Tag Archives: Michael McCormick

Volcanoes probably don’t explain everything

I have mirrored on my various computers a huge directory called ‘toread’, in which get stuffed willy-nilly the various PDFs of academic writing that I come across while out and about the net, and every now and then I make a short-lived assault on it. At the time of writing this had just brought me into contact with an unusual article from Speculum of 2007, in which notable medievalists Michael McCormick and Paul Edward Dutton team up with a climate scientist by the name of Paul Mayewski and ask, more or less, can we achieve anything like precision in assessing how the weather and changes in it affected the societies of the early Middle Ages?1 And this is a thing I care about, sort of, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I read this with a sharp eye and have an opinion about it.

The Icelandic volcano system of Eldgjá

The Icelandic volcano [Edit: system] of Eldgjá, blamed here for an eruption c. 939 on the basis of tephra analysis. “Eldgja” by Andreas TilleOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly it needs to be stressed that this is not an article about climate change, per se, though there is a certain amount of that in it as background. Cautious work I’ve seen on climate change has stressed that while it deals in overall trends of up or down a degree or two, the actual experience of this would have been far less comprehensible because of a huge range of local and chronological variation. If, for example, the winter temperatures where you are range from -18° Celsius to 13° Celsius over ten years, when a century earlier it had been -13 to 18, then yes, the median drop is already pretty severe but perceiving the actual pattern in any of those ten-year slots is going to have been pretty difficult given that maybe one January all the rivers froze and then maybe four years later your vines grew a second harvest because it was so sunny.2 And this article is interested in that short-range variation, the experience of individual years.

Ice core SO4+ and Cl- time series covering the period A. D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950

“Ice core SO44+ and Cl time series covering the period A.D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950″, they say on p. 877

The way they take this on is relatively simple, though it must have required a lot of work: McCormick and Dutton, both of whom have pedigree in this kind of question, separately compiled lists from documents of especially extreme winters in the years 750-1000, while Mayewski pulled a huge dataset from a Greenland ice core extracted in the 1980s and went through it looking for spikes in the deposition of chemicals associated with volcanic eruptions, whose aerosol effects in blocking out sunlight and lowering temparatures the authors work hard to show are widely accepted in meteorology.3 Then they compared their findings, chucked out anything that wasn’t certain and still had nine episodes where the dates for bad winters in the documents married up closely with dates for volcanic deposits.

For me, a historian, the best parts of this article are the documentary extracts that make it clear what kind of consequences such weather could have and just how bad it could be. For example, read this, their summary of two probably-related chronicles from Constantinople about the winter of 763 to 764:4

“Some 2,000 kilometers to the southeast, a well-informed observer at Constantinople recorded that great and extremely bitter cold settled on the Byzantine Empire and the lands to the north, west… and east. The north coast of the Black Sea froze solid 100 Byzantine miles out from shore (157.4 km). The ice was reported to be 30 Byzantine ‘cubits’ deep, and people and animals could walk on it as on dry land. Drawing on the same lost written source, another contemporary, the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, emphasized that it particularly affected the ‘hyperborean and northerly regions,’ as well as the many great rivers that lay north of the Black Sea. Twenty cubits of snow accumulated on top of the ice, making it very difficult to discern where land stopped and sea began, and the Black Sea became unnavigable. In February the ice began to break up and flow into the Bosporus, entirely blocking it. Theophanes’ account recalls how, as a child, the author (or his source’s author) went out on the ice with thirty other children and played on it and that some of his pets and other animals died. It was possible to walk all over the Bosporus around Constantinople and even cross to Asia on the ice. One huge iceberg crushed the wharf at the Acropolis, close to the tip of Constantinople’s peninsula, and another extremely large one hit the city wall, shaking it and the houses on the other side, before breaking into three large pieces; it was higher than the city walls. The terrified Constantinopolitans wondered what it could possibly portend.”

As well they might! And of course, all this matters a very great deal in a society where the principal source of wealth and indeed subsistence is agriculture. Firewood can’t be gathered, new crops can’t be planted or are blighted by the temperature, animals die, wine freezes in barrels and is ruined, famine is grimly sure to follow.5 There certainly should have been big consequences of this kind of climatic variation.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style ‘miles christi’, by Hraban Maur, not visibly taking any responsibility for the climate. “Ludwik I Pobożny“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The first problem, though, is that it’s very hard to determine these consequences in any consistent way. The article opens with the suggestion that the harsh winter of 763 caused King Pippin III of the Franks to suspend his campaign against Aquitaine; it very nearly closes by suggesting that the run of bad winters and harvests from 821 to 824 helped plunge the Frankish Empire into war. So hang on: are wars more or less likely when the winter’s bad? Presumably it depends on other factors. And so on. The one thing that seems pretty certain is that people would have read the bad weather as divine punishment for someone’s misdeeds, but recent work on Louis the Pious makes it more than clear that that could be seized on and used to political advantage; we just can’t agree on whose advantage it was to…6

Causation is one of the problems I have with this article, and in fact I sense that the authors did too. There are a lot of ideas put forth then qualified in the concluding section, as if one or other author was happier to hypothesize than their counterparts. They note that the Roman Empire suffered very few of these events till its closing centuries, but then immediately say, “few would maintain that volcanically caused climate anomalies determined the course of empires and civilization”. Much larger jumps out and back are visible here:7

“A child born in 765 could die at the ripe old age of fifty-five without having lived through such a winter. One born in 820 would experience five such crises in the same span. Charlemagne was more than vigorous and smart: he was, with respect to volcanic aerosols and rapid climate change, a very lucky ruler.  Not so his son Louis the Pious, who, perhaps not entirely  coincidentally, in August 822, after the terrible winter of 821–22, ostentatiously expiated before his assembled magnates his and his father’s sins. Unfortunately, his act of public  penance would have little effect on the volcanic aerosol that produced yet another terrible winter, famine, and disruption but a year later. The reigns of his sons Louis the German and Charles the Bald would suffer from three such bad climate years each; in between two of them, Louis invaded Charles’s kingdom.”

If I’d submitted that to a journal like this I’d almost have expected it to come back stamped with “CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION” and indeed, if this had gone to a science journal I feel sure this would have been redacted. “Perhaps not entirely coincidentally”? Come on… This doesn’t diminish the factuality of their observations, but it certainly does need to be carefully considered just what this data explains.

The paragraph quoted also exposes another problem with the method adopted. In terms of volcanic aerosols, yes, Charlemagne may have been lucky, but the ruler who lived through the famines of 792-793 and 806 might have been surprised to be told so.8 If volcanoes caused bad weather, they certainly didn’t cause all of it, nor even perhaps the worst of it. This is something the authors of this article willingly admit, not least because their proxy for volcanic activity is located to the west of the most likely volcanoes, in Iceland, and the area they’re studying is to the east, though the Gulf Stream makes that much less of an objection than it sounds.9 Nonetheless, when the recent ash-cloud closed the Atlantic to air travel, I personally didn’t notice any shortfall in local autumn apples in the UK, did you? And so on.

Map of volcanically-linked climate anomalies of the Frankish period with dates

Map of relevant events with dates from their p. 875

When one looks more closely at the chronology, in fact, this gets rather odder. There are acknowledged problems with the chronology here; the texts, though subjective, are at least reasonably chronologically precise, and it’s useful to see it all together, because it means that even when things with chronology as shaky as the Irish Annals are being deployed, they’re being correlated with unconnected texts that give one some confidence in the dates. Not so the ice-core, unfortunately; that was sampled every two and a half years and the possible error of each sample is somewhere between one and six years.10 When one notices, then, that the volcanic deposition evidence that correlates with the 763-4 ‘event’ came from the slice for 767, obviously that possible error is important; either the sample’s dating must be emended, or the bad weather was well in force before the volcano did its stuff. The authors seem too comfortable about this for my liking and I agree with them very much that it would be nice to get a new core with the more precise dating that is now possible.11 That would also refine cases like bad winters in 855-856 and 859-860 which correlate with deposition spikes in 854, 856 and 858. It does fit quite nicely but whether or not, as the authors prefer, this was one long volcanic event, the fact that it apparently got better in the middle again monkeys with any simple causation from volcanic eruption to economic and climatic distress. I do think this article shows that something was going on here that deserves to be considered, and I am myself still very much of the persuasion that such factors do need to be considered as explanations for social change, but despite the extra precision attempted here I still don’t think we have anything as simple as A causes B causes C here, and I don’t honestly see how we get it, however much the technology may improve.

1. Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton & Paul A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950” in Speculum Vol. 84 (Cambridge MA 2007), pp. 865-895.

2. There’s lots of examples of freezing rivers (and occasionally seas!) in the article; the second harvest of grapes is something that repeatedly comes up in Gregory of Tours’s Histories, though it’s never good: see Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints), VII.11 or IX.5.

3. McCormick’s and Dutton’s work on such matters is in fact encapsulated in the same volume, in the forms of M. McCormick, “Molecular Middle ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century” and Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, both in Jennifer R. Davis & McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 83-97 & 167-180 respectively. On the methodology, see McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, pp. 867-878 and esp. 876-878.

4. Ibid. pp. 880-881, citing “The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, A.D. 284–813, trans. Cyril A. Mango, Roger Scott, and Geoffrey Greatrex (Oxford, 1997), pp. 600–601″ and “Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, Short History 74, ed. and trans. Cyril Mango, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 13 (Washington, D.C., 1990), pp. 144–49, here pp. 144, lines 1–16, and 147″, along with full edition refs for Theophanes and some discussion of the connection between the sources.

5. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, and their refs at e. g. pp. 879 (blight), 882 (impossibility of planting), 883 (death of beasts), 885 (more blight and death of beasts, also freezing wine).

6. Ibid. p. 867 (“that surely explains the suspension of the major effort by the king to conquer Aquitaine the following summer”) cf. p. 892, quoted below; on debate over Louis the Pious see Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977) or François-Louis Ganshof, “Louis the Pious reconsidered” in his The Carolingian Empire and the Frankish Monarchy (London 1971), pp. 261-272, versus the various studies in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on Louis the Pious (London 1990), especially Stuart Airlie’s and Janet Nelson’s.

7. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 892.

8. Adriaan Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge 2002), pp. 123-124.

9. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 869:

“Those same complexities mean that not every volcanic deposit in Greenland will translate directly into climate impact on the European continent, for instance, if an eruption occurred on Iceland at a moment when atypical atmospheric circulation conditions carried the aerosol westward toward Greenland.”

10. Ibid. pp. 869-870, inc. p. 869, authors’ emphasis:

“The maximum possible absolute dating error for our period in this core is approximately six years. However, within any section of the core, say 100–200 years, the relative internal error is much less, since absolute error accumulates with depth. The closer the annual layer is to a securely identified volcanic event, the more likely the error is zero.”

11. Expressed ibid. p. 891. I discovered after first drafting this a newer paper by one of the same authors and a bunch of others, Francis Ludlow, Alexander R. Stine, Paul Leahy, Enda Murphy, Paul A. Mayewski, David Taylor, James Killen, Michael G. L. Baillie, Mark Hennessy and Gerard Kiely, “Medieval Irish chronicles reveal persistent volcanic forcing of severe winter cold events, 431–1649 CE”, in Environment Research Letters Vol. 8 (Bristol 2013), pp. 24-35, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024035, which takes the same essential data over a longer range, using however only the Irish Annals, excluding ‘unreliable’ events but not engaging at all with the difficulties of their year-by-year chronologies, and winds up essentially using those to add precision to dating of events from the same Greenland ice-core sample. I haven’t read this in detail, nor have I read much of the recent work by McCarthy on the Annals that they cite, but their approach to the texts makes me wince pre-emptively even so. Anyway, the article is Open access and can be found here, and it is picked up by the BBC here, bless them linking to the actual article unlike some, whence it was reported by via David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe where I read it, and to whom therefore a tip of the hat!


I should have read this the moment I bought it, part V

The section of Davis & McCormick’s Long Morning of Medieval Europe that deals with religion is rather shorter than that dealing with the economy, which matches my interests I suppose. I only thought of this as incongruous when I read the two papers that are its main components, bracketed by another McCormick introduction and a short response by Thomas Head. Both of these papers are somewhat totalising and made me wonder, idly, which of economy (in the original sense of household welfare as much as the macro-scale one of trade and money) and religion was on the mind of the Platonically-average medieval man or woman more. This is somewhere our preconceptions don’t let us voyage, I think. Certainly mine won’t let my historian passport into the time-travel chamber. So anyway, enough with the laboured metaphor.

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king

The first paper is about hagiographical texts, then being analysed on a massive database scale by Michel Trigalet as a doctoral project under the supervision of Guy Philippart who wrote this article ‘with’ Trigalet.1 (I hate this convention of the humanities, writings credits ‘with’ or ‘assisted by’. We all know what this means, right? It means that the junior party did the grunt-work but the main name has supplied the erudition and interpretation. In the sciences that would be co-authorship with no distinction except order of precedence in the list of authors. Why can’t we be big enough to allow that to struggling juniors?2) Some parts of the database, meanwhile, are online here (which is even the same URL as they give in the article) so you can examine it yourself if you like. I don’t know if it’s possible to do much serious work with the online version, because one wants to be able to set queries rather than just get lists of contents, but even as a list of the hagiography that exists (though as Head says in his response, they could have included even more by not sticking to the Bollandist definitions of sainthood; I suspect that decision was made for operational reasons such as Trigalet ever getting his doctorate, rather than by neglect as Head seems to believe…3) it’s quite something. I’ve added it to the increasingly-jumbled sidebar.

Two good points they make, one that is basically theoretical (in the sense of thought-rather-than-proven) and goes back to the question of the representation of survival that I was quoting about here only a short while ago. Here’s another good quote, applicable to their sample rather than mine:

The concept of “texts at high risk”, that is,texts which did not circulate widely, proves helpful. The fewer copies of a text once existed [sic], the higher the risk that the text would disappear. “Best sellers” had the highest survival rate. Many works in our databank are attested today by only one or even no surviving manuscript. Sometimes the whole set of texts dedicated to a particular saint (what hagiographers call the saint’s “dossier”) was at high risk. Most hagiographical works were intended for and circulated exclusively in local communities that were not pilgrimage shrines; pilgrimage fostered the “export” of texts. This means that text loss is not random: it affects first and foremost “local” works.4

And they go on to demonstrate that a great proportion of the saints’ lives that exist from North Italy are of saints whose shrines are along the pilgrim routes. (They also have a good anecdote from Prudentius showing how these tales could travel from shrines.) They also show that Italy gets writing this stuff first, in the fourth century, the Germanic-speaking lands last and Gaul and Spain both really only start generating hagiography (that survives) in between in the seventh century. And they show that whereas in Italy the majority of the hagiography is martyr narratives that don’t necessarily connect to any larger power structure, in Gaul the majority are definitely saintly and senatorial bishops, though I wonder how much of that is down to Gregory of Tours’s selection at work.5 So you can see that there is stuff that can be done with data collections this large no matter what Head’s reservations about the rôles played by living holy men in local piety and the fact that the database, as he had seen it at least (and the online version doesn’t allow me to check) there was no discrimination by gender, which seems like a pretty powerful analytical category missing.6

Byantine icon showing offering at an altar, date unknown

Byantine icon showing offering at an altar, date unknown

Less innovative is the other paper, in which Arnold Angenendt attempts to redirect study of medieval donations in a liturgical direction.7 His idea that what is involved is a gift exchange as per Marcel Mauss, in which, as well as the practical function of maintenance of a priest to say the prayers that one wants said, the gift of money or property (he has lots of (early) examples of gifts of money for prayers, which is very interesting) is something for which the priest has to make the sacrifice of your prayers or penance contrasts nicely to Barbara Rosenwein‘s argument that it’s a big attempt to repay Christ for his original sacrifice. I also think there’s some power in his drawing the origins of the practice back to penance, though I wonder if we really think that penance originates with the Irish. (I haven’t read all I should have on this.) However, it would work better if he had referenced either Mauss or Rosenwein. Head correctly points this out, and accuses both papers of lacking awareness of English-language work. This is OK with Philippart’s because his data is new, but with Angenendt’s basically interpretative work it really is a problem that English-language work has reached several of his points and moved beyond them now: as Head says, the anthropologist of resort on this practice is not now Mauss but Weiner, and we’re looking at the practice of giving to a church less as gift exchange and more as negotiation of a special relationship with its access to the sacred.8 I myself also wonder whether we don’t just complicate this too much. What the charters say is that the donors are afraid of Hell, and that they “have heard the warnings of the Holy Fathers that alms may save the soul from death”.9 I don’t see why we can’t take that literally, even if there is then a developed practice by which you sometimes remind people, or indeed the saint (and his or her representatives) that you or some ancestor have given, either by regiving or by contesting and conceding the goods as per Rosenwein. So Angenendt’s paper is a bit of pity but with Head’s critique and references to shore it up still useful.

This was supposed to be a short post. I ought to know better by now.

1. Guy Philippart with Michel Trigalet, “Latin Hagiography before the Ninth Century: A Synoptic View” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 111-129.

2. Mind, I may just be bitter because I recently learnt that two papers on which I was expecting to be named as co-author have been junked by the other author, who now wants to write something else. And furthermore I can’t do anything with the work I did for them, which was extensive and well beyond what I was paid for, because it clashes with their own publication and I need their goodwill. If that sounds OK to you, do ignore my rant.

3. Thomas Head, “The Early Medieval Transformation of Piety”, ibid. pp. 155-160 at p. 157.

4. Philippart with Trigalet, “Latin Hagiography”, p. 114.

5. Ibid., pp. 122-123, 121, 117 & 118-119 respectively.

6. Head, “Early Medieval Transformation”, pp. 157-158.

7. A. Angenendt, “Donationes pro anima: Gift and Countergift in the Early Medieval Liturgy” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, 131-154.

8. Head, “Early Medieval Transformations”, pp. 158-160, referring to: Marcel Mauss, The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, transl. Wilfrid D. Halls (New York City 1990); Barbara Rosenwein, To Be The Neighbor of Saint Peter: the social meaning of Cluny’s property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989); & Annette Weiner, Inalienable Possessions: the paradox of keeping-while-giving (Berkeley 1992).

9. E. g. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 643: “Magnum nobis et satis licitum esse videtur domum Dei edificare et de nostris rebus honorare atque concedere, audientes precepta sanctorum patrum quia elemosina a morte liberat anima…”

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


This series is getting bogged down in other things now, so I’ll try and cut it down to the basics. Michael McCormick‘s own contribution to his and Jennifer Davis’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe is a short and excited (also exciting, but definitely the former first) paper about science! in history, as per the rather more ‘popular’ magazine article I blogged about a little while ago.1 It covers pretty much every field in which the sciences are opening up new vistas for history at the moment, database analysis of texts in bulk, survey archæology, skeletal analysis and osteoarchæology including stable isotope research into diet, palæobotany, DNA profiling not just of human remains but of plants and animals too and even bacteria (principally plague bacilli), and of course DNA comparison of modern populations. This is covered in such breathless form that it reads like a Gish Gallop, and one would feel sceptical about all of it were it not for the dense footnotes. Even here, though, where we are aware of the work we can tell that while some of this is the good stuff, some of it is decidedly sketchy.

The problem with several of these methods is that although as with archæology they give hard data, there are still crucial steps of subjective interpretation before one gets conclusions. So, for example, it is easy to confuse DNA work like the Cohen gene study where a highly unusual chromosomal form was being tracked through a population and contrasted to everything else with things like Blood of the Vikings where what is going on is comparison of frequency of a chromosomal pattern with a known range of other patterns.2 The fact that a goodly number of the population of the Wirral have a chromosomal form that is best matched with one most common in northern Norway is significant, as in, they tested it and found a statistically significant correlation, but it doesn’t do to forget that other good matches were found in Spain, South America and India, albeit not at a significant level.3 And McCormick’s paper deals in its closing pages with an argument between two DNA labs who dispute each others’ findings about the Black Death bacillus, and the only answer is to have a third lab (his at Harvard, by coincidence) to do the tests again on new material.4 So we mustn’t be too easily seduced by this stuff; it’s fascinating new evidence but we still need to understand it to be sure it’s being used well, and for that purpose McCormick’s footnotes are also salted with introductory material that I will probably find useful myself. However, in his text there isn’t a very clear distinction between stuff that we know works, like stable isotope analysis (as long as you remember that that, too, is comparison of patterns not a direct circumstantial link), and things like mutation analysis of scribal errors, discussed and more or less dismissed here a while ago. I think McCormick knows this stuff; but the reader may not necessarily get it from him.

Medieval parchment-maker at work depicted on the final product, Ci nous dit (Musée Condé 26, fol. 69v), 14th century

Medieval parchment-maker at work depicted on the final product, Ci nous dit (Musée Condé 26, fol. 69v), 14th century

I note also with some grim familiarity that there is mention of work here to sequence DNA from the animals used to make medieval parchment. You may remember I blogged about that here a while ago when a project at John Hopkins University put a press release out, and Professor Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak spoke up to point out that he was already part of such a project. I’m afraid McCormick names neither project but knew of three others.5 I hope one of you manages to come up with something, but, to judge from the yersinia pestis débacle, even if they do the others can just dispute the findings…

The other thing that seems worth mentioning is that a quite incredible proportion of McCormick’s cites come from one journal, American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Seriously, there appears to have been almost one study of an Anglo-Saxon burial site in it for pretty much each of the last five years or more, and it’s not always the same site. That’s not the limit of their early medieval European coverage either. Why aren’t European journals carrying this stuff? How did this one get such an interest in it? Either way, it looks as if Professor McCormick subscribes, and well, if you want to keep up with such stuff it would seem to be a good way to go…

1. Michael McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages: Early Medieval Economic History in the Twenty-First Century” in Jennifer Davis & idem (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Medieval Studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 83-97; Jonathan Shaw, “Who Killed the Men of England? The written record of history meets genomics, evolution, demography, and molecular archaeology” in Harvard Magazine (July-August 2009), pp. 30-35 & 75, online here.

2. I should note that even since I first drafted this post, the Cohen gene story has been complicated by a new analysis of the evidence pointing to several independent male lines contributing to the still-almost-unique genetic ‘signature’ that they pointed out: I learn this from a post at Michelle Moran’s History Buff that links to this Science Daily article reporting on Michael F. Hammer, Doron M. Behar, Tatiana M. Karafet, Fernando L. Mendez, Brian Hallmark, Tamar Erez, Lev A. Zhivotovsky, Saharon Rosset & Karl Skorecki, “Extended Y chromosome haplotypes resolve multiple and unique lineages of the Jewish priesthood” in Human Genetics Vol. 126 (London forthcoming), already online via DOI:10.1007/s00439-009-0727-5.

3. Steve Harding, “The Wirral and West Lancashire Viking DNA Project”, paper presented before the Midlands Viking Symposium, University of Nottingham, 9th April 2005; further publications linked here.

4. McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages”, p. 95, citing (n. 45) Michel Drancourt & Didier Raoult, “Molecular Insights into the History of Plague” in Microbes and Infections Vol. 4 (2002), pp. 105-109 and (n. 46) M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Ian Barnes, Matthew J. Collins et al., “Absence of Yersinia pestis-specific DNA in Human Teeth from Five European Excavations of Putative Plague Victims” in Microbiology Vol. 150 (Reading 2004), pp. 341-354; Drancourt & Raoult, “Molecular Detection of Yersinia pestis in Dental Pulp” ibid. pp. 263-264; & Gilbert et al., “Reponse to Drancourt & Raoult”, ibid pp. 264-265.

5. McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages”, pp. 89-90 citing (p. 90 n. 26) pers. comm. from Professor Christopher Howe, already implicated with the dodgy mutation palæography project from the same lab, and (n. 27) N. Poulakakis, A. Tselikas, I. Birsakis et al., “Ancient DNA and the Genetic Signature of Ancient Greek Manuscripts” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 34 (2007), pp. 675-680 and (n. 28) Odile Loreille, Susanne Hummel & Bernd Herrmann, “Multiplex in ancient DNA Studies: Application to Ancient Parchment Analysis” in Ancient Biomolecules Vol. 3 (2001), pp. 298-299.

I should have read this the minute I bought it, part I

Cover of Davis & McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe

Cover of Davis & McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe

Yes, I know I was writing about something else but this is important. If you’re working on the early Middle Ages, especially the Continental early Middle Ages, you need to get hold of a copy of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe.1 I got it mainly because I was citing something in that my erstwhile supervisor had written from a pre-print and needed up-to-date page numbers (and also knew that that was good, and that the other stuff in it looked interesting). But only this last week have I got round to actually reading the rest. I’m a fool. While it acknowledgedly doesn’t cover the whole field, and the editors say that they don’t think this could be done by a single volume, they have nonetheless done their utmost to provide a genuine state-of-the-field discourse for each of the themes they do cover.2 So, for example, the section on the economy has an intro by McCormick, then twelve absolutely crystal pages by Chris Wickham (who, as that link shows, has finally let himself be pictured on the Internet) explaining how he now sees the European economic system of the early Middle Ages having written his Framing the Early Middle Ages, then Joachim Henning explaining economy at the village level, and so on, and after reading all the essays you’d be set not just to answer an essay question but possibly to teach one. And it’s all sharp and up to date and written by some of the top experts in the field and it reads a lot like a quick way to get up to date on a lot of important thinking.

So I should have read it immediately, but I didn’t realise. As a consequence I’ve sounded off about Michael McCormick’s particular bee in the science-in-history bonnet here on the basis of a magazine article when there’s an actual scholarly discussion of it by him here.3 And someone has mailed me for help with the early medieval economy asking the very pertinent question, ‘if all these big estates are generating so much stuff for market, who’s buying it?’ to which I made some suggestions about poor relief and the correspondent wisely said something about feeding armies. Well, Chris asks the same question a few pages in and gives an answer to it, although characteristically he blames aristocrats: “I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognise their importance.”4 The argument is that by having the buying power to drive networks over which long-distance luxury trade could operate, and by needing to buy in bulk for followers and households, the big nobility caused the construction of complex exchange systems for those luxuries that other lower-level, bigger bulk forms of exchange could also use. Where the aristocrats were poor, exchange was short-range; where they were rich, all kinds of things travelled a long way. The chronologies of decline and recovery should be seen, firstly as plural and regional (and powered by politics), and secondly as actually being chronologies of simplification and recovery of complexity. We may not all agree (I still blame the weather, but then there’s a paper in here about that too) but he’s asking the crucial question about demand, whereas we have usually before only tried to answer ones about supply and distribution.

Now one can argue with details. I think for example that my correspondent’s suggestion about military provisioning and indeed mine about poor relief need to be in the demand picture as well. I think that saying that what the limited evidence for long-distance exchange of salt mainly tells us is that there was nothing more interesting being traded and moving on is, well, shying at a fence that needs jumping; there’s almost no work on this. And one can wonder whether Chris’s Marxism leads him to discount peasant initiative too early (because, dammit, workers controlling their fates comes later in the dialectic!) given pioneers, migrant labourers, and the special problem of the artisan class, who may have been few but occupy an ambiguous place with regard to the means of production in this period, and perhaps in any. OK, adding value through work to raw materials is something any factory hand does, but is manufacture of luxuries for an élite really a working class activity? Smiths are important men. What class is a swordsmith? Moneyers are important too, though there is argument over how important; but then they don’t actually hammer the coins out themselves. And so on. But basically, arguing these points is how to progress from here; I’m talking refinements, not revisionism. So do yourself a favour and keep up with the top-flight by having a look at this here, I reckon. Meanwhile, it will be blogged

1. Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008).

2. Eidem, “Introduction. The Early Middle Ages: Europe’s long morning”, ibid. pp. 1-10 at p. 7: “Echoing slow transformation and abrupt change, the studies in this book include close readings of particular moments such as Charlemagne’s empire or King Wamba’s triumph, as well as analyses of gradual shifts underlying economic systems or the perception of weather. Such a dynamic field of investigation defies the compass of a single volume.”

3. Michael McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century”, ibid. pp. 83-98.

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy”, ibid. pp. 18-31 at pp. 20-24, quote from p. 30.

Now *this* is interdisciplinary (a testimonial)

Let me set out a soapbox and make a case. It’s not one that I necessarily hold to all of but it stands up by itself when it’s made like this. One of the dangerous things about being genuinely interdisciplinary is that it means not just raiding other disciplines for ideas and running back to Clio’s Citadel to use them, but letting people from other disciplines inside your own to critique your methods and affectations and, in extreme cases, rearrange all your preconceptions in ways that feel inappropriate. In these terms, genuine interdisciplinarity is not just a challenge to one’s own thinking, which of course it should be, but a threat to the discipline. If anthropologists, archæologists, geneticists, mathematicians, ‘social physicists‘ and scientists in general start doing history, and they (as some are) are willing to learn enough history to make it count, purely text-based history stands to lose some of its legitimacy and identity. That said, as I was recently hearing argued at Leeds, it’s hard to know what we might call this endeavour of scientific elucidation of the past except, well, history, but the point is one of the people we train not being the people who can really do ground-breaking research but only those who guide people who actually understand the methods in use, while seeing their paradigms tested and discarded. This makes people defensive.

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon girl excavated and reburied at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, 2008

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon girl excavated and reburied at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, 2008

I first noticed this with the reaction to Heinrich Härke’s work on skeletons and the settlement of Anglo-Saxon England. He detected two different builds of skeleton in several sites on which he’d worked, and argued that they could be identified as ‘British’ and ‘Germanic’.1 There were all kinds of reasons to mistrust that analysis when it was made: the biggest and most obvious one was that the discipline had spent a decade or so emphasising that ethnogenesis made concepts of ethnicity and race fluid and basically unfounded in biological reality, and then here came this archæologist who apparently hadn’t got the memo and was stressing just those realities. (I suspect it’s also possible that people were slightly uncomfortable with a German scholar laying heavy emphasis on race, which sounds old-fashioned in a range of ways not all of which have been harmless. I doubt an English scholar would have provoked the same reaction as Härke did. And no, I don’t think that’s how it should be.) But although his interpretation can be questioned in lots of ways, the data were real: he had two different sorts of skeleton to explain. Now, of course, we would try and carry out isotope analysis of the bodies’ teeth to see where they had actually lived in their lives, but that’s not exactly history rescuing itself; that’s either history using science, or else it’s science colonising history. And the same sort of battle is ongoing with the increasing rôle of DNA analysis, confused by the fact that very few people understand exactly what studies like Blood of the Vikings actually showed, and these people very rarely include journalists; I have a sketchy idea but only because I like talking to scientists and Steve Harding at Nottingham is very happy to talk to people.

You see what I mean. Texts are safe, because we can never finally resolve them but we can be expert in them all the same. But the empirical demands of history, when it’s allowed to assert them by its practitioners, draw us to empirical evidence, and the ways to derive empirical evidence from archæogical remains, and indeed buildings, objects and yes, texts, or at least, writing, from non-archæogical contexts, are growing. But they’re complicated, and they’re going to involve laboratories. There is coming a point when those who want to identify as historians are either going to have study a lot of science, or back out and work only on literature. Now I know that some readers quarrel with my distinction between reading as literature and reading as historical source, but let them click the link I’m lengthily touting before they make answer. This is it: here is one historian, Michael McCormick at Harvard no less, who has already decided where he stands, and it’s with the scientists. And as a result all that ethnogenesis work and elaborate explanations of the Celtic assimilation into English society are looking rather bare: but because actual historians were involved, and deeply, and the team seems to like the exchange of ideas, what we are getting is not a return to the old paradigm of fire and slaughter or even mass enslavement of Britons by Saxons but a new idea that there must have been some very distinct preferential marriage practices of which we previously had no idea. Yes, they are proving things about marriage practice in the early Middle Ages using science. We can work with this, if we actually want to discover what happened that is. Or we can complicate it and resist it. So, brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution! Are you ready to testify?

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)

1. Härke’s work e. g. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior Graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past and Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22-43; idem, “Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon Graves” in British Archaeology no. 10 (London 1995), p. 7, online here. A measured critique in Andrew Tyrell, “Corpus Saxonum: early medieval bodies and corporeal identity” in William O. Frazer & Andrew Tyrell (edd.), Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain (London 2000), pp. 137-156. Härke responds to his critics, some of whom were less measured, in Heinrich Härke, “Archaeologists and Migration: a problem of attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 39 (Chicago 1998), pp. 19-35, on Scribd here, and has now gone to work on similar themes on Russia where I suspect he meets fewer problems.

Seminary XV: West meets East, is surprised it’s not just Syria

The Earlier Middle Ages seminars at the IHR, which give you the reader so much delight and/or envy and me the writer so much content, have resumed, and on 16 January proceedings were opened with Mark Handley giving a paper entitled: ‘Easterners in the West: the Who, Where, When, Why, and How Many?’

This one interested me for two reasons, the first and smaller of which was that Mr Handley is not an academic, but a lawyer, who does his research in his spare time. As I frequently fear ending up ‘on the outside’ for reasons of heart, health or hope, or the lack thereof, it’s always reassuring to me to see that someone can still produce work of high quality in that situation.

Drawing of a Roman merchantman from celtnet.org.uk

The other reason was the quality, of course. Mr Handley’s subject of research is travellers, writ large, not just traders but all kinds, soldiers, pilgrims, émigrés and exiles, messengers, students, teachers, the lot. In fact, a substantial point of his paper was to try and rebalance our picture of medieval voyagers towards these others travellers away from traders. This appeals to me because although I accept its basic validity, I have still always felt there was something basically upside-down about the methodology that Michael McCormick used in his Origins of the European Economy, where he tracked trade routes through the records left by other sorts of travellers, without really being interested in those others. But then Handley has a much larger sample of travellers than he had, a sample indeed whose diversity defies the kind of generalisations about currents that McCormick would have wanted to make from it. (Handley of course isn’t the first to suggest that modifications could be made to McCormick’s work.)

So where’s this evidence all coming from? What source has Handley got hold of that such scholars could so easily miss? The answer is, inscriptions. Again, writ large; funerary inscriptions, monuments, and humble graffiti, in fact especially the last, because the value of “Kilroy was here” as evidence of travel is actually quite high. He’s been very strict about what he counts as evidence: only named countries or regions of origin or a clear statement of foreign origins, and this still gives him 528 instances not including those at Rome (which he left out for reasons that elicited some discussion afterwards), up to about 650 C. E. This is what most of us early medievalists consider a pretty good sample!

A depiction of Antioch as Queen of the East from the Peutinger map

Obviously he could expand it by admitting things like regional names like ‘Africanus’ and so on, but his rigour has good justifications, and they principally revolve around Syrians. He gave a run-down on the old historiography, which here still relies to a surprising extent on Pirenne, and emphasised that one of its over-riding tendencies was a pair of false syllogisms, that a mention of Easterners meant Syrians (because everyone knew that Syrians were the main traders, right?) and that a mention of Syrians meant traders (because… oh, we just did that), so that effectively from chance occurrences of Easterners Pirenne and others constructed a detailed Syrian-centred trade network which the Muslim conquests therefore wrecked. Handly’s particular rigour allows him to test these assumptions with the extra detail from which his work profits, and pronounce that although Syrians were certainly the largest single group of Easterners attested in the West, they are some way from being a majority of his sample, and really very few of those who are qualified with occupations were traders; rather more were soldiers and of course lots were clerics. Now that might be what you’d expect: in a literate form of evidence clerics would predominate, whereas those to whom travel was all in a month’s work might be less likely to leave graffiti on monuments. But would they be that much less likely to die overseas? Surely more so, which might even balance things back out. So I think it still needs accounting for.

Graffiti from Ostia Antiqua, 2nd century A. D., photographed by Eric Taylor

Some of this work is due to emerge as an article in the Journal of Roman Studies, and although there are certainly questions that can be asked about the methodology, as indeed there were on Wednesday, I think it will be a very useful thing to have out there and will hopefully stimulate more work on this sort of evidence, because there is much more of it than people sometimes realise.