Tag Archives: Patrick Geary

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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In praise of the Liber sanctae fidis

I am of course primarily a charter geek, but it’s hard to form much attachment to individual charters. If I had to I’d pick the one that Adam Kosto opens his 2005 Speculum article with, because not only is it nuts, the fact that it still exists is nuts.1 But more on that another time, maybe. The point is that they’re small, so you can’t form much of an attachment to the author or the characters unless they also appear in other charters, so you don’t then get to have a favourite source so much as a favourite scribe.2 What then is my favourite source? Well, teaching reminded me of a very likely contender, so I’ll tell you about it.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

In 1013 a chap called Bernard of Angers made a pilgrimage to a place in the Languedoc called Conques, which he’d been hearing a lot about at Chartres, in whose famous school he was studying. He was determined to find out the truth of these stories, which marks him out as that most unusual of things, a medieval sceptic. And, when he arrived in the Languedoc, and first met its peculiar love of reliquary statues that were carried around like trophies on special occasions, his reactions were everything John Calvin could have wanted:

I also thought this practice seemed perverse and most contrary to Christian law when for the first time I examined the statute of Saint Gerald [presumably of Aurillac] placed above the altar, gloriously fashioned out of the purest gold and the most precious stones…. And soon, smiling at my companion, Bernier—to my shame—I burst forth in Latin with this opinion:
“Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?”
Bernier had already been guided in forming his judgement, so he mocked the statue ingeniously enough, and beneath his praise lay disparagement. And not at all undeservedly, for where the cult of the only high and true God must be practised correctly it seems an impious crime and an absurdity that a plaster or wooden and bronze statue is made, unless it is the crucifix of our Lord…. This incorrect practice has such influence in the places I mentioned earlier [Auvergne, Rouergue and the Toulousain] that, if I had said anything openly then against Saint Gerald’s image, I would probably have been punished as if I had committed a great crime.3

Despite this sceptical attitude, Bernard soon came to make at least one exception to his principles on this account, and he was persuaded to by a twelve-year-old girl with a childish love of jewellery. The specially odd thing about that is that she had been dead for about 600 years and her remains were in one of those statues, she being of course Saint Faith, Sainte Foi or her name in whatever other language you may wish to name her in. And this is the statue.

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Bernard had reason to be dubious, because the saint hadn’t been resident at Conques that long: she was martyred at Agen at the beginning of the fourth century, and her relics had rested there quite peacefully until the monks of Conques, which was a daughter house of a monastery at Figeac and seems to have lacked a saint of its own, stole them in 866. This action more or less had to be, could only be, justified by miracles indicating that the saint was happily channelling God’s will in her new home, but the profusion of these seems to have been enough to set Bernard’s mind a-twitch. After a few months at Conques, however, he was not only convinced, he decided to write them all up, something in which the monks appear to have been happy to entertain him, and the saint also since she carried out a miracle while he was there which he rushed to see (though it is sketchy as all get-out, I tell you, as he never saw the supposedly-blind girl before she was supposedly healed and didn’t know how bad her sight was before).4 Some time later, he came back and wrote up some more, and then there were two separate additions of further miracles by some of the monks, presumably after Bernard was no longer available. Sainte-Foi de Conques was a big pilgrimage church on the route to Santiago de Compostela so the throughput of potential curables was quite high. Like many of the churches on those routes, quite a lot of investment had been put into Conques to make it worth diverting to see, and it still is.

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

So why is this a great source, what makes it any better than the average collection of miracles? Well, a bunch of things, starting with the author.5 Bernard is exactly the guide we need into these cults, because he himself starts from a direction we recognise, that of not believing it (though he was plainly a devout and indeed reformist Christian). By the end he has not only drunk the Communion wine, but is actually the saint’s propagandist; all the same, he retains the outsider’s view of what’s strange and funny that we usually have to assume we’ve lost because the insider doesn’t see it like that. Of course, he travels with his own set of dogmatic and social assumptions, but they are ones that we have a reasonable handle on because of Chartres’s educational system producing quite a number of characterful writers. This means that we get a fascinating and useful account of an area where things were not necessarily like elsewhere in France, full of new castellans, prominent noblewomen and lively saints’ cults. It’s probably no wonder that I first met this source in the writings of Pierre Bonnassie.6

Secondly, it’s funny. Saint Faith seems to have had something of a local reputation for liking a laugh, indeed. In a bizarre picture of what was probably a Peace council to which the reliquary statues of various saints had been brought, Bernard makes it seem like a many-way football match in which his team is first to score when he writes as follows:

The most reverend Arnald, Bishop of Rodez, had convened a synod that was limited to the parishes of his diocese. To this synod the bodies of the saints were conveyed in reliquary boxes or in golden images by various communities of monks or canons. The ranks of saints were arranged in tents and pavilions in the meadow of Saint Felix, which is about a mile from Rodez….

A boy, blind and lame, deaf and mute from birth, had been carried there by his parents and placed close beneath the image [of Saint Faith], which been given an elevated and honourable position. After he had been left about an hour, he merited divine medicine. When he had received the grace of a complete cure, the boy stood up speaking, hearing, seeing, and even walking around happily, for he was no longer lame. And when the common people responded to such an amazing event with uproarious joy, the important people at the council, who were seated together a little farther off, began to ask each other: “Why are those people shouting?”

Countess Bertha replied, “Why else should it be, unless Saint Faith is playing her jokes as usual?”

Then all of them were flooded with both wonder and joy because of the exquisite miracle. They called together the whole assembly to praise God, recalling frequently and with very great pleasures what the respectable lady had said—that Saint Faith was joking.7

Part of the fun here is lost to us, in that Bertha is quoted using a peasant word, joca, for the saint’s jokes, and this seems to have been some of the cause of delight, but of course the main part of the story here, beyond the cure itself, is that Faith’s fame is so widespread and her actions so frequent that when there is a popular clammer, the nobility’s natural assumption, even miles from Conques, is that Faith’s acting up. And she does seem to, and not always completely benevolently. Her main line in miracles as told by Bernard is cures of the sick, yes, but she also quite likes trinkets and jewellery. And if you had one she wanted, she would get it:

A young man called William, a native of Auvergne, was worried about a distressing situation and filled with unbearable anxiety, so he vowed to Saint Faith his best ring, which was set with a brilliant green jasper. Things turned out for him better than he had hoped in the matter, so William went to Conques because he was concerned to fulfil the vow he owed. But when he had approached the sacred majesty, William brought out and presented three gold coins, for he calculated that he should be able to redeem the promised gift with one that was larger even though it was different. When he was already about six miles from Conques on his return journey, William suddenly felt drowsy, so he stretched out on the ground and fell asleep for a little while. He soon awakened, but he didn’t see his ring, which until then he had worn on his finger. Then he searched his companions thoroughly and very closely but he didn’t find it anywhere, and he looked in his own clothing, and found nothing. He even proceeded to untie his belt once more, thinking that chance it might have slipped through an inner fold of his clothing, but there was nothing. What, then, should he do? Downcast and filled with confusion he turned his mount back toward Conques. He returned very quickly to the saint and prostrated himself at the foot of her image. There, in a tearful voice, he complained bitterly about the loss of his ring in this way:

“Oh Saint Faith, why have you taken my ring from me? Give it back to me, I implore you, and be satisfied with receiving the ring as a gift. I will give it to you and won’t think it lost, but rather safe. I have sinned, I confess, I have sinned before God and before you, but, Lady, do not look to my transgression but to the customary compassion of your kindness. Do not cast me, a sinner, into sadness, but forgive and make a gift return with joy.”

While William was constantly repeating these and other similar pleas, he looked to the side. Marvellous to report! but believable to the faithful, he saw his ring lying on the pavement. Immediately he snatched it up and returned it to the holy virgin, rejoicing greatly, and those who were standing there marvelled at the sight, for they saw Saint Faith’s power even in trivial matters.8

You’ll notice that she presumably also kept the money… And the reason her statue is quite so over the top is that when a gift like this was made, of jewellery, it was added to the reliquary, which is why the truly sharp-eyed will see that the left leg of her chair is adorned with, among other things, a nineteenth-century cameo. But this is the sort of personality that comes through, a kind of mostly-benevolent magpie poltergeist with a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of property combined with a compassionate care for the sick. And at this point, if you’re teaching this, you can remind the students that she was after all only a little girl, twelve says the literature, which fits with that relatively nicely, and you can probably get them to talk a little bit about how the saint’s character comes through in the stories. And then at some point you can pass some remark calculated to make them realise that, modern cynics though they may be, somewhere along here, about when they started taking seriously the character of a four-hundred-years-dead child as shown in the supposed supernatural events reported by her supposedly credulous and self-interested publicity merchants, they took the blue pill and briefly joined the saint’s cult, in as much as they believe in her enough to impute characteristics to her. Then, of course, they will likely shake themselves mentally and dismiss it all as fabrication and rationalise it, but for a little while they were travelling with Bernard, in his mindset of an initially-sceptical but finally-enthralled enquirer from outside, and that’s a teaching moment worth many lesser ones. I don’t know how many other sources there might be that can do this, but I am very fond of this one.


1. Referring to Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-96), doc. no. 549 of 990, in which one Ramio guarantees one Juli that he, Ramio, will not prosecute him, Juli, for all the bread and wine he stole from Ramio when they lived together. How this comes to be of any relevance at all to a cathedral archive is beyond my imagining, and Adam’s too, though it might, as I’ve had suggested to me, have had relevance for John Boswell.

2. My favourite scribe would undoubtedly be the judge Bonhom of Barcelona, who was not only legible, but learned, verbose, conscientious and inclined to over-share, so that he, for example, apologises in one signature for the document being a bit wonky because he was sleepy when he wrote it, or explains in another case that he wrote it on two occasions in two different inks. This is really useful to me, even though he was presumably only trying to prevent people suspecting his charters were fake. That, of course, tells us that people were checking such things… For more on Bonhom, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92.

3. The Latin text of one of the versions of the text—it seems to have circulated as booklets, which weren’t always assembled in the same order, which is just one more reason why it’s such a rich source—was printed in Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897), but I’m here using the translation of Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994), which adds various other materials and is much more than just a convenient Englishing. There this extract is cap. I.13. I’ve taken the liberty of converting her spellings to UK English, just because I find it hard not to auto-correct that, and also of leaving Saint Faith’s name in normalised English because otherwise it’s the only one that isn’t.

4. Ibid. I.9.

5. Well, here, starting in fact with the fact that apparently the people at large in Aurillac didn’t understand spoken Latin by 1013. Take that, Patrick Geary! But of course we wouldn’t know that without Bernard having been happy to write about himself and his doubts in this way.

6. P. Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148.

7. Sheingorn, Book of Sainte Foy, cap. I. 28.

8. Ibid., I.21.

Copied with approval

“The place of charters in social practices cannot be fully appreciated without an adequate knowledge of their production, their range and their diversity. The documents that survive, together with those known through indirect references (in scattered copies or mentions of losses), are only a residual part of what was produced. Any given charter collection has been affected by accidents of conservation: by selection–whether deliberate or not–and by differing amounts of attention being devoted to different documents, while at the same time addition of new materials was taking place. To know to what extent the visible tip of the documentary iceberg reflects the part that is invisible is an old methodological preoccupation…. The question is certainly a quantitative one but it is even more a qualitative one. Does the view conveyed by the sources simply show a reduction of what was once there, or is it a distortion? Similarly, how should we interpret the ebb and flow in the numbers of documents? What part of this is due to fluctuations in the production of writings and what is due to the vicissitudes of conservation?”1

And he goes on to do a case study using three cartularies compared to the preservation of loose documents from the same place and concludes that, at the very least, the originals were still around for a good while after the production of their first cartularies because, for example, they were used in subsequent larger cartularies. However, the cartularies are still, mostly, selective.2 This is tantamount to calling Patrick Geary wrong, which, nothing loath, he goes on to do in a footnote.3

If I don’t get on with it I shall be able to write my article on this subject entirely by quoting other scholars. It may be difficult to convince someone it deserves printing if I do, or even if I just could. Time to get some stuff finished…


1. Laurent Morelle, “The Metamorphosis of the Monastic Charter Collections in the Eleventh Century (Saint-Amand, Saint-Riquier, Montier-en-Der)” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 171-204, quote at p. 171.

2. The one that isn’t, apparently, where he thinks the compiler was just too overwhelmed by the material to organise to an agenda (ibid. p. 191), wasn’t edited when he wrote but now is, by Constance B. Bouchard (ed.), The cartulary of Montier-en-Der, 666-1129 (Toronto 2004).

3. ‘On this point P. GEARY, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, 1994; French tr. by J.-P. RICARD [sic], Mémoire et oubli à la fin du premier millénaire (Paris, 1996), is not strong enough; see my remarks on the chapter of the book concerning archives: L. MORELLE, “Histoire et archives vers l’an mil: Une nouvelled ‘mutation’?”, Histore et archives 3 (1998), pp. 119-141.’ (Morelle, “Metamorphosis”, p. 173 n. 8.)

What is the point of charters, II: some conceptual pondering

Every now and then I bring up a particular enigma about the early medieval documents at Freising, which I went through very rapidly for the Lay Archives project but is otherwise not my area. There are quite a lot of charters at Freising, and they come to us from a very early cartulary about whose compilation we know more than usual because the scribe, Cosroh, was quite gabby. The last time I mentioned it Clemens Radl popped up like a kind of beneficial Internet spirit and pointed out that the whole thing is in facsimile and edition online, so here, have a sample:1

Page 342 of Cosroh's Codex, from the Bayerische Staatsbibliotek

Page 342 of Cosroh's Codex, from the Bayerische Staatsbibliotek

The enigma is this. There are in this codex about 1000 documents, of which some 14 (before 900 at least) are court hearings. All these hearings call on witnesses only and never bring written evidence. So what on earth are the charters being written for if they’re never to be used?

I’ve previously mentioned the solution of Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, who emphasises the authentication function of gathering everyone together to see it done, at which point the creation of the document becomes a part of the ceremony but its content needn’t necessarily be important. I’m sure that’s true, where there is such a ceremony, but it doesn’t seem quite to work to me because people do go to trouble over the contents sometimes, even if not so much at Freising where the documents are quite often only short notitiae.2 I’ve usually covered this gap with an idea that they were being used for internal reference at the cathedral, which the early copying into a cartulary might support, although for Patrick Geary there are other issues about the control of memory that might have more to do with it.3 I think we can have both, and I wonder if his ascribed motives could ever be conscious. Does it matter if they’re not? I don’t know. Anyway.

The outside of Reading Abbey cartulary

The outside of Reading Abbey cartulary

Something I’ve just read, an article by Isabel Alfonso about legitimisation (not the word her translator uses, you understand… ) of royal power through court judgements in eleventh- and twelfth-century León has got me at least one step further on. Discussing the charters in which those judgements are preserved, she envisages their being read out as a concluding part of the assembly, describing the documents as “vehicles for the communication of the means whereby those decisions had been made, and the social networks that had been activated in the process”.4 I like this better, because it suggests that there is more meaning implied by a charter than is actually in it, the links between the people that my work is about reconstructing but which also explain who is invested in such-and-such a judgement sticking and who is thereby connected to the lucky monstery or cathedral, and of course the king. It’s that connection and mutual self-reinforcement that is the subject of Alfonso’s paper, but the idea that there might be other fora for reading these documents than just in court may get me out of my conceptual bind.

All the same. There’s no evidence for charters in León actually being read out anywhere except as part of a judicial process. So we are having to make stuff up to fill this gap. And so I’m still not happy with it. But until I come across something better maybe this will do.


1. The edition is Theodor Bitterauf (ed.), Die Traditionen des Hochstifts Freising (Aalen 1905-1909, repr. 1967), 2 vols.

2. Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.

3. Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985).

4. Isabel Alfonso, “Judicial Rhetoric and Political Legitimation in Medieval León-Castile”, transl. Carolina Carl in Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 51-87, quote at p. 54.

Leeds report 2: Tuesday 8th

All hail WordPress, because whatever bug was causing my Firefox to die at the `write post’ window appears to have been vanquished. I also discover that I forgot to mention, in the last report, renewing my acquaintance with Gesta, whom I knew from a long time ago but whose real-life name I’d managed to forget knowing in that time—given when it was I bet I didn’t hear it properly the first time and was too bashful to ask again. Anyway, I worked it out, and she has her own Leeds report up already, much shorter and probably far more interesting than mine, so go have a look.

So anyway, Leeds, Tuesday 8th July, yours truly wakes with a thick head but makes it to breakfast anyway, what does he do next? Well, with a bitter headache that was apparently turning his face white and making him look as if he wanted to kill someone, he chairs the third and last of the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions. This one didn’t gel as well as the other two, which is not to say that the papers were any less good: Matthew Hammond, talking about ceremonial acts in early Scottish charters, got many questions from an audience he’d clearly partly drawn, and Morn Capper and Elina Screen also had some interest, Morn especially in fact as I heard people talking about her paper separately from the session discussion through the rest of the day; she was talking about how Mercian royal titles in charters seem only to vary when other people, who are producing the charters, aren’t sure about their new expanded status. Elina by contrast was talking about the political self-conceptualisation of the Italian rule of Emperor Lothar I, and so it was hard to find questions that included all three. I got one that Wendy Davies said she was meaning to ask herself, but thereafter it was kind of three separate crowds rather than a discussion. Still good, though, especially as the other sessions had been much more pure diplomatic and this was more like what historians want to use charters for only done properly.

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Coffee helped with the head and I had a choice next session. I opted to stay in the same building, which also let me visit and wince at prices on the Brepols stall, and I then went to “New Work in Digital Medieval Studies“. This turned out to have been the right decision. In it, Arianna Ciula spoke of using computerised recognition to do palaeographic analysis, which seemed a tool that was so far very useful for a known corpus but which still had some work to be done before anyone could easily deploy it either to recognise scribes, rather than periodize script which was her interest, or use it on a new corpus without almost as long `teaching’ it conventions. All the same it was very interesting. Then Georg Vogeler spoke impassionedly about an attempt to get as many charters as possible onto the web—he was aiming for all of them, pointing out that the rate of increase over the last five years made this apparently realisable in the mid-range future—so as to compare usefully across many corpora, and complained about how little cooperation there was between diplomatists of different areas. Since my collaborators and I had been saying something very similar the previous day, this struck a big chord, and I talked with him afterwards about doing something about it. I’ll blog more about that in the next post; a lot more could very easily be done than is but it’s easy to change that. And finally Dorothy Carr Porter talked about using a 3D scanner to read old papyrus rolls without unrolling them and generally had us impressed at her budget and hardware and wondering what we could use it for. Here again, I know that the technology lacks as yet: papyrus is easier to see `through’ than parchment, codices less so than rolls, and though one would love to be able to read palimpsested text by scanning the tech isn’t yet there; I nearly got to work with the tech that isn’t yet there so I know something about this. It is on the way though, and in the meantime there’s still lots to be done with this, especially if we combined the papers: hi-tech scanning, webifying it then analysing scripts on the web images, for example, would make it nearly possible to automate scribal analysis on pretty much any text being digitised anywhere if people all cooperated… But as was mentioned by several people, “the deans don’t like that idea”. It seems a real pity that that attitude is apparently so frequent, and this sort of thing is really what the sadly moribund Arts and Humanities Data Service ought to have been doing, as I’ve said before.

Galla Placidia as depicted on a gold solidus of Valentinian

Galla Placidia as depicted on a gold solidus of Valentinian

After lunch I perhaps made a mistake, because rather than as I might have done going to see my boss orchestrate numismatists or some stuff about Carolingian-era Eastern Europe I opted instead to go and see friends, and this kind of failed because one of them had broken a foot and thus wasn’t present. However, I did get a fabulous paper by Ralph Mathisen asking whether the Roman emperors really meant it when they apparently outlawed marriage between Romans and barbarians in the fourth century (his answer: only for a certain class of militarily-occupied barbarian or their womenfolk; a related paper on barbarians and citizenship is here), and Jamie Wood unquestionably knows a lot about Isidore of Seville.

The Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard

Finally, I did after tea cave into the numismatic urge, mainly because someone had persuaded the British Museum to finally tell us what was in the Harrogate hoard, now to be known as the Vale of York hoard because of not really coming from that near Harrogate. The answer turns out to be 617 coins, about half of them being Athelstan Two-Line type, but some of the rest being previously unknown Viking types that reverse a small part of the chronology of the mint of Viking York. Small fry to you maybe but coinage chronology is the best early medieval dating evidence there is, it’s important that we keep trying to get it righter. We got one paper about the other artefacts in the hoard (because the cup it was all in is a fairly impressive silver thing in and of itself) and one about the coinage from Barry Ager and Gareth Williams respectively, and Megan Gooch set the scene first of all.

After that I got back to the other half of the site quickly as I could, then raced back again (as far as the conference buses made that possible) and just squeezed into Patrick Geary‘s Medieval Academy lecture, which was quite impressive, not least for the number of languages he had on screen (including Icelandic and Arabic—I can’t quite believe any non-natives speak both, and if they do, I doubt he’s one), but which also illustrated quite nicely Magistra’s point about the difference between `interesting’ and `important’: it was quite interesting to see that the reform movement around the eleventh-century Papacy did use a lot of language suggestive of an attitude that wanted to exclude the ignorant from Latin learning in case they messed it up, but since it was rather harder to find them actually stating this or forming policy round it in a conscious way, it wasn’t yet important. Once, as might not be too hard, it could be shown that these attitudes conform with what they actually did say out loud, it might be an interesting psychological twist, but really, Henry IV and Gregory VII already has enough such twists to make a spring out of. We’ll see if he does anything with this I guess.

There were a few receptions on that evening, though we badly missed our friends from Utrecht, sadly not very evident this year and certainly not offering vast amounts of cheese and Jenever, but given how ropey I’d felt for much of the day I made a sincere but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get an early night, and rose something like better shape for the Wednesday.