Tag Archives: publicity

Aside

Probably only one person reads my blog so closely as to notice this, but the backlog has actually advanced to the point where the ‘sticky’ posts on the front page that I have been using to hold current events and … Continue reading

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Entrevista a mi en Català

The seminar reports are catching up but reports on my other activity seem still to be mired in busy busy November 2014. At the very end of that month, I had the unusual honour of being interviewed for a Catalan history news website, a sort of recognition I’m very flattered to receive although I wish I could have given them a better photograph. Should you be interested, it’s here:

I should probably post the English, shouldn’t I? But I am writing this on a train to Birmingham to x-ray more coins and time and wi-fi are both scant, so I’ll wait to see if anyone wants it. Meanwhile, speaking of Birmingham, even while posting was sparse here I was still cropping up in other places on the Internet, not least the blog of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, as follows:

And then lastly, though I will write properly about All That Glitters soon I promise, even as Cross Country Trains carry me towards the next session, here is a snapshot about one of those we already did:

I have never been so twitterfied! Anyway, with that I must get back to what I am doing now, but here at least is some record of what I have been doing that you didn’t have before!

Gallery

Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo

This gallery contains 6 photos.

For once I don’t feel the need to apologise for the lapse in posting here: moving house (including buying a house), starting a new job, learning my way around a new university and city, attending many many meetings, doing the … Continue reading

The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

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

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

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

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

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

    Plenary Session 2

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

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

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

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

    Session 5.1

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

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

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

Leeds 2014 Report III: priests, charters and finally Hungarians

The church of Santa Maria de Manresa

The church of Santa Maria de Manresa, where as I argue below we can probably be fairly sure some local priests were based in the tenth century, even if not in this actual building. “Seu de Manresa” by Josep Renalias – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sticking determinedly to the reduction of my backlog alongside the notices of what I’m currently up to, here’s the third section of my report on the International Medieval Congress 2014 (or Leeds, to habitués, an ambiguity I am now going to have to get used to disentangling). This covers the Wednesday, 9th July, which was also the day I was presenting. Partly out of grace and mostly out of interest, I spent much of that day in the sessions of the strand in which I was doing that, so there is a heavy concentration here on priests, which was what I had to talk about at that point, but kind of ineluctably I broke out for some charters at some point and, also ineluctably, I was talking about my priests from charters, so this is quite a traditional Jarrett post in a lot of ways, getting down into what people did away from political centres and how we can know about it.

1011. The Clergy in Western Europe, 700-1200, I: education, training and liturgy

  • Carine van Rhijn, “More Than Pastoral Care Alone: local priests and their communities in the Carolingian period”.
  • Bernard Gowers, “Clerical Apprenticeship and Clerical Education, 10th & 11th Centuries”.
  • Helen Gittos, “The Use of English in Medieval Liturgy”.
  • This was about as stimulating an early morning session as they get, and for me especially because of Carine van Rhijn’s paper. She had been going through many manuscripts probably used in Carolingian-period schoolrooms and working out what the people who used them cared about knowing how to do, and the answers were illuminating: calculating the date of Easter, yes, carrying out a correctly-worded Mass, yes, the right dates of saints’ feasts, yes too, but also yes to odd notes of Biblical history, the signs of the Zodiac, ‘Egyptian days of ill omen’, the correct prayers to say before a judicial ordeal but also before a haircut, prayers to say over sick animals or for good harvests… As she said, this was a very broad model of pastoral care, in which people might go to a priest about almost anything, and as Sarah Foot pointed out in discussion, they might also have been going to or previously have been going to other people, of whom such sources would tell us nothing except that this was how the Church competed. Bernard then talked about the different ways in which the training of priests was carried out, distinguishing two overlapping processes, the in-house socialisation of a future priest by living with a senior relative, a kind of life-shadowing apprenticeship, as opposed to a more scholarly style of education in which texts and literary knowledge were the primary focus; some people, like Raoul Glaber, evidently got more of the latter than the former… And lastly Helen Gittos argued that there was much more spoken English in the liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England than our texts and preconceptions would immediately suggest, especially for things like responses from the congregation, though my notes suggest that I was anxious about the lack of evidence from the actual Anglo-Saxon period she had available to demonstrate this. Still, I went for coffee with a great deal to think about.

Now, that thread continued into the next session, but I was presented with the chance to hear three experts talking a problem that bothers me a great deal in my work, that of whether we can deduce from charters issued by kings what those kings wanted to do in the areas concerned, or whether what we mainly learn from this is what recipients of such documents wanted the king to do for them.1 Accordingly I deserted the priests for an hour-and-a-half to go to this:

1124. Empire and Regesta, II: Carolingian diplomas and their recipients as sources for royal acceptance

You see how I couldn’t not. This was the running order:

  • Tobie Walther, “Regesta regni Aquitaniae: recipients and beneficiaries in the diplomas of Pippin I and Pippin II of Aquitaine”.
  • Irmgard Fees, “The Diplomas of Charles the Bald: the problem of lay recipients”.
  • Horst Lößlein, “Royal Diplomas as ‘Performatives’? The Recipients of Diplomas of Charles III the Simple”.
  • Dr Walther had an interesting case study to work with here, because of Aquitaine having been ruled by its own subordinate kings between 817 and 848, if somewhat intermittently towards the end of that, so that questions about attachment and royal policy could have different answers here from elsewhere. The paper didn’t really draw any conclusions, however, and the presentation of the data was hampered by not considering that documents to lay recipients would have survived less well than those to churches; I’m not sure I believe, therefore, that King Pippin I focused his patronage mainly on monasteries, just that that is what we still have evidenced dotted between the numerous forgeries in this area.2 Professor Fees engaged more closely with the question of whether or not we have a clear picture of whom it was got most gifts from kings from such documents, and with Geoffrey Koziol’s new book, by pointing out that even what we have preserves a fragmentary secondary history of laymen getting the gifts they then made to churches, and that we can therefore say what kings gave to churches much more securely than that they gave less to laymen. I would have told you we knew that but it’s always worth having someone put actual data behind these statements.

    The object of desire, a precept of immunity from King Charles the Simple to the canons of Paris, 911

    The object of desire, a precept of immunity from King Charles the Simple to the canons of Paris, 911


    Lastly Herr Lößlein engaged with another part of Geoff’s argument, that the point of issuing such diplomas was partly so that the king could stage a big performance around it. Some of the texts clearly allow for that being possible but others are much more basic and functional, argued Herr Lößlein. From this he more or less reconstructed the argument of Mark Mersiowsky cited above, that Charles the Simple at last (and for Mersiowsky at least, also his predecessors) granted only where people wanted him to grant, rather than in areas where he was trying to intervene; we don’t see how he or anyone established such relationships from royal grants, because those relationships have to have existed first.

I found this rather frustrating, overall. When I first read Mersiowsky’s chapter during my doctoral study it seemed like someone clearly stating what should have been obvious, and I would find the various reactions to Geoff’s provocative counter-arguments more enlightening if they showed more awareness that Geoff had in fact been writing against something.3 For my part, it seems clear from Catalonia that people sought royal charters when it was easy or immediately profitable for them to do so. Both Professor Fees and Dr Lößlein noted that the south-west of the kingdom gets a really substantial proportion of their chosen king’s grants at certain times of their reigns, for Charles the Bald in 844 and for Charles the Simple in 899. It seems obvious to me that this is because Charles the Bald spent a good part of 844 besieging Toulouse and everybody from Catalonia realised that there would never be a better chance to meet the king so went off to get their diplomas renewed, and because in 899 Charles the Bald was holding a council to which the Bishop of Girona and Archbishop of Narbonne had both gone, presumably with a sheaf of requests from their peers and clients. That didn’t happen again later, so the charters peak there, but it’s not because of Charles’s preferences. In short, the key factor here was not royal choice but royal accessibility, married with the beneficiaries’ local circumstances. I hope that some day soon we can stop reinventing this wheel… Anyway, then, after lunch, it was showtime. Obviously I had to go my own session, but I probably would have done anyway given the first speaker…

1211. The Clergy in Western Europe, 700-1200, III: local clergy and parish clergy

  • Wendy Davies, “Local Priests, Books and Things in Northern Iberia, 800-1000”.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Counting Clergy: the distribution of priestly presence around a 10th-century Catalan town”.
  • Grégory Combalbert, “Did Donations of Churches to Religious Houses Have Consequences for the Parish Clergy? Parish Priests, Ecclesiastical Advowson, and Lay Lords in Normandy, Late 11th-Early 13th Centuries”.
  • Wendy was interesting as ever: she was basically presenting the numbers from the northern Iberian documents she now knows so well on books, books given to churches, books recorded in wills and really any books mentioned at all. From this which she was able to deduce that probably most local churches had a small set (median 4·5…) of liturgical volumes: an antiphonary, a Psalter, a hymnal, an ordinary and the peculiar Iberian phenomenon known as the Liber commicus, not a comic book but a kind of liturgical pick’n’mix (we also see the word as ‘conmixtus’, mixed-together) of the working bits of the Hispanic liturgy, still very much in use in these areas apparently.4 To get anything less immediately practical for a working church you had to go to a bigger monastery, many of which had libraries of tens of volumes. Wendy also noted that an average book seemed to be valued at between 2 or 3 solidi, which I note mainly because as I’ve shown cows also sold for about that price in these areas at this time, and yet almost any book would have meant the slaughter of several animals, perhaps sheep but perhaps cows, so that it almost seems like separating it from its owner and putting words on it involved a considerable depreciation of the value of that animal hide…

    Chart showing the breakdown of priestly activity in the charters from the Manresa area in the tenth century

    One of my slides, showing the breakdown of priestly activity in the charters from the Manresa area in the tenth century. This is why I like dense data…

    I, meanwhile, was presenting something like some preliminary conclusions from my Manresa project about which you’ve heard so many different bits. What I started out doing that project for was to try and work out if we could see the organisation of pastoral care around tenth-cenury Manresa from its unusually rich record of land charters, given how many priests turn up in them. This involved me in wrestling with the fact that almost all of the evidence is from the nearby monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, not from the mother church of Manresa itself, but I think I am able to show that other factors turn up alongside the monastery’s interests, even if priests tend to show up more than any other clergy. This seems to have been because people who wanted charters written preferred priests to do it, though plenty of others also did and therefore could. The monastery’s priests do show up more often than others, but not by much, and the areas with the most monastic property are not necessarily those where most priests are recorded. Using all this I argued that there were two sorts of structure here, an established and very localised priesthood mainly visible on the inwards side of the city, where churches had been going for longer, and then another body of priests who appeared all around the city, including towards the frontier in the east and south-east, where there were at this time rather fewer churches, and who therefore were probably based in the city, in something like a temporary minster system which was expected to move towards local establishment when practical.

    The observable sequence of priests at the church of Castellterç. Sant Fruitós de Bages

    The observable sequence of priests at the church of Castellterç. Sant Fruitós de Bages, from my paper

    I think this was the first time I’ve ever given an academic paper I hadn’t written out beforehand. I usually have a text somewhere, even if I don’t necessarily refer to it, but this time there had been no time and I just had a thickly-commented printout of my slides. I’m not sure it went any the worse for it, but I do wish I had written down something about what questions I got. Anyway, last but not least was Dr Combalbert, who was asking, basically, was giving a local church to a monastery a way to ‘reform’ it, in terms of the standard of life and worldliness of its clergy? His conclusion was that it wasn’t, not least because the new onwers didn’t necessarily get to replace priests in these places; even where they had the right to appoint a new one (which is what the word ‘advowson’ means, in case you were wondering) they had to wait for the old one to die first, and there were very often arrangements in place that, even if they didn’t ensure that the priesthood in the church proceeded in heredity (though they sometimes did), made very sure that the donor or local lord retained his ability to have his voice heard in naming the candidates from whom the monks chose the new priest. Such lords also usually kept most of the income, and if they didn’t, the monasteries very often did anyway. I suppose the priest would never have been used to having it, either way…

Then there was tea and then the final session of the day, which was a man down but the remaining two still justified it for me.

1318. Visions of Community, III: shadows or empire – 10th- and 11th-century reactions

  • Bernhard Zeller, “Changes in Documentary Practice in the late 9th and early 10th century: the evidence of royal charters – the case of St Gallen”.
  • Maximilian Diesenberger, “Worrying about Hungarians in the Early 10th Century: an exegetical challenge”.
  • Bernhard was telling us a tale of decline, at least in numerical terms: over the period he was looking at, the monastery of St Gallen, which preserves one of our largest caches of original early medieval charters in Europe north of the Pyrenees, did so less and less. Of the documents they did preserve, too, more and more were royal. This was probably partly because as the Carolingian kingdoms broke down the kings most relevant to St Gallen were also closer to it and more reliant on it, but also, it seems, because the monks were getting non-royal charters made less and less. They had the sort of rights over their area by this stage that might have meant they simply didn’t need them, but they never seem to have used charters in court much and a lot of the gifts they received were so hedged about with conditions as not really to convey anything, so Bernhard mainly thought that they just preferred to get grants from the kings now it was so much more possible.

    The entry of the Magyars into the Carpathian basin, from the Chronicum Pictum, 1360

    The entry of the Magyars into the Carpathian basin, from the Chronicum Pictum, 1360

    In a rather different type of assessment of reaction to crisis, Dr Diesenberger took us through some bishops’ letters showing that the tenth century at large was wrestling with how properly to understand the increasingly severe attacks of the Hungarians in terms consonant with everything being ordained by God. Most of all, did these bow-wielding horsemen from the East herald the Apocalypse? The bishops’ letters argue otherwise, but this probably shows that someone else was arguing for. After my year’s teaching this stuff I had by now become pretty clear that there’s always someone out there preaching the Apocalypse, in the Middle Ages and now, and that the question is how many people care, but what Dr Diesenberger also took from it was that the bishops knew that the kings were becoming unable to help: what was really needed was not prayer or penance but a better means of guaranteeing troop numbers, thought Bishop Salomon of Constance for example, but the overall community that could orchestrate such a response was broken, and the Church was the larger whole that remained for people to hang their identity on. This was very interesting indeed, and if Dr Diesenberger had only not said that the Hungarians didn’t attack Western Francia after 926 I’d have had no quarrels at all.5

Anyway, after that there was wine in the sunshine laid on by the city of Leeds, and after that dinner somewhere out of the way seemed like a good way to decompress. That took longer than I expected, and when we got back the dance was under way. Last year the dance had been in the refectory, but apparently people had complained that this made it feel like a school disco so this year it had been moved into the club run by Leeds University Students Union. What this meant, from my consumer’s point of view, was that it was cramped into a far smaller darker dance floor where there was no room to move, that there was only expensive bottled lager or alcopops available to drink, and that it was much louder, and while I like loud music as much or more than the next man, the whole place seemed unpleasantly like a hot dark gladiatorial arena with a nineties soundtrack and nothing made me wish to stay there rather than go to bed. So I did not dance, and was duly mocked for it next day by those who had noted my absence, but I’m still not sure I regret my choice. I was, in any case, in much better shape than I would otherwise have been for the final day, and I’ll tell you about that after another couple of posts on other things!


1. You can probably see immediately how this is an issue for someone studying the area of the Carolingian kingdoms perhaps most durably attached to one in name and yet also most beyond the reach of its kings, as I do, but you can find the problem also expressed for the core in Mark Mersiowsky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25, to which the field is now avidly contrasting Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas: the West Frankish kingdom (840-987), Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Turnhout 2012).

2.. The documents in question are all printed in Léon Levillain (ed.), Receuil des Actes de Pepin I et Pepin II, rois d’Aquitaine (814-848), ed. Maurice Prou (Paris 1926), but Herr Walther argued that one of the documents Levillain had thought was false may not have been while five more he had as genuine probably weren’t.

3. It’s not like Geoff doesn’t cite Mersiowsky (first at Koziol, Politics of Memory, pp. 28 n. 32), but I’ve yet to hear anyone else going round this particular circle do so.

4. As Wendy duly pointed out, this is very like what Michel Zimmermann found doing the same sort of enquiry for Catalonia, despite the supposed Frankish influence there, but he finds a lectionary much more common than the ordinary and increasingly replacing the commicus: M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècles), Biblioteca de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, I, pp. 523-607, here esp. pp. 523-525. There’s a subtle but quite large point hidden in this about exactly how much difference the Carolingian takeover in Catalonia actually made to how people worshipped there, and I haven’t done enough on it, but what I have done with charters would fit with this in suggesting that it was a slow percolation of change rather than a top-down imposition, probably done by introducing new training methods at certain centres. Of course, that would only get at the people being trained by what Bernard Gowers had earlier separated as ‘education’, not those who learned by ‘apprenticeship’, so change would be slower in areas where structures like those delineated by Dr Combalbert in Normandy were stronger. I didn’t see these links between the sessions’ papers this clearly at the time so it’s a benefit to me to write them up, thankfully…

5. I find while checking references just now that there is a very neat, paragraphs-long summary of this correspondence in Karl Leyser, “Ritual, Ceremony and Gesture: the case of Ottonian Germany”, in Leyser, Communications and Power in medieval Europe: the Carolingian and Ottonian centuries, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 189-213 at pp. 192-194. As for my gripe, it is mainly that there is good evidence for a Hungarian attack that made it all the way to Spain in 942, but also one on Provence in 937, and while the former is only known through Arabic sources that I can at least understand Latinist historians not knowing about, the latter is not. References for anyone working on the Hungarians who does not wish me to point this out to them in seminar questions would include: G. Fasoli, “Points de vue sur les incursions hongroises en Europe au Xe siècle” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 2 (Toulouse 1959), pp. 17-36; Josep Millàs Vallicrosa, “Sobre las incursiones húngaras en la Cataluña condal” in Homenaje a Johannes Vincke para el 11 de Mayo 1962. Festschrift für Johannes Vincke zum 11. Mai 1962 (Madrid 1962-1964), 2 vols, I, pp. 73-80; with great care, Albert Benet i Clarà, “La incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 568-573 and “La batalla de Balltarga. Epilèg a la incursió d’hungaresos a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 4 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 639-640; and Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 115-119, which collects these references.

A problem of concavity

Now that I am returned from all my conferences, I have a few very frantic months left as a numismatist before I demit that noble calling so as to return to medieval history of more traditional sorts. In fact, of course, I will not be leaving the coins completely behind me: almost the first thing I will be doing in my new rôle is to give a guest lecture back at the Barber Institute, as part of my own exhibition there, and then I’ll be going to the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, and I should just be back from that in time to start teaching the aftermath of the end of Roman rule in the West. And in fact, even then, I shall have enough publication projects in hand what with All That Glitters and a couple of other things to do with the Barber’s collections that it may take a while for anyone to notice that coins are not, in fact, what I work on… In that spirit, therefore, here is something like an informal presentation of the problem my paper at Taormina will be addressing, which I do mainly so as to have a first go at posing the problem in text. Basically, my question is: why did Byzantine coins turn concave?

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, all concave, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

It is perfectly reasonable for your first reaction to this question to be “What?”, don’t worry. But this is a thing that happened: from the 1050s onwards, more or less the reign of Michael IV (1034-1041), Byzantine precious metal coinage began to be manufactured with a slight dish-shape that became more and more pronounced, and then spread to the lesser metals too. It also went badly downhill in metal quality, and by the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) the situation was so bad that despite the massive calls on his empire’s much-reduced resources he reset the coinage in the only way one really can in an international precious-metal economy, by accepting the degradation of the existing coins, reclassifying them and introducing a new, 80%-gold denomination, the hyperperon at the top of the tree.1 The old supposedly-gold nomismata became either electrum (gold-silver alloy) or billon (lightly-silvered copper) ‘trachies’, and this meant that the small change was also now concave, though there was also a flat bronze tetarteron that was used especially in what is now Greece.2 Anyway, I digress. The real question is, why adopt the dished design anyway?

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

One thing, and really one thing only is sure about this, which is that it was not an easy thing to do. In the first place, the designs on the dies with which the blank coins were struck were carved in such a way as to keep the design correctly proportioned: it looks straight even though it’s bent, something that becomes very evident when you try to photograph them in such a way that they face you but are still clearly concave. Scanning is better for this because the fall of light emphasises shadow, but with adequate lighting the concavity is quite often visually undetectable in conventional photography. So that was cunning artistry, and not least because the dies themselves, we are fairly sure, were made curved, rather than deforming flat coins by striking them.3 In fact, it seems likely that the flat blanks were first struck with blank dies to curve them, and then the resulting curved blanks were struck with two obverse dies, one for each side of the coin’s design, to ensure a good impression all over the coin’s surface.4 This means that the manufacturers were readier to triple the production process complexity than to make dies that fitted each other snugly, apparently, but we can mainly take from this: there must have been a point to all this, but what?

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

None of the existing ideas seem very satisfactory. They are, roughly:

  1. it made the coins stronger, preventing them snapping;
  2. it made the metal quality of the coins more evident, reassuring people that they were good;
  3. it made the coins stackable in a way that the relatively high-relief flat ones were not;
  4. it brought coins whose low standard had made them much bigger than the older solidi with which they were notionally interchangeable, because gold is denser than anything it might be replaced with, back down to a more acceptable width;
  5. it made the coins better to play tiddly-winks with.5

Now, don’t worry if you’re already laughing at this; I think it is fair to say that thinking about this problem has not been the highest achievement of numismatics as a discipline. But if you’re not quite seeing the problems here, let me set them out for you.

  1. The concavity may make the coins harder to bend, but it makes them far more prone to cracking, because the edges come out so thin, as you see below. And once a coin is cracked, it’s actually in much more danger of snapping; we take a lot of care not to drop these things, in case that fault line should just complete on impact. Yet the practice was maintained for long after that would have been apparent. So, no.
  2. Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702

    Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702, nothing a bit of solder wouldn’t fix! (I jest.)


    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758

    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758, probably beyond the soldering iron…

  3. The metal quality certainly is more evident, because of those same thin edges, but in that case it would be quite important to maintain that quality. Yet the concave coins went through just the same nosedive of purity again once reformed, and you’d think that even if making them flat again would have been some kind of admission of failure, at least it would have been unclear how badly you’d failed, whereas with the concave coins there’s no hope of concealment.
  4. They just don’t stack, seriously. The manufacture was not regular enough to guarantee anything but the most basic fit. And why on earth would this have been a desirable thing here, when even cultures that use money in strung-together multiples like Chinese cash are still flat? A much better way to do this would have been to cut the designs in lower relief, or just cut them deeper than the surrounding border, so that that became the point of contact between any two coin faces. I find this one actually a silly explanation, sorry.
  5. This seems to me to presuppose a point beyond which coins were just thought too big to use, one which is only obvious if you accept that this practice shows that the Byzantine Empire had passed it. But it had used bigger coins than this before and done nothing similar. So I see no reason to accept this kind of supposed cultural universal, but even if you do, one could have achieved the same result just by making the coins thicker, which would also make them stronger. It would make them harder to strike, in terms of force, but less fragile in manufacture, easier to cut dies for and anyway, brute force was not something any pre-modern state really lacked a supply of.6
  6. In so far as I’m going to take this seriously at all, why would you start with the gold for something that would ordinarily, surely, be played with low-value coins? And why on earth would the emperor care anyway? Still more why would any subsequent emperor not repeal this in the next reform?

So, we don’t have a good explanation. In Taormina I will try to propose one that is at least less bad, and that focuses more on the manufacturing process and its changed characteristics. I have a lot to read still, and I don’t want to give away my unique selling point as yet, although I’ve tried it in the classroom a few times by now, so for now I’ll go no further, but I hope I’ve at least intrigued you with the question! And if you have answers you’d like to offer, I promise due credit if I wind up using yours alongside mine in the paper…


1. On the circumstances leading to this reform see most easily Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2012), pp. 56-71, online here, but you might wish to compare Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 513-517 and Alan Harvey, “Financial crisis and the rural economy” in Margaret Mullett & Dion C. Smythe (edd.), Alexios I Komnenos. Papers on the Second Belfast Byzantine International Colloquium, 14-16 April 1989, Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations 4.1 (Belfast 1996), pp. 167-184.

2. For the actual coins, the best guide is indubitably Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 211-228, esp. pp. 223-228.

3. Simon Bendall & David Sellwood, “The method of striking scyphate coins using two obverse dies, in the light of an early thirteenth century hoard” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 18 (London 1978), pp. 93-104.

4. David Sellwood, “The Production of Flans for Byzantine Trachy Issues” in D. M. Metcalf & Andrew Oddy (edd.), Metallurgy in Numismatics, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 13 (London 1980), pp. 174-175.

5. Strength: as well as the article linked, Cécile Morrisson, “La concavité des monnaies byzantines” in Bulletin de le Société française de numismatique Vol. 30 no. 6 (Paris 1975), pp. 786-788, criticising the work of Hendy cited below, for which reason no doubt Hendy not unjustly responded in Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, p. 510 n. 313, “Neither explanation [that of Grierson mentioned below or Morrisson’s] is totally satisfactory by itself, as neither takes full account of the curious inconsistency of its early usage”, and indeed I could show you flat nomismata contemporaneous with the earliest concave ones right here where I write. Indicator of metal quality: Michael F. Hendy, Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081-1261, Dumbarton Oaks Studies XII (Washington DC 1969), p. 6; Alfred R. Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. Volume Three: Leo III to Nicephorus III 717–1081, by Philip Grierson, Part I: Leo III to Michael III (717–867) (Washington DC 1973), pp. 5-7, to which cf. Morrisson, “Concavité des monnaies byzantines”, p. 787, accepted by Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 197-198. I don’t yet have cites for the stacking or tiddly-winks theories, alas; they are much repeated but never with attribution. For the idea that the flans were now too big and had to be reined in, see Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda; structure of the issues 976-1067; the concave/convex histamena; contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Italo Vecchia, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), pp. 103-124 esp. pp. 122-124.

6. This last point, though obvious, I had to have pointed out to me by Dr Rebecca Darley.

Big News VI: Leeds for the future

So, I promised something about the hiatus and what was going on in it and this is that post. I made a serious attempt to get back up to date with the blog from July 2014 to Christmas 2014, but then Christmas happened and in that time someone heard me saying that if I was going to get another job after this one I probably needed to heed one academic’s advice and get myself a second book. That someone pointed out that I had been going on about the one I’d write for ages, and would probably be both happier and more successful if I actually got on with it, and they were right, of course, but really the only time I could free up for that was the time I was using for blogging. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that I would still be able to blog on some days, but as you will have seen, that didn’t really work. In any given day I was trying to write a thousand words or so, put in a day at work or teaching, deal with at least the minimum of housework and e-mail and get through the three most immediate three things on my to-do list and, if there was time, read or blog, and basically I never got beyond the three things before midnight. From January to March I was also teaching the fourteenth century for the first time in my life and trying to keep up with the same basic reading I’d set my students. There wasn’t much time spare.

Folie Charles VI forêt du Mans

That said, I did rather enjoy meeting Froissart properly for the first time...He goes on my list of medieval figures I'd like to have a drink with.

Also, I had committed myself to heroic levels of over-achievement rather than fall out of the machine, so that even once there were two sample chapters out for review with a press (about which process I will write separately), I also submitted two articles to journals, went to Catalonia again, then had to consider what I was presenting at Kalamazoo and organise my parts of the travel, and then I was in the USA and then I was giving a paper in Oxford and then it was time to start on the work for Leeds, during which time there was also a big funding bid going in of which I was part. And once I’m done on the Leeds paper, indeed, I’ll be needing to put together one for the week after and then I’m not committed to speaking before an academic audience until September but I do have two chapter-length pieces to write on coins at the Barber… So it’s been pretty busy (and there’s lots to write about).

Jonathan Jarrett standing atop the Castell de Gurb

Me standing on the Castell de Gurb, vainly trying to convey a sense of scale, image used by permission

But also in that time, as you may have noticed if you’re inside the Academy on the British side of the pond, in late January the government’s Research Excellence Framework published its initial results, allowing everyone in the top 30 universities in the UK to claim to be in the top 10 but also allowing them all to guess roughly how much money they might have for the next five years, and there was a consequent deluge of academic vacancies the like of which I have never seen before in this country, pretty much all permanent. So I was also applying for more or less a job a week after that started, and that lasted for two months. In total I applied for seven, I think, and had got some of the way with three other applications when, as it turned out, the first one of all offered me first an interview and then, to my surprise and delight, the post. And thus the real news of this post, already known to many it seems but very much worth announcing even so, is that as of September I will be moving to the University of Leeds to become a Lecturer in Early Medieval History, making up in some way for the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, and that will be my base and job for the foreseeable future!

Jonathan Jarrett plus contract from the University of Leeds

Incontrovertible evidence!

This is obviously really great news. Leeds is a brilliant place to wind up, with many colleagues of like interests and a great deal happening, and I’m really looking forward to it. I now have quite a lot to finish very quickly at the Barber, of course, and I’ve very much enjoyed Birmingham generally in academic terms, it’s been extremely supportive and very good for me as a scholar as well, broadening my comparative range and encouraging me to try for things I wouldn’t have before, as well as much improving certain other crucial details of my life. Still, it’s hard to see what a better outcome could be than this. Neither am I entirely leaving coins behind, not just because of various publication projects ongoing but because of local coin collections whose curators are willing to let me use them for teaching. So it all looks very much like development and success and that all-important security of knowing where one lives for long enough actually to put down roots. Mind you, it also looks like finishing that book, ideally an article or two and starting three new courses all of my own all at the same time; but actually that sounds pretty great too. It has already been suggested to me that I won’t have time to blog any more, of course, by someone who presumably hadn’t checked in in a while and realised I’d stopped already, but I have great hopes of managing it, you know. I may not in fact have blogged last year’s Leeds International Medieval Congress before this one again, I admit. But stay tuned anyway, I’ll be catching up. And now we know what the future holds, who knows what that will cause to happen!

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The most obvious face of the University of Leeds, the Parkinson Building. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


This post was written with the aid of Clandestino by Manu Chao and Maui by Kava Kava.