Tag Archives: nationalism

Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?


1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063–1088, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 3

Continuing the press through my reporting backlog, we now reach the third day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies, or as it’s otherwise known, Kalamazoo, 16th May 2015. Time is as ever short and the subject matter ageing, so I shall try and just do my brief list-and-comment format and I’m happy to provide more if they tweak people’s interest. But this is what I saw and some of what I thought…

Early Medieval Europe III

Obviously not one I could miss, given the participants:

  • Eric J. Goldberg, “The Hunting Death of King Carloman II (884)”
  • Cullen J. Chandler, “Nationalism and the Late Carolingian March”
  • Phyllis Jestice, “When Duchesses Were Dukes: female dukes and the rhetoric of power in tenth-century Germany
  • Professor Goldberg made a good attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of King Carloman II, who did indeed get himself killed in a boar-hunt thereby wrecking Western Francia’s chance of Carolingian security, but who had also received the text of advice we know as the De Ordine Palatii from Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims and the acts of whose single council speak in moralising terms of reform and a return to old law in a way that suggests he had taken it to heart, and intended to rule like the right sort of king had the boar not won in one of the court’s fairly essential mutual displays of valour; it might justly be noted, as did Professor Goldberg, that the hunt was happening on a royal estate freshly recovered from the Vikings. As usual, it turns out not to be simple. Cullen made a fresh attempt at explaining the details of Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s undesired escape from Frankish over-rule in the years 985-987 without the national determinism that the standard Catalan scholarship has attached to those events, painting Borrell’s position as one of local legitimacy via multiple fidelities to powerful rulers rather than independència; I might not quite agree, preferring to see something like a serial monogamous Königsfern (to use Cullen’s own concept), but there’s no doubt that nationalism distorts all our perspectives.1 Lastly Professor Jestice looked at three German noblewomen, Judith Duchess of Burgundy, Beatrice Duchess of Upper Lotharingia and Hedwig Duchess of Swabia, over the 960s to 980s, during which time all of them were in various ways in charge of their duchies in the absence of an adult male ruler, and who were all addressed as dux, ‘duke’ as we translate it, in the masculine, in that time, and were awarded charters and held courts like the rulers in whose places we usually consider them to have stood. As Professor Jestice said, it’s a lot easier just to say that they exercised power in their own right, isn’t it? After all, when Duke Dietrich of Lotharingia threw his mother out of power, the pope imposed a penance on him, so you have to wonder if their categories were where we expect them to be. Questions here were mainly about the gendering of the language, and whether it actually has significance, but the point is surely that we can’t mark a clear difference between these women and their male counterparts, so should maybe stop doing it.

432. Money in the Middle Ages

Another obviously-required choice, with later ramifications I couldn’t have anticipated.

  • Andrei Gândilâ, “Modern Money in a Pre-Modern Economy: Fiduciary Coinage in Early Byzantium”
  • Lee Mordechai, “East Roman Imperial Spending and the Eleventh-Century Crisis”
  • Lisa Wolverton, “War, Politics, and the Flow of Cash on the German-Czech-Polish Frontier”
  • Andrei opened up a question I have since pursued with him in other places (thanks not least to Lee, it’s all very circular), which is, how was Byzantine small change valued? From Anastasius (491-518) until the mid-ninth century Byzantine copper-alloy coinage usually carried a face value, which related to the gold coinage in which tax and military salaries were paid in ways we are occasionally told about, but its size didn’t just vary widely, with old 20-nummi pieces sometimes being bigger than newer 40-nummi ones, but was occasionally increased or restored, while old Roman and Byzantine bronze coins continued to run alongside this stuff in circulation at values we don’t understand.2 It seems obvious that the state could set the value of these coinages in ways that look very modern, but the supporting economic framework is largely invisible to us as yet. Lee, meanwhile, retold the economic history of the eleventh-century Byzantine empire, which is as he observed often graphed by means of tracking gold fineness, but could instead be seen as a series of policy reversals by very short-lived emperors that only Alexios I Komnenos, hero of that particular narrative, even had time to address in a way that had a chance of lasting.3 Lastly Professor Wolverton pointed at how often money was involved in the making and breaking of relations across her chosen frontier and argued that more should be done with this by historians, with which I am certainly not going to argue, although discussion made it seem as if the first problem is going to be the numbers provided by her sources.

Then coffee, much needed, and to the next building for…

472. Rethinking Medieval Maps

  • Rebecca Darley, “Eating the Edge of the World in Book Eleven of the Christian Topography
  • Thomas Franke, “Exceeding Expectations: appeasement and subversion in the Catalan Atlas (1375)”
  • Chet Van Duzer, “A Neglected Type of Mappamundi and its Re-Imaging in the Mare Historiarum (BnF MS Lat. 4995, fo. 26v)”
  • Anne Derbes, “Rethinking Maps in Late Medieval Italy: Giusto de’ Menabodi’s Creation of the World in the Baptistery of Padua”
  • Most of this session was somewhat late for me, though not uninteresting, but as keen readers will know Rebecca Darley’s research just about meets mine at Byzantium. She was here arguing in general that, in the early Middle Ages, maps were not tools to be used to find things but ways of imaging space that could not actually be experienced, and used the sixth-century Alexandrian text known as the Christian Topography as an example. It argues in ten books for a flat world the shape of the Tabernacle but then apparently adding an eleventh using quite different source materials to describe the voyage by sea to India and Sri Lanka, with details of the animals from there that the author had seen or indeed eaten. The thing is that the book’s earlier maps don’t show India or Sri Lanka at all, and the cited animals and foods make it seem that the author wasn’t at all clear where they really were; they were not abstract enough to be mapped, but could be directly experienced. QED!

    The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

    The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


    Then Mr Franke introduced us, or at least me, to the Catalan Atlas, a world map made by a Jewish artist for King Peter III or Aragón in 1375 which, according to Mr Franke, encodes in its numerous labels of sacred and indeed Apocalyptic locations and portrayals of their associated persons a message that Antichrist will look like the real Christ and that Jews will not be associated with him.
    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript

    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript, by Abraham Cresques – Bibliothèque Nationale de Fance, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41309380


    Mr Van Duzer, for his part, introduced us to another map-as-conceptual-diagram, not the well-known T-O map but a sort of V-in-a-box that shows the different destinations of the sons of Noah about the continents as per the Bible, developed and more less forgotten in the seventh century but revived in his fourteenth-century example manuscript as a vertical projection of a curved Earth, all of which together is more or less unparalleled.
    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v

    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v, showing the division of the world between the races


    Lastly Professor Derbes described a world map that can be found in the sixteenth-century baptistery of Padua built by the Carrara family as part of a larger effort of showing off the learning and artistry which they could command. As with much of the session, all I could do with this was nod and enjoy the pictures but the pictures were all pretty good.

And that was it for the third day of papers. Once again, I didn’t do any of the evening sessions but instead hunted dinner in Kalamazoo proper, which the waiter told us was among other things the first home of the Gibson Les Paul guitar. This also means I missed the dance, which is becoming something of a worrying conference trend and perhaps something I should combat, at Kalamazoo at least, but by now I needed the rest, and so this day also wound down.


1. Until Cullen has this in print, one can see Paul Freedman making some of the same points more gently (because of being in Barcelona to do it) in his ‘Symbolic implications of the events of 985-988’ in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), 2 vols (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23-24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 117-129, online here.

2. The current state of the art on this question is more or less one article, Cécile Morrisson, “La monnaie fiduciaire à Byzance ou ‘Vraie monnaie’, ‘monnaie fiduciaire’ et ‘fausse monnaie’ à Byzance” in Bulletin de la Société Française de Numismatique Vol. 34 (Paris 1979), pp. 612-616.

Seminar CCXI: two medievalist myth-makers

As you may have noticed, things have calmed down enough that I am beginning to have time to blog again, but I am nonetheless currently a year and two days behind still. I’m not apologising, so much as explaining that I still have a certain amount of Birmingham stuff to report on that still seems worthwhile, and the first of them is last year’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Public Lecture, which was given by Dr Carl Phelpstead with the title, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and J. R. R. Tolkien: myth-making and national identity in the twelfth and twentieth centuries”.

Cover of Lewis Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Cover of Lewis Thorpe’s translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

You may well look at that and wonder where the comparison could lie between these two figures, I mean, apart from being internationally-famous writers of fantasy literature that was translated into many languages who were born outside England but finished up with jobs in Oxford obviously.1 And indeed I steal that hook straight from Dr Phelpstead’s lecture but there is, he was arguing, more to the comparison even than that, in that they were both at some level out to create a new national myth that was like, but not ultimately based in, history. The comparison only goes so far in this direction, of course, since as far as we clearly understand what Geoffrey of Monmouth was up to it was to reinsert Britonnic heroes and the past of his Welsh nation into the longer history of the kingdom that was now England, and he seems to have done this cleverly enough to be liked and read in equal measure by those who identified against the English and those like King Henry II who wanted it to be clear how the perhaps-separate histories of the British and English nations were now united, indissolubly, under one obedience, namely to him.2 Tolkien, on the other hand, was apparently dubious about the meaning of Britain as a construct, identified fairly firmly as English and when pushed as Mercian, and reportedly told his son in a letter that if he was anything he was Hwiccian, a marginal identity par excellence but not one with a great deal of meaning attached outside Anglo-Saxonist circles perhaps.3 In this light, it is notable (said Dr Phelpstead, but it seems to be right to me) that except when there is a war afoot, admittedly for most of the Lord of the Rings cycle, the various races of Middle Earth normally leave each other alone and certainly have no shared or overruling government.

Obviously, we have a lot more material from which to gauge Tolkien’s intentions than we do for Geoffrey’s, and the most interesting thing about this lecture for me was those snippets of the author before The Lord of the Rings became the thing for which he was mostly known, indeed before it existed. These suggest that what he was after to provide a missing English epic, something to make up for the fact that England (definitely England) has no sagas, no equivalent to the Kalevala and so on. Like those, it would not need to be historical, but it would need to be in keeping, and for Tolkien at least, express what he called, “a certain truth” about the nation whose culture he aimed thus to supplement. For Dr Phelpstead this was also a point of junction between the two authors: Geoffrey’s ‘certain truth’ was that the history of the island was really that of its older inhabitants, for Tolkien it was more about the quality of heroism and determination in the cause of peace, but the aim to put across a deeper message in their stories was there. Of course, Tolkien knew Geoffrey’s work but precisely because of its British agenda it wouldn’t serve as a basis for his own. In the event, of course, neither did England, and in fact neither did Britain for Geoffrey; both epics escape national confines fairly dramatically and transcend into something that appealed to readers of a great many more nationalities than the target ones, in ways neither author could easily have foreseen.

Pages from an illuminated edition of Tolkien's Silmarilion

Of course, of course someone has done this, this being a hand-illuminated edition of Tolkien’s Silmarilion. There is an interview with the artist, Benjamin Harff, here.

I’m not sure, going back over this, that the comparison here actually yields new insights about either Geoffrey or Tolkien; I learnt a lot about Tolkien and something about Geoffrey from this paper, but more separately than together. The curmudgeon in me wants to cite Chris Wickham’s demand that historical comparison must have a meaningful object to be worth doing, but a public lecture can perhaps be allowed to be entertainment for the brain rather than world-changing insight, and of course I’m not a literature scholar and every now and then I get reminded that things are different over that fence.4 The important thing about this lecture was therefore probably that I enjoyed it and learnt things, and it tided well for the seminar programme ahead.


1. It has subsequently become clear to me that I have, for the last few years, been proceeding around Tolkien’s career itinerary in the wrong order: he grew up in Birmingham, studied and got his first job in Oxford, went from there to a Readership at Leeds and then returned to Oxford as a professor. I’m now slightly worried lest I have to balance all this out by dying in South Africa, where he was born.

2. In so far as I didn’t learn all this from the Internet and seminar papers by John Gillingham, I think that I have it from David Dumville, “An early text of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the circulation of some Latin histories in twelfth-century Normandy” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 4 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, repr. with addenda in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), XIV, and Nicholas Higham, “Historical Narratives as Cultural Politics: Rome, ‘British-ness’ and ‘English-ness'” in idem (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 68-79. But mainly John and the Internet are to blame.

.3. Tolkien’s letters are partly published as Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (edd.), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: a selection (London 1981), whence this kind of information was largely drawn.

4. But it would be curmudgeonly, so I won’t.

This post was written with the aid of Moon Healing Activation by Das Ludicroix, and jolly effective it was too.

The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this… Continue reading

Building states on the Iberian frontier, I: putting the peasants up front

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let's have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let’s have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

As I sat down to write this I was having trouble thinking something out, and by now my favourite strategy when this happens, assuming that I can’t trap someone at a pub table and thrash it out at them verbally, is to try and write about it. So this is the first of a number of posts messing with questions of agency and, well, credit or blame I suppose, in the creation of medieval society at the Muslim-Christian frontier in medieval Iberia. It comes out of reading a genuinely excellent account of that for Castile in the tenth century (the most important of European centuries, as I’m sure you realise) by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes.1 It gets right down into the mechanisms by which lords got themselves into positions of power on the frontier and then used those to make themselves more important wherever else they turned up, creating extensive lordships which would only be converted to intensive ones much later. This is a really clear chapter, informed by a lively and interesting new theoretical base, and is important not just for the tenth century and debates about state formation on frontiers anywhere, but also about the delay in what comes after, the intensification, which of course plays into the feudal transformation debate of which everyone is so tired and so on.2 It really made me think but one thing that it made me think was that it’s only about lords. This has made me write a great deal, and out of general mercy for the audience I put the rest behind a cut, but if you feel up to it I would be very interested in feedback and corrections, not least because I tread on several nationalisms in the course of it and need to know what bits may make people angry… Continue reading

The unexamined project is not worth… er… projecting? Or, Help, I got some Foucault on me

Self-critique

books

Despite my initial reservations, the Historical Archaeology I’m currently reading is making me think a lot and mostly in a good way. It is very theory-driven, which might be expected to get my goat, especially since some of the language is not that obvious (I am glad to find I have fellow feeling here)—and I’ve already run across ‘imbricated’ once—but I suspect that I am learning my way through this particular semantic jungle, and also it’s just that bit easier with archæology, because the initial remove of content from creation is not so pronounced as with the study of texts. The empirical existence of a thing from the past in question seems to make an empirical starting position more automatic, which suits me.

That said, a great deal of the writing here is about archæology’s effects in the present.1 While one suspects that in part this is a subject trying to impress on a funding-giving audience its own contemporary importance, it must be said that making this case seems to be a darn sight easier in the USA, where indigenous burial sites, the self-acclaimed descendants of whose occupants are still around, make it a very very live concern. (Contrast the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with the very British furore over the location of the body of a prehistoric child near Avebury Ring recently, in which the various bodies of modern druidism tried to achieve something similar. Those thousand extra years of antiquity, to say nothing of the problems inherent in druidism trying to claim continuity, just make it so much harder for people in the UK to care, it seems.) The theory that gets invoked for this sort of thing is transferable to any study of the past with no real trouble. It’s mainly about being self-aware, and aware that one’s work is constructed within and affects the society of which one is part. If, for example, one finds a huge Neolithic temple site on Orkney (oh look! how convenient for this example…) it is probably understandable that the modern Western observer may liken it to a cathedral, but there is in that not just an assumption that big-investment Christianity is still normative, but also an impression conveyed to the reader that monolithic high-investment and hierarchical religious practice is also what we should be looking for in the Neolithic period, what is a bit more dubious.

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

And so on. The authors of the article I’m mainly thinking of here argue that since one cannot avoid being political anyway, it is best to do so consciously and to advance a political purpose in one’s work, in their case by exposing contradictions in our social construction that have become accepted, naturalised and part of our social structures. So, for an example from the past which we can now easily reject, the white male Victorian view that the European human being represented a higher standard of development than, for example, the African. It’s harder to spot ourselves doing this now, though, even though I was already trying. With that in mind, rather than try and give an account of the scholarship here (it would be easier for you to read it, really, and I will go so far as to say it is worth doing), I thought I’d try and apply it to my own ideas deliberately, and see what reflection could do.

So, one of my many future projects (seriously: I have had to cut down my plans for a couple of job applications lately because having more than you can fit on a page just looks unrealistic, and indeed probably is), and the one that I hope to start on properly some time next year, is a book-length study of Borrell II of Barcelona and his times, which I think were not just hugely interesting but partly shaped by him in a way that his contemporary fellow counts didn’t grab in the same fashion. What can I say about the current political impact of the decision to do that?

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

  1. Well, any project that focuses on Catalonia probably has to start with that choice and the current politics of nationalism there. When I first went to Catalonia I found this local pride quite charming, but I’ve since had it pointed out to me how it looks from other, less wealthy and self-developing, parts of Spain. I’m going to be looking at a period when what is now Catalonia was many counties under four or five different counts, who did not act in cooperation; when the counties included numerous uncontrolled independents; and when claims to new parts of those territories and more besides were being developed. I’m also dealing with the count who is legendarily supposed to have led Catalonia into independence even though he only ruled half of it, and that quite shakily as I’ll argue. I am therefore weakening a case for Catalan nationality in the tenth century, and there is no way that that doesn’t at least connect to current campaigns for greater recognition as a nation. On the other hand, even using the word ‘Catalonia’ implies a vision of unity which I don’t profess and so has to be dealt with very carefully whenever it seems to be necessary.
  2. Connected to that, it is my habit to normalise names to modern Catalan, except the place-names in the parts of the territories that are now in France, which I give in French. The pragmatic reason for this is that I want people to be able to find these places on an atlas or a tourist guide so the current usage is important. But it legitimises French possession of those areas and it’s anachronistic. The latter bothers me more of course but I realise that it bothers others less than the politics. Remember at times like this that Perpignan’s rugby team is called Catalans Dragons. In French. Sort those loyalties out if you dare.
  3. Not the least important: his female relatives are going to get featured, along with his other relatives, but what am I doing to scholarship by focussing on a male power figure?
  4. Similarly, what about the peasants? Surely the story of the majority oppressed is more important than the nobility? At least, it’s easy to imagine contemporary perspectives of society that feel that way, and politically I have more sympathy with them than with the sort of worldview that thinks noble ancestry important… and yet, here I am.
  5. Borrell was only one of several counts, as I’ve said, and I’ve also said that his rôle in bringing the area to independence is exaggerated because of this fact (among other things). But I’m still writing about him and not the others, except where he opposed them. I argue that this is because he does more interesting things, to us—reforming the judicial body and the coinage, representing himself to Córdoba as ruler of his area, losing wars rather than being heroic, and making political statements about the basis of his rule—but even though I think these probably represent an insecurity in power rather than a grand enlightened agenda, there’s still questions not just about whether his contemporaries would have seen him, the traditional monarchist patron Gauzfred of Empúries or the dynastic absolutist Miró Bonfill of Besalú as the strongest ruler, but as to the teleology of focussing on things that appear more modern than ‘feudal’ about his rule.
  6. One thing that I couldn’t have articulated without reading this article, however, is what I think Borrell was doing with these elaborate constructions of his power in his somewhat variable hold on it: by looking for opportunities to intervene, and creating systems of justice and exchange that he controlled (and the Church could also come in here, given that he fought over appointments in it), he was creating spaces of governing action that he could claim were his alone but which everybody used. I have never read any Foucault, so without someone else telling me I was never going to use the word ‘governmentality’ for this practice but all the same I seem to have picked the idea up from somewhere, and now I have a reasoned way to express it. Of course a lot of the people I read have read Foucault, which will be where I have assembled this from, but I suspect I must go back to the source if I’m already doing it second-hand.2 And of course if I’m subscribing to that theory, then I am taking a position with respect to the legitimacy of the public intervention in the private and, by pinning it to one power-hungry and status-anxious noble, saying something about the acquisitiveness of the current public power, no? and that was probably mostly unconscious till now.

Of course I’m not a Catalan, and I’m not publishing it in Catalonia, or at least I’ve no plans to do so (though if I do I know where to go). So it’s very hard, even given all the above, for me to have an overt political purpose other than using Borrell as a platform for my own views about how I think society was changing in Western Europe in the run up to the year 1000, which respond quite strongly to a fairly modern idea I have of political actors having genuine agency in their societies. That has an obvious political import, a message of empowerment; but I suspect that really I’m trying to emphasise an individual’s agency in his environment to me, not to a political audience. These two purposes need not be distinct, of course. And if I’m seriously calling the book Agent of Change (if the eventual publishers will even let me) I have to consider that I am certainly making a public statement of that order, even though it was originally really a shrouded Blue Öyster Cult reference.

Cover art of Agents of Fortune, by Blue Öyster Cult, from Wikimedia Commons

So I’m a bit confused, really. I think these agendas are important, but apart from the nationalism question which I’d like to think I can step outside of, I have trouble locating them in my plans. Do you suppose that it’d be OK to just write the thing and let someone else work out what my political purpose was?

Stones and symbols

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

I also want to mention that Patricia Galloway’s article that I mentioned before, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within”, is still really important, not least because it finds ways to apply the same schemata of interpretation to both objects and texts while giving suitable accent to their differences. It also, however, as I said, uses the Pictish symbol stones as an example, and neatly summarises Charles Thomas’s work on them from the 1960s which read the symbols inscribed on them not as art but as a code referring to peoples and members of peoples. When I hit the phrase, “It is especially interesting as an example here because in it Thomas literally translated artifacts into texts” I was immediately reminded of Jeffrey Cohen’s current work on stones as, well, long-term historical actors? And I thought I should tell him about this and also about a book called And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, which is Thomas’s similar work on Welsh and Irish inscribed stones and the ogam script.3 If Prof. Cohen or someone close by doesn’t comment here I shall make my way over there and stick my oar in.

The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands


1. Matthew M. Palus, Mark P. Leone and Matthew D. Cochran, “Critical Archaeology: Politics Past and Present” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 84-104.

2. Ibid. pp. 92-96, citing esp. Michel Foucault, “Politics and the Study of Discourse: Questions of Method. Governmentality” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (edd.), The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality (Chicago 1991), pp. 53-104.

3. Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Hall & Silliman, Historical Archaeology, pp. 42-64, citing esp. Charles Thomas, “The Interpretation of the Pictish Symbol Stones” in Archaeological Journal Vol. 120 (London 1963), pp. 31-97; Charles Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? (Chicago 1994).

Scots, lies and videotape: historians argue while Neil Oliver makes up Scotland’s history

Sensationalist subject lines ahoy! For lo, BBC Scotland seem to have successfully created a small controversy with the first episode of a new series called A History of Scotland. A post at News for Medievalists, repeating word-for-word an article in Scotland on Sunday, goes to the length of opposing two reputable historians of Scotland, to wit Clare Downham at Aberdeen and James Fraser at Edinburgh, over this new series, presented by Scottish archaeologist-turned-journalist Neil Oliver. Now, they’re not exactly throwing daggers at each other: Downham is quoted as saying: “I think the BBC are trying their best to be contentious here. I would half agree with some of their assertions, but not the entire package”, whereas Fraser says: “The kind of thing that Neil Oliver is saying is more or less in line with the views that have been taken recently by professional scholars”. And Fraser, who’s been working on getting sense out of annals for years, sometimes stretching even my credulity in so doing, and Downham, who was a student, among other things, of David Dumville, and would therefore be trained to read the sources with absolute maximum scepticism, might be expected to disagree more than that, if anything. But the reporting will get the programme a few extra viewers, I guess, and I can say this with confidence because having seen the NfM post, and finding that the programme is viewable for free online, I went and had a look. And now I’m going to add to the controversy by saying: this is excellent TV, but should have been cut at the thirty-five minute mark and then they could have left out the bit where they resorted to making things up and lying about texts. I do not exaggerate, but I will elaborate. But first the good side, because there genuinely is one.

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

[Edit: what follows lightly altered from its original state to reflect Alex Woolf’s input about the production process in comments; this basically means that where I was previously being nasty about Neil Oliver specifically I’m now being nasty about the production team who apparently gave him a fixed script.]

There are far far worse ways to pass an hour while you potter with other things, and occasionally make spluttering notes, than watch this. Firstly, the director was keenly aware how photogenic Scotland is, and the country is the real star, Mr Oliver graciously allowing it to fill the screen nearly as much as does he. Several things in this episode, which he narrates in passionately excited style, are not only excellent television but also examples of what the resort to a visual medium can provide that other things can’t. Apart from hordes of re-enactors lurching through the mist in what may or may not be period armour, which I could take or leave I must admit, it brings the Pictish stones (or at least, those currently being laser-scanned in the National Museum of Scotland) into full play as coded but gorgeously-carved visual evidence, and the reconstructed crannog they show early on really made them real to me in a way that I hadn’t previously got. Also, several of the fortified sites that feature just do look really good viewed offshore from a helicopter and that’s hard to argue with. The section in the National Museum of Scotland is guided by Peter Yeoman, and was really good, though they cut very freely between symbol stones, never for example making it clear that there is only half of the St Vigeans “Drosten” stone left but cutting from it to another intact cross slab as if they were the same piece. As a result, I don’t know on what stone was actually to be found an intriguing little grotesque with horns and wings to whom they briefly cut just as Oliver was using the word “angel”. Horns? Hmm. But I can tell you no more because they didn’t tell me.

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this is a program made by Scots for Scots and so it does come over more than a bit nationalistic. And since there is little argument that England did, you know, conquer Scotland time and again and subject it to all kinds of indignities, even if Scotland did give England a royal family and now receives heavy subsidy from England, it’s understandable when the Anglians enter the story exactly at the halfway point that we get sentences like: “England was not enough for Athelstan” (and what was this England thing exactly, hey? not what it is today that’s for sure). An attempt to recast the Battle of Brunanburh (whose location Oliver is certain about, plumping for Bromborough on the Wirral without mentioning the debate of which that is only one side) as a kind of Hastings of the North in which it was attempted to settle once and for all whether Britain would be ruled by “a single imperial power or several independent kingdoms” is, well, at least arguable, though there is this weird double-think going on where when the Angles and West Saxons overrun their borders (obviously exactly equivalent to the modern English-Scottish border… ) that’s evil, whereas if the Picts do it it’s a sign of strength. And because this is TV I rather expect to see the debates cut out and only the production team’s favourite answer presented, and it pains me but it’s the nature of the genre. It’s just a pity that only a very few TV programs can handle not having a definitive answer (Michael Wood wins the crown here I think). So I wasn’t surprised to see the Aberlemno stone read assuredly as a monument of a defeat of the Angles, which I know from good old Leslie Alcock is less than wholly accepted.1

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

On the other hand some things are just stupid. The Rev. Malcolm King, warden of the current community at Iona, being brought on to explain what the political benefits of conversion might have been for the Picts, should really have been allowed to talk about Ogham to nuance the suggestion that it was principally writing and the administrative potential it contained that would have made Christianity appeal to a king. And of course, there’s really very little evidence of any written administration even in Christian Scotland outside of cloisters and cathedrals till much later. But leave that aside. I’ll also leave aside the assertion that the “Picts were notorious for head-hunting”, which as far as I know comes only from the fact that there are lots of decapitated bodies on Sueno’s Stone, that they had tattoos (which is no better evidenced than the skin-painting that I think more likely) and I’ll even ignore the fact that Oliver was made to call Broichan, chief wizard (magus, is the word Adomnán uses) of Bruide map Maelchon King of Picts a ‘druid’. Or even the idea that in the great Pictish expansionist phase the “Britons and the Gaels had to pay homage to the Pictish king”, for which there is just no evidence or clarity about what it would have meant if they did, and the idea that Picts were a single unified people who can be mapped by their stones, if only because I’ve attacked that last idea elsewhere… And lastly, yes, it is true firstly that Columba did not, apparently, convert many Picts; and secondly that the Gaels in Scotland at least knew Christianity before he arrived, though it is far from clear how widespread it was beyond the leading cenela (do I have that right?) and how much work still needed doing. The Vita Columbae has enough stories about pagans and evil men in it.

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

But we then get to the stuff that is actually misleading. You could tell it was coming because we switched from named sources to “historical records”. The Vita Columbae, which stands between Oliver’s script-writers and their myth-busting, is “more like a fairy tale than a true story”, but what “records tell us” must never be denied. Mr Oliver does in fact show us a source, and he finds it, to his surprise, in Paris, a manuscript which he describes later as “the birth certificate of Scotland”. In it, he assures us, we find otherwise unknown facts about the first real kings of Scotland. The program hypes up the obscurity of the manuscript, with Oliver asking the French curator whether many people come to see it? She answers, in French, that ‘only specialists in Scottish history’ really use it, “seulement les spécialistes en histoire de l’Écosse”, but the translator says instead that such people as access it do so in microfilm. As you will see, whoever translated the text for Oliver was similarly free with it… Oliver of course gets to sit with the actual codex, and to my eye, because I was still struggling at this point to remember what it must be, it’s quite Gothic, later than I was expecting from his hype. He points at king’s names, and then we disappear into a huge and enthralling reconstruction!

The story is made to revolve around Constantine, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin, because, Oliver reveals, Kenneth is never called King of Scotland; he was a King of the Picts. This is perfectly fair, though Oliver is not allowed to mention that Constantine’s father Alpin is usually thought a Gael; Alex Woolf has recently unhinged that piece of argument, so it may not be needed.2 Oliver goes on to narrate, over dramatic reconstruction events, with lots of bearded men and worried boys sitting by fires looking moody, how the grandsons of Kenneth were not allowed to succeed, and they, cousins Constantine and Donald, were sent off to exile in Ireland when King Giric took power from the do-nothing King Áed by sticking a dagger in him (which is not said, but shown in reconstruction). Then eventually Constantine and Donald come back, but different; once Giric is displaced, the cousins succeed to a Pictish kingship but as Gaels by upbringing, and bringing Gaelic courtiers with them. It’s on Domnall and Constantine that Oliver is made to place the blame for the Gaelic takeover, not Kenneth. Somehow the Gaels and Gaelic bishop whom Giric is said to have installed don’t achieve this in the same way. Oliver then takes us through the rest of Constantine’s long life, which involved fighting King Æthelstan of England twice and losing both times, before finally retiring to Kilrymont (St Andrews) as a hermit.

It’s a fantastic story, and one I really thought I should have remembered. So, I have done some digging to see why I didn’t quite remember it, and the answer is, because Oliver or his writer has enhanced it quite considerably. Let’s start with the manuscript.

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock and taken from Bran Mak Morn's Pictish-Elven Witchcraft site, acknowledged here as their copyright requests and linked through the image

The manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4126, otherwise known as the Poppleton Manuscript. It is as it stands thirteenth or fourteenth-century (you see? Gothic) but is thought to be copied from an twelfth-century compilation, and obviously the original texts may have been older. May. I discover in web-searching that Oliver has started with this program a campaign to bring the manuscript back to Scotland, which is a sort of fair enough as it does contain many unique texts. The one Oliver means, which he once calls “The Chronicle of the Kings”, making it sound terribly official, is one of these, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. (Oliver translates Alba as ‘Scotland’ throughout, explaining once after several uses that this is “a Gaelic word meaning ‘Scotland'”, which is somewhere where others might disagree…3) Now this manuscript is so painfully obscure and unknown, that there is an online text and parallel translation of it for you to peruse. And if you do, you’ll find a few differences between what Oliver should have read, and the story he is made to tell. Let me quote you some significant bits of Timothy Weeks’s translation, linked there with the text running in parallel.

Áed held the throne for 1 year. The shortness of his rule has left nothing memorable to history; but he was killed in the town of Nrurim.

Oliver’s words manage to imply, by saying that the Vikings raided Scotland for two years and that Áed “did little to stop them”, reigned twice as long as he did, but leave that for a minute, there’s worse to come.

On the other hand Eochaid the son of Rhun the king of the Britons, grandson of Kenneth by his daughter, ruled for 11 years. Admittedly others say that Giric the son of [a gap in the copy, but other texts name his father as Dungal] ruled at that time; because he became teacher and ordinator to Eochaid. In his second year Áed the son of Niall died; and in his 9th, on the very day of St Ciricius, there was an eclipse of the sun. Eochaid, with his alumnus, was then thrown out of the kingdom.

Now Oliver says Giric killed Áed (or at least, “Áed is killed by his own men; all the evidence points to Giric”), and makes him Áed’s right-hand man, Eochaid never being mentioned. He doesn’t actually call Giric king but he certainly doesn’t say there’s anyone else in power. Also, the Irish exile of the heirs is not here. I’m not even sure where he has got it from, although Wikipedia currently notes it as a suggestion of Alex Woolf’s. It’s certainly likely, but we don’t actually know where they went, which rather knocks out the program’s Gaelic acculturation theory. And then Oliver is made to hypothesize that Giric was killed at Dunollie by the returning cousins, because there’s evidence of burning there, which would be fine as a hypothesis if the manuscript didn’t say that Giric was thrown out, so that even if he was killed it can’t have been in the kingdom if the manuscript—I’m sorry, “the records”—are to be believed. Then we reach the cousins.

Donald the son of Constantine held the throne for 11 years. At that time the Norsemen laid waste to Pictavia. During his rule a battle was fought at Innisibsolian, between the Danes and the Scots: the Scots were the winners.

It’s still between Scots and Picts here, you notice. But it’s Donald! or, if I may, Domnall, the returning outcast, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin—ach, I’m going Gaelic from here except in the quotes—Cinaed mac Alpín. There’s nothing of Causantín here, although because Oliver has to make much of him later he is clear that the younger son was present, for which there is no evidence. Oliver does mention Domnall’s death, but none of the events of his reign. Let’s go on.

Constantine the son of Áed held the throne for 40 years. In his third year the Norsemen raided Dunkeld, and all of Alba. Certainly in the following year the Norsemen were beaten in Strathearn, and in his 6th year King Constantine, and bishop Cellach, vowed that the laws and teachings of the faith, and the rights of the churches and gospels, were to be protected equally with the Scots on the hill of Credulity, near to the royal city of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is, the Hill of Credulity.

Aaaand it’s Alba. Though the Scots and… who? The Albanese? still seem to be separate. Oliver says this text calls Causantín King of Alba, but it doesn’t. That’s a different text in the same manuscript, a list of the kings of Scotland, which unlike some texts in this manuscript also survives in other copies. Some of these do indeed call Causantín King of Alba, but one still calls him King of Picts. Meanwhile, across the sea, both Annals of Ulster and Chronicon Scotorum, both reflecting what was at this stage a common text that later became associated with the abbey of Clonmacnoise, first use the title of Domnall, not Causantín. Oliver admits this but for some reason the program pins the real honour on Causantín. And yet it’s clear from the Chronicle itself that it was still possible to see both peoples separately even if Causantín is said, apparently, to have placed them under the same law, which might have been worth a mention but doesn’t get it, pity as it would have been good evidence of the “cultural takeover” that was ‘just as effective as genocide’ of which the two Gaelicised kings stand accused in the program.

So. A manuscript that doesn’t say what this program says it does; extra details silently supplied from elsewhere, these details usually being theories without evidence but otherwise usually being uncredited lifts from Alex Woolf; several kings missed out to streamline the story; an allegation that the text in which the royal titles occur is unique to that manuscript when in fact it’s a different text that isn’t; royal murders imputed without base in the evidence to succeeding kings… I think I’ve made my point. Alternative views better founded are not hard to locate.4 So I can see why Dr Downham had her reservations, there is a serious degree of fast and loose with the truth here, and the fact that the BBC Scotland website labels this as “factual” will bother me for a while yet. Actually the best image for it is a fantastic one they managed to get of a falcon, just after discussing the massive slaughter at Brunanburh. It darts its head down off camera, comes up with something and champs its bill, nom nom nom, and one has to sort of shiver because of the association with carrion. But what it’s actually got in its bill is down, because it’s preening. And that just about sums up parts of this spectacular but seriously distorting programme for me: fluff and preening, and an implication of meat that isn’t really there.


1. Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 172-173, concluding, “This discussion of possible interpretations of the Aberlemno battle-scene in politico-military terms has been necessary to demonstrate their essential frailty.” I do wish I’d met this man.

2. Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 87-93.

3. For example Dauvit Broun, “The seven kingdoms in De Situ Albanie: a record of Pictish political geography or imaginary map of ancient Alba?”, in E. J. Cowan & R. Andrew McDonald (edd.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages (East Linton 2000), pp. 24-42.

4. Apart from Woolf, Pictland to Alba, see Broun, “Scotland before 1100: writing Scotland’s origins”, in Bob Harris & Alan R. MacDonald (edd.), Scotland: the Making and Unmaking of the Nation c. 1100-1707. Vol. I. The Scottish Nation: Origins to c.1500 (Dundee 2006), pp. 1-16, with a detailed discussion of the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba pp. 8-14.