel”. How are we ever going to understand human if we don’t actually know what it’s like and what it has done?

Seminar LXXII: half of the world for a thousand years in one hour

On 3rd November 2010 the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research heard a paper entitled “Eurasia: society and solidarity 500-1500”. This, you might think, was just a bit ambitious, but as we rapidly learnt the paper had come about because the speaker had been asked to write an 8,000-word chapter for the Cambridge History of the Word covering that territory, and as we already knew, that speaker was Susan Reynolds, and though she professed ignorance and inadequacy throughout I can’t think of many people, if any, who could attempt this even if so asked, and not many more who might be asked. What we got was therefore a kind of first run that enabled all of us to put our areas of interest into a much bigger picture for a while. Summarising what was already a summary (except in as much as Susan probably had more space here than she will have in the chapter) doesn’t seem likely to succeed but I don’t think I can do much more; my notes for this paper run to two sides of narrow-lined longhand even before the questions started, I usually aim for half that, and that shows either how much I didn’t know or how well-packed the time was, I think the latter.

For Professor Reynolds the unifying theme of this huge spread, if there was one, was inequality: all societies of any size in this scope had haves and have-nots and the order in which they were arranged was usually fairly stable as long as not transgressed; polities were seen as natural, and this reinforced hierarchy. Even the poorest societies practised a hierarchy of genealogical structure, in the modern sense, or, as she said, “in my modern sense”. Most governments were monarchical, were expected to be such, and were challenged only by rivals for that status. Over the period these governments tended to have acquired more control of land and increased rights over it more generally. This was the development of the age that Susan thought could be most safely asserted as a generalisation. Land was always the basic source of power, even as professionalisation took hold towards the end of the period, but nowhere did a ruler hold all rights in his territory while, at the other end of the scale, very little property appears originally to have been held in common, as opposed to rights in property, which often were. Rights in property were usually very confused compared to most of our schema, and of course remain so. (Susan used herself as an example: “I’m a tenant of the Duke of Bedford, you know. It’s not feudal. It’s just how it is.”)

Map of the Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road

Production rose and populations expanded over the period, though again not continuously, not least because all areas, more or less, in this span were affected by the Black Death and its subsequent lighter-toned offspring, which travelled along the same routes as goods and ideas both, especially the Silk Road, one of the few things that gave the area Susan had been assigned any unity; although there was some argument afterwards about the importance of sea trade, this was, she argued, less steady and more variable than this long route along which wayside stops became hemisphere-famous cities. In other respects, though, the period was one in which large-scale social change is hard to assert, rather than shifting political configurations; technology and lifestyles were not very far from each other, viewed from outside the period, from 500 to 1500 across the area, especially compared to the advances and developments after this period. (David Ganz asked about before, and Susan agreed that that was probably very similar but that it was, thankfully, outside her remit here.)

Medieval hierarchy depicted; original source sadly unknown

Governments were layered, either hierarchically or from centre to periphery; connections between the two were made either by government officials or religious organisations, most often. Rulers were expected to give justice and take counsel, even eastern ‘despots’, in whom Susan found little reason to believe as the topos is largely based on court flattery writing aimed at the despots themselves whom it also usually urges to take counsel… Nonetheless, some rulers did not stay within the expectations of their societies and those in the most hierarchical organisations were the hardest to quell without terminal violence and upheaval, because their developed status made them invulnerable. Bureaucracy accrued with structure of government, but did not necessarily preserve that structure; it could often persist without the unity that had originally given it cause. Instead, political survival came best through solidarity, the acceptance of an order and development of an identity within it that could then be employed by others outside, if they would accept the existence of such groups. The larger your polity was, of course, the more disparate its member groups and the harder this was to do with any uniformity.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar debating different religions with scholars in his court

The Mughal Emperor Akbar (just slightly out of period) debating different religions with scholars in his court

Religion might lend some more egalitarian ideas, but more often was part of the hierarchy itself; this should not be allowed to shroud the extent to which rulers and religious clashed, which was common in many places. Christianity, among these religions, was unusual in its mobilisation against opponents, among whom cohabitation and mutual influence were more common. Another social glue was law, sometimes, but these often existed without any real influence detectable in the sources (which of course vary massively, another point of subsequent discussion, though less massively than we might suppose, Susan argued). Legislation through consensus achieved in assemblies was however common and sometimes effective, and almost all local government was done this way. Professional law declined in Islam and rose in Christianity over the period; one wonders why both, and will presumably never know.

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

In all areas, the bottom levels of society were roughly similar, and more or less enslaved, though Europe (alone?) had mechanisms of emancipation that could sometimes be called on and social mobility also came, here as elsewhere, from geographical mobility. Towns, contrary to popular wisdom, rarely made free and rarely gave impulse to democratic movements: this should not be taken as axiomatic. Collective action by the populations of towns was quite common, however, even if it did not institutionalise itself very widely. Class conflict also existed everywhere, as could be seen in the number of fairly hopeless revolts for goals we cannot now see clearly, for the most part, but which could probably usually be characterised as ‘justice’ rather than revolution, that is, uprisings were often aimed at a reversion to a status quo and almost never at a new order. Once more, most of the oppressed would accept a hierarchy if it were justly run. This was repeated several times and was clearly the point Susan felt most strongly about; it is certainly worth making before we allow too many generalisations about human nature and the desire to be free in the same sense that we now understand that word (i. e. idealistically).

The historiography available to Professor Reynolds was substantially Eurocentric, it’s worth noting, and this is a characteristic generally, she thought, of work covering this period, which is one set with reference to developments in Europe, developments furthermore that were subsequently exported or adopted overseas in many places, which makes that worse. Another characteristically Reynoldsian aside about words and their varied meanings (and do follow that link if you are fond of such things) in historical writing—which culminated with “serfs!”—drove the point home that the historiography has done the same thing in many cases, exporting European phenomena as terms locals would not have recognised for what they were used to identify.

The apparent steadiness of state that Susan had depicted led to a conversation in questions about what distinguished this period from others. She said that new ideas such as the Rights of Man and the State of Nature do in fact change things permanently; John Sabathapy said that he had felt while she talked that most differences she’d mentioned were surely geographically determined, not philosophically, but she argued that while the differences can and should be explained geographically, the similarities must be explained by ideas. This is logically really quite interesting, or perhaps illogically: it seems to me to imply a neutral space in the middle where something is neither similar nor different. This may not fit the binary well, but Susan is known for arguing that thinking in triads is better than in diads for your history… There is here considerable room for thought and, for those that want to think about it, may make it clear why the regulars at this seminar have such a great affection for Susan; she would say otherwise, I don’t doubt, but she is a very wise person, and few other people could have said anything coherent, still less anything as erudite as this was, about such a wide area and period.

Deintellectualising King Alfred

The largest of my responsibilities in this job I have (for which some day there will be institutional web evidence) is coordinating the lecture series that serves the British early medieval survey course, British History I (300-1087). Partly out of wanting to hear what the students were getting, and partly out of wanting to be sure they ran all right, I attended all but one of these lectures in the term just gone, which means that I’ve heard some very notable people lecturing on their best subjects, which is almost always good. And of course, since these are not my best subjects, it’s not just the students who have been learning things…

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark whose inscription proclaims, "Alfred had me made"

King Alfred, as George Molyneaux told ‘my’ students, has been blamed for an awful lot that can’t really be substantiated, single-handedly defeating the Vikings (his son and daughter deserve quite a lot of credit too), building towns all over England and shiring it (again, more credit due to his successors) and founding the royal navy (actually just ordered some new ships that in the end didn’t work out), but one thing for which he does stand out in the scholarship is his interest in matters intellectual, which is supposed to have extended to getting translated a set of ‘certain books that are the most needful for men to know’, which were, as it’s usually counted, the first fifty Psalms, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great (where this preface is to be found), the Soliloquies of St Augustine, On the Consolation of Philosophy by Bœthius, Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, mentions Alfred as having worked with a team of scholars to translate Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, and somewhere out there this court probably produced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle too; it’s all fairly impressive.1 But, George warned the students, an article by Malcolm Godden has recently called all this into question. “Your tutors probably haven’t read this article yet,” he added, “so if you use it in an essay you’ll need to explain it, not just reference it”, which was a little close to the bone perhaps but, I have to admit for myself, true. George however wins prizes for being conspicuously clever, and is better-informed than almost anyone. So I patched my lack of knowledge in this respect at least, and have now seen what the argument is.2

Basically, Godden puts the evidence that all supposedly relates to this supposed phenomenon together and finds it seriously inconsistent. Asser mentions none of the rest of the works, only the Dialogues, and since Asser stopped writing a scant six years before the king’s death in 899, that really doesn’t leave a lot of time for a man who’d only recently learnt Latin to do all the rest, especially given the Viking army in the country between 892 and 896. Some might say, of course, that Asser is a forgery in which case ‘his’ estimate of the king’s Latinity isn’t to be taken literally, but the years don’t get much longer even then due to other factors. The prefaces to the other works refer to their other versions in ways that show that they are posterior to the translation dates and there is a severe shortage of known scholars writing in the West Saxon dialect in which most of these texts (and the Chronicle) now exist (as opposed to the Mercian one that colours the Dialogues). Several of the works also offer frank criticisms of bad kingship that seem implausible coming out of a court project. It all makes the traditional picture hard to sustain. You’ll have to assess it yourself—the paper seems to be online for free through FindArticles though who knows how long that will last?—but I think at least the Consolation of Philosophy and the Soliloquies probably have to be accepted as later translations identified as Alfred’s to bring them attention. Godden concludes that Alfred didn’t actually translate any of these texts, and it’s possibly easier to agree with him than to say why one shouldn’t.

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20 but here reproduced from Wikimedia Commons

This is not completely to demolish the idea of Alfred’s court as a centre of intellectual renewal and the headquarters of a battle for the incipient nation’s mind, however: Asser, if we accept him, testifies to the Dialogues (and to Alfred’s own interest in them even if the others in the team did the actual word-work); we can still securely date the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s compilation to 892; and the Pastoral Care is preserved early enough that it too must be from Alfred’s reign.3 So something was going on, even if the king wasn’t himself penning them. Given the which, does this actually matter very much?

The principal reason that it matters to me is that the example of Alfred as historian-king has often been used as a parallel to an almost-contemporary one, King Alfonso III of Asturias, who has been claimed as author of the Chronicle that bears his name.4 Alfonso clearly also had the court full of scholars, and also a far better library, but the same arguments of how busy warrior kings surely were have been raised against the idea.5 What may have made Alfred slightly more plausible is that he was aiming for work in the vernacular, which is at first take easier to imagine for us who have to learn to write Latin specially, but in Alfred’s day of course literacy would have been Latin first and vernacular second, and in any case translating into English from (extremely sophisticated) Latin requires a mastery of both tongues so that doesn’t help.6 For everyone other than the Hispanists, however, the importance is that these works are some of the principal evidence for Alfred as architect of an idea of English political unity, for which some of these texts seem well-suited, most obviously Orosius and Bede. The Pastoral Care seems more like a text for governors, which fits with other things that Asser says about encouraging a literate nobility, and might fit into other views of the court but what I think of as the ‘Angelcynn’ hypothesis is at least partly supported on these texts being part of a bigger Alfredian plan.7 Now we have to consider that, possibly, we can’t show Alfred had any such plan after all. Worried, evidently, that the lid on the coffin of this thesis wasn’t yet firmly fixed in place, George last year added a piece of his own (I now discover) looking specifically at the Old English Bede, and pointing out that much of the one-people-one-country stuff that Bede’s original contains (among other more plural takes on the island’s Anglo-Saxon population) is omitted from the Old English version, which seems instead to concentrate on the stories to encourage good behaviour at the expense of the history and national framework.8 This seems to make it part of the how-to-behave school of texts such as the Dialogues, Pastoral Care and Consolation now seem, as opposed to a bigger project of nationality-building. Fair enough! I don’t mind rethinking Alfred to this extent; he’s still always going to be remarkable in terms of quantity and quality of information (at least as long as we can maintain our faith in Asser).

[Edit: image changed to match caption!]

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The only thing that still bugs me, and about which I must ask George when next I see him, is that somewhere out there someone around that court was still building the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and while its agenda may well be more West Saxon (as the most successful and surviving of a number of accepted and equally-old royal dynasties it cheerfully mentions9) than pan-English, it’s definitely a bit more than a self-help text. While we still have someone (and who, for heavens’ sake?) doing that, the size and scope of the political picture at Alfred’s court can’t be too completely underestimated, I think.


1. This is all set out most accessibly in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 25-35 where the Pastoral Care, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms are reckoned Alfred’s own work on the basis of stylistic similarities to the Pastoral Care‘s text.

2. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23, on which all this paragraph is based.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Edited and translated into Castilian in J. Gil Fernández (ed.), J. L. Moralejo (transl.) & J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense (y «Profética») (Oviedo 1985) and French in Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle). Avec édition critique, traduction et commentaire (Paris 1987). There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999 without visible changes) but I hesitate to recommend it as it freely selects between the two quite different versions of the Chronicle according to an agenda I think belongs to only one of them. The most strident assertion of royal authorship inevitably came from Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, in his “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section, “Apéndice 2”, repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía Hispana Medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 97-108.

5. Compare Bonnaz, Chroniques, pp. LIII-LVII with J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, “La cultura en la corte ovetense del siglo IX” in Gil et al., Crónicas Asturianas, pp. 11-42 at pp. 38-41.

6. For more on this theme see Susan E Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 36-62.

7. Named after Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 25-49 but most eminently espoused in Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24, repr. in idem, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience (Oxford 2003), pp. 359-382.

8. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323.

9. The fact that it arguably manages the equally-old bit by bodging the landing of the West Saxon royal ancestors Cerdic and Cynric back about fifty years to me reinforces this idea that the editors were involved in a competition that took in more than just Wessex, though as discussed here before the material they were using may not have served that purpose in its original form. For the fifty-year bump see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

Feudal Transformations XIV: Königsferne

In the aftermath of the great Kalamazoo saga I found there was one particular theme that had threaded through for me, and it seemed to me worth making it explicit, even it’s not very insightful. It was brought to my mind by Cullen Chandler’s paper about whether or not the marquises of the Spanish March of the Carolingian empire rebelled in search of Königsnähe or not, that being literally nearness to the king, access to royal power. No, he concluded, and this made me think, not for the first time but in new words, that what would better describe that situation is not that word but another one that I didn’t know existed, something like Königsferne, distance from the king.1 Do you know what I mean? What the Spanish marquises, albeit not the ones Cullen was talking about, come to want is a king who won’t bother them but to whom appeal can still be made when there’s a need.

The regions of France in the eleventh and twelfth century

The regions of France in the eleventh and twelfth century

At several other points in the Congress, the same idea seemed to come up. It was not unlike the French appeals to the pope made by the people of Anna Trumbore Jones’s and John Ott’s papers the next day, people who really didn’t want the pope to actually try and change anything in their areas but for whom he was a useful source of ideological backing for their more local plans. It was implicit in the way that Hajnalka Herold saw the hillfort of Gars Thunau in Austria, as an aristocratic power centre that had few detectable connections to a wider power system. Some of the parts of Alemannia that Karl Heidecker discussed on the Saturday would have fitted too, as far as they were able to escape kingship that much. And, of course, it worked for my paper because it’s studying that area that’s made me think it.

A contemporary depiction of Otto III

A contemporary depiction of Otto III in full royal style, I mean tent

I think we could use reifying this concept in the same way that we have Königsnähe. Certainly, the great deal of work that’s been done on kingship and legitimacy is quite right to to stress the importance of access to the king, once the court’s a centre of attraction anyway. One of the things we now accept as crucial, as a result of the work of people like Jinty Nelson and Matthew Innes, in the Carolingian effort (and the Merovingian one before it, if you ask the right people, and the Ottonian one after it if you can stop people arguing about ritual…) is the ability of the king to get people to look to him to answer their needs, whether it be for war leadership, justice, lands or honour and status, whatever, and the question of who can get those for whom is obviously vital to how the whole kingdom works in that way. But what about when it doesn’t? When we hit situations like these, where a king best serves the interests of his subjects by not being too close to them, how do we explain it?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Obviously, one of the answers has tended to be the same as for every other major social change between the years 900 and 1100, to wit, “it’s the feudal transformation innit?” though this aspect of it at least has tended more to be cause than effect. That probably needs rebalancing, and the scholarship that’s remained interested in that question has tended towards the bigger economic answers, but it still wants verbalising simply, I think. The Carolingian court stops working as a unifying and centripetal force; what happens? Some possible answers:

  1. Civil war discredits the lineage (unlikely given the Carolingian-reverence that continues after Fontenoy).
  2. The fragmentation of the empire makes people used to having a local and less powerful king; the court only really draws at full power when there’s one of it only and it can usefully reach everywhere (a combination of Regino of Prüm and Matthew Innes here, trying to explain why Charles the Fat doesn’t make it.
  3. There are some very ineffective rulers who don’t make this apparatus function at full power, or, Louis the Pious overdrives the whole thing and one way or another jumps the legitimising shark (somewhere between Mayke de Jong and Stuart Airlie here).
  4. The kingdom becomes less relevant as more and more economic resource is accumulated at the local level and people can achieve the local position they want using their own property and that they can appropriate from their erstwhile public offices (Duby and Bonnassie, and therefore the rather less convincing Poly & Bournazel; with some deeper causation and a greater place for inability at the top I suppose this is roughly also where I stand, for now).
  5. A variation of the above: the fossilization of the structure of empire has made it vulnerable to local aggrandisation by the holders of power in the localities and it ceases to be the king who can carry out the actions people need help with in those areas (Dhondt).

There are probably more. The point is, these models all suggest that kingship should become irrelevant, and we have seen in these cases of the search for Königsferne that that isn’t what is necessarily going on. There is a place for the king in these systems, and the cunning king can still play that position and win some of his power back. I maintain that Lothar III does this in the West and the Salian kings show it even more sharply, I’d hazard, by having both huge successes and improbably huge failures in this rôle of providing what the subjects want their king to do and getting back from them what the king wants in terms of service and loyalty. The people who don’t come to court, but still want a king, are a big part of the explanation for this collection of associated phenomena we resist calling a transformation, and maybe we should be thinking about the Königsferne as much as the Königsnähe. These are, if you like, the swing voters, whom a successful king has to secure once he’s got enough the actual courtiers on side to ensure that he can do anything at all. Some of them never do, of course, and some never work beyond the court, and there might be reasons for that far beyond pure personality and acumen of course, but it still needs thinking about, not least by me.


1. Theo Riches, in one conversation, assured me that this word does actually exist in scholarly German, so there we are. Now I shall have to find out where…