Tag Archives: metrology

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…

Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Even the Bishop of Girona doesn’t always win

[This was mostly drafted offline on a train from London to Leeds on the 10th of July.]

Modern-day Ullà, Empúries, Catalunya

Modern-day Ullà, Empúries, Catalunya

The Bishop of Girona doesn’t always win. I know that by now, you might have reason to think otherwise. This was, after all, the place in Catalonia that took the most trouble to ensure that it had up-to-date royal charters for all its properties at all times and persistently brought them forward in court to others’ detriment; this we have seen.1 But of course it’s what we would see, because as I mentioned last time but one, Girona does seem to actually have sorted through what documents it wanted copied up, so even if it did have documents in which it lost its cases, it probably got rid of them after a while, and it is more likely that those cases only gave documents to the winners who were, it’s more or less safe to guess, not going subsequently to donate their property to the cathedral thus getting their documents archived. So we’d have to be extremely lucky to see anything other than resounding victories in their cartularies, no? Well, lucky us: look at this.2

When in God’s name the illustrious man Teuter, bishop of the See of Girona, was staying in the village of Ports, which is in Empúries territory, along with the illustrious men Delà and Sunyer, counts, in the public court for the hearing of many cases and the definition of right and just judgements, and also in the presence of Viscount Petroni and the judges who were ordered to judge or determine the cases, that is, Ferriol, Undilà, Godmar, Teudard, Manuel, Frugell, Lentio and Roderic, Ardovast the saio, Esperandéu, Hostal, also Junià, Trastildo, Benet, Ferriol, Blanderic, Eldegot, Guifré, Eripio, Esclúa, Untril·la, Comparat, Lleopard, Daniel, Undiscle, Armentary, Miró, Petroni, Adalà, Fluiter, Galí, Castí, Agelà, Adilo, Sendred, Perell, Truiter, Salomó, Lleo, Elanç, Pasqual, Revell, Segobran and the other priests, clerics, a great multitude of lay and other worthy men who were there present.

The grammar in this next paragraph is completely out to lunch as copied, so I’ve emended freely towards what the sense appears to be.

Thus there came into their presence the Archpriest Estremir, who is the mandatory of the abovesaid bishop, and he said, «Hear me, because that there Andreu’s houses, courts, orchards and fruit-trees and lands that are in the term of the villa of Ullà, which is in Empúries territory, those ought to be the aforesaid bishop’s on account of the claim of Santa Maria and Sant Feliu, which are sited in Girona and next to the selfsame city, by a precept of the lord king, which those men made of the aforementioned Santa Maria and Sant Feliu for their own. That Andreu holds them unjustly as an aprisio as part of the villa that is called Quarto, which they call Bellcaire. That same Andreu holds them unjustly and against the law.»
Then the aforesaid counts, bishops, viscounts and judges demanded of the aforesaid Andreu what he said to this. That man then said in his responses: «Because those houses, courts, fruit orchards and lands aforesaid which that same priest Estremir, who is mandatory of the aforesaid bishop, demands, I do not hold them unjustly but I hold them legally, by aprisio and by a precept of the king and as part of the aforesaid villa of Bellcaire, just as the other Hispani do».

There now follows a long paragraph in which the whole court slogs out to this place, details one of their number to measure the land in question and then divide it in half, and they give the measurements in great detail including specifying how long the perch they’re using as a unit is (8½ feet, since you ask). But we don’t need that much detail here, really. On with the rest of the text!

And then the already-said bishop, counts, and judges ordained that within those villae of Ullà and Quarto, which is called Bellcaire, they would set up five fixed stones as landmarks or boundaries, and so indeed they did. And the already-said Andreu received the half of those perches nearest the well on the northern side and Archpriest Estremir similarly the other half nearest the villa Ullà on the southern side.
And then it was agreed between the aforesaid bishop and the already-said Andreu that each one of them would hold as far as those fixed stones as a division of those villae, so that whoever [meaning `both’?] might judge and defend and securely possess forever in peaceful fashion.
Then it was set down that each one of them should have a notice from this about the selfsame aforesaid properties, signed and confirmed, just as it is, and let each one of them rejoice to see his justice in our court.
Notice given the 16th day of the Kalends of June, in the third year that King Louis was dead.
+Riquer, archpriest, SSS. +Guiscafred, archpriest, SSS. + Pere, priest, SSS. Reccared, priest, SSS. Teudegild, priest, SSS.

This document is quite important. The cathedral gets something out of it, and the boundaries set will have prevented Andreu or his family ever taking any more out of the cathedral’s land, so it’s understandable that Santa Maria kept it. All the same, this obviously wasn’t the result they were after, and thus what it shows us is, firstly that Girona wasn’t the only entity in the area who could get royal charters for their lands – it would seem that in this respect Louis the Stammerer was more sympathetic to those willing to come to his court than his father had been, and furthermore possibly keeping better track of what had been given out since he also awarded a precept to Girona cathedral that doesn’t cover this land3 – and that people still thought it was worth having one; secondly, that those people were right as even though Girona cathedral was often able to sway cases with such evidence as we’ve seen, it would seem to have been the evidence, not the cathedral, that impressed the court in this case. And thirdly of course it shows us that, since therefore the kind of claims that people have been known to make that the Church always won trials because it was literate and made the records don’t work here, we are probably missing an unguessable amount of material where the cathedral’s case didn’t come off. You win some, you lose some, as they say; but if they didn’t win, we’ve lost it. This does not mean it wasn’t there. That is all.4

1. It’s taken me until a few weeks ago, would you believe, to wonder if this regular replacement of documents at Girona might be to do with the Visigothic law’s `thirty-year rule’, which was a kind of statute of limitations that prevented claims on land or property being pursued after thirty, or fifty, lands (and it’s unclear in the surviving texts which interval would apply to what, as they just say, `thirty or fifty’: the chapter and verse, or rather, book and title, is to be found in Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code, 2nd edn. (Boston 1922), Book X Title II. However, even if that was what was going on, Girona got two precepts for their stuff from Charles the Fat alone, who didn’t exactly last thirty years, so even if I had thought it before now it still wouldn’t have worked. There are even more of these documents than people realise, and were once more: the standard edition, R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, where see Girona I-IX, is now supplemented by S. Sobrequés i Vidal, S. Riera i Viader, M. Rovira i Solà, (edd.) Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. R. Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2003), 2 vols, doc. nos 56, 70, 73 & 78. Ibid. doc. no. 288 also makes clear, as we’ve seen, that the cathedral at one point had a precept from King Louis IV as well, though this has not survived.

2. Sobrequés et al., Catalunya Carolíngia V, doc. no. 53, the latest of five editions of which the one that most people could get at would be Giovanni-Domenico Mansi (ed.), Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio Vol. XVIII (Venetia 1773), ap. CXVIII. The difficult paragraph of reported speech goes like this: “Sic in eorum presentia veniens Stremirus archipresbiter, mandatarius, qui est de suporadicto episcopo, et dixit: «Iubete me audire cum isto presente Andreo domos, curtes, ortos et pomiferos et terras qui sunt infra termines de villa Uliano, qui est in territorio Impuritano, illas debent esse supradicto episcopo pro partibus ipsa causa de Sancta Maria et Sancto Felice, quod sita est in Gerunda vel iusta ipsa civitate, per preceptum dompni regis, quod illi fecerunt ad iamdicta Sancta Maria et Sancto Felici ad proprio. Iste Andreas eas retinet ad aprisione pro partibus de villa que dicitur Quartu, que vocant Bedenga. Iste Andreas eos retinet iniuxte et contra lege»“.

3. It is Abadal, Catalunya Carolíngia II, Girona IV, though it must be admitted that guessing whether it covered these properties or not is tricky since the thing doesn’t survive, and its text is only to be guessed at from later Girona charters that reference it. Abadal also indexed the deperditum held by Andreu as ibid., Particulars XXVII, where he attributed it to Charles the Bald. I don’t see how we know that, and it seems more likely to me that this was from Louis, since Charles was by and large not much of a friend to the Hispani: see J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342.

4. Well, nearly. I just wanted to add that it also shows that, while there is unusually much to be got of Girona’s royal documents just in themselves, precisely because the bishops took such trouble to get them updated in what appear to be real terms – see R. Martí, “La integració a l’«alou feudal» de la Seu de Girona de les terres beneficiades pel «règim dels hispans». Els Casos de Bàscara i Ullà, segles IX-XI” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 49-63 with English summary p. 556, and indeed some day I hope, a publication based on J. Jarrett, “Legends in Their Own Lifetime? The Late Carolingians and Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Legends of the Carolingians’, Haskins Society Conference, Georgetown University, 7th November 2008 – the real gain is still to be made by seeing how those documents were actually used, as here. If there’s basis to argue with me about the Frankish kings giving up on their tame settlers out here, as I claim happened in my “Settling the Kings’ Lands” as above, then it’s this document, though you would still have to deal with the Martí paper already mentioned which is pretty categorical about the process.

From the sources I: yer actual simony

All right, when a blogger lacks for content, especially a historical blogger, the best thing to do is always to get him or her back to the sources. Several things have arisen lately, on blog or off, where I’ve needed some particular source and been annoyed it wasn’t on the Internet, or that it was still only typed up on my old and disused P333 which now lurks in a shed unpowered. I found one of those latter in an old printout from teaching at Birkbeck, and typed it up for a recent lecture; then the photocopier broke down and no-one actually got the handout in time to refer to it, but y’know, I tried. So I thought that, having typed it up again, I’d also put it here, because it’s interesting and probably useful to teach with.

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

What this is, then, is my translation of an agreement between Count Ermengol I of Urgell (993-1010), son of my old fascination Borrell II of Barcelona (and also of Urgell), and Bishop Sal·la of Urgell (981-1010), who has also featured here in the past. They agree by this that Sal·la’s nephew, also called Ermengol, seen above in the mitre, will succeed his uncle as bishop, and set out the price that Ermengol demands for ensuring that this occurs. It goes like this.

I Count Ermengol, son of the late Count Borrell and the late Countess Ledgarda, swear that from this hour and hereafter to the last day of days, that Bishop Sal·la, son of the late Isarn and the late Ranló,a and I have nominated one Ermengol by this scripture, by this oath, namely, that I shall undertake to give the bishopric of the county of Urgell to Ermengol son of Viscount Bernat and of Viscountess Guisla. I Count Ermengol shall undertake to give [it] to that Ermengol, son of Bernat, and I shall perform his investiture. And from this hour in future I the above-written Count Ermengol, will not keep that Ermengol, the above-written son of Viscount Bernat, from that bishopric of Holy Mary at the See at Vic which is in Urgell.b And if Bishop Sal·la shall wish to ordain this above-written nephew Ermengol in his lifetime, I Count Ermengol as written above will be a helper to him in ordaining that Ermengol, the above-written son of Bernat, without any deception of this Ermengol, if Bishop Sal·la or his brother Bernat or any of the kinsmen or the friends of that Ermengol, the cleric named above, shall undertake to give me 100 pesas, or the value in pesetas, or a pledge of 200 pesas through another 60 pesas that they shall give me after the death of the above-written Bishop Sal·la, half of it in the first half of the year and the other in the other. And if Bishop Sal·la shall not have ordained this Ermengol his nephew in the lifetime of Bishop Sal·la, and I Count Ermengol be yet living, and that Ermengol, the above-written son of Bernat, be living, I that above-written Count Ermengol shall perform the ordination of the above-written cleric Ermengol,c if I be able, if the above-written cleric Ermengol shall wish to give me, or his kinsmen or his friends shall wish to give to me and shall have given those pesas or those pesetas or that pledge written above. And I the above-written Count Ermengol shall offer no disturbance to the above-said cleric Ermengol over his ordination to that bishopric of Urgell, not I nor any man nor any woman either by my counsel or by my stay. And I the above-written Count Ermengol shall be a helper to that Ermengol, the above-written son of Guisla, to hold and have the bishopric of Urgell just as Sal·la holds it today, against all men or women who should wish or attempt to attack him, without any deception of the above-written cleric Ermengol after the death of the above-written Bishop Sal·la or in his days, if Bishop Sal·la shall defer the episcopate to him, or give to him anything or that bishopric, if Ermengol the son of Viscount Bernat brother of Sal·la, and son of Viscountess Guisla, daughter of the late Sunifred of Lluçà,d shall wish to perform homage and fidelity to me on a dedicated altar, or on relics, and he should do [this] so that I Count Ermengol can have faith in his fidelity.

And that’s all there is, no signatures, no witnesses, but there seems no reason to doubt it per se because of Ermengol’s later reputation (see below), unless his viscount brother’s offspring got really literary when contesting their grandmother’s will with him I suppose (which they had to do). Unless that be the case, however, when they talk about lay investiture and simony and so on, this is what they mean. Here is a real example.1 This kind of deal was being cut in many places. Note especially, if you care to, the following things:

  1. The form of document they are using here is a convenientia, an agreement, and it is basically a feudal one; that ‘without any deception’ riff is straight out of feudal pacts of the era and because of that is almost one of the first phrases we have in written Catalan, ‘sin engany’, though this document is entirely Latin. And, in that form, we would not expect signatures, witnesses or indeed a date, as the text is apparently more part of the act than a record for the future. Yes, it’s arguable, but it has been argued and certainly this is what such oaths look like except for the Latinity.2
  2. Sal·la is already Count Ermengol’s sworn vassal (and yes, we are allowed to use that word in this context dammit), but ironically, his son, Ermengol II, would eventually swear fidelity to Bishop Ermengol…3
  3. You could probably just about argue that this is not simony, but insurance; Ermengol comes doesn’t say that he will oppose Ermengol archileuita (as he is at this time) as bishop if the money isn’t paid, just that he won’t help him or perform the investiture. Technically he’s being paid to ensure that Ermengol does become bishop, not to allow him to do so. However, I don’t think many canon lawyers in Rome of 1056 would have seen it that way. I also don’t think anyone in X1003 Catalonia cared, however.
  4. It should be noted that what we are reading here is an agreement about the ordination of a man who is now recognised as a saint, albeit largely for his war-leadership against the Muslims; so subsequent papacies have also forgiven him this unfortunate slip.4
  5. Sal·la did in fact ordain Ermengol in his own lifetime, as coadjutor, and Count Ermengol I was still alive to insist at that time—he died on campaign in Córdoba in 1010, fighting Castilians who had been hired by the other contendor for the Caliphate—so the money must have been forthcoming.5 Of course, a bishop ordaining his own successor is quite uncanonical too but SAINT okay SAINT d’you hear me? Heros de la reconquesta, homes!
  6. We don’t, sadly know how much was actually being paid because we don’t know what a pesa was at this time. It’s clearly a weight of bullion—Urgell is not minting coin at this time, though it does later—but how much is unclear. Gaspar Feliu once reckoned it was an ounce of gold or a pound of silver, reckoned as equivalents, but he’s since decided it’s more complicated than that.6 Of that order, anyway, so, a lot. And a peseta is not a coin, but the equivalent in kind, a pesa-worth. So, it’s 100 pesas now, or their equivalent, or else 200 later of which 60 to be paid now. He drives a hard bargain (which may be why Sal·la took the low price…).
  7. Also, just a small point but observe that the women mentioned are political agents. Count Ermengol disclaims that he might use a woman to upset the agreement; mothers are named for all participants (in fact, for a Catalan feudal agreement, it’s rather unusual for fathers to be named, but this is very early and that form’s not yet established) and Guisla’s parentage, which was powerful as was she, is also mentioned. They’re not actually here but then they’re not bishop or count; doesn’t stop them being important.

So there you are, perhaps it’s useful, I certainly think it’s interesting, and I had it typed up already…

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria with revisions.)

a Isarn was Viscount of Conflent and possibly also of Urgell from perhaps 954 until 974; Ranló was his wife and Viscountess, there is no problem with that title for scribes of the time.

b Vic, as Anglo-Saxonists may be more aware than many, is based on a Germanic word for trading-place. This is why both Urgell and, well, Vic, have Vics, but this is Vic de la Seu d’Urgell and that’s Vic d’Osona and because Vic got big and commercial and Seu d’Urgell mainly stayed a bishop’s fortress town Vic has basically got to own the name in Catalonia and no-one uses the full form anymore.

c I love the trouble the scribe took to keep the Ermengols distinct. Given that it is finally comprehensible in a way that many such documents are not I will happily forgive him making it nearly the opposite in achieving that.

d Sunifred was Vicar of Lluçà, which was at the time one of the richest frontier castles there was in Osona. Bernat had married down but well, and Guisla was a tough customer also.

1. The text is printed in Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 276.

2. On these documents and other Latin precursors you should see Adam Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

3. Baraut, “Els documents, dels anys 1010-1035, de l’Arxiu Capitular de le Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 4 (1981), pp. 7-178, docs no. 486 & 487.

4. For more on him see Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: sanctity and power in the medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16.

5. Uncle and nephew appear together at the union of the monastery of Sant Pere del Burgal with the reforming house of Notre Dame de la Grasse in 1007 (and if you need a better proof of how what a later age saw as Church corruption was fine with the first wave of reformers if it got the job done, I don’t know where you’d find it). The document is edited in E. Magnou-Nortier & A.-M. Magnou (edd.), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse tome I: 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), as doc. no. 91.

6. References gathered, if that sort of thing interests you, in Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London forthcoming), p. 00 n. 40.

Seminary XVII: tolls and trade and bad mathematics

Going back through old entries to find stuff, I realise that somehow I missed Seminary X. No idea how, but it’s a bit late now. In case I’ve been causing confusion, by the way, the idea was to coin an adjective that would mean `of or pertaining to a seminar’, and I thought the ambiguity would be fun. But so far it doesn’t seem to be bringing me any misdirected search hits, whereas « medieval sex » is still bringing people here with unfortunate frequency.1 But, shockingly, this isn’t what I was aiming to write about.

As well as missing virtual seminars, I have also been missing real ones I’m afraid, through a variety of causes involving some any or all of disinterest in penitentials, acute pressures of writing, clocks whose hands I set forward whilst fumbling to switch off the alarm, and general wastrel languor. But, to make up for it, the Department has been bringing seminars to me, in the form of a sudden and shortlived revival of our departmental seminar series. This was orchestrated by the tireless efforts of Rory Naismith, who arranged that on the 1st of February Neil Middleton, fresh from his appearance in Early Medieval Europe,2 could come to speak to the Department and various visitors about “Early Medieval Tolls and the Coinages of North-West Europe”.

A silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, c. 793

Mr Middleton’s basic thesis, and one that he’d very much brought for our scrutiny as numismatists, was that when early medieval monarchs changed tax levels by altering the amount that was taken at ports and other toll stations on goods that were being transported or sold, they did not do so simply by changing the amount that they charged, because the proportion that was permitted in each place often seems to have been ancient, traditional and invariant over many centuries. Proving that, by means of very lengthy excursuses on equivalencies of weights, was where most of the paper’s time went, but the interesting bit was the alternative, that instead, when times were bad and kings like Charlemagne or Alfred urgently needed to drum up more revenue, they did so by tinkering with weight standards. They made bigger coins, or more subtly, changed the basis of the weight to which the coins were made to a heavier one, so that for the same number of pennies or deniers levied more actual bullion came their way. It sounds vastly complicated, but really it’s easier, because you can control the coinage because you make it, or have it made, in a few places well controlled, but you may well not be able to alter market regulations across the empire or collect new tolls in places where your writ doesn’t really run. And indeed, Mr Middleton admitted to examples of places where old weight standards and coin seem to remain in circulation, and I was fine with that because Catalonia is one of them, though he didn’t know that necessarily.3

The problem is the maths. I don’t believe in the mathematics of medieval metrology. There is is no good basis for working out a weight standard except when a vast amount of evidence all points in broadly the same direction. Then, maybe, you can say that these things were made to the same standard, but it’s still only a guess. Coins come to us worn; we never know how much weight they’ve lost. Even fine ones are not going to be their mint weight, and while ancient Greek coins are usually within 0.5 g of a mean weight, medieval ones do not match up so well. And these things, because they had to contain a certain accepted amount of precious metal, are one of our best sources for medieval weight standards. Cereal grains are usually reckoned as the actual medieval basis of weight standards, and long theories have been constructed around whether this kingdom or that is reckoning weights starting from a wheat-grain or a barleycorn. Mr Middleton’s handout helpfully suggests that an average equivalence for wheat to barley is 4:3, and his figures go to three decimal places. Well, just try it. You won’t find a match to three decimal places, I know that much. He explained disparities as being down to improved breeds of the crops. Well, whatever, they just don’t grow to the same weight, sorry. And then, starting with these three-decimal place figures, he multiplies up to get a pound, which involves multiplying whatever error is involved in the base weight by a factor of 5,000. And then—surprise—it doesn’t quite make what we believe to be a Roman pound, so he rounds up, because those medievals, their weighing was a bit vague anyway, right? Only they made the evidence that he’s using, and he’s using it to prove that they were a bit slapdash because it doesn’t add up to this standard that he is arguing, from the way he’s managed to add things up so that they nearly match, they were using, based on evidence he is arguing is flawed! And furthermore he then used slight differences to argue (and he’s not the first here by a long way) for a notional pound of account that differed from the actual pound weight. And he posited a “heaping-up allowance”, i. e. the difference between a level measure and a heaped one, and shockingly, the figure he posited matched the difference he’d posited between the account and weight pounds, which obviously proves that they were using them as he said. Well, er, no. It proves he’s made up figures that fit his own sums. If there had been cake, which unusually for our seminars there wasn’t, he would clearly have been both having and eating it. There can be no foundation for conclusions based on this kind of maths.

The which is really bothersome, because what he was basically arguing makes a very great deal of sense and is a big contribution to our grasp on how kings like Charlemagne or Alfred would have tried to alter the workings of their states’ economies, and I’d really like to be able to believe that it was acceptable, and that the fine details and the dodgy maths involved beneath them don’t affect it. And they may not, but we were so drowned in worthless figures that their actual connection to the argument is hard to work out and surgically remove. So I will wind up citing this stuff, possibly, because I believe it very plausible that things could have worked this way, but I still don’t think that any of this stuff goes any distance towards proving it.

1. On the other hand, the fact that some people are getting my rant about gender theory’s divorce from the real physical passions when they were after porn amuses me, especially since they apparently still decide to click that link in the search engine despite a non-pornographic preview clip. Why? Ah well. The best ones are indubitably the misspelt ones. Chief in this regard, and unlikely ever to be surpassed, is the unfortunate person who was brought to this humble weblog searching for « historic annal sex ». Yeah, you didn’t get what you were after did you. Never mind hey? Now you know a new word for a chronicle with year-by-year records! I’m here to help!

2. N. Middleton, “Early medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 13 (Oxford 2005), pp. 313-358.

3. Mints in Catalonia made Frankish deniers like everywhere else in West Francia until 864, when King Charles the Bald reformed his coinage in the Edict of Pîtres. The Catalan stuff however continued exactly the same after the reform as before, even though the local counts were still occasionally coming to court. It’s not a deal-breaker. I expect that, being that far away, Charles was happy to have people there using money with his name on still. In 877 he gave an embassy from Barcelona ten pounds of silver to fix Barcelona cathedral roof with; they turned up, led by a Barcelona Jew called Judas, no less, just as a rebellion was breaking out and it must really have helped him to have strange ambassadors from far-off lands turning up at court and calling him king. On the coinage you can see A. M. Balaguer, Historia de la moneda en les comtats catalans (Barcelona 1999), pp. 64-67, though you’ll probably have to come here to get hold of a copy; on the counts and their loyalty, I recommend Roger Collins’s article “Charles the Bald and Wifred the Hairy” in M. T. Gibson & J. L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: court and kingdom. Papers based on a Colloquium held in London in April 1979, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) Vol. 101 (Oxford 1981), pp. 169-188, repr. in Gibson & Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: court and kingdom (Aldershot 1990), pp. 170-189; and the 877 embassy is known from a capitulary which is best edited as R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Institut d’Estudis Catalans: Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica 2-3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), pt. II, ap. VII. So there.