There has been a gap here, for which I apologise; the second of those family occasions I mentioned last post was to blame, but now I am back on deck, and for this week I want ceremonially to move my backlog out of 2017 by talking briefly about two papers I went to see in December of that year, one in Leeds and one in London. The Leeds one was one of our own doctoral students, and indeed one of my advisees, Hervin Fernández-Aceves, now Dr and at Lancaster, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar we run with the title, “Reframing the Role of Nobility: misconceptions and omissions in the historiography of the kingdom of Sicily” on 6th December; and the London one was the Royal Numismatic Society Christmas Lecture, given by Lutz Ilisch with the title, “Mashghara – a Condominial Mint of the County of Sidon/Barony of Shuf and the Kingdom of Damascus” on 19th December. You wouldn’t think there was a lot of crossover there, but actually both had something to say about the ways that medieval government, especially when carried out in a disrupted environment, very often defies what seem to the modern eye to be ‘natural’ rights or behaviours of states. The modern nation-state is actually quite a strange beast, to my mind, weirdly willing to constrain itself by mutually agreed law and then be surprised when some polities won’t play. If we want to understand that better, I these days maintain, the Middle Ages is a good place to look, and so here are two examples.1
Hervin’s work in his thesis, which at this stage he had just finished, was to reassess the composition and political role of the nobility in the famously multicultural Norman kingdom of Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trouble he had run into, however, was that what he found didn’t match the historiography, which expected pretty much all nobles to hold their lands and offices either absolutely because of having conquered them by fire and the sword, or else to hold them by feudal grants from the kings, and their offices of state, especially the counties they ruled, to be essentially jurisdictional units attached to the territories they took or were given in fief.2 If this seems like a perspective constructed from really old textbooks about Norman England, well, that may not be a coincidence, but what Hervin found instead was that there were no templates and indeed no central administration that could be mapped out as counties. Instead, there were any number of competing nobles who fought with each other for space and office, not necessarily in the same places, and sometimes enlisted the kings or their ducal predecessors as help and backing for these claims. Meanwhile, there were also pre-existent fragments of Byzantine administration under strategoi who also looked to the rulers for guarantee of their position, which they often got. The records of the relationships thus formed do not talk about homage, vassalage, subjection or anything like that; there was no feudal constitution of this state, if indeed it was a state; that someone held a thing called a county, which in any case only emerged partway through the kingdom’s history, did not necessarily mean they called themselves ‘count’ (and if they did, others might not agree) and neither was a count’s territory necessarily a county. Counts’ children might well become counts, but rarely in the same place as their fathers, and the kings were generally able to move them around and keep them from getting too grounded.
The tendency was thus for the dukes and kings to be able to use the competition to constrain the nobility, whether local, incoming or heirs of either, with these agreements until everyone was more or less part of the same overall network, but to call it a system or a constitution would be to miss how very unconstructed this was. By the reign of William I, it was possible for the king to assert enough control to put his own officers in in many counties when they fell vacant and then make the nobility compete to be chosen as those officers, but that doesn’t mean he managed it everywhere. Heaven knows how the kings kept track of exactly how they stood with respect to any given aristocrat, but then I guess that’s partly why we have the records… In discussion Hervin had mainly to defend his anarchic picture of ad hoc government against his fellow doctorands and his supervisor, Professor Graham Loud, the former of whom especially felt that there must have been more coincidence between titles and territories, but Hervin had gone and checked… But this doesn’t seem too odd to me, and the late lamented Susan Reynolds would have been quite happy with the non-existence of the feudal model too.3 The thing I would have now liked to have heard more about is how the dukes and kings justified their right to intervene or determine allocation of these positions, and how much objection those claims met, but I could quite believe that these were basically recognitions that right fell to the biggest sword; it’s just that, as you may be aware, I’ve come to believe that medieval rulers did need both power and legitimacy and that they put much too much effort into the legitimacy for us to suppose that it didn’t really matter compared to force.4 Hervin’s picture was possible for me to accept without shifting that belief, so I was happy with all of this.
Dr Ilisch, who had just been awarded the Society’s medal on this occasion, started from a much narrower problem of numismatics and, because coins are in fact sources for bigger things, wound up in a similar kind of larger-scale place. His problem was a species of coin like the one above; I’m afraid I can’t find an example of precisely the type he was discussing. The above is itself a weirdness with which I have several times enjoyed teaching. Its background is that, when the four Latin states established in the Holy Land around 1100 by the First Crusade ran into trouble at the end of the century, for various reasons of necessity they struck quite a lot of imitations of the silver dirhams of the Ayyubid sultans with whom they either fought or temporised for survival. These coins, of course, featured the Arabic shahada, the Muslim invocation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Crusader states were still doing this as the Ayyubids lost their position first in the south to the Egyptian Mamluks and then in the north to the briefly dominant Mongols. Once explained, these coins usually surprise people by the amount of inter-dealing between supposed adversaries they imply, and it seems to have surprised some newcomers too, for as the situation grew worse, a French bishop who found himself in charge of defending Acre in 1250 decided that this Islamicization was part of their problem and had the coinage ‘purified’ with the addition of the cross and a statement of the Christian Creed in Arabic in place of the Islamic stuff. I have always wondered whom he was paying with these things that could read them, and what they thought of this, and should obviously read more about it, but I now learned that they didn’t last very long and were soon replaced with much more plentiful coins using the bismillah instead of the Creed, but with AD dates.5 Despite that last fact, from their preservation context (said Dr Ilisch) these latter coins occur largely in Mongol hoards, not in the Crusader states, and were thus, I guess, used to pay tribute to the Mongols, presumably by Muslim issuers.
It was one of these issuers Dr Ilisch was trying to track down, one Wajīh al-Dīn Muahhad ibn Suwayd, whom written sources claim was given minting rights by the last Ayyubid sultan and who probably ruled the city of Damascus for them, but whose coins have never been identified. The Mongols left him in place, so he had a while to strike in Damascus, but no Damascus coins fit the bill. There is, however, one particular type of imitation of the post-Acre coins which have the AD date in cursive, and which Professor Ilisch thought might be al-Suwayd’s. There are only 8 of these coins known, and 3 of them came off the same dies, suggesting that the issue might have been quite small (although also possibly very large—this is why die statistics probably shouldn’t be used, especially on tiny samples…), but one of them seems to name a mint, which after long consideration Professor Ilisch thought might been Masghara, a tiny place now in Lebanon which was actually the subject of a treaty between Crusader Sidon and Ayyubid Damascus, by which each side took 50 % of its revenue. And the relevant ruler of Damascus would presumably have been al-Suwayd, so while it’s not conclusive it does all fit. Apparently there is at least one other 13th-century Crusader condominial issue like this, so again we see here ideas about identity, autonomy and prerogatives in general that we would now expect states to care about just not being realistic in these times.
It’s thus reasonable for us to ask, I think, whether in Sicily or Damascus as everything changed around the people concerned, whether back-projecting our expectations about government, administration, sovereignty and the coinage and then declaiming our medieval subjects of study for somehow failing to do what we expect, is really useful. A better way of proceeding is surely to start by seeing what they did, asking what frameworks they had in which those things made sense, and then seeing how their responses to their own situation might speak to anything we have going on now rather than going backwards from where we are now and only grading them on what we expect to find… At opposite ends of the academic status scale, both Hervin and Professor Ilisch were offering us material with which to do that evaluation of the medieval response to circumstances in its own terms, and I’m always up for that.
1. Of coure, another famously good place to look to understand the modern nation-state is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd ed. (London 2006), online here, but I would like to encourage people to look a bit further back than he does…
2. I can’t by now tell which of these works Hervin invoked for what purpose, but the historiography he mentioned included things like Errico Cuozzo, “’Milites’ e ‘testes’ nella contea normanna di Pricipato” in Bullettino dell’Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo Vol. 88 (Roma 1979), pp. 121–163; Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993); and Annalise Nef, “State, Aggregation of the Elites and Redistribution of Resources in Sicily in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries: Proposals for a New Interpretation” in John Hudson and Ana Rodríguez López (edd.), Diverging Paths? The Shapes of Power and Institutions in Medieval Christendom and Islam, The Medieval Mediterranean 101 (Leiden 2014), pp. 230–247.
3. See Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996), where Italy is a close comparator.
4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online here.
5. I did, of course read something when I catalogued the coin which I’ve used as the image here, and that thing was mainly Alex G. Malloy, Irene F. Preston, Arthur J. Seltman, Michael L. Bates, A. A. Gordus, D. M. Metcalf & Roberto Pesant, Coins of the Crusaders States including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its Vassal States of Syria and Palestine, the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus (1192-1489), and the Latin Empire of Constantinople and Its Vassal States of Greece and the Archipelago, 2nd edn. ed. by Allen G. Berman (Fairfield VA 2004). I’d actually welcome recommendations for more here.