Tag Archives: networks

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!


1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

Seminars CXLII & CXLIII : tracing text transmission by means old and new

I am back from my international appearance, and fell immediately into a nest of twisting deadlines, most of which I have now beaten and so I resume the slightly foolhardy attempt to get caught up on my seminar reports. Let’s start with 23rd May 2012 (hopefully I won’t actually get a full year behind) when Professor Jo Story spoke to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York”. This was an excellently clear and clever paper that went into the messy question of when exactly York became the second archbishopric of the English. There’s a lot of difficult detail here and Bede, our most important source for it all, was unfortunately up to his neck, it seems, in an attempt to find dubious precedent for the promotion of Bishop Egbert, recipient of that there letter, to the archiepiscopal dignity in 735. The precedent should have been Bishop Paulinus, to whom the pallium that marks the archiepiscopal dignity out from a more usual metropolitan bishop’s was sent by the Pope Honorius I of Professor Story’s title in 634. Unfortunately, by then he had been kicked out of his see at York and his patron king Edwin murdered by King Penda of Mercia, so the precedent is not what you would call ideal. The question then arises what was going on in 735, and here the fact that the new archbishop of Canterbury, Nothelm, had earlier also been responsible for much of the archival research in Rome on which Bede relied, and which would have presumably turned up the relevant papal letters, was probably significant. Also significant, as Alan Thacker pointed out in questions, is that Nothelm may have been from Mercia, to which Roy Flechner then joined the fact that initially, of course, the southern metropolitan was supposed to be based at now-Mercian London, not Kentish Canterbury… There’s room for quite a lot of shifting of ground here and Professor Story certainly gave us good reason to suppose that Bede’s sheet isn’t quite as clean of misrepresentation as once used to be thought. I won’t say more for the very good reason that the paper is now published in English Historical Review so you may be able to see the argument for yourself, but it was fun to hear in advance.1

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

A close-to-contemporary manuscript image of Hraban Maur, he being the young one (from Wikimedia Commons)

Then a week later there was a paper that I was sure Magistra had covered but in fact I can’t see that she has, so I better had. This was Dr Clare Woods of Duke University speaking with the title, “Ninth-Century Networks: books, (gifts), scholarly exchange”. This was a very interesting report on an ongoing attempt to turn network analysis to the service of the study of transmission of manuscripts, specifically manuscripts of the sermons of Hraban Maur, Abbot of Fulda. We do already sort of do this via stemma diagrams, which are a kind of network, but this doesn’t tell us what manuscripts were being used for, if at all, what they are copied with, where they physically are, where they were actually made, and so on, and Dr Woods was interested in seeing just how much of that one could represent and network. The paper was thus a kind of walk-through of methods she’d tried, starting with the most basic (sticking them all on Google Maps with different colour pointers like this), which opens up possibilities of comparison between works and might tell us about where a master’s pupils wound up, moving through putting routes to manuscript movements using tools like Stanford University’s marvellous ORBIS, because after all these things moved with people and those people must have taken routes, and so on. From this kind of location-centric, rather than author-centric or text-centric, networking, we get some idea of what areas were interested in an author’s work, where he was big news and where he was no news, and perhaps some hints of the people to whom he was news. The next step would be GIS, and there is the problem looming that many people who use GIS have found, that in an effort to find the most relevant factor one winds up mapping so much that nothing is distinguishable from it… There are methods to deal with this, though, and we can hope for some interesting things from Dr Woods’s work if I’m any judge.

One interesting question that came up was how to publish this kind of work. If you look at the example above, one of Matt Gabriele’s coming out of the background work on his book on the legend of Charlemagne, you see the beginnings of the problem, which is that the data is dynamic. Lots of what we were being shown in this paper was animated, extra spots appearing on a map, ideally things being added or taken away according to the presenter’s whim. With Matt’s test diagram you could just about publish it as a series of maps to compare with each other, but for something like Dr Woods was doing you’d rapidly head towards a paper that was forty or fifty slides and almost no descriptive text between them apart from a bewildering set of cross-references. The obvious form would seem to be an interactive website but as Dr Woods observed, we have yet to work out how to count such things as peer-reviewed publication (though getting interested and qualified people to spend an hour playing with it would be easy enough, you’d think…). I gamely suggested electronic journal publication with an embedded Flash game, but though I’d love to see it (and I bet somewhere like The Heroic Age would love to host it) I still suspect it’ll be a while before it’s the new form… Wendy Davies raised worries about a species of the Grierson Objection, whether books moving as gifts were behaving the same as books moving as goods, but as Susan Reynolds pointed out, one would only be able to distinguish these cases by first of all mapping the survival, so… Another problem raised by Alice Rio was that the manuscripts might not be moving permanently, but just long enough to be copied; we see that possibility in the letters of Lupus of Ferrières, for example, though with him we mainly see it in theory as Lupus protests that he is going to send the book back, just, like Augustine and chastity, not yet.2 Thus this wound up being one of those best but frightening of IHR Seminars, where the assembled great and good of the field are so piqued with interest by your project that they start trying to work out how they would have done it. I’m not sure how it feels to be the speaker in those circumstances but it’s always slightly awe-striking to see a lot of very agile brains all focused on a single objective for a while like that. Papers and discussions like this are why I always think it worth going, basically…


1. J. Story, “Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York” in English Historical Review Vol. 127 (Oxford 2012), pp. 783-818.

2. The standard translation of his letters, Graydon Regenos (trans.), The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966) is not the easiest book in the world to get hold of, but if you can, you’ll see it is a bit of a theme…

Seminary II.1 (there is nothing new under the sun)

Another Victor Farias chapter in the Riquer volume that Liverpool were kind enough to spare me for a few weeks by the magic of Inter-Library Loan threw up some interesting concepts.1 In discussing parishes in tenth-century Catalonia, he observes that from what we can tell, largely from consecration acts and occasional boundary disputes2, rural churches were centres of small districts even before these were organised as parishes, but that these districts aren’t conceived of as zones, but rather as networks of belongings. That is, a map of connections rather than territories.

This was written in 1998, and although Farias seems to be relatively unafraid to introduce new thinking undercover in what’s a fairly discursive work with very few references—which may not be ideal—I presume it is at least reasonably established in the circles he moves in. But as you may recall it was news to me in May this year when Elizabeth Zadora-Rio told it or something very like it to the Institute of Historical Research.

In all the time I’ve been working on Catalonia, I’ve been conscious of a kind of ten-year wall. I find out about new work mainly through citation, and it takes me a while to get hold of it, and it’s very unusual for something to come to my notice and into my hands that’s less than ten years old and actually from Catalonia. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the literature up to that point, and better than anyone in Europe I’m likely to have to discuss it with, but it all gets a bit sketchy inside a decade, and I’m always conscious that things could have changed quite a lot and I not know. This time however it seems as if I’m not the only one. I guess this, like the fact that royal charters are worth having to people even when they no longer really convey material rights even at time of award, is something that is easier to see from a well-documented fringe.


1. V. Farias, “Els inicis de l’església catalana” in B. de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 154-159, 161-167 & 169-173, at pp. 167 & 171-172.
2. The consecrations are all published in R. Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Les dotalies de les esglésies de Catalunya (segles IX-XII), Estudis Historics: Diplomatari 1-5 (Vic 1993-1994), 3 vols in 5.