Tag Archives: medieval India

First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

Despite the tourism so cheerfully recounted last post, I was in fact in China in 2017 for academic purposes. The formal cause was a conference at North-East Normal University in Changchun, by name the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. If I can be Aristotelian about this, then I suppose the material cause of this was that, one way or another, there are a reasonable number of Byzantine solidi and, maybe more interestingly, imitations of them, that have come to light in China, and this is one of the major research areas of Professor Lín Yīng of Sun-Yat Sen University, whom I had had the pleasure of moderating at a Leeds International Medieval Congress two years before.1 But she is not the only Byzantinist in China by quite some way; I suppose an ancient empire likes to know about its contemporaries… And a number of people with such interests hang out at North-East Normal, because it runs an Institute for Ancient Civilizations, which was the hosting organisation for this conference, under the particular auspices of its Vice-Director, Dr Sven Günther. In fact, North-East Normal also boasts a Medieval History Research Centre, and you’d think that they would be my obvious point of contact, but because, you see, the efficient cause was that Professor Lín knows me as a Byzantine numismatist, because when she met that’s what I was, professionally, and of course I have not completely left that identity behind.2 I guess if you come in through the door marked ‘Byzantinist’, you’re a Byzantinist, but if what that means is that (assuming we get to a stage where this is possible again) I get invited halfway across the world and shown round the local wonders, then I guess I can come up with a paper about Byzantine coins for you…

Gathering of delegates to the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

Now, ever since I hit the time buffers on this blog in 2017, I have been reporting conferences by listing the papers I went to and then sticking my other remarks below a cut for the interested reader to follow up if they wish. On this occasion, however, I want to write at least something about the actual experience of the conference first, because it had some important and impressive differences from the Western format to which I’m used. Firstly, I suppose, everything was paid for; I remember when that used to be possible in the UK, just, but it was a while back, certainly before this blog. One can get into arguments about where taxpayers’ money should be going, I guess, but it is salutary to realise that the answers aren’t necessarily fixed.3 However, the differences that really struck me could be grouped under two headings, those being tea and languages. And the greater of these, for me at least, might even be tea. For look: if you examine this photo…

Session at the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Session in progress

… you will observe that everyone, even the beardy foreigner in the pale jacket with his pen in his mouth close to the back of the middle of the picture, has a nice porcelain mug with a lid in front of them. When we entered the conference room those mugs had small piles of auspicious green leaves in them; before we started attendants went round and poured lately-boiled water onto those leaves and put the lids back on; and then, every hour or so thereafter, they came round again and topped them up, because of course for decent green tea you don’t need, or even want, boiling water, and it will sustain several infusions. Indeed, I understand that with some teas you just throw the first one out because what you’re really after is the subtleties that come out in the second one, but dear reader, I digress. During lunch new mugs were set out and we were set up again for the afternoon. When I compare this to the desperate scrabble between sessions for the inadequate coffee at most Western conferences, it is hard not to feel that we were guests of a more anciently civilised culture than our own, I tell you. The coffee breaks were still there, but the caffeine was now a vestigial part of them because what they were really for was to enable the conversations between papers that are actually the important part of the academic conference. So this all worked rather well.

And then languages. At this point I had no functional Chinese (and even now I can manage very little more than greetings and very basic questions about menus), and a good few of the speakers had no functional English. This is not to say that people here didn’t know languages: one professor gave a very rough greeting speech in English but was able to introduce one of the Western speakers in fluent Greek, I guess because that was what he had needed to learn for what he wanted to do in his career. In general, though, English was not the default second language, which was salutary and a bit challenging, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of the papers were delivered in Mongolian, which is another thing again. So any two people did not have great odds of understanding each other. But, this didn’t matter too much, because the other thing that there were people doing was immediate, translated summarisation of each paper after it was given, Chinese into English, English into Chinese, Mongolian into both. Questions were also translated this way during discussion. This responsibility was distributed around so that no-one had to do more than two, it was timetabled into the sessions, and it meant that the language barrier, while still very present, could pretty easily be hurdled, or at least messages flung across it in mutually satisfactory fashion. I could go off into speculation about how this worked in previous eras when other people crossed into China – the importance of the intermediary became really obvious in this meeting – but I could probably again be accused of digression. After all, we were here to talk about coins. So what were people talking about? I will list them!

24th June 2017

  • Zhāng Qiáng, “Introduction”
  • Xú Jiālíng, “Welcome”
  • Claudia Sode, “Welcome”
  • Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng, “Trade Pattern of 1-4 c. CE Silk Road – A Preliminary Study Based on Kushan Coins”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Islamic Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia: Concepts, Transformation and Monetary Organisation”
  • Stefanos Kordosis, “Some Remarks on the Term ‘Fromo’ of a Late 7th-Early 8th c. Bactrian Coin Inscription ‘Fromo Kesaro’ (Caesar of Rome)”
  • Coffee

  • Sven Günther, “The Migration of Motifs as a Qualitative Approach to the Question of Connectivity in Late Antiquity”
  • Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Coins in Gold in the Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries)”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Separated by the Past: Western Coinages from Pseudo-Imperial to Quasi-Independent, 5th to 7th c. AD”
  • Lunch

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Roman and Byzantine Coins and their Reproduction in Western Central Asia”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Transition of the Monetary Situation of Khurasan and Transoxiana between the Islamic and T’ang Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.”
  • Coffee

  • Lĭ Qiáng, “The Dynamics of the Studies on the Byzantine Coins and their Imitations discovered in China, 2007-2017”
  • Guō Yúnyan, “On the Byzantine Coins Unearthed in China”
  • Dinner

25th June 2017

  • Ankhbayar Batsuui, “Regarding a Coin”
  • Erdenebold Lkhagvasuren, “West-East Relations and Nomads: A Study on Coins Discovered in Shordon Bumbagar, Bayannur, Sum Mongolia”
  • Odbaatar Tserendorj, “Sassanid Period Silver Coins Collection at National Museum of Mongolia”
  • Yngve Karlsson, “Main Features of Sasanian Silver Coins, with Examples from Mongolian National Museum”
  • Coffee

  • Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins in India in Late Antiquity”
  • Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands found in Southeast Asia”
  • Li Jinxiu, “Silver Coin and Silver Trading Circles: the Differing Destinies of Persian Silver Coins in Tang Times”4
  • Lunch

  • Shi Yang-Xin, “Collection of Ancient Coins from the Silk Road in Xi’an Tang West Market Museum”5
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Silk Road Coinage: its Definition and Research Value”
  • Coffee

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Byzantine Influence on Sogdian Monetary Type”
  • Responses by Zhang Xushan, Stefan Heidemann, Aleksandr Naymark, Claudia Sode and Lín Yīng
  • Closing Ceremony and Farewell Drink

It’s harder than usual to write up this conference, because it was so frequently telling me things I had just not previously known. Lín’s article is a neat introduction to the problem that brought us together, but is focused quite reasonably on some particuar Silk Road tombs, and there was so much bigger a picture being put together here, by experts from zones and on zones thousands of miles apart and linked more by sharing an era than by anything else. So it seems best, rather than to comment on individual papers, to try to write some kind of synthesis of what, by the end, I thought I knew about what was going on with coinage eastwards of Byzantium and, for the most part, northwards of India, over the mostly-fifth to more-or-less-ninth centuries. Predictably, given the size of the zone and the number of actors in it, this turned out to be very confusing, but, to me at least, also really interesting, and it got added into my teaching very quickly once I came back. Continue reading

Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

The last thing I promised I’d write about from the quarter-slice of 2017 through which this blog’s backlog is presently proceeding was the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, from 25th to 27th March of that year. There are plenty of stories that could be told about this conference, starting with the whole story of the Spring Symposium, which has, as that title suggests, been happening for 50 years, rotating away from and back to Birmingham like a short-duration comet; or one could tell the story of its founder, Anthony Bryer, who had died the previous year and so was being extensively commemorated here; or how it had fallen in this year upon Professor Leslie Brubaker and my two erstwhile Barber Institute collaborators, Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds, to organise it (which earns one the title of ‘Symposiarch’); but for me the chief story is probably always going to be how I arrived as a guest and was converted to presenter at twenty minutes’ notice and still more or less got away with it. So if that intrigues you, or if an international conference on Byzantine Studies does indeed, read on, and for the rest of you, since this post is long, I shall simply set out the running order of what I saw, then stick a cut in and expound at greater length beyond it. So! Here we go.

By now-ancient tradition, the organisation of the Spring Symposium wherever it is held is two-level, with keynote lectures and plenary sessions to which the whole gathering can go at one level, and at the other ‘communications’, these being shorter papers which run in parallel strands. On this occasion there was also a third part, in the form of a postgraduate workshop following the main proceedings. All this together means that my academic itinerary through the conference went like this:

    25th March

  • Michael Whitby, “Welcome”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “What is Global Byzantium?”
  • Catherine Holmes, “Global Byzantium: a Whirlwind Romance or Fundamental Paradigm Shift?”
  • Coffee break

  • Rebecca Darley, “India in the Byzantine Worldview”
  • Antony Eastmond, “Constantinople: Local Centre and Global Peripheries”
  • Francesca dell’Acqua, “What about Greek(s) in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Italy?”
  • Lunch

  • Matthew Kinloch, “Historiographies of Reconquest: Constantinople, Iberia and the Danelaw”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Clerical Marriage in Comparative Perspective”
  • Kristian Hansen-Schmidt, “Constantine’s Μονοχυλα: Canoe or Viking Ship?”
  • Lauren Wainwright, “Import, Export: the Global Impact of Byzantine Marriage Alliances during the 10th Century”
  • Jeffrey Brubaker, “What is Byzantine about ‘Byzantine Diplomacy’?”
  • Adrián Elías Negro Cortes, “Tributes Linked to Military Actions in Both Ends of the Mediterranean: from Byzantium to Spain”
  • Tea

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Forgotten Africa and the Global Middle Ages”
  • Tim Greenwood, “Composing History at the Margins of Empire: Armenian Chronicles in Comparative Perspective”
  • John Haldon, “A ‘Global’ Empire: the Structures of East Roman Longevity”
  • Robin Milner-Gulland, “Ultimate Russia – Ultimate Byzantium”
  • Champagne Bus and Conference Dinner1

    26th March

  • Liz James, “Byzantine Art – A Global Art? Looking beyond Byzantium”
  • Hugh Kennedy, “The State as an Econmic Actor in Byzantium and the Caliphate c. 650-c. 950: A Cross-Cultural Comparison”
  • Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “‘Maniera Greca’ and Renaissance Europe: More Than Meets the Eye”
  • Henry Maguire, “Magical Signs in Byzantium and Islam: A Global Language”
  • Coffee

  • Julia Galliker, “Silk in the Byzantine World: Transmission and Technology”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Attracting Poles: Byzantium, al-Andalus and the Shaping of the Mediterranean in the 10th Century”
  • Lunch and Auction

  • Claudia Rapp, “Secluded Place or Global Magnet? The Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai and its Manuscript Collection”
  • Robert Ousterhout, “The ‘Helladic Paradigm’ in a Global Perspective”
  • Arietta Papaconstantinou, “Spice Odysseys: Exotic ‘Stuff’ and its Imaginary”
  • Tea

  • Hajnalka Herold, “How Byzantine was 9th-Century Moravia? An Archaeological Perspective”
  • Nik Matheou, “New Rome & Caucasia, c. 900-1100: Empire, Elitedom and Identity in a Global Perspective”
  • Alexandra Vukovich, “A Facet of Byzantium’s Ideological Reach: the Case of Byzantine Imitation Coins”
  • Andrew Small, “‘From the Halls of Tadmakka to the Shores of Sicily’: Byzantine Italy and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 11th century”, read by Nik Matheou
  • Flavia Vanni, “Transferring Skills and Techniques across the Mediterranean: Some Preliminary Remarks on Stucco in Italy and Byzantium”
  • Wine Reception

    27th March

  • Peter Sarris, “Centre or Periphery? Constantinople and the Eurasian Trading System at the End of Antiquity”
  • Linda Safran, “Teaching Byzantine Art in China: Some Thoughts on Global Reception”
  • Daniel Reynolds, “Jerusalem and the Fabrication of a Global City”
  • Coffee, then a closing round table session as follows:

  • Fotini Kondyli, “Material Culture”
  • Margaret Mullett, “Global Literature”
  • Joanna Story, “The View from… the West”
  • Scott Redford, “Byzantium and the Islamic World: Global Perspectives?”
  • Naomi Standen, “East Asia”
  • Chris Wickham, “Final Remarks”

That’s exhausting even to have typed out, and I certainly can’t come up with something to say about every paper at three years’ remove without basically repeating my already-somewhat illegible notes, so instead I’ll try to pull some general trends out of that list and then focus particularly on the theme and people’s approaches to it. What with me not really being a Byzantinist, that may mean a slightly odd selection, but you’re used to that, I know. Everybody involved deserves a better press than this will give them, but there just isn’t sensible space.2 In any case, now you can see what the rest of the post may look like, this is a good place for the cut and then the deeply interested can continue at their leisure. Continue reading

Towards a Global Middle Ages I: going global in the first place

The backlog decreases at last; I arrive in September 2014 and am therefore now less than a year behind again. This seems like an achievement! What was I doing in September 2014, you may ask, and the answer seems mainly to be settling into a new job, but also turning a blog post into an article, negotiating carefully with the Abadia de Montserrat over long-desired facsimiles, sending off proofs of imminent publications and reading an old article of Philip Grierson’s about the Brevium Exempla.1 However, in the middle of that time I was also hanging out at the edge of a weekend meeting of a group called the Global Middle Ages Network, and this left me with thoughts that I reckoned worth blogging.

A game of chess, pictured in the Tratado de Ajedrez

One thing at least that did travel between various medieval cultures, the game of chess, pictured for that purpose from the Tratado de Ajedrez by the Oxford Centre for Global history webpages

Global history is of course all the rage right now, as being present at Oxford for the creation of their Centre for Global History had impressed upon me, and that shiny new institution contributes a number of the players to this group. It is as befits its name more widely spread, however, and there are also participants based in London, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick, Norwich, Manchester, Leicester, Edinburgh, Reading, Liverpool, Leiden, York and even Cambridge, as well as most relevantly the University of Birmingham, where pretty much all the medievalists seem to be involved and one of whom invited me along. The group’s general aim is to bring the Middle Ages into debates about global history and ensure that years before 1492 don’t get relegated to the sidelines as this new bandwagon gets rolling, but their specific aim at this time was to thrash out the writing of a volume of essays which is due out in 2017. Accordingly, various participants—Catherine Holmes, Naomi Standen, Mark Whittow, Conrad Leyser, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Simon Yarrow, Anne Haour, Ian Forrest, John Watts, Monica White, Jonathan Shepard and Scott Ashley, along with various people brought in to provide feedback and balance, most notably the Oxford modernists Alan Strathern and John Darwin but also such non-contributors as Chris Wickham, Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, Rebecca Darley and my humble self, as well as others whom my notes no longer decode—convened at Winterbourne House and explained what they thought their chapters would look like and what questions and issues they were confronting. Some had advanced their chapters a lot further than others, and because everything was very clearly subject to at least some change, I don’t think I should try to summarise their presentations here. Instead, I want to try and formulate some of the issues that the two days of discussions made me think about, and set them out so that you too can think about them.

Poster for a publication workshop of th Global Middle Ages Network held in Birmingham in September 2014

The poster for the workshop

It seemed to me in the wake of this workshop that there was material for three posts here, and the first is on the concept of a global Middle Ages at all and what falls within it. This was something that was very much debated in the workshop, not least because decisions had already had to be made about what could be included with the available expertise. Thus, Europe was most definitely in, because what’s medieval if Europe is not? Byzantium was reasonably covered, Egypt and the middle eastern coast of Africa (though not Ethiopia or the Red Sea) was covered, although not really in the workshop; China is well covered (but Japan is not); and North Africa also gets some attention, as, encouragingly, will Meso-America. Although that therefore has some claim to globality, there was much lament about the lack of coverage of other areas: I have mentioned two that one might have wished for but for which the group just didn’t have the expertise, everyone wondered what was going on in sub-Saharan Africa but the truth is that we just don’t know (though Dr Fernando did point out that we know more than people think, and I wondered about Benin and Mali given that one of the words that kept coming up was ’empire’).2 Arezou Azad, present, made a plea for the importance of Afghanistan and its area, Arabia was generally felt to be somewhat lacking and India was most conspicuous of all by its absence from both plans and discussion, as it seems generally to be from global history projects the more of them I meet; we will hear more on this. But the group has the people it has and the first book is already too advanced to put more into it, so I guess that those who think these omissions serious must hope for a second.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's An Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

The second issue here is what a global history of this period can aim to achieve. You might think that it was somewhat late to be examining such questions but it came up, not because of a lack of reflection on the issue but because different participants continued to favour different answers. I want to muse more on this apropos of something else I went on to read, but essentially the division was between those who wanted to write an actual history, more or less diachronic, of phenomena that occurred worldwide, and those who instead wanted to write comparative thematic history. Since the book was to be multi-author, the former would be very difficult to coordinate, although there was general agreement that current attempts at it consider the Middle Ages a very poor sibling that can be left out of the new inheritance, roughly what this group is looking to change.3 The book structure will be thematic anyway, so this was at best a rearguard action, but it raised the issue of what framework a diachronic global medieval history could address anyway. As the two modernists pointed out, the work that dismisses global connectivity for the Middle Ages is not just uneducated: there is a difference between our period, when oceanic sea travel was basically accidental, and a period when a dip in silver mining in Peru could affect prices in markets in Vienna the month after. Global historians of a later period can write their narrative mainly around trade, war and disease, even if fewer do so than work in terms of ideas, but the connections between the areas of the globe in the period roughly 500-1500 (and that period is an issue in itself, for which the next post must do) were so thin and occasional that they can bear no such causality.4 Although I thought that someone probably could write an interesting book about the years 800-1400 as a period of long-range diasporas, Viking, Arab, Polynesian and perhaps overland migrations in the Americas, in which the world was pre-connected prior to the European ‘Golden Age of Sail’, it would still be hard work to assert that those links changed anything very much back at the points of origin of any of those diasporas, excepting the Vikings.5

Map of recorded voyages of Polynesian travellers in the Pacific Ocean

I realise that there are some problems dating all of this to within the Middle Ages as we count them in the West, and long-term readers will know how controversial the date for human arrival in New Zealand is, but nonetheless, this is quite a big web…

So although the whole concept of global history seems to invoke the idea that everything can be seen as connected, medievalists wishing to join in have to face the fact that this was not how the people they study experienced the world. A few people brought the idea of climate into discussion as a global factor, but one of the things that we should by now appreciate about climate, as Britain just about shakes a summer out of an otherwise dismally wet year for the third or fourth year running while elsewhere deserts spread and seas rise, is that it is locally variable to an almost chaotic degree.6 Anyone saying, “one thing that we can say is that the globe got warmer,” may well be right in aggregate but is missing any kind of relevance to what that would have meant for the globe’s various, and separated, inhabitants. Scale therefore becomes a major issue with this cope, as it always is of course, but here the problem is how to scale down from the global without losing any overall thesis in regional variation.

The map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi

A genuinely medieval view of the world, the map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi, deficient in some crucial respects (like continents); image from Wikimedia Commons

The harsh critic might say that this simply shows that the Middle Ages was not a global-scale phenomenon, but naturally the group was not going to just give up and disband because of that possibility, so the other major area of discussion was what could in fact be compared. Mark Whittow wisely argued that no-one can understand anything about such a book without there first being a comparison of sources, which is one place where the massive variation of the world record for the period is actually explanatory, because it explains what it is possible for historians of different areas to expect and to attempt, thus explaining how the different essays in the book would vary. All those essays are being written by teams of authors working on different areas, however, so comparison should be built in from the ground up. This process had already isolated cosmologies, religious structures and beliefs, value systems both economic and non-economic, power structures and the apparatus of social mediation (including things like family, patronage and abstracts like trust), movement of people and networks of communications as things that could be compared across a wide frame, even if they didn’t necessarily (or even necessarily didn’t) join up. As with all comparative history done right, we would learn more by the exposure of any given understanding of things to an alternative.7

Map of world civilisation with historical timeline c. 979

It is all a bit much to cover in its full complexity…

This opens up the paradoxical possibility that even a negative result of the overall enquiry, in which in the end the participants are forced more or less willingly to admit that the ‘global Middle Ages’ is a fiction, could still be a useful contribution, because the essence of such a conclusion would, it now seemed, not be merely, “the set is empty” but rather, “it’s complicated”. Usually that’s a cop-out but here it could have an impact: simply by showing that there is enough that we can point to and compare from the period that our comparisons fail due to the complexity of trans-regional variation would demand a recognition that the set is populated and that stuff was in fact happening all over the world in our period and needs to be included in long-term pictures wherever those pictures depict. The question then becomes: what stuff is happening, and is any of it at all characteristic of a so-called medieval period? And it’s that latter I’ll pick up in the next one of these posts.


1. P. Grierson, “The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales”” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 18 (Bruxelles 1939), pp. 437-461, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1939.1300.

2. I sort of felt that Benin should have been on the locals’ minds because the cover of R. E. Bradbury, Benin Studies, ed. Peter Morton-Williams (London 1974), has been displayed on the wall in the School of History and Cultures on the way to the kitchen for who knows how many years, but a more useful cite for the period in question would be Natalie Sandomirsky, “Benin, Empire: origins and growth of city-state” in Keith Shillington (ed.), Encylopedia of African History (London 2013), 3 vols, I, pp. 132-133 and further refs there.

3. The Network web-page includes a reading list, where the most useful works of this type might be Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge 1986) or Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (Oxford 1989), but the one that came up in discussion most is not there, that being Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford 1993). Of course, as the image implies, I reckon one could enjoy starting with H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), 2 vols…

4. Indeed, historians of an earlier or at least much longer period already do write in such big-phenomenon terms, if we will accept Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), as a work of history. At the very least, it demonstrates that the scale can be written within.

5. On them, see Lesley Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; it is worth noting that Lesley is herself a member of the Global Middle Ages Network.

6. When I have to cite something for this I tend to cite Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805721105.

7. My guide here is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and lo, he is also a member of the Network…

There then followed a period of seminar fail: notes of what might have been

As the second week of term dawned here I organisationally ploughed into the dirt somewhat, and started missing things I’d wanted to go to. The first lecture was probably an active factor here, but I was very much struggling to work out a daily routine that would let me actually get incidental things done as well as routine ones, and to be honest I still am. It’s not much of a post to say what I missed, but I just want to take stock, avoid any expectations of particular seminar reports and beg for notes or guest entries from anyone who made them, I guess.

Dedication stone of Lyminge Abbey

Dedication stone of Lyminge Abbey

I did not make it to Gabor Thomas presenting at the Medieval Archaeology Seminar here on 18th October, which was a pity as Gabor is a man who can make strap-ends interesting so to hear what he’d do with material like, “Recent excavations at Lyminge: settlement, community and conversion in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent”. If anyone made it to this and would be able to spare a few short words, that would be great, though the project website is a start at least. I did have quite a good reason for not making it to this, though, and we’ll come to that next post.

Gold aureus of Emperor Commodus in the Government Museum, Chennai (Madras)

Gold aureus of Emperor Commodus in the Government Museum, Chennai (Madras)

Likewise, I did not make it down to hear my erstwhile quasi-colleague and friend, I think, yes! friend, Rebecca Day presenting to the Royal Numismatic Society on the 19th October, because I was lecturing the next day, but she has been kind enough to send me a text of her paper, “Late Roman and Byzantine gold coins in the Madras Government Museum – fashion, imitation and the economics of religious devotion”, and I can tell you that it includes, by way of passing reference or deeper exploration, Roman obsession with Indian food, early medieval Indian faking of Roman gold coins (some of which were then exported to China!), 6th-century Tamil poetry and 9th-century Byzantine flat-earthism, which is I reckon a reasonable amount of bang for the aureus. I can say more about this if you would like, and if she doesn’t mind, but I hope and assume that it will be published.

Obverse of a silver penny of King Æthelred the Unready

Obverse of a silver penny of King Æthelred the Unready

Then the next day I didn’t make it to London again, this time for Professor Simon Keynes, presenting the David Wilson Lecture for the Joint Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Medieval Archaeology seminar and the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar, on “The Archaeology of Æthelred the Unready”, and although I have been hoping notes might appear on the Cambridge ASNC Department’s blog, as yet no such luck. I actually saw Professor Keynes a few days later at a meeting of the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles/Medieval European Coinage committee, on which I now have the honour to serve (which means it’s my fault once more, though it’s not my fault the webpage hasn’t been updated any more…), and he said there was no text, as such, and that may be why. Still, again, I’d welcome comments from anyone who was there and feels able to offer them.

1548 woodcut of John Wyclif

1548 woodcut of John Wyclif, the original Lollard

Between Professor Keynes and Dr Thomas that was two of the more relevant things to what I’m teaching that I might have gone to, and I didn’t, so it was ironic that the next thing I did make it to was Alexander Russell presenting at the Medieval History seminar here on 25th October, to the title, “England’s Involvement with the General Councils of the Church, 1409-1449”, which was I think not something I myself can use, though there were lots of interested questions from others and it was certainly interesting of itself. I’ve expressed uncertainty about whether I should cover these here already, however, and I think that I won’t this one, as it’s far enough out of my period that I feel under-qualified and also I don’t think the speaker would expect or necessarily welcome it. But I was at least reminded that I should really know more about Lollards if I’m going to go round doing things like this.1

So, I offer those mainly as points of discussion. Blogging will resume with the standard ridiculous self-promotion and then with a pedagogical question for those of you in the USA, and finally a proper IHR seminar report such as is expected by the readers of what I have now heard called “your improving blog”, and readers, he meant it transitively. I am not sure this post will have improved you much but, if not, better luck soon!


1. If you feel an urge to say something like O HAI CEILING LORD CAN HAZ FREE WULL PLZ at this point, at least provide the accompanying macro. (And if you have no idea what I mean, you may as well start with the big one

Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

As with any type of specialised knowledge, I guess, one of the problems with getting information out to the people at large is that the people at large don’t necessarily have the context that allows them to judge whether something is important, or just hot air. More importantly, often neither do the people who write about it for them. This is of course not news here or elsewhere, but every now and then you gotta vent anyway. Two pieces that went past on News for Medievalists, the messenger it’s OK to shoot, in particular struck me as pieces where it might have been good if a historian of the relevant area and period had been consulted somewhere along the line.

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

The first of these was a piece about a Chinese coin found in East Africa. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of this at all, though the political context into which this, and all the other stuff you may have seen about Chinese naval contact with Africa in the fifteenth century in recent years, is bothersome. Basically, the Chinese government is currently pouring a lot of money into East Africa and, not surprisingly, one of the results of this is a new line of historical and archæological investigation arguing for the importance of China’s early influence on East Africa, an early influence that the Ming state nevertheless more or less threw away in 1433. The main figure of this wave of flag-showing was a Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who more or less came in peace, and he is becoming a powerful symbol of enlightened maritime friendship and patronage for Beijing, which is probably not unconnected with Chinese archæologists recently finding his tomb, empty, although a subsequent announcement admitted that in fact the identification was probably wrong, which to judge by other such stories will mainly allow the ‘experts’ to find the tomb again at some convenient later point. In the reportage of all this they will, of course, rely on exactly the journalistic shortcomings that set this piece off.1 (There is a really good article in Time about the politico-industrial context of all these amazing discoveries here.)

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

So yes, OK, calm down, what about this coin? Well, whatever the Chinese government and its unwitting spokespeople want to make of it, there is no problem with a Chinese presence in fifteenth-century Africa. No, I’m fine with that. The bit that got me was the final paragraphs of the BBC piece that News for Medievalists were robbing, where they talk about how this knocks Vasco de Gama off the map in the “connecting Africa to the world” stakes; China were there earlier. Witness:

“We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,” said Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya.

“Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals. It shows that Kenya was already a dynamic trading power with strong links to the outside world long before the Portuguese arrived,” he said.

You get it? It’s about China beating the West, both in time and in morals. And the obvious thing that’s missing from this is the Middle East, dammit, because this whole area was under a Muslim sultanate at this point and had been for years. It was already connected to a vastly wider world stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco via Baghdad, and I suspect that it is that last name that is one of the problems, because currently it’s probably not politically wise for Kenyan spokespersons to put out pieces saying, “Yah, well of course we used to be real good buddies with Baghdad till you Western guys came along and changed all that.” I could wish that some of the coverage was cunning enough to pick that up, but at the very least they should mention the religion of the Sultan of Malindi and the immense networks that being an Islamic state at that time in history gave a polity access to. They could also mention that the first point East from Africa is not actually China, but India, which had ‘discovered’ this area and its trading potential long before, but India is not currently investing in Kenya as much and I guess that’s why that’s not news. Of course, one might question whether Africa really needed to be discovered at all to be important, or whether this is just past and present colonialism talking, but if discovered and connected to a wider world it had to be, it seems pretty clear those politically-pesky Arabs should be claiming the honour. The other point, though, is more subtle, and this maybe they can be excused for not picking this up. Did you ever hear of a place called Kilwa?

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

No? Kilwa Kisiwani, Venice of East Africa? The Treasure Island of Kilwa? Still nothing? Well, you’re not alone if so, I’d never heard of it either until a few years ago I found myself trying to fix the fact that in a certain database almost all of its coins there present were mistakenly marked as being half-rupees, but it was pretty big. For about three centuries, and peaking in the fourteenth, this island fastness had the run of the east African coast and therefore the ability to channel its trade, which made it extremely rich. It was also, of course, given the day and age, an Islamic state, and a very well-known one: Ibn Battuta stayed there, its rulers communicated with others and its coins (at least, the gold ones, which are weirdly never found locally) travelled great distances through the Islamic territories.2 Zheng He, however, landed at Malindi, and Kilwa’s over-reaching importance in the area hasn’t made it it into any press coverage I’ve seen. Obviously Zheng He’s choice of berth is one reason, although we can probably assume he also went to Kilwa Kisiwani since he is supposed to have travelled up and down the whole coast. I suspect, however, that the big factor in this obtrusive state’s strange absence from the Kenyan-Chinese picture is that its territories are now in Tanzania, and thus it’s nothing to do with the real reason this stuff is getting reported. Tchah.

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

There’s more I could write (off). For example, another News for Medievalists’ post robbing a Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Goldstone headlined “Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan” really needs the Matt Gabriele treatment but I could begin with, “well, one reason that isn’t quite going to work is that Afghanistan is currently crawling with soldiers sent from halfway across the world and every time one of them is killed halfway-around-the-world gets to hear about it almost instantly, by much the same high-speed communications means by which the attack was probably coordinated. These eras are not the same. Also, you used the f-word.” I mean, if what you want to say is that Afghanistan is in the grip of a bunch of territorial warlords whom the government barely controls but hopes to entice by deploying patronage, then yes, that might work, as long as your medieval analogue was, for example, late Salian Germany, but picking France and England at the end of the Hundred Years War as your benchmarks rather knocks the whole thing to pieces. You see, Hamid Karzai, about whose government the article technically is,3 is not, in fact, an occupying power so equating him with England trying to hold France won’t really float. Neither, in fact, will likening the USA in Afghanistan to Plantagenet England, because of Henry V actually trying to rule France directly due to a genealogical claim on it, not just wanting someone friendly in charge there to prevent people in France raiding his coastline or whatever. And of course if one of the players here were founding their riches on their ability to market a massively-important cash crop globally, as are the Afghan warlords with the opium poppy, it was England, with its wool, not France. In other words, for this analogy to work, the USA would need to have displaced Karzai and annexed Afghanistan as a 52nd state largely to protect its own drugs revenue, which almost certainly isn’t the case and certainly isn’t the point Ms Goldstone wants to make. We can leave aside the medievalism-as-contempt-for-the-other motif for others to pick up, I think, and just skewer the inaccuracy.

Oh, you journalists with a little medieval knowledge. Why can’t you all be more like this guy? (Hat tip to Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard for this one.)


1. This is, by the way, approximately half as much as some people have tried to claim for Zheng He, a retired British naval captain called Gavin Menzies having published two books claiming that the Chinese fleet also discovered America and visited all the major ports of Europe. I’m glad to have found a story where a Chinese academic is quoted not only taking this down but also stressing the importance of Islamic seafarers in connecting up the zones through which Zheng He and other Chinese voyagers travelled.

2. On the numismatics I have to thank Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, one of the UK’s two archæologists working on Swahili stuff she tells me, who has a paper about where Kilwa’s coins turn up and publishing some new ones coming out in next year’s Numismatic Chronicle.

3. Obviously, it’s really about how clever Nancy Goldstone is, but I can hardly criticise someone for gratuitously showing off knowledge on the Internet, now can I?

Seminary XXXII: Michael Wood shows us India from England (and vice versa)

The last week of October was pretty much solidly medieval, both in the sense of being “incompatible with Orlando Bloom’s overwhelming dreaminess“, in as much as various personal things chose that time to tank and yr. humble correspondent took a little while to cope and become a functional human being again, hence the long period without posts – but it was also because almost every day of the week had some notable of the medieval field speaking somewhere or other. On the 27th October it was no less a personage than Michael Wood, I mean “television’s Michael Wood” (although television might have been surprised by the twenty-minute conversation he had with someone afterwards about manuscripts of William of Malmesbury) and he was speaking to the UCL Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar to the title “Cholans and West Saxons: kingship and court culture in tenth-century England and India”.

Cover of Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages

Cover of Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages

Cover of Michael Wood's The Story of India

Cover of Michael Wood's The Story of India

Mr Wood has a lot of interests, but his scholarly work, which is not negligible for all that he calls himself “a lapsed historian”, has focussed mainly on the reign of King Athelstan, and his In Search of the Dark Ages is still one of the more accessible starter books for an introduction to how the history of that period unrolled and has been studied. However, more lately he’s been making programmes about India, and he appears to be getting deep into research into the formation of a Tamil empire in the south of India at about Athelstan’s, or at least Æthelred the Unready’s, time, under Rajaraja (King of Kings) Chola I circa 1010 C. E. So the organiser of the seminar, John Sabapathy, had got him along to try and talk about both together. Unfortunately this ambitious project had had to be limited because of a recent stay in hospital—Mr Wood was still using a crutch to get around the room this night—and so what we got was less prepared than I think he would like to have given us. It did include some new TV footage fresh from the editing room but the sound couldn’t be made to work, so the initial introduction to the Indian milieu didn’t quite gel. Once he got going with the evidence however, he hardly had to construct anything, just to tell us what was there.

Front right of the Brihadeshwara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Front right of the Brihadeshwara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

When Rajaraja pulled together this empire from his capital at Thanjavur, largely at the expense of an older empire ruled by the Pandyans, who were in contact with Augustan Rome and had to deal with the first Christian settlers in India, he put up this little place to focus people’s minds on his new deal. Well, OK, I say little by way of wilful understatement: the Brihadeshwara Temple is over 200 ft high and has been in continuous use since its establishment in the early eleventh century. Furthermore, its lower reaches are covered in inscriptions (of which I can’t find a picture), meaning that the place has almost got more text on it than we have of Anglo-Saxon charters, a comparison Michael was well-placed to make. The records so inscribed include land-grants, royal decrees, succession notices, wills, all the kinds of document we might expect from England at the same time and a few others besides. There’s also a massive pictorial scheme of decoration in sculptures and painting, though the latter is almost all gone. It’s an incredible source just by itself, and then there’s the nearby library. The Sarasvati Mahal library houses, among quite a lot else, some 35,000 manuscripts of this and the following eras, including more of those documents and not a few books, literature and history included, written either on palm-leaves or in very solemn cases on copper plates, which I just loved because unorthodox documentary material is becoming an interest of mine. (Googling for supporting images for this post threw up the fact that the books of the library are being digitised even as we speak, which is all to the good.)

Hindi palm-leaf manuscript

Hindi palm-leaf manuscript

Poems of the sage Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya inscribed on copper plate

Poems of the sage Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya inscribed on copper plate

So there is an incredible source base here and of course much work has been done on it, of which the West by and large knows nothing, as why should it? We can’t actually study the whole world at once. I asked a local expert afterwards, and was told that starting reading on this era is Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri’s A history of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar (4th edn. Madras 1967). I hope some day to find time to read it. But, given that only half the paper was about India, what did we get from the comparisons? This is where I think Mr Wood would have liked those extra days he spent in hospital back, as he was only able to point out that there were parallels, and then encourage us to guess what they might tell us. But there are some. Consider: a newly-forged empire establishes a monumental centre of cult in a planned town to commemorate its new position. Am I talking about Thanjavur? Or Winchester? The kingship has heavily sacral overtones but actual access to the sacred is governed by a separate élite of learned men whom the king controls, but of which he is not part, and who use their own special written language: the Sanskrit-writing Brahmins or the Latinate Anglo-Saxon Church? (One difference here is that in the Cholan Empire the sacred language is not carried into documentary record as Latin is in England – the inscriptions on the temple are in Tamil.) And further parallels could be drawn between the network of lesser temples in villages and the establishment of the English parish network, and royal appropriation of cults of saints (which South India has too as long as you don’t mind chopping the definition of `saint’ a bit; `venerated holy men’ might be closer, but the structures of cult are not dissimilar).

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course persuasive parallels are often less significant when one looks at other places and times that don’t do things the same way, and I don’t think we were getting here at any universals of new kingship and state formation or anything, but the idea of using one place as a model for the other and what that might tells us was quite intoxicating, especially given the amazing monumental continuity and spectacle that one had to play with. That’s one piece of Anglo-Saxon society it’s too easy to forget just because it’s been stomped all over with new building, but though the Brihadeshwara Temple is rather a special case, consider if you want how our reaction to it now might be like that of Wessex yeomen coming to Winchester for the first time and seeing the palace and minsters dominating the regimented and invulnerable-looking town… Not perhaps quite like this, but the game is the same I think, don’t you?

Another part of the Brihadeswara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Another part of the Brihadeswara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Setting ethnicities: comparisons across Bohemia, India and Catalonia

Aerial view of the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov, whose building runs from the medieval period to the present day

Aerial view of the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov, whose building runs from the medieval period to the present day

I was just catching up with blogs before updating here myself, and found this note at Muhlberger’s Early History, which is one of his reports on the work of his collaborator, democracy advocate Phil Paine, two of whose book reviews form the core of the post. The one that caught my eye was about the creation of the nation of Bohemia, which the author whom Paine was reviewing, Nancy Wingfield (thus taking this post three references deep now), put largely down to a false monolingualism determined by the Austro-Hungarian authorities. I was especially struck by this bit:

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, ‘I am from such-and-such a village’, not ‘I am Czech’ or ‘I am German’. Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles.

Of course, it’s but the biggest blow in a long long process of back and forth between domination of German and non-German cultures in this kingdom that was once one of the electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, but this piece reminds me rather of something medieval, in terms of dates, but not at all European (and therefore not really medieval, as there’s no ‘middle’ for it to be in). It reminds me of a seminar I once saw given by an Indian scholar whose name is Romila Thapar. She is now Kluge Professor at the Library of Congress, but when her candidacy for the post was announced there was a great furore in India, and petitions raised against her that called her a Marxist, a Communist and someone who “denies that India even had a history”. Petitions were raised for her too, and she eventually got the job. (A balanced-seeming view that actually refers to her work here; a Hindu pro-tolerance one here, it’s all very complicated.)

Romila Thapar in interview

Romila Thapar in interview

So what was this dangerous firebrand preaching, when I saw her? That 11th- and 12th-century charter evidence from the North-West of India, where Muslim incomers had acquired a substantial rôle in society, showed both groups in apparent cooperation over land sales, witnessing together and so on, and so the embedded historiographical idea that in India Muslims and Hindus have always fought bitterly seemed in fact to be a much more modern construction. She blamed legislation by the British to prevent such conflict, they assuming falsely that there must be some. I don’t know about that—my reading on India is pretty scant—and my own work on spotting ethnic mix in charters means that I now wish I’d asked her how she was attributing religion to these people from their names, because I can point you to deacons in Spain called Muhammad, and so on. All the same it shows that there was no established discourse of a superior ethnicity such as was established in Bohemia by state intervention; there’s nothing in the documents that she presented to suggest that either Muslims or Hindus were controlling the process to the exclusion of the other group. They sat on village councils together, presumably did business together and so on. Now there may be more to Professor Thapar’s work than this, in fact there must be, but the impression I left with was that this person gets death threats because she suggests that once upon a time, Indians got on more or less peacefully. But the suggestion that an opposition now so crucial to so many people’s identities in India is a modern construct and not hallowed by the centuries of blood that Indians grow up hearing about is a big threat to current senses of identity.

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

It’s not hard to parallel this from my own studies, of course, because this is another area where it has become legend that a national identity was built out of conflict with the Muslims (in some places quite a nasty legendsome deconstruction here and see references below). The work I mentioned above about communities with Arabic names, groups who participate enthusiastically in the nascent Leonese kingdom’s formation, should show you that this is overstated, but in Catalonia it’s actually harder to show this lack of concern with ethnicity. People (and places) with Arabic names do occur, but rarely; references to conflict are infrequent but enough to suggest that it was fairly continuous but usually very small-scale. Meanwhile, because it is in some senses suppressed, the quest for a Catalan national sentiment is very important to modern-day Catalans; establishing that they were once a nation, perhaps even before upstart Castile, makes the case for secession much easier to maintain. This is why Ramon d’Abadal had to struggle so hard to establish the case that, really, before at least the millennium and probably later Catalonia was not yet a thing. The key point is supposed to come in 985, when the Muslim hajib al-Mansur led the army that sacked Barcelona; this, and the subsequent realisations that all the proto-Catalan counties were in it together and that they had no exterior support any more, has been held to start people writing about the area as if it had an identity of its own. I myself can see no sign of a unified response and think that the real efforts in this line come after the union with Aragón, partly because by then all the separate Catalan counties have collapsed into the control of the house of Barcelona, but also because until then there is no need to define themselves against anyone; France is still forming and hasn’t really got that far south, and Aragón is aimed in a different direction. Once the counts become kings elsewhere, though, the threat of inferior status makes the Catalans look to their lineages, or so I think anyway. There’s a lot of work on this I haven’t done though. The comparisons above however help me think it’s a case that could be defended: here again, it wasn’t a popular sentiment that set up a perceived ethnicity, it was a state exercise of politics that brings about an unwelcome process of definitions not necessarily mirrored at ground-level.


Limiting references to the absolute basics, Nancy Wingfield’s book that Phil Paine was reviewing is Flag Wars and Stone Saints: how the Bohemian lands became Czech (Cambridge MA 2007) (which should so very much have been called Czech your Change don’t you think?). Romila Thapar’s most immediately accessible work is probably either her Penguin A History of India: volume 1 (Harmondsworth 1990) or Early India: from the origins to 1300 (Berkeley 2004). The easiest and most readable antidote to the Menéndez Pidal Reconquista mythos is Richard Fletcher, “Reconquest and Crusade in Spain c. 1050-1150” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 37 (London 1987), pp. 31-47 but see also idem and Simon Barton (eds), The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest (Manchester 2000). On the Catalan lack of interest in such definitions you should soon be able to see Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming). The 985 theory comes from Michel Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par Al-Mansur et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Société des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur (Tours, 10-12 juin 1977), Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218. A reference for my scepticism lacks as yet, but let’s see what happens after November

Misuse of medieval evidence

Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger

I have a much larger post than this brewing, but for the moment just let me vent a little spleen. In recent months I’ve been making determined efforts to get through my new books pile, if only so that it makes sense to actually use the Blackwells/Early Medieval Europe prize I won in 2005 on books I will then get round to reading while they’re still fresh… And this has led me to something I got as a conference gift in, er, let’s just say a number of years ago, which is Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger: the Rise and Fall of the British Raj (Oxford 2004). Now in many ways this book has not lived up to my hopes, as by the time I now read it I’ve learnt the relevant history in about three times the depth from Wikipedia whilst putting the Lester Watson Medal Collection on the web.

But, you may say, Wikipedia is transient and unreliable and badly-sourced, whereas this professorial work must be properly referenced and unimpeachably accurate, no? Well, er. He only references primary material, but quite a lot of that is culled from secondary works. Pressure from the publishers (OUP…) perhaps. But one cite in particular had me checking up, and it hasn’t reassured me of Professor Judd’s accuracy. It goes like this:

The first mention of an Englishman setting foot in India is over 1,000 years earlier [than Independence in 1947], and can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the earliest records of the history of the English. According to this source, King Alfred the Great sent a certain Sighelm on a pilgrimage to India in AD 883. Sighelm apparently brought back ‘many strange and precious unions [pearls] and costly spices’.

And he cites Thorpe’s 1861 translation, as used by a 1920 Clarendon Press history of the earliest British contacts with India. Well, as you can imagine I was wondering why I’d never noticed that, as I’m not exactly a stranger to the ASC. But it seems that Thorpe’s translation is not the only one that gives this reading, Giles’s influential one being another. So I fished my copy of Swanton off the shelf, and dug it out.1

Now note first of all that this annal does not come from the ‘A’ manuscript, the so-called Parker Chronicle, which is the closest to a genuine Alfredian-period text that we have, which is odd. It is however in all of B, C, D, E and F (if you don’t know the Chronicle well you may find Tony Jebson’s Introduction useful) so it would seem to hark back from that period when there was only one Chronicle, which was at least close to Alfred’s court. So what gives? I’ll tell you what gives. Here’s Swanton’s translation:

“… and the same year Sigehelm and Athelstan took to Rome – and also to St Thomas and St Bartholomew in India – the alms which King Alfred had vowed to send there when they besieged the raiding-army at London…”

Odd, but apparently incontrovertible, and who knew that there were Christian shrines in India in the ninth century? Alfred, apparently, and one wonders how. It does seem that there were Christian settlers there, in Kerala, after 345, if not earlier, and their claimed Apostle was indeed Thomas, even if this is probably because a person of that name led the 345 immigration, so it just about adds up. But wait. The word that D, E and F all use is Indea. But these are the later manuscripts. The word that B & C use is Iudea, which I think you’ll agree makes a bit more sense as somewhere to promise alms if you’re in desperate straits before a Viking army. Oh dear, oh dear. One medieval transcription error, ‘n’ for ‘u’, and now it’s Gospel to backdate the British Empire by eight hundred years…

So basically one could wish that Judd had checked rather than accept that a 150-year-old translation was still current, and I wonder whether Wikipedia isn’t the better answer after all; I know I learnt more from it. Oh well. This is why they need us, isn’t it?

1. M. J. Swanton (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).