Tag Archives: medieval technology

Link

An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

This post is probably more a note to myself than anything, and comes again apropos of my having a while back read Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque.1 It relates to iron-working, which is something I’ve had a vague interest in for a long time, as I do with technical knowledge in general. (It also relates oddly both to the subject of the last post, as one of the things Robin Fleming has argued about sub-Roman Britain is that iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries, and to some of my most recent reading, the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, in which several of the estates surveyed were obviously working iron out of the pre-Alps, so the world remains full of coincidences.) My interest is more than general, however, as the spread of iron-working in Catalonia was one of the things that Pierre Bonnassie saw as being part of its agricultural take-off in the late tenth century which help set up that area’s particular instance of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’.2

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden, from the Biblia de Ripoll

That image again from the Bíblia de Ripoll, which we now know to show Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Eden, but hopefully for Bonnassie with tools typical of the medieval Catalonia in which the Bíblia was made…

Most people from Bonnassie’s part and generation of the academy would have been informed on this by the work of Georges Duby, whose picture of the use of iron in the early Middle Ages was extremely gloomy and largely based on minimalist and decontextualised readings of such sources as the Brevium exempla, which he would now find matched in Professor Fleming’s vision of early medieval Britain, I suspect.3 In this respect Bonnassie was unusual, however, as his cite of reference for such matters, aside from the charters he knew so well, was Lynn H. White Jr’s Technology and Social Change.4 In its day that was an excellent book, I think, and I own it with pride, but there seems little doubt that the picture of 1962 has moved on somewhat. Finding out where the new picture comes from, however, has been a bit tricky for me and this is where M. le Professeur Devroey switches the light on for me. Since I don’t now have access to the original, the best I can do for you is to transcribe my notes and you’ll see at least what I took from his text:

“La question de l’outillage”

“Delatouche argued that serfs brought own tools to work, hence low record of them in inventories but has not been followed (P. Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au moyen âge). Largely based on Annapes.”

There is a small inset section here taking apart Duby’s reading of the tool lists in the Brevium exempla, of which Devroey observes that here as elsewhere, “Duby ne pose pas la question essentielle de savoir ce qui est inventorié dans cette liste,” ‘Duby does not deal with the essential problem of knowing what is inventoried in this list’, music to my eyes, and then returns to the main text. The book is filled with these inserts and it makes it quite hard to follow at times, because they’re individually quite interesting but not always where you would expect in the text. Anyway, my notes go on:

“Archæological finds however show lots of iron tools right through, often in burials. Also we find lots of smelting debris, furnaces everywhere and renders in metal v. common (Un village au temps de Charlemagne… [Leroux]; Lesne).”

Here an inset box analyses the renders in iron in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés polyptych, partly coming in in finished items, and notes that this is paralleled elsewhere, as indeed I have been seeing at Santa Giulia di Brescia. Then we return to the thread.

“In Germany, and maybe not just there, this spreads a lot in Carolingian period, metalwork part of everyday production; remember, their swords are famous… (McCormick, Origins; J. Decaens in Archéologie Médiévale 1 (1971)).”

“Technologies, entrepreneurs et artisans”

“It’s not a Revolution; slow changes C5th–C12th with local adaptations. Many parts of this system around before 1000, heavy ploughs, water mills, three-course rotation, diversification of crops; it’s the combination that makes for the big changes though (G. Comet in Études rurales 145-146 (1997)).”5

That last point sounds excellent news to me who have been arguing something similar about the feudal transformation for many years, that it was the outcome of many things already happening happening at the same time, in different places at different times,6 but in general it is clear I have a lot of reading to do now, which is good: an idea of where to read this stuff was exactly what I lacked. The best of these may be the last, the Comet article, because investigation reveals that it was but one article in an issue entitled Georges Duby, which was a collective reassessment of Duby’s work on medieval agriculture in which the man himself took part and which I must therefore read before sending off the attack on that I currently have in draft… Oh well, better to find it before than after! And for the reference I owe thanks to M. le Prof. Devroey.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 472-478.

3. E. g. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval (Paris 1962), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 17-22 of the translation.

4. L. H. White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

5. These are my notes based on Devroey, Économie rurale I, pp. 124-130, and may not represent an accurate summary of that text. The references they include are to these works, none of which I’ve yet read: Pascal Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au Moyen Âge (Paris 2002); Joëlle Le Roux, “La métallurgie : les bas fourneaux et la forge : l’outillage en fer” in Jean Culsenier & Rémy Gaudagnin (edd.), Un village au temps de Charlemagne : moines et paysans de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis du 7e siècle à l’an mil. Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 29 novembre 1988 – 30 Avril 1989 (Paris 1988), pp. 291-300; Emile Lesne, “L’économie domestique d’un monastère au IXe siècle, d’après les statuts d’Adalhard, abbé de Corbie” in Mélanges d’histoire offerts à Ferdinand Lot (Paris 1925), pp. 385-420; Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002); Joseph Decaëns, “Un nouveau cimetière du haut Moyen Âge en Normandie, Hérouvillette (Calvados)” in Archéologie Médiévale Vol. 1 (Paris 1971), pp. 1-125; & Georges Comet, “L’équipement technique des campagnes” in Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), pp. 103-112.

6. I haven’t really done this in print, rather than in a classroom, but the germ of the idea is in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 171-173.

Seminar LXXIX: “recycling after Rome’s fall”

Cover of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome

Cover of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome

If you are like me, or if gods save you this blog is your main source of history information, you will largely think of Professor Robin Fleming as an expert on the Norman Conquest and Domesday Book, and so it will have been with some confusion that you (in the former of our cases there) learnt of her new book, Britain after Rome, which, I am told, decides that no meaningful history of the period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain can be done from the texts, and therefore ignores them completely in favour of seeing what the archæological record alone tells us.1 This is a weird departure for someone whose stock in trade thus far has been making one particular immense text give up its secrets, but the archæologists I’ve heard talking about it are all delighted by the book, so it was with great interest that I made it down to London against the weather on the 15th December to hear her present to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, to the title, “Recycling In Britain after Rome’s Fall”.

Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built in the eleventh century from reused Roman building stone

Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built in the eleventh century from reused Roman building stone (from Wikimedia Commons)

My reactions to this paper were twofold: one, that it was incredibly interesting, and two, that I wanted to go and get all the references because the amount of stuff Professor Fleming had that I’d never heard of set off the alarm bells that ring when conspiracy theorists bring together a huge range of unrelated sources and string links between them. This was not because she was doing that! It was just because it seemed too damn rich to be instantly believable. I will admit that some of the assertions about quantity seemed to me to be very unlikely to be, well, quantifiable, but she had plural examples for most of what she was asserting, which is better than some do. What was she asserting, Jonathan, I imagine you’re saying, so, well, for one thing, that there was massive re-use of Roman building stone, which we sort of knew but no! more massive than that, quarries out of use for centuries massive, building still being raided in the eleventh century massive. And raided not just for stone, but for the metal bits of their structure that held the stones in place, these going into smiths’ hoards along with tools, cutlery, coins, anything that could be melted down and used again. There’s [edit: almost] no evidence (she said) of iron production in Britain between about 370 and the seventh century because of this second-hand supply. Pottery gets reused, too, intact stuff where it can be and otherwise bits used as moulds. This, for Professor Fleming, is how to explain a quantity of separated pot bases found especially in Oxfordshire settlement sites (she named Barrow Hills): they were serving as moulds for the plates in composite brooches, she reckons, the metal for those presumably being scavenged too.2

South Cadbury Castle hillfort, Somerset

South Cadbury Castle hillfort, Somerset, from English Wikipedia

As that example suggests, there was a lot of regional variation in this presentation. That’s what they were doing with old pots in what would be Oxfordshire, break ’em up and make Saxon-looking stuff with the bits, but when the fort of South Cadbury (which was of course Camelot as any fule kno) was reoccupied in the fifth century one of the things this left for us is Roman cinerary urns, being used in domestic contexts. That is, it was important enough to these guys to use fine Roman ceramics, in a world where those were now basically unobtainable, that they would raid cremation cemeteries and take the urns to put food and drink in. (Yes, we’re still on mistreatment of the dead, sorry.) You see, then, why this rings like fantasy and yet I asked her where this, at least, was written and it’s in a book I’ve read, so I guess that I, like everyone else apparently, must have missed the significance.3) Some places obviously had more building stone to reuse than others; a lot of Professor Fleming’s examples of this stuff came from Bath, which is not really surprising. Closer to Kent, they were reusing Roman funerary ceramics as, well, funerary ceramics, going into the ground next to Merovingian finewares and local pottery. And again, you see, I’ve read more Kentish cemetery reports than some, especially this last few months, but I had not noticed this stuff there and I must go back and look again.4 Everywhere was reacting differently to the new shortages in supply and loss of technical skills, argued Professor Fleming, but the general picture is one of rapidly-developing material poverty being met with manifold and baffling ingenuity as each community made its choice between staying some kind of Roman or becoming early medieval. No Saxons necessarily required, you’ll notice, though of course there were ‘barbarian’ soldiers perhaps around who would now have been important in times of trouble, perhaps important enough to be imitated…5 Even if the quantities don’t add up to the kind of picture I seem to have come away from this paper with, that is a powerful paradigm for the so-called adventus, that is, and one which needs really very few immigrants to make it float.6 Once this gets out, we’re not going to be able to ignore it, so it merits attention, and I was glad to have been attending.


1. R. Fleming, Britain after Rome: the fall and rise, 400-1070, History of Britain (Harmondsworth 2010), to which compare for example eadem, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991) or Domesday Book and the law. Society and legal custom in early medieval England (Cambridge 1998).

2. Barrow Hills is not yet actually in print, it must be said, but it won’t be long apparently, Oxford Archaeology’s website advertises it as: Richard Chambers & Ellen McAdam, Excavations at Barrow Hills, Radley, Oxfordshire, 1983-5, Volume 2: The Romano British cemetery and Anglo Saxon settlement (Oxford forthcoming). By that time, of course, I guess that they will have been able to take Professor Fleming’s interpretation into account, since she obviously talked to them, so her source may wind up citing her. Is that actually circular? I’m not sure.

3. It being Leslie Alcock, S. J. Stevenson & C. R. Musson, Cadbury Castle, Somerset: The Early Medieval Archaeology (Cardiff 1995), though on inspection I discover that I actually read only Alcock, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 68 (London 1982), pp. 354ff, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987) pp. 185-213, so I could very easily have not got this level of detail.

4. Though, again, I must recognise that what I’ve read has very largely been the work of Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, who wrote mainly sober catalogues of finds mainly interested in Saxon material that might be diagnostic of date or ethnic affiliations, in what we might call the old tradition, and indeed that was substantially what I was reading for, so maybe I would again have overlooked or she thought unimportant the Roman material reused like this. I’m much readier to blame me than her, though, and there is an incredible amount more publication than just hers as the link above starts to make clear.

5. I am primed to think like this at the moment by finally making it urgent to read Guy Halsall’s excellent Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which covers the barbarisation of the Roman military at pp. 101-110 with copious references.

6. Although, again, I’m conscious that there is out there a very similar invasion-free acculturation and fashion-change argument out there about the creation of Muslim al-Andalus in Spain, which has been basically dismissed as the work of a madman, and I can see the scope for a similar reaction to this work too (referring to Ignacio Olagué, Les Arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris 1960, 2nd edn. 1973), which dammit used to be online for free but seems no longer to be, and to which see the stinging rejoinder of Pierre Guichard, “Les Arabes ont bien envahi l’Espagne : les structures sociales de l’Espagne musulmane” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 29 (Paris 1974), pp. 1483-1513, which is online for free, here.

Kalamazoo and Back, IV: in which I am substantially preceded

We apologise for the delay. Trust me, there have been good reasons for this which will be vouchsafed in due course. Anyway, this is about the Saturday of Kalamazoo, in which the weather improved, there was a dance at evening and in which almost everything I went to was from before my period. The result of this is that it has largely been covered by Curt Emanuel, but I’ll add my two penn’orth anyway, because, well, of consistency and self-importance largely I suppose. So then!

Session 409: Early Medieval Europe II

I had been to bed very late the previous night, but somehow found the trick of deep sleep once more. This unfortunately meant that I was late to the first session of the day, largely because I was still dozy and took a stupid route up the hill to where it was. I was however less chagrined about this than I might have been because I heard an earlier version of this paper in a graduate seminar here in Cambridge, and you can be less chagrined about the gappy coverage because as mentioned this one is already written up in detail at Medieval History Geek. It was in fact:

  • Margaret McCarthy, “Louis the Stammerer and the Development of a Kingly Identity”. Margaret’s basic contention, and a soundly-founded one, is that Louis should not be seen as a poor successor to Charles the Bald; starting from a very bad situation that Charles had largely engineered, he was as far as we can now tell doing all the sensible things someone in his position could do to garner support and establish himself as an accepted and legitimate Carolingian ruler, and had he not died so soon he might have gone places. Interestingly, the charters he did have time to issue included some not to places not in his own kingdom; whether this says something about territorial ambitions or about pan-Carolingian status, especially at a time when non-Carolingians were raising their neo-royal heads, is something we can probably never resolve, though.
  • Margaret was followed by Karl Heidecker, who is rarely less than controversial and was here talking to the title, “Carolingian Government and Social Practice: designs of imperial and Christian reform and their consequences in people’s lives”, which was more specifically, firstly, about how far the reform of marriage under the Carolingian kings actually had an effect on the everyday person. He pointed out that the kings themselves did not define marriage, only ruled certain sorts out as illicit; the definition came out of a subsequent process, almost of exegesis, of the legislation and conciliar rulings, by various clerics across the successor kingdoms. Very often cases were decided on a political basis rather than an ideological basis, and in fact the definitions were probably largely created around these troublesome cases where competing agendas meant that normal practice couldn’t be followed. The second part of the paper examined office-holding in Carolingian-conquered Alemannia and pointed out that there are some zones where a ‘regular’ practice of assimilation was followed, some where locals were left in place and some where all vestiges of the local élite were squashed out. This fit perfectly with my picture of variable pathways of power from élite to ground so I was happy to hear it from another area, an area moreover where very similar techniques to mine are being employed by the researchers.
  • Third paper in the session was Justin Lake, speaking to the title “Pompatica scientia in the tenth century”. He was talking about attitudes to learning in the tenth century, which should be bang on my period especially since my particular area in that period is, at its upper levels, keen on Greek and may well have introduced the astrolabe to the west, via a man renowned for his knowledge but also drummed out of every job he held except the last one and later regarded as a Muslim-trained wizard. All the same, in actual historian’s terms I don’t think I’ve much to add to the Medieval History Geek’s coverage for this one so I suggest you go look there.

Session 457. Early Medieval Europe III

(Also covered at Medieval History Geek here.)

  • After lunch, I got to have the particular thrill that is finding someone working on a subject almost but quite one’s own in ways one hadn’t thought of. He was however preceded by none other than Ralph Mathisen, speaking to the title “Desiderius of Cahors and the End of the Ancient World”. This was a light-hearted paper with a serious core; its ostensible purpose was to find a candidate for the last of the Romans, in an intellectual-cultural sense, and justify the choice (which was Desiderius). Of course there’s no way to do this without tackling serious issues of what distinguishes antique from medieval and that was the real point of the paper: Ralph saw in Desiderius and his cronies the last generation of an élite who saw themselves as inheritors of the culture of Virgil, letter-writers and Classicists, who did not however train up a following generation. Of course, the Carolingianists could and did put up arguments for a framing of intellectuals like Einhard (whose letters are really not very different in content) as the same sort of thing, but the absence of a continuity between the 560s and the 780s for this kind of culture of letters does seem to be arguable, albeit necessarily from silence which is the real issue I think. Even Einhard’s letters are something of a lucky survival, alongside Alcuin’s and Theodulf’s poems (which are, indeed, not quite of the same flavour, which is perhaps a good time to remember that unlike those two Einhard was (a) Frankish and (b) a layman…). What else might have been out there that subsequent monastic archives didn’t have a use for?
  • Ralph Mathisen presenting an earlier Kalamazoo paper

    There are some surprising things to be found on W. Mich's image server if you dig. Here is Ralph Mathisen himself presenting a Kalamazoo paper from I think 2008

  • Second up was Graham Barrett (I get this name wrong because of other Barretts more local to me, but have checked it against his handout), who was talking to the title “Literacy, Law and Libido in Early Medieval Spain”. Now, though you might assume that this would be a paper based on Visigothic law and Councils, actually it was a charter paper: Graham was focussing on 30 cases of prosecution for adultery that survive in the archives of non-Catalan Northern Spain from 954-1081. These are preserved because, despite the law that they cite prescribing penance for the crime, they impose fines, which are paid in land that then becomes some preserving institutions. Certain rulers seem to take advantage of the fact that the Visigothic Law saw adultery as a public crime, which could therefore be prosecuted by anyone, not just the other spouse, to extract lands from those unable to keep continent. As you can see Graham is working some very similar veins to mine here, which I hadn’t realised at all when last we’d met, so I was not only extremely interested but rather glad he’d omitted Catalonia, where however we have nothing of the kind that I’ve yet seen.1
  • Last paper in the session was by David Dry, and was entitled, “Episcopal inheritance: replicating power in the Merovingian Gaul”; it was largely a treatment of episcopal election and the interests that governed it in the Merovingian period, primarily from the work of Gregory of Tours because that’s so much of what here is. Particulaly emphasised was the amount of trouble the bishops could make for a king, and the high status they enjoyed, which we somehow have to reconcile with the need they had for royal patronage. I should make more of Merovingian bishops in this way than I do because they illustrate so clearly the power that being a negotiator that both sides need can accrue for a person; Dry brought this out nicely.

A certain amount of confused wandering around the Fetzer building trying to find coffee and get back for the next session left me eventually deciding that the latter would have to take precedence and I snuck in through the introductory remarks of the convenor of…

520. Beyond Bede II: later Anglo-Saxon England

    A Kalamazoo session in a room in the Fetzer Center

    I'm pretty sure this is the same room or one functionally equivalent, but it's probably also from 2008


    I am something of a fan of Saint Bede, as the keen reader here may have noticed, and although I have no research contribution to make about Anglo-Saxon England I like to keep my mind in with it, as it were, so for this and other reasons I’d stopped in here to hear what turned out to be two papers about almost exactly the same material, Alice Olson presenting to the title “The Legacy of Bede in the Anglo-Saxon homilies” and Helen Foxhall Forbes to that of “Bede and Goscelin”, with a response by Allen Frantzen. Alice was interested in proving Æfric’s use of Bede by picking on a more or less unique piece of material that he borrows, the fourfold vision of Hell set out in a homily of his known as the vision of Dryhthelm. She mentioned some other possible sources and some theological complications of it but thought that the case for derivation was fairly obvious. Helen then set out the schema in detail, artfully reprising a Powerpoint presentation she’d not been able to use because of an absence of a projector solely with whiteboard markers, and showed how Bede’s version of this is unique, although he has two variants of it: before the Judgement the division is between Heaven, where the saints are already with God; Paradise, a sort of anteroom where those who will be saved at the last Judgement but were not quite express Heaven-goers await; Purgatory, where those sinners who can be saved are punished before their upward passage to Paradise, and Hell where the utterly damned are confined for eternity with no hope of escape. At the Judgement, however, he sees the Perfect, who will judge, the Good, who will be judged and admitted to Heaven, the Wicked, who will be dismissed to hell, and the unbaptised and apostates who receive no judgement. It is this latter bit that is the other sources Alice had mentioned, but the previous interim is all Bede’s own. So these two papers wound up complementing each other rather well, though I think both speakers would have changed their material somewhat if they’d known how close they were working. Frantzen’s response stressed the position of Bede with respect to heresy, which as Bede saw it was in the past, leaving him free to originate interpretation; Frantzen wisely asked whether Æfric would have approved of this schema of Bede’s, which is at the least unusual, if it had been in another writer less revered. He and the convener also reminded us that it is very unusual for theological work of Bede’s to enjoy this kind of reuse; although his impact was huge in historical terms, the other works circulate much less and the homilies hardly at all, at least not under his name. This would all doubtless be a bit abstruse for the general listener, but I think that even that listener would have been temporarily enthralled by a scheme of damnation that you can draw on a board; the power of the visual aid was made very clear by this. I enjoyed the session a lot.

And then it was the evening, and at this point I confess that I briefly ran out of up. I had food in my room to finish so I retired there and nearly didn’t go out again. Eventually, however, I recovered myself and somewhat grimly set out for the dance knowing that I’d regret not going more than I would going, and this was quite right. I don’t know that the dance is better than Leeds’s, now, though that’s only because Leeds’s has got a lot better in the last two years and because good heavens the beer at Kalamazoo’s dance is expensive, but it has a far better space to be in and the music ranges slightly more widely. This suits me because my music taste is largely (like myself) at the fringes of a dancefloor, and at Leeds just gone, despite the encouragement of Stuart Airlie, there was only really one song that got me properly,2 whereas at Kalamazoo there were three, and the last of them was the Sex Pistols which I can’t imagine ever being played at Leeds. I suspect a more heavily Anglophone constituency probably partly explains this but it could just be that all British discoes are firmly stuck in the nineties and imagine their entire attendance is hen parties. I may possibly over-generalise.

Simon Trafford at the Saturday dance at Kalamazoo in some year past

Headbanging! This man wasn't there so I had to step in

Anyway, I went, I drank lightly, I was dragged onto the floor by three different charming women,3 I threw my hair around and then I quit while I was ahead and went home to bed. In this, I admit, I was disobeying the dictum given me in the very early hours of that morning by Elizabeth MacMahon as we wended our briefly coincidental ways to our separate abodes, so it’s probably now time that was told. I’d complained of being short of sleep, and she wisely responded:

Sleep? There is no sleep. This is the
Bataan death march of scholarly fun!

Even with that statement ringing in my ears, however, I was still presenting early next morning and then flying across the Atlantic, so I disobeyed orders and went and slept, but with a much better day behind me than I’d expected a few hours previously.


1. He thus joins Eduardo Manzano Moreno and of course Wendy Davies as people who could obviously have done my project and probably faster if they’d been minded to and to whom I am therefore grateful for leaving me space. The difference so far is that Manzano’s two English articles actually started me on the whole project and Wendy’s Small Worlds showed me how I was going to do it; I rather imagine, though, that Graham will start similar fires under people in a few years.

2. ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order, since you ask.

3. All members of the group of women with whom I am most popular, which is, those who are already happily attached to someone else…

Feudal Transformations XIII: storing more and working less

Somehow I am staying ahead this semester. Having known for more than a week that I’d be teaching this time, I had lectures prepared a full fortnight ahead at the time of writing, lectures that are simpler and hopefully more effective than last semester’s, and therefore quicker to build; and consequently I am also finding time to do some actual work (as well as, as you will have noticed, blog a load of stuff).1 Specifically, I have started the background work for my Kalamazoo paper, for which I foolishly promised something that would actually require research, and by now I have an idea what shape it will be and what two of its jokes are, which is, surely, half the battle. I may not have read any of the substantive information I need to do it properly, but I know that if I absolutely had to I could already pull something together and this is very encouraging. (Incidentally, could someone who has my e-mail address and a digital copy of the Kalamazoo programme mail it me? I’ve tried from work and from home and I can’t download it, the operation hangs or fails with an error. Thanks in advance.)

Professeur Pierre Bonnassie (d. 2003) at the Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, 1993

It has also led me to be reading Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, which I mentioned a while ago, and consequently to be thinking (even more) about peasants and the good ol’ feudal transformation. If you’ve met Bonnassie’s work at all you’ve probably met it where he argued that between the end of large-scale agricultural slavery in late Antiquity and the development of serfdom in the years just after 1000 (for him) there was a sort of sweet spot, briefly enjoyed, where the majority of peasants were basically free, even if under public lordship.2 Obviously this only really works in South-Western Europe (‘du Rhône à Galice’) and buckets of cold doubt have been cast on it even there, but as with many of Bonnassie’s theories it still looks basically defensible in Catalonia, where the open frontier gives peasants somewhere to run to and lords, therefore, a reason to be nicer than they might otherwise be so that the peasants don’t run there.3 The debate there swirls around the effects of this. Does the peasant freedom to seek their own fortune in new lands on the frontier account for economic dynamism, increased land clearance and all that unfolds therefrom? Or is that instead driven by the pressures of lordship on the peasants once newly subjected? Chris Wickham finds an ingenious halfway house, arguing that to see peasants as venture capitalists starting small businesses is woefully anachronistic, that left to themselves peasants would not work to raise their lands’ output (“peasants had two alternatives, to eat more or to work less, and I suspect that they did both”) and that although the pressure to improve therefore comes from the renewal of oppressive lordship the peasantry still deserve credit as the innovators who had to work out how to come up with, quite literally, the goods.4

Excavation of the Molí d'en Valeri o de la Sal, Malgrat, Maresme, Catalonia

Excavation of the Molí d'en Valeri o de la Sal, Malgrat, Maresme, Catalonia

The other debate that springs from this is on the rôle of technique and technology. Bonnassie argued, on the basis largely of Lynn White’s book, that in the run up to 1000 peasant equipment was getting better: the heavy plough had finally made it to the area, iron tools were more and more common and watermills were newly prevalent.5 Subsequent work, however, has suggested that the heavy plough is basically irrelevant to the average Catalan homestead, where there wasn’t really room to turn it round and the soil is light anyway; that there’s no reason why iron tools should have been more available, since the techniques of smelting don’t change for a few centuries more, so this must actually be effect not cause, the cause being richer peasants; and that watermills are common much earlier, but don’t then seem to have this effect.6 (Also, of course, when most of your documentation comes from a recently-reorganised and expanding frontier zone, almost all infrastructure takes a while to set up, so it’s the wrong place to look for the agricultural state of the art as it will be late; but it’s where most of the documents come from.) The counter-argument, therefore, is that rather than being propelled by innovation or better techniques, the agricultural growth here was a slow buildup of the occupation of newly-cleared land, which was worked in the same way as ever but slowly increased, therefore fed more people who would occupy more land and so on till, boom, exponential growth.7 And if that’s so, then in my opinion the change has to start with the climate, but you’ve read me on that score already.

Village of Laurac, largely fourteenth century as stands

Village of Laurac, largely fourteenth century as stands, fortified during the Albigensian Crusade

Two of Bonnassie’s contributors engaged with this question in the best way, that is, from the archæology, and produced almost opposite nuances of his approach. Firstly, Jean-Paul Cazes tells the readers about underground grain silos at what appears to be his pet area, the Lauragais in Southern France.8 The thing here is that these perfectly unremarkable dug-out spaces in the ground, which stand out really well as crop-marks, only show up there associated with Roman-period settlement or sites of the ninth century or later. Identifying sites in that gap is of course tricky, tricker than Cazes allows in the small space the contributors seem to have been allowed, but all the same the association is pretty striking, and he argues that it means that the agricultural growth here was local, that is, the peasants were newly able to keep their surplus locally rather than having to render it up to the royal vill or similar as we are told they would have done in the Carolingian era. That is, there may or may not be growth testified in this but there is certainly a relaxation of exploitative authority. It’s a fascinating way of demonstrating what the master who was being fêted had asserted from documents alone.

Medieval peasant at work with a hand plough, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National de France

Medieval peasant at work with a hand plough, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National de France

Then, in the immediately following article, Aline Durand tackles the question of how these peasants actually set about working the land.9 In an article that covers a huge amount of ground in a very short space, Durand inventories the tools that later Toulousain documents suggest a peasant was expected to turn up to do his labour service with, and that wills and so forth suggest that they owned, and argues that whereas big estates calling on large labour pools would have ox-teams and heavy ploughs the peasant working his own land would have used an ard or a hoe for most of the work and a hand-plough like the one above, probably not even with wheels, to till his small and light-soiled fields. Durand thinks these tools would have had iron blades, which is where Bonnassie saw the change; Durand’s sources are later so Bonnassie could still be right (and Durand was hardly going to choose this venue to say otherwise). I don’t know where we are with this now: if there is an Owlfish reading, they may be able to add perspective. However, Durand, not content with this short tour de force, observes that while the tools don’t seem to change as some paradigms would argue, field use does: she notes that seigneurial labour levies operate on three ploughings a year, one to break up the sod, one immediately preceding the sowing and another to bury the stubble. This third one, she says, was largely skipped by people working their own land, as far as we can tell; this is after all back-breakingly hard work, especially if you’re doing it as above rather than with an ox-team. However, she suggests that once the model and its superior productivity (because it refreshes the soil) was widely observable people would start to use it on their own lands.

This part of the argument is to say the least unproven, because of course her primary sources are documents of lordship so showing what’s going on on land that aren’t under lordship, at least that directly, is hard to do. Also, it conflicts with her own reason why this wasn’t happening earlier, viz. that peasants didn’t want to do the work. They would rather eat more and work less, as Chris has it. But a more subtle metric of competition might explain a new pressure to produce surplus for both groups, I suppose. Either way, these papers match each other quite well, Cazes showing that apparently peasants were keeping more of their crop than before and Durand showing that crops are being made larger than before by technique, and not just extra land being used. In this respect they fortify their master well, and show his own impressive ability to bring unexpected forms of evidence to bear in support of his initially charter-based claims.10 Whether the causation should run surplus, therefore increased extraction, therefore pressure to grow more, as Wickham would want it, or increased extraction therefore surplus, as I think Bonnassie would have, however, I’m less sure. I might, in the end, side with Gaspar Feliu and others like him and gloomily conclude that the option in which the peasants lose out is probably the more likely.11


1. Of course, all this progress comes at the cost of anything that might be mistaken for a life, but since that was also the case last semester when I was hanging onto my deadlines by the skin of my teeth, I’m still winning.

2. Classically in Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

3. So maintained, for example, in Paul H. Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

4. 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, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226. Quote is near the end as I recall.

5. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 435-475, esp. 459-475, largely on the basis of Lynn T. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

6. For the plough arguments, not made explicitly for Catalonia but clearly applicable, see Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994); on iron-smelting I admit my understanding has been recently updated by the comments on this blog-post at Armarium Magnus, which contain references, at least the ones I was interested in did; and on earlier mills you might be best advised to see, if you only could, if I only could, etc., Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London forthcoming), Chapter probably-3 about Roda de Ter. Also some useful perspectives in C. Arbùcies & J. Oliver, “Vinyes que ja no hi són. Per una arqueològia agrària del domini feudal del treball pagès: les vinyes de Sorre, Montardit (el Pallars Sobirà) i Musser (la Cerdanya)” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 321-337.

7. For a range of views on this issue, and others, mainly focussing on whether or not Robert Fossier was wrong about it, try Georges Duby (coord.), “Table Ronde” in La Croissance Agricole du Haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990), pp. 181-203. Fossier argues that he wasn’t, as you’d expect. Contrast Bonnassie’s contribution to the volume, “La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge dans la Gaule du Midi et le nord-est de la péninsule ibérique : chronologie, modalités, limites”, ibid. pp. 13-35.

8. J.-P. Cazes, “Les silos et leur significance dans le haut moyen âge. L’exemple du Lauragais” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 45-50.

9. A. Durand, “La labour de céréaliculture en Languedoc méditerranéen (Xe-XIIe siècles) : quelques points de repères”, ibid. pp. 51-56.

10. For example, see his reply to Dominique Barthélemy in Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

11. Referring to Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, partly addressed by another of the Festschrift contributors, Pere Benito i Monclús, in his “El plet dels homes francs de Sarrià (1258). Crisi i pervivència de l’alou pagès a la Catalunya medieval” in Débax, Sociétés Méridionales, pp. 71-79.