Tag Archives: medieval theology

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…

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Seminar CCXXXVII: East-West links in the ninth-century Mediterranean

I write this while waiting for two captured lectures finally to save my edits and be available for my doubtless-eager students, and this may take a while, so what better way to while away the time than to go back nearly a year—ouch—and report on a seminar from back in Birmingham, on 26th March 2015, when Dr Federico Montinaro spoke to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies with the title “The Photian Schism (858-880): towards a cultural history”. Now, I suspect that only the most erudite of my readership will immediately be responding, “Ah yes, the Photian Schism, I know it well”, so perhaps it’s best to start with a basic chronology as Dr Montinaro presented it. The events were:

  • 858: For reasons we didn’t cover, Emperor Michael III deposed Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople, and replaced him with a layman called Photius; Ignatius went into exile.
  • 867: Patriarch Photius excommunicated Pope Nicholas I, of whom we have spoken here before, over a range of ‘errors of the Latins’ which he found intolerable, as well as the papacy’s interference in the Balkans, which Byzantium considered its ecclesiastical territory.
  • Still 867: Michael III was succeeded by Basil I, who immediately deposed Photius and recalled and reinstated Ignatius.
  • 870: a council was held in Constantinople over the East-West division, attended by representatives from the West (in particular the Greek-speaking historian and scholar Anastasius the Librarian), but didn’t really resolve much.
  • 871: meanwhile, a joint campaign by the Carolingian Emperor Louis II and Basil’s forces in Southern Italy had gone so badly that there was a falling-out there too, in which the legitimacy of Louis’s imperial title was called into question.
  • 877: Patriarch Ignatius died, and perhaps because the West was no longer in his good books, or perhaps because of local pressure, Basil reinstated Photius.
  • 879×80: Pope John VIII, anxious to rebuild bridges, confirmed Rome’s recognition of Photius’s election.

And thus ends the Schism, although by no means the difficulties between the new Western and old Eastern empires and their two patriarchal bishops.1 Now, Dr Montinaro’s quite short paper aimed to convince his audience that the extensive back and forth of embassies, letters, abuse and diplomacy actually brought the West and the East closer together during this period, increasing contact and familiarity at the highest levels. The dispute is certainly one of the few episodes involving both the West and Byzantium which we can usefully study with sources from both sides, not least the Historia Tripartita of the category-defying Anastasius, and if one does so (as Dr Montinaro has) the level of information the two sides had about each other does seem quite high; there were what seem to be quick reactions from one side to domestic controversies going on on the other, and theologians busy in both courts coming up with lists of the other side’s errors or defences of their own practices, all of which must have required some starting knowledge.2 Nor was this traffic all one-way; this is also the sort of time that the Greeks started to use a minuscule book-script such as the Carolingians had invented for Latin, and manuscript preservation in the Greek area also begins to climb in this general period. So Dr Montinaro closed with a plea that we should expect, and look for, more influences between East and West than is usually imagined.

Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822

A tenth-century manuscript of the Iliad in Greek minuscule, not to me looking very much like a case of Carolingian influence but the minuscule script itself is the novelty, I understand… This is Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822.

That conclusion seems perfectly admirable to me, but some of the steps to it are not things I would personally tread on, because correlation does not equal causation. Certainly, if one compares this situation to the arguments over images of God in the time of Charlemagne and the Isaurian emperors, it is clear that whereas Bishop Theodulf of Orléans, commissioned to write the Carolingian response to that problem, seems not to have had a clear idea of what the Byzantine positions actually were and the Byzantines paid no attention to the Carolingian theology of images at all, by the time of Photius the bandwidth of intellectual communication was clearly much higher.3 But several things then seem to partway explain that: by the 860s, the Carolingians were no longer a new dynasty and had Greek-reading theologians at some of their courts, and in any case, most of the interactions in this scenario were with the Carolingians and the pope in Italy, where contact with Byzantium had been continuous and regular in a way that Charlemagne could not have managed even if he’d wanted to from north of the Alps.4

Patriarch Photios of Constantinople being interrogated by a panel of ecclesiastics, from the Madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

Photius himself being interrogated by a panel of ecclesiastics, from the Madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes via Wikimedia Commons

The background signal of contact, in other words, might well be high enough that the Schism was not even the vehicle of such contact, but actually its result, as the East dealt with enough Latin churchmen that a catalogue of their ‘errors’ could even be collected. I also thought, and said, that what was missing from any explanation was much evidence of the people who actually went and made contact; in the schism Anastasius is almost the only one we can name, but there was clearly much more passing between the two empires than that, and at that rate, once we have to suppose any invisible contact, tying it to the Schism seems like that venerable game of medievalists, pushing two pieces of an incomplete jigsaw even though they don’t really fit because they’re the only ones we have. In other words, I was entertained but not convinced. Still, it would be nice to have all those references in print…


1. The standard work on the schism seems still to be František Dvornik, Le schisme de Photius : histoire et légende (Paris 1950).

2. Not least John Scot, Eriugena, Greek-literate and writing on such issues for King Charles the Bald in the 860s, as Dr Montinaro pointed out.

What do I think of the Bíblia de Danila?

There has been a very long hiatus here, for which I’m sorry. The factors in this have basically been:

  • first-marking a bunch of exams;
  • reading enough to kickstart a course I have inherited that starts two hundred years before I usually teach, which is itself five hundred years before what I actually work on
  • second-marking a bunch of exams;
  • the death in traffic of one of my cats, a truly excellent little critter whom I will not now see grow out of his kittenhood;
  • second-marking a bunch more exams and first-marking a bunch of assignments, and
  • the fact that this post needed me to read a sixty-page article in my fifth language which I could only access via a library in London.

But mainly it’s been marking. I did tell myself at one point that I would only blog when there wasn’t marking due but it’s now clear that there will be marking due until at least April, and I can be silent no longer etc., and so we swing now back into substantive blogging with a post that I should have written even longer ago than this delay suggests! It was in October 2012, you see, that our esteemed commentator Mouguias asked me if I had ever heard of a manuscript known as the Bíblia de Danila and if so what I thought of it. I hadn’t, and made an ill-judged promise to find out more and then write about it, and then didn’t do so. Mouguias popped up again in January 2015 and teased me about this in passing, and at that point I stubbed this post to remind me to do something about it. And at last I have.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 69r

A particularly decorated page from the Bília de Danila, Codex Cavensis or Cava Bible, call it what you will as long as you cite it as Cava de’ Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, this here being fo. 69r, and “LaCavaBibleFolio69r“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So, firstly, why is this bible a thing to investigate? The manuscript in question now resides in the Southern Italian monastery of la Cava de’ Terreni and this is the source of the manuscript’s other name, the Codex Cavensis. It seems to have come there in the twelfth century, however, from Spain, and probably actually dates to the early ninth century. Until recently it was held to have been nothing less than be a present of Charlemagne to King Alfonso II of Asturias, already, which would make it very early ninth-century indeed, but of late this has come under scrutiny and quite the reverse proposed, that it is fact a native Asturian product possibly even meant for display to the Carolingian Empire of Asturias’s newly-confident cultural self-expression. And for some reason in 2012 the web suddenly picked this up and ran with it. As Mouguias put it in his first comment: “Apparently this might be the ‘book’ that Alfonso II of Asturias mentions in his ‘Testament’, and some believe the bible was produced in order to preside over the Council that the king started in 812.” Well, it “might” be, of course, wherever Alfonso would then have got it from, and people can believe what they like about it but there’s no proving things like that from the manuscript itself and the manuscript is all we have here.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 220v

Fo. 220v. is, as you can see, written in white and red on indigo-stained parchment. Someone did put a lot of work and wealth into this manuscript! “LaCavaBibleFolio220v“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Now, you can immediately see how this is what one might expect from an area with a proud and important history within the Iberian peninsula that has since been sidelined by national politics, but for Mouguias this was coming from web reports of work by a researcher by the name of Paolo Cherubini, who is no less than the Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive and thus more like a neutral in the contest.1 His work is not easy to get at, however, and it perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that the web was not reporting it totally accurately.2 Actually, to judge from the unusually scholarly Wikipedia article on the Bible, the germ of the idea of reattributing the Cava Bible to Asturias came from the late great John W. Williams.3 I’m not sure that he would have stood by all of this, however:

“The location of the scriptorium in which Danila worked is not known. However the hand, textual variations, and orthography indicate that the manuscript was produced in Spain, during the early 9th century. It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex. Additional evidence of an Asturian origin is provided by the decoration of the manuscript. The Cross which appears in four locations in the La Cava Bible, is the only explicitly Christian decoration in the manuscript. Although the form of the Crosses in the La Cava Bible do not appear in other surviving Asturian art, the Cross was emphasized in Asturian devotional art.”

Well, taking this piece by piece, I am pretty much happy that spelling and textual variants can be used to place this manuscript’s production, or at least its scribe’s training, in Spain, as can the script. After that, however, I back off rapidly, especially from this bit:

“It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex [sic].”

What, really, do we know about the size of Asturias under Alfonso II? Mostly, we know what people working for Alfonso III subsequently claimed it had been, in order to justify what were probably really new claims on that territory. Alfonso II’s kingdom was clearly a cultural centre, his rebuild of the royal palace and his attempts to link out to the Carolingians show that, but very big it may not have been, not least because those very links to the Carolingians may indicate a difficulty obtaining local support in some areas.4

Remains of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo adjacent to the cathedral of San Salvador

What there remains above ground of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo, which is to say, a few bits now sticking out of the cathedral of San Salvador

And in any case, why on earth is it “unlikely” that such a manuscript could have been produced in al-Andalus, the which polity contained Seville, Toledo and the as-yet-apparently-untaxed Christian community of Córdoba as well as many other cathedral communities? The Asturian cultural efflorescence used to be supposed, after all, to have been powered by super-cultured fugitive immigrants from the south who brought their skills and ideas for decoration with them, and indeed often their manuscripts.5 You can’t have that along with the assumption that all Christians living in Muslim-controlled areas had become culturally bankrupt. So we need some better basis for this identification.

The supposedly 'Mozarabic' church of San Miguel d'Escalada, Asturias

The supposedly ‘Mozarabic’ church of San Miguel d’Escalada, Asturias, which could of course have been built by anyone who’d ever seen such arches and had sufficient skill, wherever they’d been born, but hey. «SMdE exterior portico» por Desarrollo Local GradefesSan Miguel de Escalada 05. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

It does have to be admitted that the Bíblia’s decoration is not very Andalusi as we understand it, but then, decorated manuscripts from al-Andalus are rare, full stop. Furthermore, this decoration contains no human figures, although as you see it has some splendid fish, which might cause some to say that an Andalusi context is more, not less, plausible. Even our Wikipedian commentator, you’ll note, has to admit that in terms of manuscript art this decoration is unusual for Asturias, and hangs on the number of ornamented crosses that survive in metalwork from the area as a proxy. But while the Asturian ones are lovely, pretty much everywhere in the Latin West had ornamental processional crosses, you know? In whose Christian devotional art has the cross not been a focus? It’s really not enough by itself.

The Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d'Oviedo

The superb Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d’Oviedo, and yes, it is lovely and inescapably Asturian, but it is also from a century later than our Bible and also nothing like as geometric as the cross patterns therein. «Oviedo – Catedral, Camara Santa 02» por ZaratemanTrabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

So, I went and got hold of Cherubini’s article, and slowly I read it. It may not surprise you that it is more careful than the Wikipedia article for the most part. In particular, he does nothing with the argument about the crosses at all; he mentions that others have made it, but then never comes back to it.6 Instead he is focused on the palæography, and this turns out to be not as simple a question as you might expect. The main text is by two scribes, and they have differing but high levels of Iberian Latin habits that, for Cherubini and I’m happy to go along with this, place this manuscript in a zone where Visigothic script and Iberian Latin were the common ways of writing texts, and he argues reasonably for a date in the ninth century and probably in the early part of it (no tighter than that, from palæography alone). The headings, rubrics and other sorts of display script, however, all look a lot older, in half-uncials or uncials which would fit equally well in the late fifth or sixth centuries, so that there was clearly an exemplar before the scribes of a much older date, which they were partly mimicking and partly updating; they wanted what they were making to look old but also usable. It then has annotations, cross-references and glosses which suggest that among several other purposes, it was being mined by people concerned especially with the nature of the Trinity and with issues of predestination, the latter of which probably suggests use in the later ninth century when Gottschalk of Orbais had freshly brought such issues to the fore.7

Page of the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v

Human figures and God made flesh, yet, already, from the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v, image from WIkimedia Commons

Cherubini also notes that there are no human figures depicted in the manuscript, but for him this suggests use rather than origin, an involvement in the controversy over images of God and the saints that convulsed Mediterranean theology in the late eighth century and early ninth.8 But this is where Cherubini starts to go further than I think he should, and it was evident from his title that despite his palæographical caution he would have to: the article, after all, proclaims this Bible to be “a triumphal monument to Alfonso II”.9 First of all, the image controversy is (as we have seen here before) often associated with Spanish theologians because they would have been in contact with Islam, which prohibits (or rather, again as we’ve seen, has at times prohibited) images of the human form. But actually the scholars we see worrying about such issues in the eighth and ninth centuries were based at the Carolingian court, in Italy, in the Byzantine Empire, but not the Iberian peninsula, where presumably Adoptionism was still giving them quite enough to debate. Beatus of Liébana’s famous Commentary on the Apocalypse is full of pictures of people, as you see above, and so are many other Asturian manuscripts of this and following centuries.10 So this doesn’t pin it to the Iberian Peninsula for me, still less to Asturias, though I’m happy to accept the Peninsular attribution on the basis of the palæography still.

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral, another supposed parallel for the cross art in the Cava Bible but again, as you see here, not geometrical or shaped in the same way really. By Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es], via Wikimedia Commons.

So Cherubini has a palæographical dating, which is roughly the early end of the ninth century but with scribes using a much older and probably Visigothic exemplar. He also has from that good reason to suppose an Iberian-peninsula production, but how do we get to Asturias? And sadly it turns out that the answer is twofold: by using an outdated historiographical context and by using a charter for proof it can’t provide. Signor Cherubini knows quite a lot about the glories of the court of Alfonso II, but this is because he has read quite a lot of 1940s and 1950s articles written by Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz and others who agreed with him about the heroic Christian recovery of Asturias against the Muslims and took quite literally the claims about Alfonso II’s conquests of ninth-century sources which aimed to use them as precedents for those of Alfonso III.11 But as said above, we are now somewhat more critical about how marvellous Alfonso II’s court and achievements were.12

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo; note the apparent depiction of the above Cruz de las Angeles… Image by Denis Soria Fernández, whose blog linked through

But we do have his will, which is the charter that Cherubini abuses. The text of this has been much disputed, not least because the oldest version of it (and there are several) appears to be the one that is in verse, which already makes it quite odd, but importantly for us, and as Mouguias said, it mentions the gift of a Bible to the newly-established cathedral of Oviedo in 812.13 And if it’s ninth-century, there’s only 800-812 for it to fit before it has to be in the cathedral, right? Pretty tight dating!14 Unhappily, as Cherubini himself points out, in a tenth-century inventory of its good the cathedral had by then got two Bibles, and it describes them: “unam spalitanam, quam beatus Isidorus manu sua ferunt scripsisse manu quadra, et alia cordobense, quam nobis nefandus Alboaldi direxit”, “one from Seville, which the blessed Isidore wrote with his own hand in square script [i. e. capitals], and the other from Córdoba, which the infamous Alboald sent to us”, a story I’d personally love to know more about but, alas, we don’t.15 Now, for Cherubini at least, neither of these Bibles could easily be the gift of the king in 812, so that one must have already gone somewhere else by 908. I actually don’t see why the king couldn’t have given the cathedral the supposed Isidore Bible but obviously that isn’t the Codex Cavensis, though it might be the late antique exemplar from which Danila and companion copied the headings of that book. Or, of course, it might not be. But the simplest answer here is not to fit the one Bible we do have (though Cherubini thinks a fragment of the Córdoba one may have survived in the time of “Alfonso de Morales”, unspecified…16) into the words of a text that is plainly about something else. I’m afraid it is still to admit that we have no better reason to place this marvellous manuscript in Asturias than really anywhere else in ninth-century Spain with some proper old books in the library, and Oviedo is actually not really the most likely of those places.


1. P. Cherubini, “La Bibbia di Danila: un monumento ‘trionfale’ per Alfonso II di Asturie” in Scrittura e Civiltà Vol. 23 (Torino 1999), pp. 75-131; Luciano Pedicini (ed.), La Bíblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS 1 de la abadí de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni): Edicón facsímil ([Oviedo] 2010) and Paolo Cherubini, José Antonio Valdés Gallego & Alfonso García Leal, La Biblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS. 1 de la Abadía de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni) ([Oviedo] 2010).

2. It is also possible that he has changed his mind; the review of the newer facsimile volumes, which I can’t get hold of, in n. 2 above by Carlos Benjamín Pereira Mira in Territorio y Sociedad Vol. 7 (Oviedo 2012), pp. 259-264, online here, takes a noticeably more precise line than the 1999 article I’m using here.

3. The Wikipedia article’s only reference is J. W. Williams, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination (New York City 1977).

4. This perspective is based on Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289 and Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262.

5. Classically in Manuel Gómez Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes: arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid 1919), online here.

6. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 107.

7. Ibid., pp. 80-86 on the main text, 86-95 on the apparatus and 95-106 on the glosses. On the ninth-century predestination debate see David Ganz, “The debate on predestination” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 283-302.

8. On which see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011); sadly, you still need both.

9. See his title in n. 1 above.

10. Of course, we don’t actually have Beatus’s manuscript, but the general similarity between the century-or-more-later copies we do have is such that it has been generally accepted that they probably reflect an original sequence of images: see Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 85 (Washington DC 1995), pp. 185-210.

11. Particularly influential seem to have been C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “¿Una crónica asturiana perdida?” in Revista de filología hispanica Vol. 7 (Madrid 1945), pp. 105-146, rev. in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía hispana medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 111-160, idem, “Asturias resiste: Alfonso el Casto salva a la España cristiana” in Logos (La Serena 1946), pp. 5-29 and Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, “Mozarabes y asturianos en la cultura de la Alta Edad Media” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Historia Vol. 134 (Madrid 1954), pp. 137-178, none of them what you would call modern references and all written from deep within the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Cherubini’s reprise of these works’ heroic picture is given in “Bibbia de Danila”, pp. 124-131.

12. See n. 4 above.

13. The verse version of the will is edited in Antonio C. Floriano, Diploma;tica Española del Periodo Astur. Estudio de las Fuentes Documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910). I: Cartulario Crítico (Oviedo 1949-1951), 2 vols, I no. 24, as cit. by Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 128 n. 228; cf. the prose version, printed as Santiago García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), no. 3. On its authenticity compare Claudio Sánchez-Albórnoz, “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section being repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía, pp. 97-108, at pp. 98-99 of the reprint & n. 8 and “Addenda”, ibid. p. 108, and A. Floriano Cumbreño, “El testamento de Alfonso II (Estudio paleográfico y diplomático)” in Boletín del Instituto de Estudios Asturianos Vol. 86 (Oviedo 1975), pp. 593-617, and Escalona, “Family Memories”, pp. 251-254.

14. This dating seems to have been adopted in Cherubini, Valdes & García, Bíblia de Danila, to judge from Pereira, review, p. 260: “Materializado, grafiado y decorado con visos de verosimilitud en Oviedo -concretamente en el scriptorium aúlico alfonsino- en el primer decenio del siglo IX….”

15. Presumably in García, Documentos de Oviedo, but known to Cherubini through Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (ed.), “Serie de documentos ineditos del reino de Asturias” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 2 (Buenos Aires 1944), pp. 298-351 at pp. 329-344, cit. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 130 and n. 233, whence quoted; the English is my translation of the Latin.

16. Ibid., p. 130.

The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

You may, by now, have had enough of my conference reporting from a year ago, and believe you me, by the time summer 2014 ended I had had enough of conferences for a bit. But, there is one more to go, which was the 53rd Summer Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which took place at the University of Sheffield from 22nd-24th July, and I was there. The EHS publishes most of its proceedings and I liked the theme, which was ‘Doubt’, so I pitched a paper and they accepted it and so there I was. Now, in the event my paper was not sufficiently doubt-full to be accepted for publication, but it was still a good conference and slightly off my usual beat, which is generally good for one. Still, because I have less to say about most of the papers than usual, I’m going to get the three days done in one post, and because that will likely be large, I will just give you the list of what I saw and heard, and then stick my commentary below a cut so that those of you reading the actual front page can choose to skip on by if you like. Here’s that list, then:

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

  • Frances Andrews, “Doubting John”.
  • Session 1.1

  • Aideen O’Leary, “Devotion to St Andrew in Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England”.
  • Stephen Sharman, “Bede and the Credible Witness: a response to doubt”.
  • Christine Walsh, “Faith and Authenticity: eleventh- and twelfth-century concerns about the cult of saints and their relics”.
  • Session 2.1

  • Christine Oakland, “‘A Box Full of Hay?’ Doubt and Truth in the Diocese of Sens”.
  • Jan Vandeburie, “When in Doubt, Give Him the Finger: Ugolino di Conti’s loss of faith and Jacques de Vitry’s intervention”.
  • Wednesday 23rd July

    Plenary Session 2

  • Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Doubt?”
  • Session 3.1

  • Kimberley-Joy Knight, “Lachrymose Holiness and the Problem of Doubt in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Hagiographies”.
  • Anik Laferrière, “Doubting Monica: the deletion of Monica from fourteenth-century Vitae Augustini in the Augustinian Order of Hermits”.
  • Steven Watts, “Demons and Doubt: the peculiar account of Brother Bernard’s possession in Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus“.
  • Plenary Session 3

  • Ian Forrest, “Trust and DOubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge”
  • Session 4.2

  • Emily Ewing Graham, “Heresy and identity: late medieval friars and the kingdom of Aragón”.
  • Patrick Zutshi, “Evidence and Doubt: the beginning of the Great Schism according to the testimony collected at Medina del Campo in 1380-1”.
  • Thursday 24th July

    Session 5.1

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the effects of spiritual sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”.
  • Thomas Smith, “Investigating the Pope’s Doubts: the validity of petitions from thirteenth-century England”.
  • Enrico Veneziani, “Doubting the Authority of Peter: the trial of Pontius of Cluny”.
  • Plenary Session 4

  • Kirstie Blair, “Unforming Faith: poetry, doubt and the Church of England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

And this is (some of) what I thought about it all… Continue reading

Faith and Fortune is back, in Exeter

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, now on show again, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

If you remember me mentioning Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage, the rather excellent coin exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which preceded my current one, and thought it sounded fun but did not in fact manage to go to it, you may be pleased to know that there is now a second chance! By a happy series of coincidences the fine people in charge of the Street Gallery at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter got to hear about it and decided they would like to host it, and so in April we packed the boards up and sent them down with supporting materials and one of the original curators, Dr Rebecca Darley, in tow to give an introductory lecture. It has been open since 25th May (sorry) and will be until 19th December 2015, so there is plenty of time to go and see it still! I present the exhibition information:

Faith and Fortune is the first exhibition in several years that draws exclusively from the in-house collections of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The principal chronological focus of the exhibition spans the years A.D. 300-750 but includes later 13th-century Turkmen material. The exhibition has been the focus of a presentation at the British Museum and has received positive reviews from specialists in medieval history, the Middle East and numismatics. It focuses on these particular themes and the current scholarly and research interest in Late Antiquity. The over-arching theme of the exhibition concentrates on the use of Late Antique coinage as a platform for the promotion of the respective political and religious ideals of the Byzantine, Umayyad and Sasanian Empires. This focus serves as a springboard for the exhibition to explore divergent attitudes among Byzantine, Sasanian and early Islamic societies regarding the representation of divine figures or religious subjects. The exhibition is curated by Rebecca Darley (4th-7th century Byzantine and imitation coinage) and Daniel Reynolds (7th-8th century Arab-Byzantine and early Islamic coinage) and the expertise of the Coin Collections Assistants Maria Vrij (7th-9th century Byzantine coinage and iconography) and Ali Miynat (Turkmen coinage).

Display of the exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic Coinage, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

The display in situ at the Street Gallery

This image was a bit peculiar to receive, because I’ve been there: two of the conferences I’ve been to at Exeter have been held in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and I clearly remember not being able to afford to buy Richard Hitchcock’s books in that gallery space. Nonetheless, it is a good space for actual displays too! You will observe that there are no display cases, so we were not able to send the actual coins along with the boards; instead they have been replaced with life-size photographic reproductions that get the points across nearly as well. I must also acknowledge the help of Rebecca Darley of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project at the Warburg Institute, University of London, Evelina Kuvykovaite of the University of Warwick and Jane Clark and the team at the Street Gallery for making it all so easy for us collectively to set this up; it was remarkably easy to do, and hopefully worth it for many visitors!

Leeds 2014 Report I

Crowds of medievalists at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

IMC 2014 in session


I very much hope this is the last time this happens, but I find myself again reaching a Leeds International Medieval Congress in my write-up backlog only after the next one has already happened. Looking back at the 2014 one, too, I find that I remember remarkably little of it; for many of the papers I have notes on, I would have sworn to you I had never seen the presenter. I think this must be me and how distracted I was by various things back then. It could also be that we drove up the night before straight from the closing moments of The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference just recounted and that I was already a bit hazy from too much learning. Whatever it is, though, it means I’m very reliant on my notes and that may also make this briefer than usual; I can but hope. But let’s charge in. On Monday 7th July, once up, I seem to have ignored the first keynote lecture, I think largely so as to get in at the second-hand bookfair, and then dived in properly as follows:

121. Coining and Sealing Empire in the Middle Ages

  • Guido M. Berndt, “The Face of the Emperor and the Face of the King: numismatic evidence from Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy”.
  • Susan Solway, “The ‘Currency’ of Rome: coining empire in the Middle Ages”.
  • Florence Codine, “The Emperor’s New Hair: imitation and innovation in coin portraits in the post-Roman West, 5th-9th centuries”.
  • I do remember this session, however. You can see how it should have played to my interests somewhat, but in fact I went in sceptical because one of the papers looked very much as if it was along the line of an exhibition proposal I’d just pitched at interview (so it didn’t seem a novel idea to me) and another looked like an unknowing repeat of one of the best papers I ever saw given, so, there was a high bar.1 I am also leery generally of sessions where the moderator speaks, as was the case here, and of art-historical approaches to early medieval coinage (which is very far from naturalistic in its portraiture and so speculative at best to get real visual information from).2 Given all this, my expectations were probably always going to be low.

    Bronze 21-nummi of King Hilderic of the Vandals, Carthage, 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066

    Obverse of a bronze 21-nummi coin of King Hilderic of the Vandals, struck at Carthage in 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066. You can see how important it was to the die-engraver and moneyer that it look just right…

    It would be cruel to say that the session easily met those expectations, then, because I was probably the wrong audience: I knew most of what Dr Berndt’s paper had to say about what the Vandals and Ostrogoths minted (and would indeed be exhibiting some of it early the next year, as seen above), for example. Professor Solway, who overran by ten minutes, was arguing that the post-Roman world retained the imperial portrait on its coins and used Roman coins with it on in jewellery as a symbol of authority, and this may well be true but if so we need to think a lot harder about how that symbol was understood: it was obviously not necessary for it to show a current emperor, for example, nor an identifiable one, nor even show him the right way up. Neither was it necessary to do so at all: some early Anglo-Saxon pennies do carry something like an imperial bust, but others do not while a third group stylise it into mad hair and nothing else. Yet they all seem to have been exchangeable. It’s not simple, and some change over time from direct imitation to stylised representation to redesign and individuation would have made this canter from Julius Cæsar to Frederick II a bit more sensitive. Mme Codine’s paper meanwhile was very conscious of the limitations of the evidence, which ineluctably undermined its very tentative suggestions that the famous long hair of tthe Merovingian Kings of the Franks was represented on some of their coins. We don’t really understand who issued Merovingian coins, so this was always going to be a hard sell. Versions of the other two papers here are, however, already in press in a book edited by Professor Solway, so you don’t have to take my mean words for it, you can see how unfair I’m being for yourself, at least if your institution can afford Brepols.

Things rapidly looked up, however, even if it was somewhat of a rush to get food and make it to:

198. Keynote Lecture 2014

    This year, the IMC had split its keynotes up and this meant that I spent the early part of this one trying to eat crisps unobtrusively, but it was worth it for:

  • Hugh Kennedy, “The End of Islamic Late Antiquity: change and decay in the 10th-century Middle East”.
  • Hugh’s lecture was in two parts, in the first of which he made the case that the early Islamic state could be seen as a late antique one, with a civil service, a classicising historiography, a tax system running in coin and many other features, although not including any tax on trade. The second part then noted that most of this broke down in the tenth century, with a shift to paid soldiery tying up the state’s resources at a point when, in processes unfolding over decades and perhaps imperceptible at a lived timescale, it became less and less profitable to develop and maintain agricultural land in the caliphate’s rich heartlands and more and more profitable to be in the civil service, leading to a steadily more massive drop in base agricultural production, without which of course everything else suffers. Strapped for vital cash, and massively overspent, the caliphs farmed out more and more of their tax collection, thus losing more and more direct control over their territories. Hugh pointed out that any parallels with so-called feudalisation in the West would have to deal with the fact that Islamic justice remained public, not ‘seigneurial’, because it was a religious affair; there are many ways for an empire to decentralise and fragment, I think we can agree!3

214. Empire, Power, and Identity in Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, and Islamic North Africa, II

  • Uta Heil, “Fulgentius and Thrasamund”.
  • Christian Barthel, “At Empire’s Edge: ruling Libya in the late 5th and early 6th century”.
  • Because one of the presenters in this session hadn’t made it, the two papers were run separately with their own questions. Dr Heil introduced us to Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe, a bishop who was exiled from Africa to Sardinia by the Vandal king Thrasamund. This was not a simple bouncing-out of an irrefragable Catholic by an Arian ruler, however, because there was apparently quite the written interchange between them, not the least of which is a dialogue, purportedly between king and bishop, in which the bishop explains the wrongs of a theological position the king was adumbrating, apparently not Arianism but Monophysitism. Fulgentius was apparently able to write books and books of theology while in Sardinia, teach, receive visitors and so on and the impression one gets is that the king had found a way to keep a high-powered theologian on call without his being able to intervene much in African politics, which were highly religious. I am guessing that a very large pension was presumably part of this deal… Meanwhile Herr Barthel wanted us to know about three inscriptions of Emperor Anastasius from what is now Libya. These show considerable military reorganisation, setting up wage-scales for the staff, prison administration and boundary policing, all quite detailed measures that show a government clearly still in operation, which is all the more striking because almost all we know otherwise is the names of obscure probably-Berber groups against whom these defences were now necessary, from the work of Synesius of Cyrene, which was a general harangue to let Constantinople know how bad the situation had got. That and the three copies of these inscriptions are almost the only sources we have for the whole area for most of a century, and it mainly made me think on what slender threads even this much therefore hangs.

Then caffeine and back to the fray for the final session of the day, in which my loyalties were happily combined in the form of the venerable Texts and Identities strand and speakers I knew from other contexts, as follows.

327. Texts and Identities, III: Italy between Eastern and Western Empire in the early Middle Ages

  • Caroline Goodson, “St Petronilla, Rome: cultural allegiances and family alliances”
  • Clemens Gantner, “Removing the Holy Pope Martin from the Church of the Saviour: uses of the arrest and trial of Pope Martin I in Roman sources from the 7th to 9th centuries”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “The Challenge of Rome for Carolingian Politics of Identity in the 8th Century”
  • This session had been much mutilated, but in a good way for me: both Caroline and Helmut were replacing absent speakers, whom I didn’t know, and so I now had a much better idea of what would be on offer and went in with confidence. Caroline told us about the papal use of the cult of St Petronilla, who at her earliest site of cult was held to be a fourth-century venerable lady, rather than a saint, but when moved by Pope Stephen II to her own church became, somehow, St Peter’s own daughter, martyred in the second century. The cult has usually been studied because King Pippin III of Francia linked his daughter Gisela to it by his patronage, but Caroline argued that if the aim of this was to bring the Franks into Rome in some visible way, the audience of this was nonetheless the Romans, and so the emphasis on Peter was probably what the popes were after, with the Frankish involvement a very secondary issue. Clemens looked at the history of Pope Martin I, which as I had learnt earlier that year involved appointment from outside, in 649, by a Byzantine administration which became so dissatisfied with the results that they arrested him and exiled him to Cherson. You can imagine that this is an episode that could be told very politically, as Rome generally detached from Byzantine in subsequent centuries, but the politics change a lot in each version: the issue is usually the wrongness of eastern doctrine, against which Martin boldly stood, but exactly which doctrinal controversy it was and how much the real issue was whether Constantinople could still take tax from Rome vary a lot from retelling to retelling. Lastly Helmut looked at how the relationship of the Frankish kings with the papacy is reported in various eighth-century Frankish sources, and concluded that here too things could change very fast, as the Franks’ own project did: he saw a shift from papal legitimisation of the new Frankish kingship through the Franks’ suitability for imperial power, to be conveyed by the pope, to the popes mainly being a way to bring the Franks into contact with the Lombards thus demonstrating how superior the Frankish people, and not just their kings, were. In conclusion: texts were political, very much the standard message of Texts and Identities but always worth showing afresh. Questions showed that the least understood source here in this light is the papal biographical compilation called the Liber Pontificalis, The Book of Pontiffs as the translator has it, of which there survive several versions, often differing in small additions that could as easily represent non-papal points of view.4 I know that lots of people have worked on the Liber just lately and I haven’t read it yet, but one feels that it can’t yet be enough…

And thus, anyway, closed the first day, and I seem to recall that we went to dinner in the refectory and decided not to do that again, and then I expect the bar called, but this at least gets you through the academic content. There’ve been hardly any coins this post, have there? I’ll have to fix that, stay tuned…


1. And that paper is now in print as Jonathan Arnoldd, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 6 (Baltimore 2013), pp. 152-183, DOI: 10.1353/jla.2013.0007.

2. That said, Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford 2003) is a good go at such work because it is interested primarily in symbolism and doesn’t look for literal representation.

3. For example, long long ago, at my Ph. D. upgrade meeting no less, Professor Mark Mazower pointed out to me that the Ottoman Empire could be compared, which was (he did not say this bit, which may be stupid) already more or less feudalised and which fragmented when it tried to modernise instead!

4. Printed in Louis Duchesne (ed.), Liber Pontificalis : Texte, introduction et commentaire (Paris 1886–1892), 2 vols, online here and here, and translated in Raymond Davis (transl.), The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis to AD 715), Translated Texts for Historians 6 (Liverpool 1989), idem (transl.), The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 13 (Liverpool 1992) and idem (transl.), The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 20 (Liverpool 1995).

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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