Tag Archives: monasticism

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 1

People in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo

Other people in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo (official photo)

Well, we’ve had another lapse in posting, for which I apologise, but there was good reason, I promise you, not least the International Medieval Congress just gone, which was a success but really very busy. I will write about that at some point, I promise, but my ridiculous backlog is only made more so by the passing of another IMC, not least because the next thing I have to write about is an ICMS, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at West Michigan University, which I didn’t make it to this year but did last year, that being where the trip to the US lately described wound up, and that’s how far behind I am. Given that, while I don’t want to say nothing about it I do want to say less than usual, so: I am going firstly to let all the stuff about dreadful accommodation, food and coffee go as standard; secondly I will add that the actual town of Kalamazoo does however have some places worth exploring for food and drink if you are not, as I used to be, determined to scrounge all the free alcohol going on campus; and thirdly, I will try and keep my reportage on the papers I saw down to one sentence of summary or commentary each, a writing challenge I should probably set myself much more often. So, here we go with day 1, 14th May 2015!

45. The State and its Loyal Constituencies in Late Antiquity

  • Michael Kulikowski, “Saying No to Government: Disintegrating and Reinstating States”
  • One sentence for this is actually all I have, because I arrived late to the session and missed almost the whole paper. That sentence therefore is: “A ‘collective sovereignty’ model of northern barbarian kingship gets picked up by those further south over the 5th and 6th centuries”; make of it what you will, but I wish I’d seen more.

  • Stefan Esders, “Regnum, Civitas, and Pagus: Rearranging Spatial Structures in Merovingian Gaul”
  • Arguing that although in Merovingian Gaul many of the functions of the Roman state fell away or were loaded onto new counts or old bishops, the territorial structures through which they continued to be organised necessitated a continuing level of fiscal sophistication that we could safely call a state. As Julie Hofmann pointed out, the missing part of this picture was Church organisation and its imprint on bishops’ fiscal responsibilities, but that was a part of the study still to come.

  • Guy Halsall, “Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities”
  • Guy, who it was that I had particularly come to see, argued instead that Merovingian Gaul was not a state, in as much as there was no single identity of which people could claim membership, but several, Frankish military, Catholic Christian, Arian Christian, Gallo-Roman aristocrat or peasant, all partially replacing the now-discredited Roman civil and patrician identity that, until Justinian I’s campaigns excluded them from it, the ruling élites in this area were still emulating. Michael Kulikowski pointed out that that identity had never been available to most of the Roman population either, but Guy argued that patronage would have joined them up to its holders.

Gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London

Arguably a part of a state apparatus, a gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London. By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969234

80. Leadership Profiles in the Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Church

  • Edmund McCaffray, “Leading by Example: customaries and abbatial conservatio at Cluny in the eleventh century”
  • Argued that we should see John of Salerno’s biography of the famous Abbot Odo of Cluny less as a straight biography than as a set of descriptions of the abbey’s custom justified by Odo’s good example, something that became irrelevant as actual custumaries became common and the Life was rewritten.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “In the Teeth of Reform: reprofiling the Catalan Episcopate around the year 1000”
  • Argued that the commonly-propagated picture Catalan Church of the millennial era as a worldly monopoly of the comital family is based on misreadings of Catalan secondary work, rather than actual evidence, but that a binary appraisal of them in terms of being reformed or not in any case misses out what most of what made them suitable for their jobs. Rereading this paper makes me think I should get on and do something more with it, it’s maybe quite good.

  • Pieter Byttebier, “Intitulatio or Æmulatio? Developing New Forms of Episcopal leadership in Eleventh-Century Lotharingian Contexts”
  • A series of examples of new, and often foreign, bishops, boosting the reputation and even cults of their predecessors in order to better anchor themselves in the local traditions of their offices, and arguably imitating what could be known of their lives—Heer Byttebier argued it, but some of those supposed imitations were post mortem so I had trouble taking his case at full strength. Someone in questions asked about the æmulatio part of his title and he admitted that he had no examples as yet, so probably more could be done here.

St Clement of Metz  leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille

One feat probably beyond imitation, St Clement of Metz leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille, a legend of the tenth century. Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17574925

99. Women and Power to 1100 (A Roundtable)

Quite how I, with only one paper on anything like gender to my name and that unpublished, got in on this may never be entirely clear but it was fun and I don’t think I disgraced myself. I think Julie Hofmann won the day early on with her remark that we’ve been being surprised by women with power in the Middle Ages since 1908, but her deepest point may have been that when you’re dealing with power, their gender is not as important in defining what power someone has as their placement in society and their efficacy at using that. There was a general preference for the word ‘agency’ over ‘power’, which got challenged in discussion by Teresa Earenfight for I think good reason—Lois Honeycutt offered ‘autonomy’, a right to decide, as being closer to what we were getting at. Martha Rampton spoke about magic, one sphere in which women were perhaps dominant, up until around 1000 at least, and I focused on the apparent plenitude of examples from my material of women doing stuff without reference to men, usually with property but still untrammelled, and suggested that even that could more usefully be seen as a way they operated within larger family contexts than trying to separate them out into a female sphere that never existed by itself, any more than a male or indeed, as Jonathan Lyon pointed out, royal or imperial, sphere did. Lastly in the formal section, Phyllis Jestice pointed out that work on women and power has either focused on individual strong women or the whole aristocratic class and asked if there was a middle level where variation and over-generalisation might coalesce into useful conclusions. In discussion I managed to steer that through my favourite point that we need to distinguish between things that are usual but infrequent and things that are actually unusual, and Julie reminded us that the limits on female power were less institutions than straightforward misogyny, so looking at rules about what women could do only gives us the tip of the iceberg. This was all fun to be part of and I felt a lot like a real scholar afterwards, but I can’t help feeling looking back that although progress does seem to have happened these are all quite old problems. The new work that many of us were agitating for seems to be hard to do.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Not everybody can be Matilda of Canossa…

So that was the end of the first day, and then there was a certain amount of free wine and catching up with people. I can’t, by now, remember who those were, or what we did for food, but I don’t think we can have gone far because there was a blogger’s meet-up later in the evening. I felt somewhat as if I shouldn’t show my face at that given how little blog I’d written in the previous few months, nay, years, but others were in the same case and in any case these are to some extent my people, so, if any of you are reading, Another Damned Medievalist, Notorious Ph. D., the Medieval History Geek and Vellum (and others? Sorry if I’ve forgotten you), it was good to catch up and I learnt a lot in that conversation too. It overran well into the evening sessions: does anyone ever go to those? I’m not sure I ever have. Anyway, with that all concluded, it was off to my awful bed and ready for the next day, on which I will try and report shortly!

The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

You may, by now, have had enough of my conference reporting from a year ago, and believe you me, by the time summer 2014 ended I had had enough of conferences for a bit. But, there is one more to go, which was the 53rd Summer Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which took place at the University of Sheffield from 22nd-24th July, and I was there. The EHS publishes most of its proceedings and I liked the theme, which was ‘Doubt’, so I pitched a paper and they accepted it and so there I was. Now, in the event my paper was not sufficiently doubt-full to be accepted for publication, but it was still a good conference and slightly off my usual beat, which is generally good for one. Still, because I have less to say about most of the papers than usual, I’m going to get the three days done in one post, and because that will likely be large, I will just give you the list of what I saw and heard, and then stick my commentary below a cut so that those of you reading the actual front page can choose to skip on by if you like. Here’s that list, then:

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

  • Frances Andrews, “Doubting John”.
  • Session 1.1

  • Aideen O’Leary, “Devotion to St Andrew in Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England”.
  • Stephen Sharman, “Bede and the Credible Witness: a response to doubt”.
  • Christine Walsh, “Faith and Authenticity: eleventh- and twelfth-century concerns about the cult of saints and their relics”.
  • Session 2.1

  • Christine Oakland, “‘A Box Full of Hay?’ Doubt and Truth in the Diocese of Sens”.
  • Jan Vandeburie, “When in Doubt, Give Him the Finger: Ugolino di Conti’s loss of faith and Jacques de Vitry’s intervention”.
  • Wednesday 23rd July

    Plenary Session 2

  • Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Doubt?”
  • Session 3.1

  • Kimberley-Joy Knight, “Lachrymose Holiness and the Problem of Doubt in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Hagiographies”.
  • Anik Laferrière, “Doubting Monica: the deletion of Monica from fourteenth-century Vitae Augustini in the Augustinian Order of Hermits”.
  • Steven Watts, “Demons and Doubt: the peculiar account of Brother Bernard’s possession in Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus“.
  • Plenary Session 3

  • Ian Forrest, “Trust and DOubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge”
  • Session 4.2

  • Emily Ewing Graham, “Heresy and identity: late medieval friars and the kingdom of Aragón”.
  • Patrick Zutshi, “Evidence and Doubt: the beginning of the Great Schism according to the testimony collected at Medina del Campo in 1380-1”.
  • Thursday 24th July

    Session 5.1

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the effects of spiritual sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”.
  • Thomas Smith, “Investigating the Pope’s Doubts: the validity of petitions from thirteenth-century England”.
  • Enrico Veneziani, “Doubting the Authority of Peter: the trial of Pontius of Cluny”.
  • Plenary Session 4

  • Kirstie Blair, “Unforming Faith: poetry, doubt and the Church of England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

And this is (some of) what I thought about it all… Continue reading

Working for San Salvatore I: making a polyptych

I seem to have taken the chance of the latter part of the Birmingham job to indulge in reading large amounts of primary material. First there was the cartulary of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, about which you’ve by now heard quite enough, for the paper about documents that predate their archives that I may some day finish, and then as I first wrote this, in May 2014, there had just been the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, which I was reading for the submission version of the paper about Carolingian crop-yields which I gave at Kalamazoo in 2011.1 The point I wanted to make with the former of these kind of disintegrated as I got into the material; it’s not clear that all the material that the monks of Beaulieu were assembling was actually theirs and far less of it is non-ecclesiastical than I had thought. There’s an interesting story to be told there (I should say, another one, as Jane Martindale already told one) but it’s not the one I wanted.2

Thesouth portal of St-Pierre de Beaulieu

One last picture of Beaulieu before we leave it for a few months… By Sjwells53 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Santa Giulia di Brescia polyptych has been far kinder, in as much as it serves my purpose perfectly: those scholars who have posited low crop yields using its figures have done so by what I can only call unthinking assumption that the figures are what they needed, and this is easily disproven.3 In fact, not only can one not show that the monastery’s estates were yielding less than was sown, as has been argued (nonsensically), in one or two cases it is clear that the yields must have been much higher, so it all works very well for me. But there is so much else one could do with this document, and in the paper I can’t, I have no space and it would be irrelevant and to do anything separate with it I would have to work through a mass of Italian historiography, Italian being a language with which I struggle, and probably then find out all this stuff was well-established anyway. But this is where a blog helps: I have to tell someone, so I shall tell you.

A corner of the cloister and the solar of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Santa Giulia has not made it through the ages quite as unchanged as Beaulieu

Let’s start at the beginning by explaining the word polyptych, perhaps not in the average person’s everyday vocabulary. This is a word scholars of the early Middle Ages use for one of the various large-scale estate surveys carried out by fiscal or ecclesiastical agents: these seem to start in the Carolingian Empire, though the techniques presumably weren’t new then, and they carry on being made well into the Middle Ages: Domesday Book could be argued to be the ultimate one and there’s a twelfth-century one from Catalonia I need to read some day, and so on.4 At the later end this category blurs into inventory, survey, census and so on, and it’s something of a term of art. It’s also not the word the texts use, which is almost always breve, though brief these texts are not. Anyway, Santa Giulia’s is quite late, probably dating to 906, and it’s out of area, being from North Italy, which would once have counted as Carolingian heartland but by this time not so much.

Polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832

This is not from the Brescia manuscript, which is not online as far as I can see, but from the 9th-century polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832, online at Gallica; this is fo. 8v.

We don’t have all of this text. The original manuscript survives, and it must be a fascinating thing though it’s quite hard to check since the shelfmark given by the best scholarly edition, which dates to 1979, seems now to have been reorganised out of existence and the Archivio di Stato di Milano, although they have been digitising their stuff since 2000, don’t actually, you know, have any of it online yet. The edition is good, however, and furthermore that has been competently digitised, so you can play along here. But the original would be more fun: as it survives it is apparently twelve big pieces of parchment sewn together top-to-bottom into a roll. One of these pieces is a later short bit acting as a replacement for the end of its predecessor, whose final lines apparently became almost-illegible, but otherwise we have the work of three scribes, two of whom write large chunks and could have been working independently, but the third of whom drops in for a few lines here and there not just within entries but within words of the second scribe’s work, so that they must have firstly been working together and secondly working with source texts. That was always likely, but it at least eliminates the possibility that the information was being written up ‘live’; you can’t really change scribes in the middle of a word if someone is standing there dictating it to you, you’d think.

The cloister of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Back to Santa Giulia’s rather post-medieval cloister

The information that they were receiving and recording was done to a pretty tight template. Interestingly, it’s less tight in some areas than others. The text opens in the middle of an entry, and most of the first few have become illegible, but once they’re not they’re in the Brescia area: after a while the scope moves out to properties nearer Bergamo, Modena, Cremona and Piacenza, and Modena especially is not in style. This seems partly to be because the second scribe thought some details were just too tedious, but in other cases it seems to be because the information hadn’t come in as expected: there are gaps left on the manuscript as if more were expected. Sometimes these gaps are very large, twenty-odd centimetres of unused parchment, suggesting that perhaps entire settlements hadn’t yet reported in when they started writing up and in fact never did, while at the end, after they’d got down to the properties that aren’t even land but just some people in Ivrea who sent them honey once a year, or similar,5 what seem to be extra estates from Brescia and Bergamo were added which had apparently been missed out earlier and whose returns therefore presumably came in late.

So we certainly don’t have a full inventory of Santa Giulia di Brescia’s property here (not least because it would still have been San Salvatore di Brescia in 906 I think) and the most obvious thing that’s missing is the monastery itself, which was at least mentioned somewhere in the text, as the scribes refer back to it as ‘the aforesaid monastery’, but in what we have is not mentioned at all.6 This suggests that what is now the first parchment probably wasn’t originally, and of course that means we don’t know how much is lost, especially as the twelfth parchment also breaks off in medias res. That unknown quantity is also the basis for the date of 906, which is not given in the text that we now have but which is recorded on the dorse of the roll, and which may therefore have once been in the missing part of the text. People have debated the palæography a lot and argued that this is anything from the original to a late-eleventh-century copy. Some of the land involved was only granted to the monastery by King Carloman in 879 so it’s younger than that, but the consensus seems to be that it could be 906, so it may as well be.7

Precept of King Carloman for Saint-Sauveur d'Atuyer, 883

Again, not the right manuscript, but the look is right and so is the dedication, this Carloman confirming the rights of Saint-Sauveur d’Atuyer in 883, from the inestimable Diplomata Karolinorum

Now, there are a whole range of things that interest me about this text, some of which will be their own posts, but let’s stick here with how they made it. As I say, the information is recorded to a template. Each estate is broken down by assets with the assets listed in the same order. Some estates didn’t have, for example, a spelt crop, but when there was a spelt crop it’s always tucked between the rye crop and the barley crop—not the only example, this—so there must somewhere have been a guide that said what order things should be listed in. There’s two ways that could happen, obviously: either the information came in more or less unsorted and the scribes arranged it according to a list in the office or else the template was actually used in the collection of the information. I think it must have been the latter, because there is as I say variation in the order around Modena. The scribes could obviously have fixed that if they were already reorganising data to a model. That they did not suggests that the model was used at record point, not at redaction point.

In other words, the monastery would have sent people out with a form to be filled in. For some reason this makes me terribly gleeful. It’s not that I have any great love for bureaucrats. It may be that I do love making lists of stuff, and it therefore reaches me inside to have good evidence of tenth-century people also making lists of stuff that were meant always to be in the same order and so on. But mainly I love it because this means it is possible to reverse-engineer the form they used, or at least something that would produce the same results. So by way of both showing you the kind of data we have and quite how bad my obsessive compulsion can get, you will find my version of that form, with one estate’s data entered into it, below the cut. For those of you slightly less keen on fine-grained (aha ha grain, sorry) agricultural demography, a seminar report will be along shortly… Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 1

I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We’ve already had the 2014 one! Thoughts like this flap round this entry, but completeness compels me, and besides, hey, maybe you weren’t there, maybe you were and just didn’t go to the things I did, I’ll cover it, but because it’s also huge, I’ll put the actual paper reports behind a cut.

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Last year’s conference theme at Leeds was ‘pleasure’, and perhaps I’m just a gloomy type but this didn’t engage me much, so I found myself drawn by neither of the keynote lectures that always start the conference. Instead, I made an early assault on the second-hand book fair (which only runs till lunchtime the second day, so you have to be quick) and generally tried to get the shape of the new premises, because as you may recall the previous year saw the Leeds conference finishing its residence out at Bodington and Weetwood campuses and getting ready to happen on the university’s city centre campus. As you can see from the above left, parts of that are fairly splendid, and in general it did seem an improvement. There were still rooms that had people on the floor while in others seats were empty, and to be fair the conference staff did try and swap some sessions over when this became clear, at the cost of some delay, but in general the spaces and moving between them were more comfortable and having everything on one site was worth a lot.

Entry to the Great Hall on the main camopus of the University of Leeds

Entry to the Great Hall (where, in fact, I think I never went)

My fears that the essential communality of Leeds would be lost was unfounded, too: a centrally-positioned marquee serving still-dreadful but essential caffeine proved an anchor point past which almost everyone had to pass sooner or later, and in the evenings the main bar proved a reasonable place to search people out also and also had better beer than Bodington ever had (though not than the sadly-missed Stables pub at Weetwood). So in general the move seemed OK. But, the papers! Continue reading

Seminar CLXXXII: the return (and beginning) of the intermittent monks of Sant Benet de Bages

I find myself, with some relief, advancing into June 2013 with my seminar report backlog, because on the 5th of that month I was at the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar in Oxford and I was in fact there as the speaker, with the title “Two men and a monastery: clerical involvements in Manresa before 1000”. This was the first piece of work coming out of what then seemed like my new project, and since I am still trying to work out what to do with its findings, it may be worth explaining here what I thought I was doing.

View of the modern Manresa city cenre from the air

Modern Manresa somewhat drowns out its medieval components, but they’re there, even if not of the tenth century.

At a late stage of my Ph. D. research, when I started having access to the volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia covering Osona and Manresa and thus basically to more than five documents covering Manresa at all, I noticed that there seemed to have been an awful lot of priests around the town, and that at least some of them seemed to write transaction charters involving land in many places around it, which suggested to me that they were in fact working in the town for anyone who wanted a charter written. At that point, all I could really do was bookmark this thought for future reference, but when I started to meet Wendy Davies’s and Carine van Rhijn’s and others’ new work on identifying and characterising the early medieval rural priesthood, I began to think that the Manresa stuff was the contribution I could make to such an endeavour and so when I shook off the slough of 2012 and tried to start doing something new, that’s what I did.1

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikimedia Commons

Armed then with my own copy of Catalunya Carolíngia IV at last, I started pulling together the relevant documentation and the first thing that became very clear was that almost all of it came originally from the monastery of Sant Benet de Bages. That presented two problems: firstly, it probably meant that where the monastery didn’t eventually get property I had no information (and this was what the third paper out of the project came to be about) and secondly, because Sant Benet itself had priests on staff, I needed to be sure that I was able to distinguish them from priests actually based in the city. And as you have already heard complications arose with that very quickly that made this hard-to-impossible to resolve without access to the original documents, which even at this late stage (and still now) I had not been able to persuade the monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, where they now largely reside, to give me. So this paper was largely about trying to deal with this complication.

Santa Maria de Montserrat

An effective set of defences: Santa Maria de Montserrat

I had started by focusing on two particular men whose names I kept seeing in the documents, Baldemar and Badeleu, and they turned out to have oddly parallel career trajectories that both told me a lot about the situation I was looking at. Baldemar seems to have been the better-connected of the two; he first turns up in Balsareny to the north of Manresa, where he had family property, as a deacon in 961. He was at both the endowment, in 966, and the consecration, in 972, of the then-new monastery of Sant Benet, wrote a lot of documents for them during the 970s and steadily acquired property in two areas near the house (as well as from Count-Marquis Borrell II once); it’s not a complete surprise when in his penultimate appearance in 985 he signs as a monk, and in the ultimate one, a strange kind of Gesta abbatum-type charter from 1002, he is explicitly named among the congregation of Sant Benet. So we have a well-connected local priest who had long dealings with the monastery, probably knew the monks well and eventually joined them to live the life contemplative till his surprisingly late death (given he must have been at least 76 at his last appearance).2 This one is fairly easy to understand, although it is worth noting that we have no record of him ever having given any property to the monastery.

Biblioteca de Catalunya, pergamins 3096, bearing Baldemar's signature in the middle of the witness list

Baldemar is one of the few of these guys whose signature I do have, in pretty much the middle of the penultimate line of this charter, which is Biblioteca de Catalunya, pergamins 3096.

Badeleu is a bit less obvious. We see him as a cleric in 952 then as a priest in 961, in fact writing a sale of Baldemar’s to the founder of Sant Benet, the vicar Sal·la. Thereafter he appears about as much as scribe as anything else, often for property transfers very close to Sant Benet at Montpeità, and himself bought up quite a lot of land in two Manresa settlements called Vilapicina and la Celada, this going on till 995. In 982, apparently in fear of death, he made a big donation to Sant Benet, but reserved the property till he died, a wise move as it turned out. But he also bought land from Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, who was at this point insisting he was Archbishop of Tarragona and wasn’t entirely an establishment figure, and Badeleu also appeared as witness against Sant Benet de Bages in a court case of 1000. Despite that he also entered the monastery the next year, with a compensatory gift made to a son who doesn’t appear mentioned in any of his other documents, and appears among the monks—but still only as priest—in Baldemar’s final document, and probably his own, in 1002.3 Again it seems clear he would have known the monks for a long time but it’s less clear that he was probably always going to join them.

View of Sant Benet de Bages

Another view of Sant Benet. «Sant Benet de Bages – General» per Josep Renalias – Lohen11Treball propi. Disponible sota la llicència CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This got me looking harder at the rest of the monks, because both of these two suggested in their different ways that one could have been a member of Sant Benet in some sense without fully becoming a monk. And that is where the whole question of intermittent monks discussed in a post of last year came up: I’m not sure any of the first monks of Sant Benet actually consistently operated as such in their documents. They all seem to have continued to buy and hold property outside common and often to have written many non-monastic documents. I think, therefore, that the general conclusion of this paper was not about Manresa but about Sant Benet: just because the vicar Sal·la had founded the place, given it lands and so forth in 966, and even though his children then got its church consecrated in 972 did not make it a going monastery.4 Its monks took a long time to turn up. The first ones seem to do so in 979, but even then they seem to have kept their day jobs, being largely people like Baldemar and Badeleu who had important community rôles they presumably didn’t want to leave behind. This is not the stereotype of monastic foundation in this area, a stereotype which crazy Abbot Cesari had actually lived, of first getting your monks together then moving into the wasteland and building your new home yourself as soon as you had a gift of land on which to do it.5 Nonetheless, this one seems more understandable to me, building and building and not quite being sure whether it was time finally to leave the world or if there was still work to be done in it. But the result is that although I can probably identify 25 people who became monks of Sant Benet from my documents, I’m not sure whether they can or should therefore be excluded from the pool of priests working in or out of Manresa in the pastoral clergy!


1 The first of Wendy’s contributions on this score is now out, I believe, it being W. Davies, “Local priests and the writing of charters in northern Iberia in the tenth century” in Julio Escalona & H. Sirantoine (edd.), Documentos y cartularios como instrumentos de poder. España y el occidente cristiano (ss. viii–xii) (Toulouse 2014), pp. 29-43; Carine’s have already produced at least A. C. van Rhijn, “Priests and the Carolingian reforms: the bottle-necks of local correctio” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel & Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12 (Wien 2006), pp. 219-237, but I believe that there is an actual volume of essays in process too.

2. His appearances are 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. nos 881, 975, 977, 985, 995B, 997, 1006, 1014, 1032, 1043, 1057, 1059, 1108, 1114, 1115, 1139, 1143, 1154, 1158, 1160, 1165, 1171, 1187, 1193, 1224, 1225, 1236, 1279, 1280, 1281, 1305, 1316, 1320, 1348, 1405 & 1489 & Jaime Villanueva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España tomo VII: viage a la iglesia de Vique. Año 1806 (Valencia 1821), ap. XIII.

3. Badeleu appears in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 692, 881, 884, 939, 1021, 1109, 1156, 1164, 1181, 1183, 1223, 1225, 1267, 1270, 1278, 1286, 1297, 1299, 1335, 1346, 1360, 1401, 1422, 1432, 1448, 1456, 1487, 1514, 1516, 1527, 1544, 1551, 1554, 1603, 1604, 1701, 1702, 1713, 1750, 1777, 1814, 1840 & 1864 & Villanueva, Viage Literario VII, ap. XIII and at least one other document, his entry to the monastery, mentioned but not cited in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat de Manresa (798-993) (Barcelona 2004), which I don’t have to consult right now and thus can’t give a page number from, sorry, making me just as bad as them…

4. The most recent version of this story is told in Francesc Junyent i Mayou, Alexandre Mazcuñan i Boix, Albert Benet i Clarà, Joan-Andreu Adell i Gisbert, Jordi Vigué i Viñas & Xavier Barral i Altet, “Sant Benet de Bages” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XI: el Bages, ed. Antoni Pladevall (Barcelona n. d.), pp. 408-438.

5. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 543.

Seminar CL: laying out the land in Anglo-Saxon England

One of the features of being so far behind with seminar reports is that I find myself writing about papers whose definitive versions have already been published.1 In some ways this is better than writing about work in progress, as it avoids the occasional issue about whether I’m letting people’s findings out before they’re ready for that to happen and means that my post becomes mere advertising (or, I suppose, warning, but I very rarely bother with reports on papers I can’t say good things about).2 In other ways this is worse: the people who are most interested may well already know about the work. But the Internet is large and not all of you are plugged in to the mains feed of the UK academy, so, I imagine people are still interested in Professor John Blair addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford on 19th November 2012 with the title, “Land-Surveying in the Post-Roman West” even though you could now read it for yourselves?3 (I should note, by the way, that this means I’m skipping Annette Kehnel talking to the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 7th October 2012 with the title, “Rituals of Power through the Ages – a History of Civilisation?”, not because it wasn’t fascinating but because Magistra et Mater covered it in depth some time ago and you can read about it at hers.)

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

The whole reason that I spent three years in Oxford was ultimately that Professor Blair (whom I have to call John, really) had got money from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out a thorough-going survey of how settlement changed in Anglo-Saxon England, and I got lucky enough to be his stand-in. This left him free to bury himself in site plans, and as he did so, he told us, he began to notice a particular measurement coming up again and again. Now, this way madness can lie, as John was well aware. Not only do many medievalists not really understand numbers, so that they tend either to dismiss arguments that involve them or else accept them completely uncritically, but medievalists who do understand numbers have in some cases gone much further with them than many would credit, attributing immensely complex calculative abilities to those writing Latin prose in the period, er, just for example.4 At the far end of this lies work on monumental alignments, some of which is justly to be lampooned but some of which is just hard to assess.5 There is some limited work on Anglo-Saxon land measurement, which came up with a common ‘perch’ of 4·65 metres, but testing this has always been tricky because there’s always more material that might not conform.6 John, however, had got closer to being able to survey it all than anyone else ever has and saw what was, indeed, a ‘short perch’ of more or less 15 feet in many many places (although, interestingly, not in Wessex). Aware of the dangers, at this point he’d got a statistician involved and, giving them as close to raw figures as he could, was informed that there was a genuinely significant peak at the 4·6 m mark in them (pretty much 15 ft), as well as some other peaks at the multiples and fractions of that unit that were less demonstrable. Reassured that he wasn’t just seeing things, therefore, he then set out to find out how this was being used.

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

This part involved quite a lot of maps with grid overlays. Here, if anywhere, was the problem of subjectivity. Some of John’s example cases appeared more or less inarguable, although the problem of whether the archæological sequence was right in the first place and all the structures John was lining grids against had been there in the same period was lurking behind even these somewhere. This was easier to accept in some cases than others, especially given that John is famously willing to reinterpret other archæologists’ findings when he thinks there’s reason to do so.7 In other cases, though, I really wanted access to the files so I could see whether shifting the grid overlay by a metre or so one way or the other, or around by a few degrees, would not show up just as many matches, not that I would have been clear what it might mean for the theory if it had. Certainly, there were a few cases that made me think that John’s choice of what to align the grid to was possibly more arbitrary than was good for demonstration. This was much less so in the case of individual buildings (and a surprising number of square and rectilinear buildings could be relatively easily fitted to a 15 ft module, these including not least SS Peter & Paul Canterbury and All Saints Brixworth, whose bays and aisles snap nicely to it, with explanatory significance to which we’ll come), although quite a lot did so only in one dimension, being for example 15 ft wide but, say, 22 ft long, and most site maps provided one or two buildings that just failed to align at all, let alone be the ‘right’ size. The larger the map got the more this kind of non-conformity seemed to me to make the choice of where to lay the grid basically arbitrary, though the fact that some sites present several possibilities may work for John’s theory as much as against it and even, I suppose, open up the possibility of micro-phasing in their topography. Anyway, here was where I was least sure how much credit to give the idea.

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d'Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d’Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

But, as long as even a small number of widely-spread and unconnected sites appear to conform at all, even if many others don’t, something needs explaining, and John had an explanation for how this might all be that, I think, makes his other cases easier to accept as possible. Unlike the prehistoric monument guys who have to assume that the knowledge of calculating such alignments and measurement techniques (not so much of lengths, which could just be a marked rod—perhaps the best bit of the paper was pictures of John himself messing about in open country with a fifteen-foot rod of his own manufacture seeing how hard it would be to lay out a village plan with it, the answer being not very—but of consistently precise right-angles) was transmitted somehow, John could point to texts, in the form of the manuals of Roman surveyors, agrimensores, copied in monastic contexts more or less throughout the period. We’ve already seen some of these texts on this blog, in fact, as such a manual exists from Santa Maria de Ripoll. Finding them in Anglo-Saxon contexts is a lot harder, but the fact that a lot of the uses of this 15-ft module are in fact ecclesiastical suggests that this is the easiest way to imagine its dissemination, monks with building projects putting into action the instructions of the ancients that they actually had written down.

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Fitting nicely with this was not just the number of his examples that John thought could be linked to monastic contexts (especially here the estates of Bishop Wilfrid of York (among other places) whose resort to Rome and Roman technical knowledge is well-documented), where possibly others might be less willing to assume a monastic church structure all over Anglo-Saxon England than he, but also the fact that this module is very hard to find in use between the eighth and tenth centuries.8 In other words, it is best attested during the first, ‘golden’ age of Anglo-Saxon monasticism and then in the age of the Anglo-Saxon monastic reform, both eras in which monastic learning was in fact involved in economic development and alterations to land-holding and land use.9 This works not least because, even though John was quite happy to find connections via which monks might actually have owned or operated many of the estates in question, you don’t actually need that as long as you accept that someone with a project to build a new village or whatever might be aware that the monks had information on such matters which they would probably impart on request. It would need to be quite high-culture monasteries to have a copy of the Ars gromatica in their collections, maybe – it doesn’t show up anywhere outside Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia before the 13th century, says Michel Zimmermann though with various inevitable issues about patchy evidence survival, and Santa Maria is the biggest knowledge storehouse not just in the area but for some way beyond – but a mechanism for the transmission of this knowledge is visible, plausible and thus arguable in the cases where the evidence on the ground might not convince by itself.10

Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

Different ways of laying out fields in the Ars gromatica text in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

There is a lot more that could be squeezed out of this, including the possibility of what would basically be tenements laid out for what would basically be serfs by monasteries, although the questions afterwards came substantially from a number of people who were very interested in the continuing use of the Roman foot, questions that made John’s contentions look much saner by comparison in fact, and to which he wisely ducked all answers, saying that the external verification of his 15-ft perch meant that it was the only measure he dared say was genuinely present in the data. John’s final publication of this is a meaty 49 pages in the quarto format Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, too, so I guess that a good bit more has been squeezed out in that version. If you want to know more, therefore, I can only recommend you have a look and get the information from the man himself!


1. How do people manage this? I gave a paper on Monday. If I knocked in all appropriate revisions and rewrote, I could have something ready to send out by the end of the month probably. It would then take at least six months to be reviewed, the changes that required would probably take me another three and then it would still be eighteen months on average till it got to print. So, some time in 2016? Even being a retired expert with a complete grasp of the evidence would only let me crunch three months out of that two-years-plus process. But Lesley Abrams of last post cut that lead time in half and John Blair, of this post, did even better…

2. This has been a matter of concern for me ever since I did my first one of these posts, seven years ago more or less. I always come back to the same answer: if someone is willing to talk about their work in public, anyone who really wants to misuse it can already get at it, and meanwhile, if I write about it more people know whose work to use respectfully on the subject… But it’s always a little dicey.

3. As J. Blair, “Grid-Planning in Anglo-Saxon Settlements: the short perch and the four-perch module” in Helena Hamerow (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 18 (Oxford 2013), pp. 18-61.

4. By which I really mean David Howlett, British Books in Biblical Style (Dublin 1997), a six-hundred-plus page monster that rather defies evaluation, alleging deliberate arithmetical meter in a host of Insular Latin works and apparently only one of five such books Howlett now has on such questions.

5. For example, Charles Thomas, Christian Celts: messages and images (Stroud 1998), blisteringly reviewed by the normally-equable Thomas Owen Clancy in Innes Review Vol. 51 (2000), pp. 85-88, DOI 10.3366/inr.2000.51.1.85.

6 P. J. Huggins, “Anglo-Saxon timber building measurements: recent results” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 35 (Leeds 1991), pp. 6-28.

7. E. g. J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121.

8. The former is of course the great minster debate, actually framed as such in Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104 & J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212.

9. These threads both picked up and carefully woven into much else in J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 135-367, no less.

10. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 891-897 on the Ripoll manuscript and its milieu.