Tag Archives: medieval warfare

Links of hopefully-still relevant interest

Way back when I was a more diligent blogger and used to read other people’s stuff too, I used occasionally to gather up possible links of interest, most obviously for the rotating festival of such links that was Carnivalesque, which I now find is defunct; I guess a lot of us have suffered as I have with shortage of time, but I also suppose that such news goes round by Twitter now. Well, I am not a Twitteratus and will not be, so every now and then I still stash links in case someone reading would be interested, and in my massive backlog I now reach one such stash of material. Of course, these are all years old now, but as fellow blogger Saesferd (used to?) put it, “it’s mostly old news” in the first place, and maybe not all of it was on your radars when it was new… I’ll attempt some headings.

Discoveries in the West

Billon coins from the Cluny hoard

Billoin coins from the Cluny hoard, described below

Viking sword fragments from an Estonian hoard

Fragments from the Estonian hoard

Discoveries beyond the West

I owe notice of all these to Georgia Michael, to whom many thanks; this section is all her work, really.

A small hoard of Byzantine coins discovered down a well in Israel

Possibly actual dicovery photo, but either way, the small Byzantine hoard described below

Lastly, things people have put on the Internet

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman's collection

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman’s collection linked below

With several of the blog’s themes thus covered, I leave it for the weekend, hoping that some of you at least hadn’t already heard at least some of this… I think I am now through all the content I promised out of the last Chronicle post, so the next post, tomorrow unless strikes end very sharply indeed, will be the next one of those, covering July to September 2016. See you then maybe!

Gallery

Announcing Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard

This gallery contains 9 photos.

Usually when I foist a post into the top of the sequence like this it’s because I’ve done something I think worthy of note that won’t or shouldn’t wait till I some day beat back my blogging backlog. On this … Continue reading

A Theory under Siege

You may recall that some time ago I recorded that I had been reading David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany as part of my ongoing reworking of my paper about military service in tenth-century Catalonia.1 There are ways in which that was really useful and ways in which we are just talking about different things, but a thing that we both talk about but take quite different views on is the normal size of early medieval armed forces. Now, this is an old controversy, which goes back far beyond this book and involves names like Halsall, Sawyer and not least, Bernard S. Bachrach, and in some ways I would prefer not to get into it, not least as several of these people including Professor Bachrach (the younger) have been known to read this blog, but I can’t avoid it.2 I would confine myself to an argument that the situation I see in Catalonia, of guardposts and border-raiding and no serious armies except when an Andalusi one comes calling, is just very different from the full-on imperial warfare of Ottonian Germany, and in the article I expect that I will. But still, there are premises to the large army argument, as set up in this book at least, that I find hard to accept, and this post is an attempt at a critical examination of one of them. Where most openly stated, it goes like this:

“Ottonian military operations were consistent with warfare throughout the medieval millennium, which was dominated by sieges, particularly in the context of campaigns that were intended to conquer territory. Contrary to the long-established narrative that the Ottonian kings fielded small armies of a few hundred to a few thousand heavily armed mounted fighters (Ritterkrieger) led by warrior aristocrats, the siege operations that dominated warfare in the tenth century required very large armies, composed predominantly of foot-soldiers.3

One is, initially at least, left to assume the premises behind this. It’s easy enough to come up with some: walled cities are naturally quite large, and need a lot of defenders to keep a whole perimeter secure. If you’re attacking them, you must need more attackers than defenders, right? As it turns out, in fact, you allegedly need quite a lot more: once you get through to p. 226 you learn that, “in order to storm a strongly held enemy fortress an attacker required four to five men for every defender.” The justification for that, however, is farmed out to an article by Bernard Bachrach and Rutherford Aris.4 Now, if you actually get hold of that article, that doesn’t seem to me to be what it says: instead, by virtue of some extremely hypothetical probablity mathematics, it says that a charge by a Viking warband at a typical Anglo-Saxon burh defended by archers of the number implied by the Burghal Hidage (1 to every 1.3 m of wall) would probably have resulted in one to two attackers in every four being hit before they reached the wall.5 Even if that mathematics were somehow realistic, it’s quite a specific situation and one calculated on the basis that Vikings attacking a fortress would only have ladders to deploy so needed to make that approach.6 I don’t see how it can be transportable to a large-scale military operation with siege engines such as (David) Bachrach thinks the Ottonians were able to mount.7 Moreover, it doesn’t actually provide the numbers that he employs, only an implication that if you were to outnumber your opposing force once atop the walls you needed to allow for a fifty per cent casualty rate when planning your attack. That seems like awful odds that no commander would have risked to me, but it’s obviously not what an Ottonian planner would have been facing.

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms, one of the fortress cities Bachrach considers and possibly not too much unlike this in the Ottonian period? CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=167751.

But let’s take one step further back. These are figures based on the idea that victory at a siege is achieved by storming and carrying the enemy’s defences, and indeed so is Bachrach’s account of Ottonian warfare against fortifications more generally.8 But this is, surely, not the only way. More conventional, if much slower, would be simply to starve the defenders out. Now, in that case, your army requirements drop radically. Whereas before you perhaps had to have men all round the fortification, now you really only need to guard the points of access. Possibly someone could resupply a city by hauling sacks up the walls in the dead of night but not, you might think, in any real quantity, especially if you as attacker are sending patrols around every twenty minutes or so, which I assume you, as a thinking tactician, probably would be. Their supply will still not be equal to their demand. This makes siege warfare a much less demanding effort in terms of numbers; one must still be able to supply the besiegers for a prolonged period of time, but that’s easier if there’s fewer of them needed.

Illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Even more anachronistic, but far too good a picture not to use, an illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Of course, you still need to have more men than the defenders do, otherwise they could just sortie out and squash your forces. But wait a minute. How many more men than you do they have to have to do that before it would mean leaving the walls partly undefended, giving your troops access to the city and thus losing the war for the sake of a battle? There’s more balance here than might immediately appear, because both sides need their forces at least partly dispersed to hold their positions. The various ways that concentration of force could play out here seem to me to be very hard to calculate with and I’m not at all sure it reduces to any simple arithmetic beyond the basic logic that the more troops whom you can feed you have available, the more tactical options you have. But in a siege situation, that proviso about feeding is quite important, often for both sides.

Crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

A different (and more usual?) scale of opponent, crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

I should say that I am not, a priori, against the idea that the Ottonians could sometimes field quite large armies, meaning in the double figures of thousands of men, although whether such were necessary for all their campaigns I rather doubt. When they were, though, they had a whole empire to draw upon and Bachrach has here a whole book full of details about how such things might have been organised, resourced, supplied and led which almost make his argument for him; one can reasonably assume that the Ottonians would have wanted to raise large armies and Bachrach shows us how they could have. But he argues it the other way around, from the necessary existence of large armies, through a reading of the sources which illustrates that, to the techniques for their provision and operation, and if these are the starting premises, they seem very shaky to me.


1. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014).

2. In reverse chronological order, more or less, Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003); Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization 481-751 (Minneapolis 1972), what I think of as the wellspring of the maximalist argument, and Peter H. Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings (London 1962, 2nd edn. 1971), which is the place where I first met a sustained attack on the numbers which early medieval sources used for army size. In all these cases, albeit Sawyer least and Bachrach most, references could be proliferated; a lot of Bachrach’s most relevant works are collected in his Warfare and Military Organization in Pre-Crusade Europe, Variorum Collected Studies 720 (Aldershot 2002).

3. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 1, which is a good place to state your axioms after all.

4. B. S. Bachrach & R. Aris, “Military Technology and Garrison Organization: some observations on Anglo-Saxon military thinking in light of the Burghal Hidage” in Technology and Culture Vol. 31 (Baltimore 1990), pp. 1-17, on JSTOR here, repr. in B. S. Bachrach, Warfare and Military Organization, III, cit. D. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 226 n. 2. A much fuller version of the argument here is however to be found in B. S. Bachrach & David Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare: Henry I, Otto I and Carolingian Military Institutions” in Journal of Medieval Military History Vol. 10 (Woodbridge 2012), pp. 17-60, which was presumably not available to cite in D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and would have made that a much longer book to reprise there. I engage with the version in the book here, which I assume to be self-standing.

5. B. S. Bachrach & Aris, “Military Technology”, pp. 5-10 with an appendix for the mathematics pp. 14-18.

6. Ibid., pp. 3-5, on the not unreasonable basis that the Burghal Hidage uses the same ratio for number of defenders required for places with eight-foot thick Roman stone walls (Winchester) and earthen ramparts with wooden palisades (Wareham), so the writers obviously weren’t thinking in terms of attacks actually upon the defences.

7. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 151-167, covers Ottonian siege equipment, including ladders but also mantlets, rams, ballistas, catapults and mobile towers, largely by providing detail from Vegetius and anchoring it in less-detailed reports from Ottonian sources.

8. Ibid., pp. 12-13 and repeatedly exemplified in his narrative of Henry I’s and Otto I’s campaigns provided pp. 14-69; see also Bachrach & Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare” for a fuller statement of the position.

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

[Edit: a correction has reached me from one of the organisers of this conference, so please note alterations in the first paragraph. Otherwise, this stands as it did when first posted in June 2015.]

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing[Edit:] They secured some really big-hitting speakers, without assistance too, but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty’: Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “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, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Theodulf, Goths and Garrisons

There are a number of precepts (that is, in this instance, royal charters) from the Carolingian kings of the Franks to the Spanish March of their empire, Catalonia more or less, that are addressed to or refer to people called Goths. They are often paired with ‘Hispani‘, which appears to refer fairly clearly to people who had come from the Muslim-occupied part of the Iberian peninsula, unfailingly named as Hispania in Latin sources from within and without the area.1 That’s simple enough, but who are the Goths?

Romantic depiction of the sack of Rome by Alaric's Gothic army

How some see the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths. I reckon this is unfair on the Vandals' 455 attempt myself.

By the time that Charles the Bald was praising these people for their loyalty to him during the rebellion of 874-5, there had been a group of people called ‘Goths’ in what we now call Spain for more than four centuries. That is, roughly, sixteen generations, which makes any actual ethnic continuity in a land where the immigrants can never have been more than a tiny minority a challenge to assert or explain, however hard your Traditionskerne might be.2 If it were earlier we might be able to line up those weary opponents, Heather and Halsall, and Peter Heather would presumably tell us that a migrating people really can retain an identity that is more than pure assertion, somehow, and Guy Halsall would probably make a detailed case that might be ultimately brewed down to “for heaven’s sake, they’re an army with a name, that’s all”, but neither of them, I imagine, would want to maintain their irreconcilable views past not just the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism in 589, the abolition of the legal distinction between Goths and Romans in the Visigothic kingdom in circa 650, the Muslim conquest of the peninsula in 711 (and of what would become Catalonia in 714), the Frankish move into once-`Gothic’ Septimania in 759 and finally the conquest of Barcelona in 801.3 Even if someone was calling themselves a Goth at that point, it would be a claim with a very different value to claiming membership of Alaric’s warband. Among those differences would be residence versus immigration, difference of ethnicity from the king rather than sharing it with him, use of the Visigothic Law versus a presumably-Roman military discipline, and we could think of more I’m sure. The values of claiming this status had changed, a lot. So, who were they who so claimed?

Arabic manuscript recording the Pact of Tudmir, by which Murcia was incorporated into al-Andalus

Arabic manuscript recording the Pact of Tudmir, by which Murcia was incorporated into al-Andalus and the Goths left their own law

One suggestion might be that they were the people who lived by the Visigothic Law, a kind of personality-of-the-law argument in reverse, but that fails to explain the differentiation from Hispani, who presumably also did that as the Muslims had protected the Christians’ law in their various pacts of settlement.4 The traditional answer has been that the Goths were the resident, as opposed to immigrant, population of Barcelona and its environs, but this is substantially powered by neo-Gothic agendas imagined into the sources by twentieth-century historians, I feel; there was a lot of interest in managing to claim a Gothic inheritance, and it gets used to explain far too many things.5 There must be a lot of people not covered by that, and why it was sensible or advantageous for the Carolingians to stress what could be seen as a rival identity even as late as Charles the Bald is hard to explain. (And let’s remember that to the Muslims, these guys were all al-Franja, the Franks.) But it keeps turning up: in 759, the Chronicle of Moissac says, it was the ‘Goths’ who expelled the Muslims from Narbonne for the Franks, in 801 it was the ‘Goths’ and the Franks who retook Barcelona according to the Life of Emperor Louis by the Astronomer, in 827 it is the ‘Goths’ who have to be pacified in the rebellion of Aizó and apparently, in 844 and 874, it was ‘Goths’ whom instructions of Charles the Bald to Barcelona would reach.6

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne; the other kind of Gothic (from Wikimedia Commons)

One suggestion to this dilemma came from the famous scholar of Spanish monasticism, Jesus Lalinde Abadia, who came up with the following ingenious idea: the first Gothic settlers were based on fiscal land from which they drew renders as federate soldiers, he said, but these grants, once for service, presumably became hereditary before very long. If those lots were somehow kept in being, and somehow continued to be associated with military service, he argued, then they would conceivably be the lands of the Goths, and someone who held them, who would presumably do so by a claimed hereditary descent, would then be a ‘Goth’, albeit more by reason of occupation and dwelling place than actual biology.7 He backed this up by pointing out that the term only crops up referring to groups in cities, basically at Narbonne, Girona and Barcelona, and suggested that what we actually have here is the city garrisons. It’s as if, for Londoners and those who’ve visited the Tower of London, `Beefeater‘ was an ethnicity, or had been mistaken for one, or perhaps more contemporaneously, as if the Varangian Guard in Constantinople claimed to all be from Sweden.8

Yeomen Warders at the Tower of London

Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London in ancient tribal costume. It's a little known fact that the E II R legend actually stands for "East of the Rhine", the middle two minims symbolising a bridge.

Let’s go back to Narbonne for a moment, though. Passing through there at an uncertain date early in the ninth century while operating as a missus dominici for Emperor Louis the Pious, Bishop Theodulf of Orléans penned a few lines on the place, and he was a Goth himself (whatever he meant by that) and so ought to have been informed. He does not, however, say that Narbonne was a Gothic city, it’s more complicated than that. Here it is:

Mox sedes, Narbona, tuas urbemque decoram

Tangimus, occurrit quo mihi læta cohors

Reliquiae Getici populi, simul Hespera turba,

Me consanguineo fit duce læta sibi

I won’t try and translate his verse as a whole—there are other people who do that better than I can—but the key phrase is “cohors reliquiae Getici populi”, ‘a band of the remnant of the Gothic people’.9 That is, pace the nationalists, not a regional identity, no blanket coverage of the inhabitants of an ancient Gothic territory; clearly, not everyone in Narbonne is a Goth, what with that `Hesperian crowd’ also milling around. It might easily be read as the garrison, however, especially as cohors is a military term. But Theodulf seems to be claiming kinship with these people, and he was not a military man. I don’t see how this can be read as anything other than an ethnic, read descent, community, whether claimed or somehow real, and whether or not it’s confined to a band of soldiers. Given all this, I can’t now take either `professional’ or `descent community’ reading by themselves; they must be assumed together. We might here picture the sort of British upper-class member who will tell you that his or her family came over with the Conqueror. That’s even more generations involved, and I think it now fairly ridiculous to care about, but these `Goths’ were in positions of power, and kings addressed them: even if we now think it really very unlikely that they could genuinely have been and have any basis to think of themselves as descendants of Alaric’s warband – “my family came over the mountains with Euric, you know” – we probably shouldn’t assume that it was a silly thing to claim in those days. Maybe, ultimately, the upper class here was as nutty about descent as ours are. We don’t have to believe them to believe they believed it.

Post scriptum: matters of barbarians have become an Internet hot topic these last few days following Guy Halsall’s challenge to battle that you can read here. There are reasons I don’t want to speak to that debate that you can all probably work out, but if I were to follow the suggestion of Steve Muhlberger in response to it and say, “what did these people need the barbarians for?”, I think I would say this is not about barbarians. Theodulf was proud to own to belonging among these people and I don’t think he saw himself as a barbarian. I think it’s more about an identity that has the venerability of age and a Classical heritage to it, however paradoxical that may seem to those who think Goths = 410. I might suggest that for the people in this period the way they escaped that category is by seeing conversion as a redemption from barbarism as well as paganism, but that would be much more hypothetical; Isidore of Seville seems to lean that way but he was not, dammit, spokesman for the whole early Middle Ages. So as close as I’m going to get to that debate right now is that I might suggest that by this time, Theodulf didn’t need the barbarians; he needed the Goths and those weren’t the same thing for him. But this is the ninth century, and the game had clearly long changed by then.


1. The Frankish royal documents to Catalonia were all edited by Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals in his Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya (Barcelona 1926-1952), and the ones that mention Goths are Arles III (Louis the Stammerer, 878), Particulars XXI (Charles the Bald, 854), XXII (Charles the Bald, X858) & XXIII (Charles the Bald, 858), Sant Julià del Munt I (Charles the Bald, 866, to some Goths and Basques who’ve just founded a monastery) & app. V (Charles the Bald, 844, but probably using a text of Charlemagne’s as model) & VII (Charles the Bald, 874). The apparent genesis of this usage in Charles the Bald’s time should be nuanced by the fact that very few documents from his predecessors survive, though many are known to have existed. On the other hand, it possibly is significant for what I’m about to argue that when addressing the citizens of Barcelona direct in 877 (ibid., ap. VIII) Charles didn’t use these terms. On the usage of Hispania for Muslim Spain, see most sanely Ann Christys, “The Transformation of Hispania after 711” in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jorg Jarnut & Walter Pohl (edd.), Regna and Gentes. The Relationship between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples and Kingdoms in the Transformation of the Roman World, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (London 2003), pp. 219-241.

2. The idea of Traditionskerne goes back to Reinhard Wenskus, Stammesbildung und Verfassung. Das Werden der frühmittelalterliche Gentes (Köln 1961), cit. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), p. 14 n. 26.

3. Peter Heather’s arguments are easiest to find with reference to the Goths in Heather, The Goths (Oxford 1996), unsurprisingly; for Guy, see Barbarian Migrations, esp. pp. 189-194 but also passim.

4. The pact of Tudmir for Murcia is translated as “The Treaty of Tudmir” in Barbara Rosenwein (ed.), Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World (Peterborough ON 2006), p. 92. On it see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 711-797 (Oxford 1989), pp. 39-41.

5. Observe the contest for the Gothic legacy between Castile and Catalonia in L. Suárez Fernández, “León y Catalunya: paralelismos y divergencias” and Federico Udina i Martorell, “El llegat i la consciència romano-gòtica. El nom d’hispània”, both in Udina (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991, 1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 141-157 & 171-200 respectively; cf. Christys, “Transformation”, or Peter Linehan, History and Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford 1993) for detached perspectives.

6. G. H. Pertz (ed.), “Chronicon Moissacense…” in idem (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica…  (Scriptores in folio) I (Hannover 1826), pp. 280-313, s. a. 759; ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris“, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica…  (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, at cap. 13; Annales Regni Francorum, ed. F. Kurze in idem (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, MGH SRG VI (Hannover 1895), s. aa. 826, 827; and Abadal, Cataluna Carolíngia II, app. V & VII as above.

7. Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Udina, Symposium Internacional II, pp. 35-74.

8. For the Varangians you can now, I discover, see Raffaele d’Amato, The Varangian Guard, 988 – 1453, Men at Arms (Oxford 2010). I haven’t seen this but I’ve used other things from the series and they’re often surprisingly good considering they’re essentially non-academic in desired audience.

9. Theodulf of Orléans, “Versus contra iudices”, ed. Ernst Dümmler in idem (ed.), Poetae latini ævi karolini Vol. I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica…  (Poetae latini medii ævi) I (Berlin 1881), pp. 493-517 at p. 497.

Seminars LXXVII & LXXVIII: into Lyminge and out of Medina

At the very tail end of last term, I went slightly out of my usual paths to go to a couple of papers, Gabor Thomas presenting to the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Medieval Seminar in London to the title, “Settlement Dynamics and Monastic Foundation in pre-Viking England: new perspectives from excavations at Lyminge, Kent” on the 30th November 2010, and then James Howard-Johnston giving the inaugural lecture at the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research on the 3rd December 2010. His title was “The Seventh Century and the Formation of Byzantium”.

The excavation site at Lyminge, under work

The excavation site at Lyminge, under work

I’d wanted to chase down Gabor because I’d not been able to make it when he’d presented about the same site in Oxford for some footling reason, and it sounded interesting. As he said at the outset, such a variety of monastic sites have lately been excavated (or in some cases, published having been excavated long before)—Inchmarnock, Portmahomack, Wearmouth-Jarrow, Nendrum—that our pictures of what an early insular monastery looks like in the ground has been greatly diversified just lately. Lyminge is seemingly going to add to this by not looking like the classic church-buildings-inside-a-vallum model that we had once been used to, but like a big basilical affair right next to a royal vill (in which latter respect, at least, it does seem fairly typical).1 It was a mother church for its area that lost its importance once its relics (of St Ethelburga) were moved to Canterbury for protection during the Viking attacks of the ninth century, and the town has more or less left the church alone so there was plenty to find, though much more may well be under houses. There were Frankish artefacts coming up from sixth-century contexts, so we can assume it’s begun in the conversion period, and there are two cemeteries which may relate to the settlement, not the minster (an ambiguous word I use deliberately because we can’t even agree on what the difference is, still less whether we can detect it in the ground).2 A small cluster of sunken-featured buildings showed specialised craft production debris, especially glass of which there was an unusually high amount, including window glass, which some sources would suggest had to be imported from Francia at this time (as indeed it might have been). There was no vallum. There was, however, a large building to the south with a metalled floor which Gabor thought was best explained as a threshing barn, though he did point out that diagnostically it was no different from many things that have been called halls and used to argue for high-status occupation, and invited us to think about that if we like. Being sure what was the vill and what the church, and whether they were united or contemporary was tricky with the data to hand, but it seems clear that the site was busy with stuff and that it helps us broaden in various ways our range of ideas about what a really early Anglo-Saxon church might have been like.

Interior of the Stelios Ioannou School for Research in Classical and Byzantine Studies

Interior of the Stelios Ioannou School for Research in Classical and Byzantine Studies

Rather less specific and local was Professor Howard-Johnston’s lecture, delivered to commemorate the fact that just before the cuts hit Oxford has managed to establish a shiny new and very well-housed Byzantinists’ centre. Few could give better perspective on this than Professor Howard-Johnston, who has been teaching in Oxford for nearly fifty years and remembers being the only postgraduate in the university doing Byzantine stuff. Now there are fifty, almost all of whom (to judge from irreverent murmurings in the stalls) he had taught at some point. This doesn’t seem to have slowed him down, except in as much as he overran badly—but he managed to wrap this into his act, pointing out how many minutes more he’d slipped by every time he finished a section. No-one was going to miss this anyway and he knew it.

Cover of James Howard-Johnston's Witnesses to a World Crisis

Cover of James Howard-Johnston's Witnesses to a World Crisis

The sum of the lecture appeared to be an explanation of what I thought was a forthcoming book, but which appears to have actually come forth a little while ago, and which I’m guessing will be very important. One of the problems with teaching the ‘Rise of Islam’ is that almost all the secondary work in English is by Hugh Kennedy. Now, Hugh is a friend and I love his work; he and Rosamond McKitterick vie for top place in number of books I own by academics. But one voice, especially such an authoritatively learned one, does not encourage the students to argue or to go and get messy with the sources, not least because most of the sources are not in languages they read. Hugh’s concentration, especially lately I think it’s fair to say, has been on the Arabic material, which Western scholars grow less and less happy about relying on because of the very long chains of manuscript transmission, over centuries, and because of studies that have (irreverently and disrespectfully, to some more traditional scholars’ minds) checked to see what this transmission was like in the places where it’s possible and found it wanting somewhat.3 Hugh’s most recent book therefore did a deconstruction on this literature looking for the stories it wanted to tell about a past it doesn’t really reflect. Now, however, here is Professor Howard-Johnston saying, well, we need to get all the material on the table together. This results in a very large book (and a consequently sturdy table I assume) in which he has treated the Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Georgian, Latin and Arabic sources (I may have missed some here) for the Near East in the seventh century and, contrary to the current wisdom, finds that the Arabic material, however shaky it ought to be, is fairly close to the other sources in many matters of fact and chronology.4 It is not that they are without distortion (the capture of Jerusalem, usually placed shortly before 638, was probably much earlier, and the Shi’ite founder ‘Alī’s sons would seem to have fought on for twenty years after he was driven into exile, putting the pact that allowed the Umayyads to rule in more or less peace in 680 not 661 as it is usually reckoned), but it is less bad than has been alleged, or so he himself alleges. This has knock-on effects that will take a long time to consider.

Medieval Arabic depiction of Muhammad preaching at Medina

Medieval Arabic depiction of Muhammad preaching at Medina

In this lecture, however, Professor Howard-Johnston was deploying all this to settle the question, ‘when should we stop talking about the Eastern Roman Empire and start talking about Byzantium?’ For him, this is a question about the rise of Islam, hence all the source-gathering, but he opted for Autumn 644, when the first convoy of African grain came into Medina. We, knowing what was to come, can now see this as the beginning of a new world order, all very Pirennian (and that most famous of Belgians seems to be back in vogue in Oxford this winter as shall be told). To contemporaries, of course, even though the West and Middle East were lost, it was not clear that this would be so definitive; in the end, however, Byzantium is what is left holding out against Islam, and indeed almost the only state of the time that does, buffering the others to its eventual loss. A massive pressure on resources must have resulted, explaining a lot of Byzantium’s subsequent internal problems, and the Turks become very important, which of course also has its problems. But, Byzantium endures, and it endures partly by ceasing trying to be Rome, argued Professor Howard-Johnston: by lowering the scale of its warfare, going guerilla rather than field army, playing enemies off against each other rather than swatting or subverting them individually, fighting sieges not field battles, and fighting almost all the time against a superior superpower. Others might disagree, I suspect, but in this lecture at least, that was the making of Byzantium, a remnant polity forged in a determined effort to survive. It was a good lecture. The book looks like a bit of a challenge, but it’s obviously going to have to come on board after this. Of course, I thought the same about Hugh’s new one after his inaugural lecture, so it will be interesting to see who wins…


1. Chris Lowe, Inchmarnock. An Early Historic island monastery and its archaeological landscape (Edinburgh 2008); Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008); Rosemary Cramp, Wearmouth and Jarrow monastic sites (London 2005), 2 vols; T. McErlean & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides: The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (Dublin 2007). These were four of about eight books whose covers Gabor had on a slide, and I’m afraid the only ones I noted; some of the rest was a bit more southern, I think.

2. On which, classically, John Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis'” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

3. Most famously Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (London 1986, 2nd edn. 2004) and now idem, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

4. As you can see above, James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001.

I should have read this the moment I got it, part VI

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Part Three of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe is called ‘Representation and Reality on the Artistry of Early Medieval Literature’, and is one of the thicker and more enjoyable sections. That said, not very much of is actually about literature as such and I suspect that some of our more literature-based readers wouldn’t really recognise the approaches. What we have is Paul Dutton doing one of his curiosity vignettes by investigating what the (historical) sources are doing when they mention rains of blood, Joaquin Martínez Pizarro looking at the Historia Wambae‘s type-scenes and asking if there’s more to them than meets the motif index, and Jan Ziolkowski going through the Waltharius for weapons geekery and asking if this makes it easier to date. Then Danuta Shanzer adds a short review paper salting these with about a hundred other references to late Antique literature and her usual bracing elision of the distance between the medieval them and the reading us.1

The linking theme here is that they’re all basically asking, “can we believe this stuff?” You know, is it, fundamentally, historical, even if we have to go through contortions to get the facts out? This isn’t really a new direction to my mind, but the ways that they are attacking their texts possibly are. For example, Dutton quite quickly shows that there is actually reasonably good evidence for red rains in Europe and that they can mostly be put down to Saharan dust swept up by strong winds; his most recent example, albeit with only anecdotal evidence, is from Münster in 1992 (watch out Theo) and discerning use of that Famous Web Search Engine finds some pictures from someone that they claim were taken during such a storm in Greece. He then spends the rest of his short paper asking why the medieval people experiencing this took it so readily to be blood? He finds various texts in evidence of the idea that for almost all medieval thinkers (as usual Eriugena is an exception), and indeed the people at large, the weather was down to God, so that if something funny happened with it it must be for a reason and the question was merely one of what. He also however suggests that by the twelfth century it was more readily accepted that there might be less supernatural causes, and Shanzer questions this by saying that just because we have a lot of scholastics willing to consider such opinions doesn’t mean that non-élite belief altered so much.2

Martínez analyses the Historia Wambae as literature, but reckons that because it is actually deviating from the type-scenes it’s exploiting in some important ways, the real path of the events it describes lies underneath like lumps under a blanket (my simile, not his). Shanzer wonders whether the type-scenes of history and literature aren’t distinct, but I wonder more seriously whether one can apply this argument, which I use happily for charters—when they deviate from the formula there’s a reason—so easily for literature, where the reason is not going to be as simple as, ‘there really was a dovecote in the courtyard but they didn’t have any meadow’.3 In short, are we actually sure that Julian of Toledo was writing history not literature, I mean, was it even meant to be true? This question has been asked in other contexts lately by Magistra and the discussion there has obviously influenced where this one goes; as so often, her blog helps me think about this stuff, so thanks are due.

Lastly, as I say, Ziolkowski gathers the very disparate historiography of early medieval weaponry—this is not the sort of subject that gets a lot of work, in part I think because it is seen as boy’s-own-history pursued only by wargamers, which is just daft given how much work has been done, for example, on ploughs and even stirrups—and so work has to be cited from the last hundred years rather than the last ten. Nonetheless, he gathers it, and finds references in the Waltharius both to current and antique weapons, and there rather runs out of steam. He is, however, I think quite correct to say that it’s only by this sort of endeavour of filling out the author’s world that we will come to be able to place the text better in its context, and I think this is the newest direction of the three, though obviously there is a need to work out why there are weapons from several periods being referenced and what the poet thinks they mean.

Romantic depiction of Ekkehard of St Gall, supposed by some to be the author of the Waltharius, writing it

Romantic depiction of Ekkehard of St Gall, supposed by some to be the author of the Waltharius, writing it

Two things strike me about these papers. The first, despite the rather bleak appraisal I’ve given above, is how much fun they are. All three main authors write very enjoyably, often just by bringing out their sources to play: Dutton is as ever masterful at this, and Pizarro, though he doesn’t provide any stand-out moments of insight, unrolls his interpretation in faultless prose. And Ziolkowski made me laugh out loud with this:

Long before pointed brass cones became fashionable, terms that had originally pertained to body armor were transferred to haute couture, and especially to lingerie. The most memorable such transference is the case of the Old French designation for “armor of the arm, arm guard”, whence the modern brassiere. Such dainties are put, of course, in the armoire.4

Just as Carl Pyrdum some time ago managed to claim any discussion of Angelina Jolie’s body as medieval studies, I think Ziokolwski here manages to annexe women’s underwear (leaving Marco Mostert only the men’s…). Now the next time I play Pink Floyd’s `Arnold Layne’ I shall think of him—but in a good way! Meanwhile, Danuta Shanzer’s wrap-up and review is fabulous, a parade of parallels; I never really feel much connection to her material, because her late antique intellectuals so clearly inhabit a different world to my earnest Benedictines and frontier warmongers, but I enjoy reading it a great deal. And she often turns interpretations completely over just for fun, as here:

Scientific methods require control groups and parallel studies from dated materials. Should we examine weapons and regalia in other epics? The Æneid? The Psychomachia? Claudian? The Anticlaudianus? Are these different epic poets’ treatments of weapons markedly different? And what of the Waltharius poet and more pregnant or symbolic weapons? The ekphrasis of a shield or Pallas’ fatal belt? Does his failure to use weapons as symbols and crucial plot mechanisms as did the great epic poets condemn him as a clunky Germanic weapons wonk?5

I mean, did you get the phrase, “clunky Germanic weapons wonk” in your breakfast reading? To whom else could we go for this stuff? But anyway. There was a second point. As I say, everyone here is engaged in trying to find truth in fiction, or at least, in records of misapprehension. It comes down to, “is the author right or wrong?” Now, maybe this is me hanging out in the wrong places but it seems to me that this approach needs, well, theorising. Because, you know, surely this is an area where literary criticism and investigation has something to tell us, the investigation and criticism of literature? Even if we want to know something as old-fashioned as ‘what was the author doing here’ there are more sophisticated, if perhaps less scientific, ways of proceeding than comparison to known historical data. All of the authors do have some discussion of the method and effect of the author’s choice of words and literary tactics, especially Martínez but the others too, but I would like to see some readings of these sources inspired by more wide-ranging approaches and I wonder then if the questions we would ask would throw some extra light on these ones.


1. Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 167-180; Joaquín Martínez Pizarro, “The King Says No: On the Logic of Type-Scenes in Late Antique and Early Medieval Narrative”, ibid. pp. 181-192; Jan Ziolkowski, “Of Arms and The (Ger)man: Literary and Material Culture in the Waltharius“,6 ibid. pp. 193-208; Danuta Shanzer, “Representations and Reality in Early Medieval Literature”, ibid. 209-215.

2. Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather”; Shanzer, “Representations and Reality”, p. 211.

3. Martínez Pizarro, “The King Says No”; Shanzer, “Representations and Reality”, pp. 212-214; cf. Allan Scott McKinley, “Personal motivations for giving land to the church in the eighth century? The case of Wissembourg” in idem, Martin Ryan & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic: history from charters and charter critique (forthcoming).

4. Ziolkowski, “Of Arms and the (Ger)man”, p. 203.

5. Shanzer, “Representation and Reality”, p. 215.

6. I wish he hadn’t used the pomo brackets though; anyone who gets the joke at all doesn’t need them.

Seminary XLIV: sieges and trebuchets, east to west

Sketch of a traction trebuchet recreated from a wall painting in the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania

Sketch of a traction trebuchet recreated from a wall painting in the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania

I’ve been missing too many seminars lately, including Mayke de Jong, may she forgive me, at CLANS simply because I was snowed under at work and forgot to leave in a sensible time to make it. However, I did make a point of getting to somewhere I haven’t been before, the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar, on 9th March, and I did so largely with this blog in mind as the presenter, Leif Petersen, was talking about “Siege warfare in the seventh century” and emphasising in particular the spread of the traction trebuchet, and I know how popular trebuchets are as a subject among the readership…

The actual paper was somewhat disappointing, although the visuals were a great compensation. (They would have been still more of one if somehow I hadn’t been the only person in the room who could work the computer. Why do people ask for Powerpoint and write the presentations if they then don’t know how to actually present them?) It came over as something of a long list of sieges, which Mr Petersen was easily able to convince us were numerous; I wasn’t aware we thought otherwise, as any reading of the materials I’m familiar with makes most military action a question of retreat to or building of fortresses. In between the lists were assertions of long continuity as per Bernard Bachrach, who was or is Mr Petersen’s advisor and was acknowledged as such several times. (This is probably why Guy Halsall’s recent book was never mentioned.1) The argument was therefore that because the Romans could do this orchestration of elaborate campaigns with heavy machinery, and could get this stuff built, we should not assume that the successor states could not, especially and obviously the Byzantine Empire but also the Western states. The people who knew how to build such things were at work in other places, as architects, house-builders, tradesmen in cities and so on, and the people to man them were available because when they’re under threat, he said. I suppose I can cope with this where there are cities, and Petersen argued quite convincingly that it’s not that this disappears between, say, the clear involvement of the locals in urban defence in Gregory of Tours, who kept the pauperes back from a royal levy in 576 because he wanted to keep them defending his city (along with the iuvenes of the cathedral of whom more in a moment), and the utterly bald write-ups of ‘Fredegar’, but merely that ‘Fredegar’ barely writes anything about almost everything, as can be told by looking at what ‘he’ leaves behind of Gregory where ‘he’ epitomises him. And this knowledge does show up, when kings want truly impressive things built, especially even later, they know whom to call on. It’s simply that because these experts didn’t do handy things like leave copies of Vitruvius covered in glosses lying around monasteries for us, we don’t know how. Some day in the future I’d really like to research this question of the transmission of technical knowledge. Petersen’s work will probably be part of the evidence then, but I’d like him to finish before I hear it again, and one of the things I’d like him to include is areas where there aren’t many or any cities, which, by coincidence, are those whose heroic literatures about pitched battles (like the Gododdin) are most famous, to me at least.

The other thing that became clear is that Petersen thinks of medieval warfare, or at least early medieval warfare, as a much more ‘total’ affair than the Hundred Years’ War’s élite chevauchées might make us think if that was all we knew. He sees states with the relics of a professional army, where most people, even the peasants, will in times of crisis pile into the cities and turn up at the garrison where they’re handing out the pole-arms, with a smith or five busily making more. This works a lot better in siege situations, of course, and I thought that élite-only warfare looked a lot more likely in actual pitched battle contexts, though I’m quite prepared to acknowledge that those were probably very unusual and, obviously, quite small.

In the end we have to debate, in this virtual sphere, just how many men-at-arms there could be in the early Middle Ages. Petersen was drawing distinctions between semi-professionals who owed military service through the fisc to its leaders, between the personal retinues and so on of large-scale landowners (even in Byzantium, where the emperors realised that banning them in the late Empire had failed and tried instead to demand state service from them), that including ecclesiastic landowners like Gregory of Tours (here his iuvenes again, you see) and between the general peasantry who will turn to on the walls of their local civitas once they’ve run there. But are those peasants really handy warriors? How formidable is a force of men who spend most of their time doing something else? The trouble is that the evidence of later periods, of trained pikemen, of the English laws about longbow practice, gets at historians of medieval warfare because it’s probably what got them into this. It can’t usually be the early medieval stuff because the sources have so very little of it and a lot of what there is is champions in literature impugning each others’ morals and then hacking lumps off each other in brief alternation. Few fields can be so dangerously populated with transported assumptions and we have so little from this period to check those assumptions against. It is not just me who thinks that there is a serious need for a more critical appraisal of the sources for early medieval warfare. I don’t think this paper was it.

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

I mean, I will accept peasants manning city walls in time of siege, but it sticks in my craw. In 985 the armies of the Caliphate of Córdoba sacked Barcelona (although it has been recently argued that the citadel and some of the walls never fell, only the city interior2) and various petulant charters record the processes that people went through to try and restore their claims to lands whose titles had been lost in the sack. One complains that Count Borrell II, in what would not be his finest hour, ordered the locals of the area to take refuge in the city where Viscount Udalard was coordinating the defence and take all their valuables too, while he came round the flank of the enemy force with an army that in the event doesn’t seem to have ever engaged the Muslims. (The guy records this because among the valuables he took in under these orders were, he claimed, all his land charters.)3 If you’ve seen Barcelona’s walls even as they stand today, you might think it was fair enough to expect it never to fall, after all it took the Franks eight months.4 But as recorded, the 985 response seems to me panicky and ad hoc, and the fact that it wasn’t adequate is a kind of proof that though Udalard gave his best (he was taken prisoner and returned only three years later, what suggests he was probably down with the people rather than in the citadel), this kind of resistance wasn’t something the people really knew how to do. So was 985 just too late? Is the reason that Barcelona had hardly ever fallen before that because in centuries past everyone had been better trained? Or is it more that Borrell fumbled it, al-Mansur’s armies were experienced and hardcore, and God was feeling more like Allah than Yahweh that day? (Of course the Jews get blamed later—don’t they always?—but since they were allowed to transact quite happily in the following decades and the texts blaming them are much later, I don’t think anyone was saying that at the time.5) Behind all this idea of lost expertise there seems to lurk a very very old-fashioned narrative that belongs to Gibbon, really, about how those damn kids barbarians spoilt our Empire, and I can’t help feeling suspicious when evidence that it is true is paraded quickly and superficially.

I seem to have forgotten to mention trebuchets much. The deal appeared basically to be that there are four of five mentions of them from this early and they come from all over. I didn’t think that really went anywhere, whereas as you can tell I was concerned by where the rest of it was going…


1. Referring to Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West (London 2003), as opposed, you see, to Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: prelude to Empire (Philadelphia 2001), which it very much is, opposed that is, as any old habitué of Mediev-L will know well.

2. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online at http://www.iecat.net/butlleti/pdf/116_butlleti_feliu.pdf. Have a go and see if you can manage academic Catalan: it’s easier than you think and Prof. Feliu is very much worth reading.

3. P. de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniae, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. É. Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), ap. CXXXIV.

4. Josep M. Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX). 1: El Domini Carolingi, Llibres a l’Abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), pp. 14-24.

5. For example, Josep M. Salrach & Gaspar Feliu (edd.), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 46, which has all kinds of interesting features but most importantly here, as with several others of the same time, an endorsement in Hebrew on the back and a Jewish transactor, albeit represented by a Christian. For more on the issues hanging round that you can see David Romano, “Els jueus de Barcelona i Girona fins a la mort de Ramon Borrell (1018)” in Federico Udina i Martorell, (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 123-130.