Tag Archives: migrations

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

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Seminars CI & CII: the modern Oxford Viking diaspora

This is a very contrived title intended to cover the facts that the next two seminars I have to report on were both given by people from Oxford, but whereas the theme of diaspora with the first one, which was Lesley Abrams presenting to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on the 8th June 2011, was explicit both in an Oxford academic being away from the Dreaming City Spires and also in actually being about diaspora, the latter, Patrick Wadden presenting to the Medieval Church and Culture seminar in Oxford, was just about Vikings abroad. Both interesting papers however as I shall now report!

Map of Viking migration routes, by Suzanne Kemmer

Map of Viking migration routes, by Suzanne Kemmer

Lesley’s title was “Migration, Diaspora, and Identity in the Viking Age”, and it posed a question that we’re also wont to set in exams round here but to which, all the same, we don’t really have an answer, to wit, once the various Scandinavian populations had settled in the various parts of the world that they did in the ninth to eleventh centuries (say), was there anything remaining that identified them together, if so what, and how long did it last? She defended the use of the term `diaspora’ despite its political loading, but argued for a cultural identity preserved at courts most of all and trickling down in greater or lesser degree to the localities connected to those courts. This took some fairly subtle argumentation and my notes are pretty dense, but I made special emphasis marks in the margin (as I do) where she suggested that towns were the obvious fora for the transmission of a cultural repertoire and that that repertoire was both portable and purchasable, that is, you can buy your way into a Scandinavian identification. (This fitted quite snugly with what Jane Kershaw had argued in the same room a few months before, of course.) Into this also came the great disparity of origins among the warband apparently executed on the Ridgeway, along with the filed teeth of one of the skeletons, a particularly painful piece of display, so many seminars were linking up here for me. Also discussed, indeed, was how much the links fed back to the homelands, and how far they were directly connected themselves, just one of many dispersed networks that were webbed over the various lands where Scandinavians were or had gone: politics, family, marriage, trade, exploration, raiding and war, as well as Christian missions of course, a myriad of individuals making choices in which we try to discern trends. Art styles especially criss-crossed this, and though the use of such styles don’t tell us much about the movements of peoples or the origins of the wearers, it does tell us that élite fashion moved fast and that for a while these places and styles were fiendishly à la mode. I do begin to wonder if modern fashion isn’t even a working analogy; I know little enough about it but I am conscious that with many of the same designers exhibiting in New York City, London, Paris and wherever else, while no-one would say there is no local style in those places nonetheless we can speak of haute couture with some justification as a single cultural layer. And perhaps nearly as money-hungry!

Portal of the urnes stave church, Norway, in the Ringerike style, photographed by Nina Aldin Thune

Portal of the urnes stave church, Norway, in the Ringerike style, photographed by Nina Aldin Thune and available under a Creative Commons license; if you web-search images of Ringerike style, however, what you'll mainly get is people trying to sell you jewellery, QED

Of all the papers I’ve been to at the IHR, which is a few, I think I have more notes from the discussion after this one than any other. This is in part because I find this stuff deeply interesting but also because Alan Thacker, David Bates, Barbara Yorke, John Gillingham, Stephen Baxter, Ryan Lavelle, Gareth Williams, Andrew Reynolds and various others too can obviously say quite a lot about these things when in the same place. When Lesley publishes this work, it’s almost going to be a shame that the discussion here won’t be published with it, but it was one of those seminars where you can feel the ideas being hammered out on the forge, real constructive criticism and contributions of information knocking the metal into something with tempered and genuine strength. It also left me with a new regard for Lesley’s cool head in dealing with this barrage and the depth to which she’s thought this stuff out. It will make a terrific and sensitive publication.

Page from a c.1150 manuscript of Dudo of St-Quentin's History of the Normans in the British Library

Page from a c.1150 manuscript of Dudo of St-Quentin's History of the Normans in the British Library

Patrick’s paper on the 14th June 2011 was a quieter affair, and less wide-ranging but still full of interest; his title was “Ireland and the Normans c. 1000: the evidence from Dudo of St-Quentin’s History of the Normans“, and he was looking for links between Normandy and Ireland ‘before the Normans’, in the words of a major textbook on the Emerald Isle.1 Dudo’s History is an immensely problematic source, with legend and fact both misreported, but as Patrick observed we still have to use him and it is a fact that some of his stories of Normandy do contain Irishmen, so that at the very least we know he knew the place existed. In fact we can say a bit more than that, as Patrick went on to show, but the question is how much can we substantiate? Patrick argued that at least we should allow that he is careful about ethnonyms, because he was in fact doing ethnogenesis, writing history for a new ‘people’ (in whatever sense the Normans were a people at that point). Dudo separates Hibernenses and Scoti for example, and it’s probably not just out of ignorance. What it is, however, remains to be worked out… The connections could be found in the other direction, too, Patrick pointed out, as St Ouen, Norman saint par excellence, was being culted in Dublin by a point somewhere in Bishop Dúnán I’s lifetime, 1028-1074. There’s more to do here, but when you’re dealing with sources that tell you things like, “The Men of the Isles fought with the Men of the Isles” and give no more details, it may take a while to do…


1. Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Ireland before the Normans (Dublin 1972, 2nd edn. forthcoming).

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

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

Supply and Demand

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

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

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

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

Warleadership as a non-material resource

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

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

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

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

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

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

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

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

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


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminar LXXXV: Viking metal for women

I realise this title may be misleading but I can’t resist it… I have been reminded that I promised to write up Jane Kershaw‘s paper given to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 9th February, and that time has come. I was reminded by Magistra’s own write-up of it, in which she says:

Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up.

Aha, so you think, but quite apart from anything else I work with Jane, see her most lunchtimes in term, and need her to give a lecture for me on a course next year. The chance of my saying anything that might sound negative is thus pretty low, even if I had such a thing to say, and actually this is becoming more and more of an issue the more embedded I get in academia. I can still aim to be informative, though, and if you find yourself needing to know more Jane has a paper out that covers some of this stuff and you can read it yourself.1 So, OK, the reason for the title is that Jane’s paper, whose title was: “New Insights on the Viking Settlement of England: the small finds evidence”, was about brooches, and specifically metal brooches such as we now have far more of than we used to have because of metal-detecting.2 (Jane estimated that the corpus of Viking-period metal artefacts has multiplied by a factor of 22 or 23 since the last round of major catalogues was published, so we have a lot to synthesize.)

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay, image provided very kindly by Dr Kershaw to replace the less relevant one this post originally had here

The brooches that she was talking about were found in England, between the second half of the ninth century and the second half of the tenth, but were in a Scandinavian style. They are therefore Viking cultural indicators, showing not just Viking jewellery æsthetics but Viking dress styles, as the oval brooches especially only make sense worn on a dress with straps which was not the Anglo-Saxon fashion before the Vikings came. Once they’d come, however, we can’t really tell whether what we have is Danish women who’d been brought over getting stuff made in the style they’d grown up with, or English women dressing like Danes. We can be fairly sure that the brooches were not being traded, though, or at least, not made for export in Scandinavia, because the range of styles found is basically the same as that in Scandinavia, so our notional brooch-seller would have to be working very hard to scoop up a representative sample from all round Denmark… The finds don’t cluster round ports of entry, either, and their distribution is mostly rural, so what we obviously don’t have is someone with a stall in York—in fact, York has thrown up almost none of these pieces, despite being quite heavily dug—getting brooches shipped in by the crate from his contact back in Aarhus, it’s more genuinely popular and incidental than that.

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch, PAS ID NMS-56E967

On the other hand, they don’t really spread outside the Danelaw, and there are some odd patches of non-appearance within it. Distribution is an imprecise measurement, admittedly, but 500+ brooches is a lot, and as Jane wisely said when queried about arguing from silence, even if for some inexplicable reason (I had assumed detector bias, since lots of her sample was coming from Norfolk and Suffolk, much better territory for detectors than anywhere too hilly, but she was ready with a map that compared the brooches to all finds of detected goods and their distribution wasn’t typical) the finds are under-represented in one area, we still have all the others to explain.3 There can be fewer of something found in an area than we suspect there ought to be; but there can hardly be more of something than there should be! This is one of those obvious points that hit me hard in the brain as something I’d never before thought and marks Jane out as an unusually clear archæological thinker (and I’m not just saying that, honest).

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch, PAS ID NMS-9704F0

So that’s one thing that needs careful explanation, and then we start to find imitations, locally-manufactured versions, which are distinguishable by fastening a different way, the way of the Anglo-Saxon disc brooches that had been usual before these Scandy items joined them on the shoulders of the Danelaw’s women. (This is important: the Anglo-Saxon ones continue to be found too. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition to a cultural complex.) Whether this marks immigrant women dressing English-style or Anglo-Saxon women wanting to update their brooches to the nouvelle vague is not clear but whatever it is, it’s not clean assimilation; people wearing such items were expressing a new hybrid kind of dress style. Jane was scrupulous about not making easy leaps from clothing to identity, but at the very least, in these communities it’s not necessary to look traditionally English, if there were ever such a thing anyway. And then finally there are new Anglo-Saxon brooches made on a proto-industrial scale in the tenth century, indicating still another change, and it would be lovely to somehow connect this with the English reconquest (campaign buttons?) but somehow I think with this many real women involved it isn’t going to submit to a simple answer, and the fact of the matter is the distribution of these sorts of brooch actually spreads after the reconquest, not shrinks.

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration, PAS ID NMS-463627. I can't get more than four Anglo-Scandinavian brooches out of the PAS database and they all look really scummy, so I haven't used one of those.

So, are these items actually telling us about identities, or does it just tell us, as Susan Reynolds suggested, that the gentry of a certain area know a little man in Norwich who makes these darling things you just have to have, and so on in several other places?4 As Jane finished by pointing out, there are other regional mappings we can make that seem to show a similar story of regional distinctiveness. The province that’s thickest with these brooches is not simply East Anglia, but Norfolk and North Suffolk, as distinct from South Suffolk where, glorious detector land though it be, they don’t show up half as much. Now, this also fits, more or less roughly, said Jane, the distribution of common fields versus unified estates in the area in Domesday Book, the distribution of minor place-names (fields, boundaries and so on) and those major ones in -by and -thorp, classic Old Norse indicators. At that rate, it begins too look as if we’re talking about a cultural zone where being, you know, a bit Danish innit, was pretty much OK.

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk, PAS ID SF-DC3EA7

It also matches coinage zones, said Jane: inside the ‘Viking’ zone, the regular Anglo-Saxon coinage hardly runs, the favourite one instead being the enigmatic St Edmund pennies that anyone studying this are has to get their head round: coins minted by a Viking-identified government established by pagan warriors commemorating a Christian royal opponent they’d killed. It’s quite like how rapidly ‘Viking’ York starts minting coins with Christian symbols on, and indeed these are imitated at Lincoln and circulate in this zone too.5 In South Suffolk, by contrast, the stuff doesn’t get out and the royal coinage is found. Now, this is something you can check yourself, because some years ago a clever chap called Sean Miller whom I’ve mentioned here before put means for you to do so on the web, and I have to admit, when I do this with the St Edmund and St Peter coinages and then with the coins of Edward the Elder respectively from Norfolk and Suffolk, I get a distribution that is (a) too thin to be very revealing and (b) more or less the same for Viking and non-Viking types in the counties. So I don’t know if the money side of the comparison really holds up, and as to the rest of these zonal indicators I am mindful of a wise thing that I once heard said of all arguments made from distribution of objects or sites, that they should also be mapped against the locations of telephone boxes and see if that correlates as well. And we know that bad things can be done with this technique. All the same, I’m not convinced that this was one of them; we do have the brooches to explain, the trend has to come from somewhere, and a kind of proud-to-be-a-different-kind-of-English-with-friends-across-the-North-Sea cultural self-awareness fostered by a persistent local-level government established by a Viking territorial settlement and allowed to remain in place helps explain them and their distribution whereas not much else does. I don’t think we can stop looking for other possibilities just yet, but then I don’t suppose Jane was going to stop any time soon either…


1. Jane E. Kershaw, “Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Vol. 5 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 295–325, doi:10.1484/J.VMS.1.100682.

2. Oh, I’m sorry, you were actually interested in Viking metal? In that case may I suggest Simon Trafford & Alex Plukowski, “Antichrist superstars: the Vikings in hard rock and heavy metal” in D. W. Marshall (ed.), Mass Market Medieval: essays on the Middle Ages in popular culture (Jefferson 2007), pp. 57-73, and if you do get it, and happen to have a PDF somehow, I wouldn’t object if it somehow wound up in my INBOX as Oxford don’t have a copy and I’m not sure I have the force of character to recommend it to any of the relevant libraries.

3. My stock reference for things you can get wrong with archæological distribution mapping is now available to you too, it being Mary Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

4. On Viking identities in the Danelaw more widely, as if you like the wave on which this work by Jane is one of the breakers, you could try either or both of Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards (edd.), Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Turnhout 2000) or James Graham-Campbell, Richard Hall, Judith Jesch & David Parsons (edd.), Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress (2001), or if you prefer a single synthetic view Dawn Hadley’s The Vikings in England: Settlement, society and culture (Manchester 2006).

5. For more on these coinages see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 2. The Two Scandinavian Kingdoms of the Danelaw, c. 895-954″, Presidential Address 2005 in British Numismatic Journal 76 (London 2006), pp. 204-226, soon to be reprinted in the first volume of his collected papers.

Two seminars, two cities, part 1: Seminary XL with Peter Heather

Tuesday 3 February was a rather busy day for London-range early medievalists. The afternoon had Peter Heather speaking to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title, “Predatory Migration and the First Millennium”, and then the evening saw Wendy Davies (for it is again she) asking, “What Can We Say About Local Priests in Northern Spain before the Year 1000?” in front of the London Society for Medieval Studies. Although Britain was at that time suffering considerably from its rulers’ conclusion that it’s not economical to avert the loss of billions of pounds of revenue by giving local authorities enough money to keep some snowploughs about the place, meaning that transport was heavily disrupted when prolonged heavy snowfall occurred, it was just about possible to manage both… But I’ll blog them separately, as there was little connection between the two and comments may be less confusing that way. So here’s Peter’s first and Wendy’s will follow.

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned Professor Heather here in the past as being someone unafraid to imagine large-scale population movements in the early Middle Ages, which somewhat sets him apart from his contemporaries who have often feared that all numbers in medieval sources are exaggerated (because, for example, if that really is a barbarian army coming across the steppe, are you hanging round to count them?), that they indulge in literary tropes related to origin myths in which peoples move en bloc without losing any of their identity—tropes that subsequent work on ethnicity has problematised—and lastly because modern migrations just don’t look like this. The old-style ‘age of migrations’, the ‘invasion hypothesis‘, presupposes population movements that are deliberate (as opposed to unplanned flight), aggressive (that is armed, ‘predatory’) and closed; that is, that the Sueves were still Sueves when they’d reached Galicia from Darkest Germania, because they had neither shed many people to local populations as they passed nor taken in so many as to dilute their identity or material culture. To a generation or more of scholars this has seemed very unlikely to have occurred very much, if at all.

Peter, who was in part plugging a new book called Empires and Barbarians which must be continuing the theme of his last one in this respect, laid these planks of the counter-argument out (and I wouldn’t like to say there might not be others, but these certainly exist) and conversationally but thoroughly jumped on them until he felt that they were broken. Part of this involved a saving strategy, mind: he agreed that many supposed invasions were not what they are cracked up to be, but because we can tell this from, for example, Ammianus Marcellinus’s descriptions, then when Ammianus does say that a full-scale migration of a people with predatory intent was afoot, as he does of the Gothic revolt in 376, we ought to take him seriously in that case too. Ammianus also describes the refugee Alemans as a people being made up of lots of separate bands of followers briefly united under one ruler, and Peter compared that to the shifting Viking warbands that made up the Great Army five centuries later. Peter pointed out that such a combination of elements must have been very hard to maintain, and that no-one would do so without some kind of plan in mind, although questions forced him to concede that that plan might well no longer be the one that the ‘people’ had had in mind when they had set off. Lastly he explained the difference compared to modern migrations, so fluid, open and multivalent with a composition of small bands of individuals or families, as being one of economic determinism. Nowadays, he argued, immigrants can not only amass the capital to move by themselves but can expect to be economically able to sustain themselves alone when they arrive at destination, because there are many jobs and a specialised economy and it is possible to access wealth in many ways. In late antiquity on the other hand, he argued, while you can certainly find work, you can’t individually find wealth because, apart from loot that you can only keep if you go away again, wealth is land and land needs many people to run and still more to roust its previous occupants. If you intend to take land, he argued, better bring an army.

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

I’m okay with this as long as it’s allowed to represent an extreme case. I think it is, yes, arguable that the Goths in 376 formed themselves into a confederacy whose express object was to take land in the Empire by force where the Huns couldn’t reach them and that to this end they moved en masse with women and children (for which Peter had textual support too) to make it so. On the other hand, it was certainly possible to find a livelihood on your own terms in the Roman Empire as a small-scale immigrant: look at all the legislation about waste land needing farmers. It may have been harder to find a bit of waste to call a new home under the Empire because of the claims of the state than it was, well, on the Spanish March of the Carolingian Empire (hem hem), but people did move in in small numbers without fighting, I’m sure. So there is some reason that the Goths don’t break up and try that which is bigger than simple economic necessity, and I don’t think that Peter has saved the invasion hypothesis. He’s just made the (special) cases where we ought to allow it more explicable, and therefore defensible. No small thing; but between that and the lively disagreements over DNA evidence that also emerged in questions, he may have to argue a bit more yet.