Tag Archives: medieval warm period

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 1

It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, this backlog, but yet it does reduce, and as a result I am now into the veritable height of the European medievalist’s conference season, the International Medieval Congress at what is now my home base at the University of Leeds. Now, in fact on this first day of the Congress there was a lot of sorting out of that ‘home’ aspect, so I missed the keynote lectures and the first session of papers, but finally arriving during the Monday lunchbreak, I was able to begin the academic day like this:

233. The Early Islamic World, II: Provinces and Frontiers – Syria and the West

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Berbers and Borderlands: frontier society in North Africa”
  • Anna Leone, Marco Nebbia, Ralf Bockmann, Hafed Abdouli, Moftah Haddad and Ahmed Masud, “Changing Landscape in the 8th Century to the 10th Century: the case of the Jebel Nefiya and Tripolitania”
  • Denis Genequand, “Elites in the Countryside: recent research on the Umayyad ‘desert castles’
  • I went to this session partly because of knowing Corisande, partly because of a vague fascination with the Umayyad desert palaces that has occasionally shown itself here and mainly because Corisande had waved the words ‘frontier’ and ‘borderlands’ at us, usually guaranteed to catch my interest. Certainly the area she was looking at challenges our usual ideas of borders, since the vast area of Africa taken over in the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century was so huge as for the presence of the notional occupiers to have to be very sporadic and consequently very concentrated, which leaves a distinct archæological profile marked off by garrison architecture, mosques, a greater range of foodstuffs and, most of all, coins from military pay, and beyond it, really very little presence. For me this paper was problematised by an assumption that Corisande verbalised in questions, that new buildings mean new people; if there were in fact assimilation of local populations into these fortress settlements going on, you could not detect it that way. Still, the extremity of the social division was a point well put.

    Remains of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Ironically, the best images I can find from the sites named in this paper are of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia


    Of the other two papers, the former was the more peculiar, as only one of the authors had in fact been advertised on the program and she had been unable to come, so the paper was read by Andrew Marsham and had a title that was also different from that advertised. Nonetheless, it was interesting: the team in question have been carrying out a survey of mosques over much of the old province of Tripolitania in what is now Libya and were now proceeding to join this up to a survey of settlements. Oddly, the mosques are not all at the settlements, which tend to cluster on hilltops in defensively-clustered fashion at distances of 5-7 kilometres from each other, whereas the mosques could often be in the wilds between them. Dating all this is the next problem, since some of the settlements began in the fourth or fifth centuries and some are Ottoman, with pretty much everything in between too, so the changing landscape had yet to become visible but the possibilities were considerable.
    The fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

    Also, the architecture is amazing. This is thirteenth-century, apparently, but I don’t care; it is the fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa, about which you can read slightly more here


    Lastly Dr Genequand took an overall survey of the various buildings in Syria that have been classed as Umayyad ‘desert palaces’, although he tried to avoid both of the words ‘palace’ and ‘castle’ because the variety between the 38 such sites is such as to make generalisations like that difficult; they are more normally estate centres, with areas around them irrigated for intensive farming and produce collection facilities in the complex, and while some are luxurious, with their own baths and mosque complex and so on, and some are fortified and a few are both, and they seem to have grown and changed over time, they are still probably more like really big desert villas than either palace or castle, if you have to find a single word at all.
    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad 'palace' of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan

    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad ‘palace’ of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan, image from Museum With no Frontiers

Then tea and a chance to see an old colleague kick up some fuss, as follows.

325. Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy and Power – Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

  • Mark Whittow, “Byzantium and Global History: towards a new determinism?”
  • Adam Izdebski, “The Middle Byzantine Revival from an Environmental Perspective: a return to antique models”
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Topography, Ecology and (Byzantine) Power un Early Medieval Eastern Anatolia and Armenia, 750-1000”
  • Myrto Veikou, “A Concerted ‘Discourse’: interplay between environment and human agency in the area of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in the 13th century CE”
  • This session had gathered a much bigger crowd than would fit into the tiny room it had been allocated to, which is a lesson about the revival of interest in Byzantium more generally in medieval studies, I think. Mark, coming very visibly from his involvement with the Global Middle Ages project, accordingly set out a manifesto for a new medieval European history in which the continuing Byzantine Empire was the default comparator, not the weird remnant, a sign of what ‘should’ have happened everywhere. This would, he then further defined, need to include the perspective that in the Middle Bzyantine period prosperity became rural rather than urban, a phenomenon that we also see in other places and which Mark bravely suggested might have something to with climate. The obvious point of reference here was Ronnie Ellenblum’s work, which Mark hoped one might be less deterministic than, but mainly I wonder how once you have scaled up to the level of climate one can make any single place central to a hypothesis, however big it was.1 The other papers tried to make such connections more explicit, nonetheless, Dr Izdebski comparing coin circulation and pollen patterns across central Greece (the only place where adequate survey evidence exists, he said) and determining two very similar-looking phases of expansion in the fourth to sixth centuries and the first half of the second millennium, but the coins and the pollen don’t agree about when the latter was and neither make a great deal of sense next to the supposed climate profile. Dr Preiser-Kapeller, meanwhile, ran us very summarily through the history of Armenia from the seventh to tenth centuries and concluded that while the fragile local ecology would impact the two surviving noble houses’ grip on power in the area after the year 1000, up till that point military conquest by Persians and Arabs was a far better explanation of how the area wound up with only two such houses from fourteen than was anything environmental. The point of Ms Veikou’s paper, lastly, was mainly to put the URL of her project before us, a project that as far that URL now shows had by then already wound up and has produced no further publications since it did. So no points from me for that, I’m afraid.

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia, from which lake Johannes’s climate evidence was largely coming, and fair enough


    I found the three actual papers in this session a paradoxical combination, and this came out in discussion. All three speakers were attracted by the idea that large-scale survey that factored in changes in the ecological sphere alongside more material evidence of human usage could tell us something, but when approached on what had to admit either that the data was not yet collected (as in Cappadocia, where much is visible but very little dated or interpreted, or that when it had been it had made sense only on a regional basis and not compared well with anywhere else or the global pattern (as at Lake Van or Miletus in Greece). The effect was to leave the audience, and indeed one at least of the speakers, much more sceptical that this was a useful approach than they had been when we all entered the room, as if Ellenblum’s book, like the first Velvet Underground album, has made every one of its readers determined to have a go too and then discover that trying to be less erratic and offhand than Lou Reed somehow doesn’t produce better rock and roll. I suppose the real point for us to work on here is the junction between macro-scale and micro-scale pictures; if at a local level one can entirely escape what is apparently the global trend one has to ask what difference the global trend really made to people, a problem that we have of course been seeing with generating concern about the current global ecological situation since, well, as long as I can remember really.

Presumably there was then food, as my conference program is pretty much marked up with receptions for the evening so there wouldn’t have been time later. Between the food and the wine, however, came one final academic event for the day.

401. Early Medieval Europe Lecture

    Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The modern state of the abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons


    The annual Early Medieval Europe lecture was this year given by none other than Professor Mayke de Jong, speaking with the title “Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate”, so as you might expect I went. Mayke was speaking about a difficult text on which she has been working for a long time, the Epitaphium Arsenii of Paschasius Radbertus. This is an anonymised critique of the policies of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious written in the form of a dialoguic account of the life of one of his relatives, Abbot Wala of Corbie (as he ended his earthly career).2 Just explaining what it is isn’t simple, therefore, but Mayke is one of three people who have recently written about it, all coming into the field (as she explained) with different historiographical demons to slay.3 The particular one she tackled here was the idea that the early Middle Ages was an era in which there was no public sphere and the ancient tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ died off, in which rulers were influenced not by the voices of the crowd but a closed circle of advisors. Texts like the Epitaphium show that this is not true, at least if Mayke’s right that its much more polemical second book was intended for an audience beyond the monastery at Corbie where it was written. The whole text rests on the idea that it was not just all right but morally necessary to try to correct the emperor about his mistakes, after all, and that this could be done by this kind of literary device. Mayke had other examples of people rewriting events in literary fashion to put their view across, but it now strikes me after teaching it for a term again that another obvious one of these texts is Einhard’s Vita Karoli, because whatever its date and purpose was it’s certainly using praise of Charlemagne in the reign of his successor to do something. The whole lecture was full of wry wit and sharp observations about the way that people’s intellectual traditions have constructed their opinions, and she was quite right that if we as scholars of the early Middle Ages want to get our field away from the old idea of the Dark Ages we need better to understand why people find it useful to put it there.4 But her final point, that the Carolingian religious sphere was a public one that included laymen, shows how far our categories are crumbling as we better understand what authors like Paschasius were doing with their texts.

And so that wound up the first day of the IMC of 2015, and I will alternate the reports on the remaining three with shorter and more discursive content but I will, by my blogger’s pledge, get it done, and then continue onwards!


1. Ellenblum’s work referred to here is R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: climate change and the decline of the East, 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012), to which at some point I am also going to have to pay attention I suppose. On issues of scale, it always seems worth my citing Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

2. It is available in a deprecated but still unique translation for the English-speaker as Allen Cabaniss (trans.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalard and Wala (Syracuse NY 1967).

3. Referring to M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Cambridge 2010), but also to Courtney M. Booker, Past Convictions: the penance of Louis the Pious and the decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009) and some unnamed work by Steffen Patzold that I don’t know, but which might be (or be referred to in) his “Consensus – Concordia – Unitas: Überlegungen zu einem politisch-religiösen Ideal der Karolingerzeit” in Nikolaus Staubach (ed.), Exemplaris imago: Ideale in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, Tradition, Reform, Innovation 15 (Frankfurt 2012), pp. 31-56 (non vidi).

4. Mayke cited, among other things, Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), and I might add, with my original cautions as linked, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2006).

I’m sorry, I meant ‘Medieval Climatic Anomaly’

Temparature reconstruction plot from the IPCC's 2007 report

It took me a little while of thinking to work out why I don’t like the term ‘medieval climatic anomaly’, which I stumbled across following this notice at News for Medievalists (before that furore broke) about a new book, Herb Maschner, Owen Mason and Robert McGhee (edd.), The Northern World, AD 900-1400 (Salt Lake City 2009). It’s not that I’m immediately down on the book; firstly it looks quite important in its way (though why do so many of our climate proxies have to come from Greenland, which we already have reason to suspect may have been different? This has caused to me to wonder if there was sediment core work done on, say, Lake Geneva, and it turns out that such work is older than I am, so really, I ought to read more before sounding off. Anyway!) and secondly I haven’t read it yet and can’t tell exactly where between science and anthropology it falls and how much of either I might be able to follow. But there is this term, for what I know as the Medieval Warm Period, and it bothers me.

After a short while pondering it seems to me that it defuses the controversy of the term ‘Medieval Warm Period‘, of which after all we have seen enough just round these parts lately, but not necessarily in helpful directions. To call the warm peak an ‘anomaly’ suggests that it’s odd, ignorable, not significant, whereas what little I understand of these things suggests that these changes of graph are either cyclical or caused, what they aren’t is random. On the other hand, one of the battles over this (for all the wrong reason, it seems to me, but you know this) is whether any current change in our climate is ‘anomalous’, so maybe this is actually a stronger term. I’m just not sure it reads that way. Then the other thing is the abandonment of the descriptive adjective ‘warm’. The result is that someone who hadn’t met the term before wouldn’t easily see why it might matter. Now is that a crazy-filter, or a strange attempt to avoid courting persecution by activist sceptics by not ‘prejudging’ the issue? I hope not the latter, because that leads to Bad Science (as does that link) but the former is a bit objectionable too. Surely what needs to happen with this debate is that it reaches more people, not fewer? On the other hand, only a few months ago I was arguing that the material of this book shouldn’t be allowed to be influenced by that debate or be part of it…

As you can tell, I am a bit conflicted about how to discuss this whole issue. Not least because, if it should turn out on investigation that, actually, this here ‘medieval climatic anomaly’ wasn’t as important in Western Europe in the tenth century as has sometimes been preached, I lose my principal handle on social change in that period. And dammit, I like that handle.

Links of coolness (mainly featuring death or actual cold, but some brighter)

Well, I’ve been busy for so long that quite a lot of exciting stuff has come out of the ground or otherwise appeared on the web. First and foremost, it would seem that some of the stuff presented at that Bristol conference that I said I wasn’t allowed to talk about has now been released.

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

At the conference they had video from a microcamera intruded into the coffin of this man, who was once Barbarossa’s Chancellor, but hadn’t yet opened it. Now they have, which I learn from this article on The Times‘s website, in case your German’s not up to that first one, and I found the Times one because of this post by Michelle Moran at her History Buff blog. In case you can’t see, he is holding a chalice and a book. Go and look at the pictures! Rarely is a dead body so amazing.

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

So, I said I’d tell you and so I have. But of course just lately most of the focus has been on another set of dead bodies, the fifty-one apparently-Vikings at Weybridge, Dorset. A quick sken at the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog reveals ten separate articles just on the front page and I seem to remember that there were more. Here I think I should give the palm of coverage to my colleague Rory Naismith who has covered it for the Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic’s blog here. If you want an expert’s take, there is one, albeit suitably cautious.

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

One more set of dead bodies with no images as yet, but in some ways more interesting, is a group of female burials that have been found at Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, in Devon. The archæologist in charge, Sam Turner, is saying that this suggests there was a nunnery on the site. I see the reasoning, but I wonder, because of the dating, which from the article in the South Devon Herald Express to which David Beard linked at Archaeology in Europe, which continues invaluable, they say only that the site is at least 1000 years old. I think, reading between the lines, that this is because they have found a church underlying the current ruins, which are Norman (and only this ruined because of a fire in 1992, worse luck), and since those are Norman these must be Saxon. What the relation of the burials to either church is not clear from the short notes in the papers, or whether the bodies themselves have yet been dated, and I’d very much appreciate any further information anyone might have. The reason I’m cautious is that in 1018 there was a monastery, Buckfast Abbey, founded just down the hill from this sight, and so the dating is kind of crucial to work out whether the abbey was replacing a nunnery, moving in alongside, or merely a resumption of monastic life in male reform style on a site where female religious observance had ceased long before. Or, whether they’ve just struck a bit of the graveyard where women were, as these are not the first burials recovered from the churchyard (as you’d expect). So, cart before the archæological horse? Or genuinely archæological evidence of a very late Saxon double monastery? Apart from anything else, I note that in 2005 Andrew Reynolds and Dr Turner published this site as a monastery, so I’d very much like to know what the earlier evidence was, and will keep my eyes and ears open.1 Hey Andrew, you’re not reading are you? (Worth a try…)

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Away from bodies, but back to Vikings, and also relating to arguments that have been had here about our favourite bone of contention, it should be noted if you didn’t—I got it from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe again—that a new temperature index for medieval Greenland has been compiled from sea-shells pulled out of sediment cores, and shows a fairly severe collapse in the temperature in that area in the decades after the settlement of Iceland in c. 890. Of course, I’m more interested in the bit where they say, “winter temperature variability increased between 990 and 1120, a time when written records suggest that crops occasionally failed. By 1250, things heated up again and summer temperatures reached 10 degrees Celsius, possibly the highest in three centuries. Within decades, though, temperatures began to plunge again”, but the reminder that all our temperature data (and this is still true now) is local data first and foremost is salutary, because this is not really what we see in mainland Europe.

Mosaic floor from the Umayyad palace at al-Sinnabra

Likewise about things coming out of the ground, although in a very different area and of very different size (though possibly less significance: think on that, ye mighty…) is this summer palace of the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya that Israeli archæologists have located at al-Sinnabra on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. I learn this from News for Medievalists, and I haven’t missed the recent controversy over their content, but this one links to the press release I’ve just linked, so I see no problem with tipping the hat here.2

Then, I’d also like to notice two things that are about texts rather than objects, firstly this excellent article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times about how to archive Salman Rushdie’s computer files, which taps into so much stuff I’ve written here before about digital decay and the need for truly long-term digital preservation strategies, which I was pointed at from Cliopatria, and which contemplates, among other things, preserving the hardware on which the files were used so as to replicate the author’s mise-en-page, which is a wonderful idea. They make mention of a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device at Stanford University, basically a really advanced data recovery machine, and I’m quite glad there is one of those but I think we’ll need more…

And of course, as has correctly been observed by Goblinpaladin at Opinions of a Reformed Dropout, this is approximately the most brilliant thing in the world, a chap called Jackson Crawford who has taken it upon himself to rewrite the story of Star Wars as Old Norse saga, Tattúínárdœla saga. My Old Norse is basically non-existent, and he has provided English translations only reluctantly, but the actual effort of reimagining the characters and storyline into a Viking Age setting is a considerable part of his achievement. I’d say go read it but since he speaks of having 8,000 visitors per day I’d guess you probably already are. Nevertheless, just in case… Ah me how I love the Internet.


1. Andrew Reynolds & Sam Turner, “Discovery of a late Anglo-Saxon monastic site in Devon: Holy Trinity church, Buckfastleigh” in Archaeology International Vol. 5 no. 8 (London 2005), pp. 22-25.

2. I confess to some slight bemusement at the extent of this. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met its operators, but I never thought Medievalists.net was anything other than self-promoting journalism. The selection of articles and the coverage given to fiction has always left that impression on me, and the choice of digitised scholarly work they choose to host also seems to embrace availability rather than discrimination. At least they are now consistently giving links. The whole thing has made me think a lot more carefully about how I use hot-linking, though. It’s always seemed to me a way to pass traffic to a deserving site and notify them that I’d borrowed their image, and the bandwidth implications had never struck me. They probably don’t arise with the number of visitors I get here, but all the same, and because often hot-linked images disappear, I should rethink that. Any thoughts from people I’ve linked to?

Darn climate sceptics! get out of my field!

The recent fracas over e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has a surprising medieval relevance, and I just wanted to add a few pennyworth of annoyance. The keywords here would be “medieval warm period“. Now if you Google that, it takes a long time before you get down to results that are actually about the Middle Ages. But it mattered for the Middle Ages and it’s immensely aggravating to me to have this phenomenon politicised, minimised, kicked around or diminished because of current political debates.

Why does it matter to me, you ask? Well, as a historian, because as close as I have to an answer about what caused the now-legendary ‘feudal transformation’, or at least the bundle of slow or not-so-slow changes that we have at times piled under that name, starts with it. Between about 700 and 1200, it seems fairly safe to say, the climate in Western Europe got warmer by, say, one or two degrees. Maybe more, but that’s all I need to be able to say that rainfall would have decreased, crop yields would have increased, there would have been fewer famines (and that bit we can check from other records and it has been done and checks out, as far as what records we have can demonstrate something from silence), and more surplus. More surplus means more wealth being accumulated, mostly at the top but not all of it, means more resources available for cultural reproduction and patronage, means the economy will support more people which means demographic growth which in turn means increased land use, more production, therefore even more surplus and so on again round the circle like a generator for the high Middle Ages. Technology doesn’t leap at the right point, breaking social structures can really only be an effect of economic growth or so we would imagine at least, and generally I have not yet hit on anything else that explains this. So, the fact that people working on it are largely doing so as part of a different enquiry that is not, per se about the Middle Ages, is vexing, because even if they’re right that it occurred—which I believe they are because, as I say, I don’t see another explanation for everything else that follows from it—they will not be taken seriously enough, because of the kind of opposition that cause reputable researchers to try and massage data so that the opposition can’t use it against them.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

There is, in fact, plausible anecdotal evidence for these changes in that period apart from the Norse in Greenland. One thing that struck me very forcefully was a recent piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian, a photo essay depicting those whose livelihoods have been affected by climatic change (or at least, deforestation, salination or acidification of water, increased water uptake, etc.) One of the less ambiguous ones, in scientific terms at least but not morally, was the current chairman of the Torres vinery, Miguel Torres, in what to me is far frontier Catalonia. They are buying land in the Pyrenees where grapes have not been grown for a long time because the lowlands vineyards are drying up. The wine is pretty good, apparently. And hey: you know when those hills were last used for viticulture? You got it. The charters and records of the eleventh and twelfth centuries reveal vines being sold and given that were at altitudes where in the 1950s, as Ramon d’Abadal reported, it was thought that vines could not be grown. He didn’t know what this showed, except that Catalan peasants in the Pyrenees were under serious economic pressure. But now, I think we do know and it’s happening again. So this is my medieval angle.

Vines in the Priorat area of Catalonia

Vines in the Priorat area of Catalonia

The other reason that this annoys me however is not historical at all, but just one about rationality. It really gets to me that the argument against action on climate change makes so much of this. The argument being that, if the medieval warm period is ‘true’ and there really were Vikings farming now ice-bound lands on Greenland (irrespective of what the rest of the world may have been getting weather-wise…) then the military-industrial complex ™ hasn’t necessarily caused the current climate rise and so our lifestyle needn’t change hurrah! This is so stupid it makes me want to twist necks, but it is a mainstream idea, as shown by another, rather different UK newspaper, the Daily Express, which a few days after I first drafted this conveniently led with a full-page headline, “100 reasons why global warming is natural“, and is now taking a similar line on the current snow in the UK. This, I tell you, gives me unto despair for my people (whoever the goshdarn heck they might be). It is stupid for several big reasons.

  1. Firstly, it assumes that plural causes of climate change do not operate simultaneously, which obviously need not be true. If the greenhouse effect is demonstrable, then to claim that that is not what is going on with our near-global temperature rise is at the very least questionable, even if other things are also going on. (Of course, the Express claim that the greenhouse effect is unproven. The worrying thing is that this is not a fringe paper, yet, it has more market share than the Times or the Guardian.)
  2. Secondly, it’s not just climate change that urges a lifestyle change (even though I agree with prominent voices that this is a lot bigger than individual lifestyle habits and that action must be government-led); when we hit peak oil, if that hasn’t already happened, it is going to hurt.
  3. Thirdly, and much more importantly, it doesn’t flaming well matter what’s causing the temperature rise, it’s still happening. Even if it is not that we have just burnt too much stuff and instead that Mother Sun is getting a little more angry in her middle years, the oceans will still rise, the Nile Delta will still continue to flood and before long there will be nowhere left to grow good coffee, and that’s probably the point at which these people will notice. Unless you actually deny that the temperature of the globe is going up, which can be made to look surprisingly rational but is at the very least a minority view, you still have to admit that things will be bad unless we do something so really, where the Vikings (or the Spanish Marchers) farmed does not matter to you right now.

In short, the medieval warm period makes no political difference to thinking people concerned with climate change. It may tell them something about how the Earth behaves climatically over long periods, which would be great (although if you take a long enough view we’re all going to bake or sink anyway), but it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t need to cut emissions, carbon or otherwise, combat overfarming, deforestation and salination, come up with alternative energy sources good and fast and start in on the synthetic food. It really affects none of these necessities. But it did affect my subject population, or so it seems, really quite a lot. So dammit, you kids, get out of my yard.

(Noted in the last stages of drafting this, an op-ed by one of the UEA professors whose mail was leaked, though he has nothing at all to say about whether they were massaging figures or not, just about the problems science has getting itself heard in policy. Hat tip to Fourcultures. Please note also that this essay is cross-posted at Cliopatria, where I linked a post of Richard Scott Nokes’s that seemed relevant and useful, but the good Professor has subsequently read that post in a way I hadn’t realised was possible and was not at all my intent, though he was still good enough to link to it, and so I’ve removed that link in this version.)


For the actual debate about the actual medieval phenomenon you could try: Malcolm K. Hughes & Henry F. Diaz (edd.), The Medieval Warm Period (Dordrecht 1994), repr. from Climatic Change Vol. 26 (1994), nos 2-3, though of course the science has accumulated a lot since then. For the wine stuff, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya Carolíngia III. Els Comtats de Pallars i Ribagorça, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica 14 & 15 (Barcelona 1955), I p. 50, and now C. Arbués & J. Oliver, “Vinyes que ja no hi són. Per una arqueològia agrària del domini feudal del treball pagès: les vinyes de Sorre, Montardit (el Pallars Sobirà) i Musser (la Cerdanya)” in I. Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 321-337. For famines try now P. Benito i Monclús, “Fams atroces a la Catalunya de l’any mil”, ibid., pp. 189-206, and more widely, troublesome though it is in some other respects, Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive (London 2005)

Seminary LII, Interdisciplinary conversation V: a new post at Cliopatria

A small portion of a Slovenian manuscript written in Glagolitic script

A small portion of a Slovenian manuscript written in Glagolitic script


The Bidayuh Longhouse in the Sarawak Cultural Village, Kuching

The Bidayuh Longhouse in the Sarawak Cultural Village, Kuching

As I guess you know, I try and hear about research in other disciplines when it’s put in front of me and seems to cross my interests. In fact we all have to pay some attention to this sort of potential, but how much varies a lot. One might express it thus:

Medievalists operate in a climate where the word `interdisciplinary’ is like rain in the UK. It falls on one quite a lot, one soaks a certain amount of it up whether one likes it or not (no medieval historian completely ignores objects, for example, even if one only uses them for slides in Powerpoint), and it is generally agreed that we need more of it to do our work well, by which is often meant, to make plausible or successful bids for funding. But, all the same, most people prefer it when the sun comes out for them and they can luxuriate in the field they’ve made their own rather than continually having one’s view messed up by alternative perspectives. Very few people seem to actually like the rain.

This is the preamble of what became a long post that I put on Cliopatria, about how we are told we ought to do interdisciplinary work, about where some successful work of this sort is actually being done that I’ve heard about, and about a case where the cross-over actually doesn’t have much potential. I conclude with the feeling that small-scale technical collaborations are more likely to be helpful than big-brush social comparisons, but since the post covers computerised palæography in unusual Slavic scripts, pragmatic Christian converts who aren’t head-hunters even though the tourist industry would like you to think they are, and Bishop Daniel of Winchester’s advice to Saint Boniface, you may feel like reading it.

Hugely important new archæological technique not quite so important once actually published

I’ve been trying recently to work out the balance of my blogging responsibilities. Being added to the roll at Cliopatria has been flattering but confusing, as medieval traffic there looks very out of place and elicits little response. (On the other hand I get more comments here than the whole of Cliopatria often does, so thankyou to commentators!) I feel a bit odd taking up their bandwidth with stuff that would probably get more interested readers here. It seems that what I can best add there, therefore, is general pieces about the Academy or the discipline in general, or things from my field that have an impact on many fields. One of the latter has just come up, in the form of a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A whose press release generated several very interesting blog posts that suggested, by quoting the official notices, that there was a new technique out for dating ceramics that was going to revolutionise the whole of archæology. That seemed sufficiently broad as to make a Cliopatria post, one of which I am badly overdue for, and so I’ve got hold of the paper and assessed it as fully as I can over there. If I say that reading the actual paper is something that none of the other people who’ve noticed it had done, it may pique your interest enough to go and read…

AFK as promised: in marca hispanica iterum videndo

Tomorrow afternoon I am flying out to Catalonia, as I’ve mentioned, so things will be unattended round here for a short while. I should be back to regular blogging on the 12th, and I’ve got a couple of posts ready that I will schedule to go up while I’m away, but I won’t see comments or anything. I hope that the resumption of seminars, finishing some work and (camera permitting—it’s not well) photos of castles and so forth will make for better content than has been to have round here lately. I hope to go all of here (because of this), here (not because of this, though it should be, but because of this), here (because of this), here (because of this), here (because of the book, and also this again, and lastly back here because of a charter I haven’t told you about yet which will likely get a post to itself if I can get a look at it. None of this may be possible, because I don’t have the driver I had last time, but I aim to have fun anyway.

(And for more details see here or here.)

In the meantime, if you have heard or, better, used, the phrase “medieval warm period“, which is still more or less where I stand as an explanation for the By-Our-Lady Feudal Transformation, you may well be interested in this attempt to bring actual science to the question. I’m no scientist myself but it seems to me that they’ve either got a point or they’re lying (I mean ‘funded by vested interests’) and I think the point they seem to have fits better with the historical evidence, myself.

Leeds report 3: Wednesday 9th

Being slightly more together on the third day of Leeds, and almost avoiding buying any books, I had resolved to branch out at least slightly, if only because of having spent so much of last year in Texts and Identities (which wasn’t terribly lively this year). So first thing Wednesday morning found me in ‘Inside the VIP Suite: The Roles of a Ruler’s Favourite‘, three papers from quite different regions about those who secure the attention of the powerful to the exclusion of others. Hans Peter Pökel was enlightening about the rôles of eunuchs in the cAbbasid Caliphate, including the interesting sidelight that although usually regarded as less manly and effective than a full male, as ghazis (frontier troops) against the Byzantines they were considered unusually vicious and effective, this being because Byzantium was usually where they’d had their tackle removed. Stefan Bießenecker had a range of German examples, and John Dillon was mostly narrative about two relatively successful Neapolitan ministers who didn’t quite fit the definition, because of not excluding others from power so much. All in all it wasn’t terribly earth-shattering but did at least mean that I hadn’t spent the whole conference being strictly early medieval.

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

After that, though, I reverted to type and hid in Texts and Identities for what was apparently the sixth of a series of sessions on the mysterious chronicler or chroniclers we call Fredegar. In this Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz were extremely soft-spoken, to the extent that I having arrived late and being stuck on a window-ledge near the back, couldn’t really hear them. This was a pity as what I caught was quite interesting, as it should be given the speakers’ calibres, but really I couldn’t tell you what if anything I learnt. My notes however save me and suggest that Walter was trying to get at the way in which ‘Fredegar’ represents ethnicity and identity, in terms of gentes rather than regna which can contain several gentes but whose king always belongs to one gens not all of them, such as, well, the Franks, this being Fredegar; and that Dr Reimitz picked up that theme and showed how ‘Fredegar’ was building the Franks into the Roman tradition of Universal History much as Bede is supposed to for the Anglo-Saxons.1 Ian Wood‘s paper was much more audible and therefore interesting but didn’t really stick to its title, apparently having undergone some revision since an earlier presentation at a conference in Tübingen that was apparently being reprised in these sessions. He was talking about the earlier books of the Chronicle, which have a less clearly pro-Frankish agenda and make their points with anecdotes and fabulae whose sense is keenly contemporary and thus very difficult to reconstruct. After that much of this it was getting easy to see how the Friends of Fredegar had managed to put together so many sessions…

Graph demonstrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

Graph demontrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

I branched back out over lunch however, which involved a certain amount of dashing back and forth between campuses, but all the same I just made it into the lunchtime lecture which was on “Climate Change and the Historic Environment”. I’ve been known to blame the whole alleged feudal transformation on climate change in the past, and I felt I could use some actual data given how much polemic there is on the web about the ‘medieval warm period’. Actually, most of what Sebastian Payne (of English Heritage) was saying was well prehistoric. He talked about how we get ancient climate information at all, and then concentrated on disproving various media myths, firstly that it is currently usually hot for the Earth, secondly that storms and climatic disturbance are becoming more frequent, and there were some others I forget. Actually, he told us, things have been abnormally cold for the Earth for most of the last four thousand years, though individual years are all over the place within that broad limit, and actually we’ve been unusually quiet for huge storms and events this last thirty years. Also, as far as the medieval warm period was concerned, his graphs with that kind of definition did pretty much all agree that 700 onwards gets warmer, levels at about 900 and holds more or less till 1200 then tails off again and is quite bad by 1600. But most of his graphs were much longer-scale, pre-human, which did lead to the obvious point: if we’ve become a dominant species with a huge global infrastructure in this 4-millennium cold spell, any slight change in that could still be extremely worrying. We really don’t want a dinosaur-compatible climate! To this his rather dour answer was that we haven’t built sustainably in this kind of perspective, and that quite a lot won’t make it through any rough times of climate that are coming on; and his paper was ostensibly about preserving the historic environment in these times of change, but he spent most of it proving that we are very short-sighted as a species and that history might have a few things to tell us about what works and what doesn’t. Interesting, anyway.

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

A run back across the road took me into the seventh Fredegar session, this one focusing on other people than the Franks as shown up in Fredegar’s Chronicle. Stefan Esders showed how Fredegar used the lives of King Dagobert of the Franks and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as mirrors of each other, a good beginning spoilt by pride and subsequent punishment; Andreas Fischer showed how he also balanced Byzantines and Persians against each other as equally legitimate empires and forecast their conversion. Both these presenters were sure that Fredegar had some Eastern source, possibly even Syrian, and Fischer wondered if he might even read Hebrew; this seemed to me much weirder than they thought. (Ian Wood had earlier on said, ‘we always say he, it could be she for all we know’. Perhaps it’s a seventh-century historical Héloïse telling us all these stories…) And lastly Ann Christys, for whom I’d actually turned up, showed how he (or she) uses the Arabs in Spain and Provence not only to cast Charles Martel as a holy warrior, but also to align the Duke of Aquitaine whom Charles Martel cast out as a treacherous ally of heretics. In this scheme, the defeat of the Arabs Charles managed is actually not what Fredegar is interested in in this story; they just give him a good way to badmouth Duke Eudo. So that was all fun, or at least I thought so. Amazingly rich text; if only we had all of it, hey?

The last session on Wednesday was the first one where I really regretted not being able to be in several places at once. Where I actually went was a really cool session about burial archaeology called ‘Tombs and Identities’, but to do that I had to pass up another digital session and one with at least one good paper about wills in. Also, I realised later, I’d missed perhaps the only paper that will ever be presented at the IMC about Catalan archaeological chronology in my period, and I must contact the presenter and apologise for not having spotted her and asking her for a copy of the paper. Catalan ceramics are not very helpful but they’re about all the dating evidence there is and having a short guide to them in English would be very useful to me. Poor observation Jarrett…

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

That said, the Tombs and Identities session was really good; I just should have been somewhere else. Highlight was certainly Philipp von Rummel, who was arguing that attempts to see Childeric’s grave as a German adopting Roman culture was old-fashioned, because Childeric probably thought he was a Roman, but the definition of ‘Roman’ had changed a lot in the previous hundred years. He was a Roman military officer, holding a Roman position of rule, and he’d probably been born in the Empire. He looks like a (contemporary) Roman in his portrait (and von Rummel had some interesting lower-class Roman parallels for the famous Merovingian long hair here) and there’s no reason to suppose he thought of himself as a barbarian at all, so it tells us more if we stop using those categories like Victorians. But the other papers, which talked about royal and high-status burial in Italy, were also interesting though I did wind up questioning the significance of the second one’s graphs. Why is it me, with no statistical training, no particular mathematical ability and a love for showy representation, why is it me who has to ask the questions about bad maths? Why aren’t these being caught by anyone else? And why don’t people realise that if their graph only shows percentages, we want to know what the total sample was, and that if their graph peaks in the seventh century, and so does the density of their sample, then we want a Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test or similar to see whether that’s actually surprising? Who’s doing this bloody maths, me or you, huh? Okay, it’s me. But it really shouldn’t be because I know nothing about this stuff. It’s very annoying. If it has numbers in that had to be calculated, historians will swallow it uncritically. Anyway, I’ve said this before, let’s move on.

By now I was tiring, and though my original plan had been to make it to a round table about databases and prosopography that I thought would be useful, actually I sat down at the desk in my room to kill a few minutes looking at books before I set out, and woke up about an hour later just about to miss the last plausible bus to make it, and executively decided to go into Headingley and get food instead. Later, as I recall, there was drinking, and then I made an attempt to get an early night which the well-meaning concern of a friend who had carried on drinking entirely scuppered. And then there came Thursday, but that would be another post, after I’ve told you about something stupid I did at Tuesday’s lunch…


1. The so-called Chronicle of Fredegar owes its name to a name attached to a late manuscript, and there’s no real indication that that annotator knew anything we don’t about the author, or rather since it is several quite different books, probably authors; nonetheless, as we have no other name and this name isn’t much used elsewhere, it has stuck. For this reason, when Roger Collins gave an an excellent paper about the text at the IHR some time ago, he told us very solemnly that he would “pronounce ‘Fredegar’ as ‘Fredegar’, with inverted commas that are silent, like the P in Psmith”. Only about half of the audience got this allusion, and snickered quietly, to which Roger then followed up, with similar deadpan solemnity, “A joke which fell completely flat when I told it in Vienna, for some reason” at which point the audience collapsed en bloc. If you get a chance to hear Roger Collins present a paper, do go, it’s worth it.