Tag Archives: Meso-America

Seminars CCLIII-CCLVI: Friends and the Famous Speaking at Leeds

There is a lot of unpleasantness going on just now, he says in a classic understatement. I had most of a series of angry posts about the state of the English university done when Russia invaded Ukraine, something I’d barely seen coming and which is starting, as people break out the word ‘nuclear’, to sound a lot like the bad dreams of my Cold War childhood over again. Now it seems a bit selfish to complain about having secure if worsening employment while others are losing their homes and lives. The Ukraine conflict has also got some pretty deep and obvious medievalist resonances, but with fighting going on at this moment, I cannot look at that now. Instead I’m staying safe around the turn of 2018/2019, when because I was not on Action Short of Strike and being threatened with total pay deduction because of it, I was still going to seminars. I cannot get to many seminars down south any more, so it is always important when people come north (or in one of these cases, east), and in normal circumstances I try to be there whoever’s speaking. But for these four I was there because I knew or knew of the people and was glad to have them visiting us, and so they each get a short report despite this having happened three years ago plus, sorry.

Real Royal Protection for the Carolingian Church?

First up, then, and coming from least far was my sort-of-opposite number in Manchester, Dr Ingrid Rembold, who on 28th November 2018 was in Leeds to address our Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Widows, Orphans and the Church: protection and virtue signalling in the Carolingian world”. Here, Ingrid was looking at the three categories of society whom Carolingian Western Europe considered it a royal duty to protect, and asking why and what it actually got them. For the Church we mainly had monasteries to talk about, and she had some good critical things to say about the legal category of ‘royal’ monastery, which I have myself also always struggled to find expressed in the actual sources; and her general argument that these obligations (which the previous royal dynasty don’t seem to have felt anything like as keenly) mainly sprang from the Old Testament and the idea of the Church as the bride of Christ, temporarily ‘widowed’ by His absence from Earth, I thought was new and sounded right.1

The Torhalle of the Lorsch monastery

The Torhalle of Lorsch monastery, supposedly a ‘royal’ house but whatever that means, this is a building through which Carolingian kings almost certainly passed. Image by Kuebi – Armin Kübelbeck – self-made with 36 single shots (Lens: 1:1.8 85 mm; 1:5.6; 1/500s; ISO 100; manual focus and manual exposure) made by stitching with Hugin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Where there was more disagreement, however, although mainly between me and Fraser McNair, then of this parish, was about what this protection meant and how it was delivered. Ingrid had quite early on argued that Carolingian local power was so reliant on the local powerful that its legislation of this kind could only be exhortatory, without real force except as those locals cared to enforce it, which for her presented the problem that monasteries sometimes sought royal protection against exactly those locals, which makes no sense if they were the ones who would have to deliver it. If, after all, they actually did behave differently because the king told them to, even if he couldn’t coerce them, that is arguably a more powerful king, not less, than if he had to send the boys round. And that does seem to have happened in Catalonia, I will admit, with royal grant after royal grant coming south from kings who could not appoint, remove or direct anyone there; but I have explained how I think that worked, and it’s not universal.2 I just think there was more use of force available to the Carolingian state than Ingrid does, apparently. She fairly asked whether it counts as state power if a local person does it, too, and this was where Fraser and I disagreed. I think the Carolingians mostly could send someone else into a local area with legitimate power to act, if they needed to, because of the three-legged structure of counts, Church and vassals they maintained, whereas Fraser argued that their trick was to recruit the locals into the wider power ideology of ministerium, so that yes, it absolutely did count as state enforcement if a local man did it, as long as he was the right local man.3 I just think that, optimally at least, there were plural right local men, and maybe the lengthy conversations between myself and Joseph Brown in comments on my old posts at the moment are partly about what happened once there was only a singular one in many areas.

Middle-Age spread in the English village

Then, on 4th December, no less a celebrity than Professor Carenza Lewis visited to deliver one of the Institute for Medieval Studies’ open lectures, with the title, “Triumph and Disaster: new archaeological evidence for the turbulent development of rural settlement”. This was showcasing a then-new project of which she was leader, which was seeking to redress the fact that we have a pretty skewed and partial sample of medieval rural settlement in England from archæology, mostly either deserted sites or along a belt from Hampshire to Lincolnshire and then up the Eastern Pennines. To remedy this, her team had been digging dozens and dozens of test pits of a meter square or so in people’s gardens, which was excellent for public engagement as well as data, and what they had mainly discovered was change. Thinly-documented phenomena like the ‘Middle Saxon shuffle’ (a general but not well understood shift of early English villages) showed up well, but the starkest two phenomena were, most of all, desertion of sites after the Black Death, to levels like 40-45% of sites with a concomitant implication of moves into towns as well as, you know, ‘Death’; and, secondly, the long period of high medieval growth before it. Those, perhaps, were not surprises, but they are often assumed from a small sample, so anything that puts such generalisations on firmer footings is probably worthwhile. What was weird to me then and remains so now, however, is that the Roman period, when we suspect settlement in lowland Britain to have been at its densest really until quite recently, showed up very poorly. Professor Lewis didn’t offer an explanation for this, but it made me wonder whether the method was somehow missing an object signature that would be significant. Since Roman ceramics are usually both plentiful and easy to recognise, however, as are Roman coins, I can’t imagine what it would have been! The Saxon period is usually poorer in material remains…4

Making Manuscripts under the Conquistadors

Then, finally ticking over the clock in 2019 and bringing this blog close to only three years behind at last, on 28th January 2019 Dr Claudia Rogers, then of Leeds and as we’ve seen a valued teaching colleague, presented some of her work in a workshop for the Medieval Group under the title of “Encountering Pictorials: a a workshop on sixteenth-century Meso-American manuscripts”. I know that this is not medieval on the usual European clock, but in the first place we have the debate about whether that counts outside Europe – but of course it’s kind of patronising and colonial to assert that, outside Europe, other places were ‘medieval’ for longer, so that’s not my justification here. Instead, I’ll argue that these manuscripts are some of our windows on the pre-Columbian time before, which is medieval on the European clock at least, and also that they’re just really cool.

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos showing just some of the stuff which the Aztecs had previously claimed in tribute every 80 days from their dependencies, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

They are, however, wickedly complex to interpret. They are mostly on bark-paper, and come in three broad categories, organising knowledge by place (being, roughly, figured maps of significant things, people or events), events (iconographic treatments of single themes in detail, as here the tributes paid at conquest) or, to me most intriguing, by time, these being calendrical, cyclical, year-by-year chronicles with one image only per year to sum up everything in it. Obviously, one of their primary topics is the ‘Qashtilteca’ (‘Castile-people war’), but their reactions to it and involvements with it are quite complicated, and implicated: one group who produced several of these texts, the Tlaxcalans, had been in rebellion against the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived, and gladly accepted help against their overlords from the conquistadores, who, however, then turned on and subjugated their erstwhile allies. Tlaxcalan artist-scribes thus had a lot to explain. Smaller themes of the conquest can be picked up as well; apparently dog attacks on people became a new theme of depiction, for example. And these texts were produced in a world where the Spaniards were the new élite, and some were glossed in Castilian so we know that they were sometimes being explained to the conquerors. Are they therefore colonial or indigenous, collaborative or critical? Complications also arise when you compare these texts with solely-written ones of the same period: they seem to focus on different things, including giving more prominent roles to women. Was that a genre convention, or was one mode of discourse closer to (someone’s) truth than the other? And so on. And then there’s the question of what gets assumed or put back in the restorations that are making these texts increasingly available. Basically, you have to have a 360° critique going on at all times when trying to do history with these. Claudia did not necessarily have answers to these questions then, but even explaining the complexity of her questions was quite a feat, to be honest…5

Exemption by Whatever Means

Lastly for this post, a mere two days later I was back in probably the same room, I don’t remember, to hear then-Dr Levi Roach present to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Forging Exemption: Fleury from Abbo to William (997-1072)”. This was a paper dealing with no less fiendish, but much more focused, questions of source critique, revolving around the French monastery of Saint-Bénoît de Fleury (a ‘royal’ monastery in theory, but as we shall see and as Ingrid had already told us, that didn’t necessarily mean much). At the very end of the tenth century, Fleury found itself caught between a new dynasty of kings and their client, Bishop Arnulf of Orléans, Fleury’s local diocesan bishop, both of which were a problem for them (for reasons my notes don’t actually record). As well as Fleury’s own rights, they were in contention over the much bigger issue of who should be the Archbishop of Reims, a long-running fracas I will let someone else try and explain instead of me. For all these reasons, the monks found they needed extra support, and Abbot Abbo (or, I suppose, Abbo Abbot) went to Rome to get it, at that stage not yet a normal thing to do. Pope John XV apparently charged too much, but Pope Gregory V was more amenable and Abbo allegedly came back with a document detailing lots of things bishops could not demand from them.6 The problem is, however, that it’s not confirmed, and there is a nest of associated forgeries for other monasteries, and Levi’s work for about half his paper was to disentangle those from whatever the source of the copy of this document we now have actually was. Those who know my work well will realise that this twitched several of my interests, because only a few years before, I have argued that a count of Barcelona also went to the pope, on this occasion John XIII, to get a privilege which was not in fact awarded, and came back with the unconfirmed documents they’d presumably tried to get him to sign and pretended they were legit; but no-one believed them.7 Both that and the resort to the pope only when the king couldn’t or wouldn’t provide therefore looked quite familiar to me.8 I did raise these questions with Levi, indeed, and he defended his position by saying that when Fleury’s privilege was challenged, which it was, it was challenged on the basis of being unprecedented – quite literally uncanonical – rather than on being faked. To which I say, OK, but that doesn’t actually tell us what was going on. I need to check in on Levi’s subsequent work and find out what he now thinks, I guess! Had I but world enough and time, and did it not look like labour for my bosses when I’m on strike…9

But there you are, four good papers and only a selection of what I attended in November 2018 to January 2019 as well. Some of us clearly do find time to do research, or did! And I’m glad that they then come to Leeds when they have.

1. My picture of what the Carolingians did with monasteries probably relies principally on Matthew Innes, “Kings, Monks and Patrons: political identities and the Abbey of Lorsch” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 301–324, online here, which I still think is excellent, as I do most of Matthew’s stuff, but may still take that category of ‘royal monastery’ somewhat for granted.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. The odd thing is that I think we are both here channelling Matthew again, in the form of Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), just apparently from different directions.

4. When reporting at this distance, it’s always wise to check if something has actually come out that would represent a more up to date presentation of the same research, and in this case it seems to have, as Carenza Lewis, “A Thousand Years of Change: New Perspectives on Rural Settlement Development from Test Pit Excavations in Eastern England” in Medieval Settlement Research Vol. 35 (Leicester 2020), pp. 26–46.

5. In Claudia’s case the subsequent publication is newer media, John Gallagher, Nandini Das and Claudia Rogers, “New Thinking: First Encounters”, MP3, BBC Radio 3, Arts & Ideas, 23rd October 2019, online here.

6. This must be Maurice Prou and Alexandre Vidier (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Documents publiés par la Société archéologique du Gâtinais 5-6 (Paris 1907-1912), 2 vols, online here and here, I, doc. no. LXXI.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1–42.

8. I can’t take any credit for noticing people from the Catalan counties heading for Rome like they’d used to head to the king; that observation goes back as far as Ramon d’Abadal, Com Catalunya s’obri al món mil anys enrera, Episodis de la història 3 (Barcelona 1960).

9. It’s at least easy enough to find out that is, because Levi has since been all over the web about a book he’s published, Levi Roach, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton NJ 2021), DOI: 10.1515/9780691217871, where pp. 113-152 look very much like a version of this paper.

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

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

A game of chess, pictured in the Tratado de Ajedrez

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

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

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

The poster for the workshop

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

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

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

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

Map of recorded voyages of Polynesian travellers in the Pacific Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

Map of world civilisation with historical timeline c. 979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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