Tag Archives: Richard Hodges

Seminar CIX: where’s the money in early Anglo-Saxon England?

I think I’ve decided to run with this theme for the moment, though some things may get shifted around for greater elegance. I’ll advertise any major changes, though. Thankyou all for comments. Now, back to the backlog! It probably won’t surprise you, now that you know that the Winton Institute for Monetary History were being medieval in their seminar series last year, that I was back there before long, on this occasion because Michael Metcalf was speaking, and he is a man whose work I’d read quite a bit of as an undergraduate and heard much of during my time at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but never actually met. He could best be described as Mark Blackburn‘s opposite number in Oxford, but started rather earlier and has perhaps said some more, um, adventurous things, so I was interested to see what would transpire.1 His paper, presented on the 16th November 2011, was entitled, “Thrymsas and sceattas and the balance of payments”.

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

A sceatta (pronounced 'she-att-er'), to wit, a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection. This is the reverse; it's really about a centimetre across.

It used, as Professor Metcalf began by saying, to be thought that the monetary economy began in the High Middle Ages, but ever since metal-detecting got big this has got steadily harder and harder to maintain. The take-off point keeps getting earlier and earlier as more coin is discovered. Especially prevalent have been finds of the earliest coinages of early medieval England and its neighbours, the coins usually known as sceattas (though Mark preferred ‘early pennies’) and their rarer gold predecessors, thrymsas. These have multiplied to such an extent that everyone is now agreed that the old classification of them makes no more sense but very few people have dared to risk putting a foundation down in the ongoing flow of evidence to start a new one, so the coins remain somewhat poorly understood.2 Once it was clear that the high medieval proponents were wrong, anyway, the next paradigm came from none other than Richard Hodges, who in the early 1980s suggested that these coins were in use only by élites and that the average peasant never saw them.3 This was defensible at the time of writing but is an especially hard-hit casualty of the increase in evidence; there’s just too much now, too widely-spread, for any sensible reconstruction of how much there once was to fit such an idea. So, it’s necessary to rethink what coinage in early Anglo-Saxon England was actually doing.

Reverse of Anglo-Saxon gold shilling of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002

A thrymsa, or shilling, in this instance of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002, the reverse again, and even tinier than the previous

This paper had a go, then, at doing this by analysing the distribution of finds of these coinages. We are especially able to get at these now because of electronic resources like the venerable Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam and the rather newer NUMIS in the Netherlands. Playing with these quickly reveals the one-sidedness of finds of the (probably) earliest sceattas, of which many were made in both the Netherlands and England but English ones of which are only found in the latter, whereas the Low Countries ones get everywhere.4 This suggests to Professor Metcalf a balance of payments, and he suggested therefore that wool was a key export even this early, since the coins are in fact found most thickly in the Cotswolds and Yorkshire Wolds, wool-producing areas of note. That also suggests that the goods were shipped direct with no trade on the way! So, that might be élite, if that’s how you see English wool production even as early as the seventh century,5 though it might also not, but the distribution of finds of locally-minted gold coins of the seventh century is basically uniform, so it seems quite unlikely that the good stuff was being concentrated by any such interest. The élite hypothesis does, therefore, seem to have to go.

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

Replica of a (much later) Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

A lot of the paper rested on estimates of the sizes of coinage, an area in which Professor Metcalf has become famous.6 For example: we can now identify nine hundred dies used in the striking of the surviving corpus of seventh-century thrymsas. There are various well-established means for multiplying these figures up towards an estimate of the whole coinage, which when applied here reasoned for three million plus coins total, on a multiplier of five thousand coins per total extrapolated dies, and more probably something like a million in circulation at once.7 Of the gold. If we use modern parishes as a guide to how many villages there were (and you see here what I meant by ‘adventurous’), we might then expect there to be 300-odd gold coins in any given village at once! Now, I am pretty dubious about this kind of arithmetic, as you will know, although even if you halve these figures and double the number of ‘villages’ (a thing that didn’t really exist in the seventh century but let’s just assume it means ‘district’ or ‘area’ and that’s fine8—and one point that came up in questions that I’d never considered is that one thing that must be missing from distribution maps of coin finds is settlements, at least where they have continued, because you can’t metal-detect in towns!) that is still quite a lot of gold to spread out. All the same, even if the actual numbers are rubbish, one point is still true: doing the same maths with the same multipliers for later Anglo-Saxon England nets you much much less. Unless there was something specifically weird about the way money was produced in one or other period (and there certainly was about the later period, given how widely and in what small quantities it might be minted, but that ought to exaggerate the later figures, not shrink them), England was more monetised in the seventh century than it was even in the eleventh.

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent, from Archaeology in Europe (linked through) not one used by Professor Metcalf, whose maps' detail was rather finer, but I somehow find scrounging other people's handouts onto the web without their okay a step too far

So, you know, what, why and how? The answers are yet to come, but the questions are getting louder and louder. Some answers that did get suggested in questions were, the obvious one perhaps, a consumer class in the peasantry (John Blair), monasteries (also John Blair, you will be shocked to learn) both as consumers and as industrial drivers of the economy, salt and meat being bought in bulk (the latter of which was also John’s suggestion, in fact) and, back from the dead, the élite (Anthony Hotson, though here obviously channelling Chris Wickham, sadly absent), in as much as by promoting commerce and appropriating surplus that people are thus made to produce they are causing production and a market economy… And any of these might be the right answer, or indeed all of them, but none of this is coming from texts, or Henri Pirenne would likely have had the answer eighty years ago. This is one of those instances where the answer really does lie in the soil.


1. Most famously, perhaps unfairly, in one of his earliest papers, “How Large Was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, where he used an estimate of 30,000 coins produced by each hypothetical die to produce a maximum figure that somehow immediately became orthodoxy…

2. The basic classification goes back to Stuart Rigold, if I understand rightly—and I really may not!—in his “The principal series of English sceattas” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 47 (London 1977), pp. 21-30, but this rapidly got liberally beaten about, not least in David Hill and Michael Metcalf (edd.), Sceattas in England and on the continent: The Seventh Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 128 (Oxford 1984) and subsequently in D. M. Metcalf, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford 1993), 3 vols. Lately Tony Abramson has proposed a new classification in his Sceattas – An Illustrated Guide (London 2006), but the profession doesn’t seem to be happy with this and I believe we can expect more work on this soon, fostered not least by Tony’s readiness to get people together and talking about these coins as witnessed in the volume he’s edited, Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 1: Two Decades of Discovery (Woodbridge 2008), which came out of Leeds sessions (a lesson to me in prompt publication).

3. Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn 1989).

4. Presumably this is all available in W. Op den Velde & D. M. Metcalf, The Monetary Economy of the Netherlands, c. 690-c. 715 and the Trade with England: A study of the Sceattas of Series D, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 90 (Utrecht 2003) and eidem, The monetary economy of the Netherlands, c. 690 – c. 760 and the trade with England: a study of the “Porcupine” Sceattas of series E, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 96 (Utrecht 2010 for 2009), but I confess I only just now found out about those so I can’t say for sure.

5. My ill-disguised Grierson fandom obliges me to mention Philip Grierson, “The Relations Between England and Flanders Before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th Series Vol. 23 (London 1941), pp. 71-112, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 61-92, though even he didn’t try to push the wool link back this many centuries, not then having the last seventy years’ finds to work from.

6. Not just his “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency” above, to which one might like to compare Philip Grierson’s reply, “The Volume of Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 20 (London 1967), pp. 153-160, repr. in Grierson, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), XXXVIII, but more recently Metcalf, “Some Speculations on the Volume of the German Coinage in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Thomas Fischer & Peter Ilisch (edd.), Lagom. Festschrift für Peter Berghaus zum 60. Geburtstag am 20. November 1979 (Münster 1981), pp. 185-193, another one I know of rather than know, and Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018” in K. Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, which I have actually read, although a very long time ago…

7. Since these methods involve at crucial points making up figures, I don’t myself put much trust in them and in this I’m guided not least by Ted Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production: facts and fantasies”, Presidential Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335–351, but also by the careful compromise suggested by Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973–1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and history in the North Sea world, c. AD 500–1200. Essays in honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523. There’s a computer simulation test of the various statistical estimators in use published by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which gives some reason for credence in such methods, but ultimately I’m with Ted on this: even if it might just be right, it’s inherent to the method that you can’t know that… That doesn’t invalidate Professor Metcalf’s relative conclusions, however!

8. See Helena Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.

On reading more Richard Hodges

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Lately, or at least, as I first wrote this post it was lately, I have been chomping through Richard Hodges’s Goodbye to the Vikings?, which is a reprint volume containing ten of the controversial archæologist’s more recent papers and a couple of new bits.1 I was doing this because someone had asked me, in the then-continuing absence of Hodges’s update of his 1982 book Dark Age Economics, the one that made his name, whether there was anything relevant in this volume, and there is in fact an essay reprinted from W. A. van Es’s Festschrift called “Dark Age Economics Revisited”.2 Having skimmed that I thought I’d probably better read the book while I had it out of the library and having done that, I thought I might give some kind of account of it here.

I have been something of a fan of Hodges’s work, which I put down partly to its genuine quality—Dark Age Economics is legendarily impenetrable in parts but the other parts gave me a completely different view of the development of early medieval Western Europe than I could have got from anywhere else, and you’ve seen me praise his The Anglo-Saxon Achievement here before, even though I understand that it is not well-thought of3—but my adulation was doubtless also down to the way he habitually pitches his work. Only reading this volume has made this advertising strategy fully visible to me. Firstly, the reader is told that historians now have to give way to archæologists to fully understand the early medieval period, because texts have all these problems and there are only so many of them, whereas archæology on the other hand is always producing new stuff. Secondly, Hodges and his friends are the sole merchants of this new learning; it’s not that everyone else is stupid or blinkered, it’s just that the sites Hodges chooses to be interested in or is excavating are presented as the most exciting, significant and revolutionary ones there are. And, fair enough, Hamwic and San Vincenzo al Volturno really have changed our ideas about early medieval material culture and its interconnections. I’m less convinced about the revolutionary potential of Butrint, its big significance appears to be more or less ‘sites in Albania surprisingly like sites elsewhere on Balkan coast despite Albanian exceptionalism’.4 But, never mind that; the point is that the revolution is always happening right now, because of this new site, even though when you go back to Hodges’s earliest work you realise that this has now been his line for thirty years.

This kind of presentation, pursued with relentless energy and a considerable writing productivity, is a big part of what makes Hodges’s work exciting.5 It may therefore have been a mistake to combine so many papers that pitch this line from so many different eras in the one book, as one starts to wonder why the revolution hasn’t yet happened. It must not be 1998 yet! and so on. We have a mission statement of an introduction, revised heavily from a piece in Archaeology magazine, which is then reprised in the conclusion (new in the volume); its agendas are also picked up in a chapter on Pirenne, and somewhat in the van Es tribute piece. More England-focussed pieces reprise the themes of The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, and one paper on Butrint (or, more interestingly, on the politics of Albanian archæology) stands rather alone. There is also a solid seventy pages pulled out of various publications on San Vincenzo al Volturno, and these are perhaps the most valuable because they have been very well-chosen to give an overall view of the site and its significance, and also present some change in its evaluation over time.6 It may be significant that Hodges says in his introduction that these are the pieces he hasn’t revised.7 This also means that you can see the spin developing, mind, as we move from the presentation of the place that he published as A Dark Age Pompeii (because of the site’s rapid destruction and abandonment in 881 after a Saracen attack) to a more nuanced one incorporating a durée plus longue that chooses explicitly not to see the site as a Pompeii-like snapshot.8 The reader doesn’t get this shift in thinking in order, but one can see it happening. Only very rarely, however, does Hodges reflect on his own views; even in “Dark Age Economics Revisited” this is kept to a minimum compared to lining up more data in pursuit of the original study’s aims. So it always looks new and exciting.

The volume mainly impressed me with style, then, but that shouldn’t be taken to diminish the quality of the actual data or analysis, just the way it’s presented. Actually you can learn a lot from this volume, even if you might learn less if you’ve already read The Anglo-Saxon Achievement or (especially) Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne.9 Sometimes, however, just sometimes, the presentation has got on top of the sense. So with a paper called “Charlemagne’s Elephant”, which is quite fun in its way, using the elephant as a synecdoche of the long-range trade routes of Charlemagne’s era, and especially with the title article, “Goodbye to the Vikings?”, originally only two pages in History Today, which expands one of the other piece’s ideas.10 The core idea will look familiar to anyone who’s followed either Guy Halsall’s take on the fall of the Roman Empire or me telling you about that here; just as Guy argues that the fall of the Empire caused the barbarian invasions and not vice versa, so here Hodges argues that it was the collapse of the trade and patronage networks of Charlemagne’s era as the Carolingian Empire broke up that created the massive Scandinavian attacks of the First Viking Age. The problem with this as pitched by Hodges, however, is twofold. Firstly, of course, it falls victim to the Grierson Objection, that not all goods move by trade.11 This looks particularly obvious when Hodges pauses to marvel at how the towns of the English Danelaw, created out of almost nothing, could start and sustain a good silver coinage where Northumbria itself had only had copper coins before the Vikings arrive. Leaving aside that that copper coinage is now being seen as a sign of commercialisation, I tell you, the words Danegeld or tribute do not feature here; it’s all trade.12 No matter how important long-distance trade may or may not have been, there is something missing here.

Then of course there’s the chronology. It is certainly true that the bulk of the Viking attacks occurred in the second half of the ninth century and thereafter, and possibly even truer that the break-up of the Danish state has something to do with the collapse of its neighbour (which had been piling wealth into its various factions for a while) even if that process is obscure to us. But since the attacks began well before Charlemagne was even Emperor, it’s obviously not the whole answer, and then Timothy Reuter’s explanations based on richness and military over-stretch return to play and look very much as if they would explain both phases of activity.13 So: at the very least, I don’t think we can “say goodbye to the Vikings as we have known them”, if by that Hodges means forget that they appropriated wealth by many means and especially violence as well as trade.14 But also, although there is loads of good stuff here, the same things are made so much of so repeatedly that I am now much less anxious to read Dark Age Economics: a new audit than I was before it came out, because I suspect it will tell me rather less than I’d hoped, and this was not the result I expected from reading this volume.


1. R. Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006).

2. R. Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989); idem, “Dark Age Economics Revisited” in H. Sarfati, W. J.  Verwers & P. J. Woltering (edd.), Discussion with the Past: archaeological studies presented to W.A. van Es (Zwolle 1999), pp. 227-232; repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 63-71.

3. If you would like a less favourable view of that book, there is Nicholas Brooks’s review in Speculum Vol. 68 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 170-172, which lambasts Hodges for “factual errors and misleading inferences that pervade the whole book” (p. 172), and concludes (ibid.):

It is good for historians and archaeologists to be provoked into rethinking the fundamental development of early English society, but this book is a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, many of his assertive conjectures will attract blind support. Had he indulged his penchant for the latest anthropological theories at the start, had he administered our dose of “commoditisation” before the last chapter, we could have been sure that only reviewers would have struggled with the whole book!

I deduce from the opening satire of Hodges’s stand against élite-driven text-based history (much like mine above) that the writer of the The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester 1984) felt himself implicated in the critique, but that closing paragraph tells you quite a lot about both book and reviewer.

4. Although the article here about Butrint, Hodges & W. Bowden, “Balkan Ghosts? Nationalism and the Question of Rural Continuity in Albania” in Neil Christie (ed.), Landscapes of Change: rural evolution in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (Aldershot 2004), pp. 195-222, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 39-62, is interesting precisely because it tackles the historiography of that exceptionalism and does quite a lot to set the Albanian finds in context.

5. There are of course other things that are exciting about Hodges’s work too, and they might include, for example: a genuinely large-scale perspective with many comparanda; a theory-informed view of the economy, even of this period, as a system with rules that can be understood; an eye for the ordinary person in the record; and a good choice of illustrative anecdote. But the polemical prose certainly has to come in there too.

6. In order referred to, with reprint pages in brackets: R. Hodges, “The Not-So-Dark Ages” in Archaeology Vol. 51 no. 5 (Long Island City 1998), pp. 61-65, rev. as “Introduction: new light on the Dark Ages” (1-18); idem, “Pirenne and the Question of Demand in the Sixth Century” in W. Bowden & R. Hodges (edd.), The Sixth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 3 (Leiden 2003), pp. 3-14 (rev. 19-27); idem, “Dark Age EconomicsRevisited”; idem, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” (new 28-38); idem, “Society, Power and the First English Revolution” in Il Secolo di Ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), pp. 125-157 (rev. 163-175); Hodges & Bowden, “Balkan Ghosts”; Hodges, “San Vincenzo al Volturno and the Plan of St. Gall” in R. Hodges (ed.), San Vincenzo al Volturno 2: the 1980-86 excavations, part II (London 1995), pp. 153-175 (80-116); Hodges, “Beyond Feudalism: monasteries and their management in the eighth and ninth centuries” in I longobardi dei ducati di Spoleto e Benevento: atti del XVI Congresso internazionale di studi sull’alto Medioevo, Spoleto, 20-23 ottobre 2002, Benevento 24-27 ottobre 2002 (Spoleto 2003), pp. 1077-1098 (141-156); Hodges, “The Ninth-Century Collective Workshop at San Vincenzo al Volturno” in J. Emerick (ed.), Archaeology in Architecture: essays in honour of Cecil Lee Striker (Mainz 2005), pp. 75-87 (117-140).

7. He says, p. viii:

Some essays have been either partially rewritten or modified for this book; others, such as those relating to the ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno (Italy), are unaltered. Even where the essays have been altered, I have not attempted to provide amplified bibliographies. To do this would belie the purpose of the book as impressionable sketches about general historical themes.

This leaves it fairly unclear what has been messed with how much, though all but the San Vincenzo chapters do have updated references.

8. R. Hodges, A Dark Age Pompeii: San Vincenzo al Volturno (London 1990); cf. idem, “San Vincenzo al Volturno and the Plan of St Gall” from five years later where he says, “The essence of modern archaeology is not what has been termed the ‘Pompeii premise’ – the prospect of finding a place fossilised from one moment in time (Binford 1981) – but the reverse, the opportunity to record how a place has evolved through time” (pp. 80-81 of the reprint, citing L. R. Binford, “Behavioural Archaeology and the ‘Pompeii Premise'” in Journal of Anthropological Research Vol. 37 (1981), pp. 195-208).

9. R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989), as rev. by Brooks, ref. n. 2 above; Hodges, Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London 2000).

10. Hodges, “Charlemagne’s Elephant” in History Today Vol. 50 (London 2000), pp. 21-27, and “Goodbye to the Vikings?”, ibid. 54 (London 2004), pp. 29-30, repr. in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 72-79 & 157-162.

11. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

12. Hodges, “Goodbye to the Vikings”, pp. 159-160 of the reprint:

Worse still, Northumbrian coins of the central decades of this period – the so-called stycas – contained pitiful measures of silver in their otherwise copper-rich contents (Hodges 1989: 162). How, we should be asking, did the Danish kings of Jorvik suddenly find the silver to replace the devalued Northumbrian currency with a silver-rich coinage meeting international standards?

He goes on to look for, but not explicitly to find, the explanation in the levels of monetisation demonstrated by the so-called ‘productive sites’, on which see Tim Pestell & Katharina Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in Early Medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003), in this case especially Mark Blackburn, “‘Productive’ Sites and the Pattern of Coin Loss in England, 600-1180”, pp. 20-36 there. Cf. also D. M. Metcalf, “The Monetary Economy of Ninth-Century England South of the Humber: a topographical analysis” in Mark Blackburn & David Dumville (edd.), Kings, Currencies and Alliances: history and coinage of southern England in the ninth century (Cambridge 1998), pp. 167-198.

13. T. Reuter, “Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 35 (London 1985), pp. 75-94, repr. in †Reuter, Medieval polities and modern mentalities, ed. Janet Nelson (Cambridge 2006), pp. 231-250.

14. Hodges, “Goodbye to the Vikings”, p. 162 of the reprint.

What the Internet has brought the armchair archaeologist, with particular reference to Samarra

(Written partly offline on a train between Hanbury and Worcester, 18/04/2011)

If there are any of my students reading, could you look away for a moment? Thankyou. You see I have to confess something: teaching the range I was teaching last term involved prescribing more than a little reading that I myself had actually never read. There’s just never been time to cover everything that might be useful on these subjects I don’t primarily work on.1 I started making this time, however, and I’m making inroads on my overloaded to-read shelves, much of which I got hold of specifically to use in teaching in fact. Every one of these that can go onto the office shelves with me secure I have some idea what’s in it, I feel a bit less of a fraud, though there’s a long way to go on that front.

Cover of Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe

Cover of Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe

Okay: students, you can look again now. Have you ever read Richard Hodges‘s and David Whitehouse‘s Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe? You absolutely should, it’s only short, it has the classic early Hodges flavour of attack where everyone else is wrong and we will all be led to the truth by the shining golden light of ARCHAEOLOGY, where Hodges was its prophet,2 but it also has a startlingly broad focus endowed it by the fact that Whitehouse had dug not just in Italy (where in the seventies they seem to have more or less turned Archeologia Medievale into a news-sheet for Brits to tell the Italians what bit of the local past they’d put spades into now), but also in more farflung locales like Africa and, most unusually, Iran before the fall of the Shah, after which, as we have remarked here before, it has been a little difficult to do much digging that doesn’t come up landmines.3 This means that the book is almost bound to tell even the most learned Westerner something they didn’t know about points east—it mentions Kilwa, for example, although in the period they are concerned with the big entrepôt on the East African coast actually was in Kenya, at Manda—and for me it was about Samarra.

The Birka da'Iriyya, a sunken basin in the palace complex of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, Samarra, Iraq, in use 836-c.895

The Birka da'Iriyya, a sunken basin in the palace complex of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, Samarra, Iraq, in use 836-c.895

I vaguely knew that Samarra was in old Persia somewhere, but that was about it. I had not gathered that it was the capital of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate between 836 and 882, in fact I’d never been aware that the ‘Abbasids left Baghdad, and I certainly hadn’t taken on board its scale. Hodges and Whitehouse say:

The works of al-Mansur at Baghdad were dwarfed by those of al-Mutasim and his successors at Samarra for in forty-six years they created a city which sprawled along the Tigris for 35 kilometres: from Woolwich, as it were, to Kew…. Al-Mutasim built a palace larger than Versailles in 836-42; al-Mutawakkil replaced it with another, almost as large, in about 849-59; al-Mutamid built a third in 878-82.

The emphasis is the authors’, but you know, fair enough.4 Now, that was 1983 and the scholarship has moved on at least a piece. In 1983 Hodges and Whitehouse could say, with amazement, “Astonishingly, no detailed description of the site has ever been published”, although they cite in the same note what appears to be a six-volume German site report so I’m not sure how much detail they wanted.5 But, and this is anything is the point, now we have the Internet, it’s so much easier to check this sort of thing. Even a clumsy Google might suffice, but a more targeted search of the Regesta Imperii OPAC brings up a few bits that that doesn’t.6 Where Google does come into its own though is in photography. We can’t get into this area on the ground in safety any more, but the eyes in the sky can report, and they do. Have a look at this for scale and desolation:

Okay, so here's a building. Now zoom out. Then zoom out. Then zoom out. Then zoom out...

Ozymandias just ain’t in it.


1. It’s astonishing how much patching of this you can get away with simply by going to seminars where the relevant people tell you what’s in their work instead, of course. This is the big secret reason for my high level of conference attendance.

2. If you haven’t met this strain of his work, you will find it writ large in R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989). These days he is a bit less combative, though of course who knows what his Dark Age Economics: a new audit (London forthcoming) will be like. If, like me, you are waiting for that with bated breath (though once I own it, who knows when I’ll actually read it…) you may be excited to know that there is an article-length summary entitled “Dark Age Economics revisited” in a volume of his papers I only lately found out about, Goodbye to the Vikings: (London 2009), pp. 63-71, and that volume must join his Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London 2000) on my to-read list. You see, this list never actually gets shorter, it just feels more up-to-date.

3. The part of the book I’m writing from here is R. Hodges, D. Whitehouse, Mohammed: Charlemagne & The Origins of Europe: archaeology and the Pirenne thesis (London 1983), pp. 123-157.

4. Ibid., pp. 151 & 157.

5. Ibid., p. 151 n. 29, citing Ernst Herzfeld, Ausgrabungen von Samarra VI: Geschichte der Stadt Samarra (Berlin 1948).

6. The most obviously useful thing that’s come out since Hodges and Whitehouse wrote is Chase Robinson (ed.), A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art 14 (Oxford 2001), but there is also now Alastair Northedge, The Historical Topography of Samarra, Samarra Studies 1 (London 2005) and a shortish introduction by Osman S. A. Ismail, “The Founding of a New Capital: Samarra'” in Clifford Edmund Bosworth (ed.), The Turks in the early Islamic world (Aldershot 2007), pp. 291-304. The latter two aren’t even on any reading lists I’ve set so I can confess I haven’t actually read these; the first, I shall have to stay circumspect about for a while longer…

More bullets of the new job, and, Jonathan Jarrett is going to Hell

As often already, in lieu of the content about my stuff I would like to have written by now…

I’m quite impressed by this. I should reassure readers that the high (or low, depending on where you wind up) ranking is mainly down to a few things that Dante thought were violent and irremediable crimes (not puns, though I had been warned about that) being considered harmless leisure activities in the twenty-first century West, at least in my state. All the same, if Pascal lost his wager, I should have some interesting company in eternal torment.

And lastly.

  • I don’t really think two days, especially not two days in which I have a tutorial to give, a seminar to attend and a lecture to write give and you know a job, is a fair amount of time to ask me to turn round final proofs of the book in, you know. I might call it unrealistic. But since to do so would probably prejudice its chances of finally emerging with a date on its titlepage that isn’t a lie, I may not be very evident online for a few days.

Seminary LX: sneaking in to hear Richard Hodges

I need to write something substantive, but I have very very little time at the moment; three papers need finishing before Kalamazoo, and all need reading (which is the hardest thing to find time for, paradoxically). All the same, I am badly behind with reports on things I’ve been to. So, let me renew the seminar reports with something that was actually part of a conference, an event entitled “Crisis, What Crisis? The ‘Long’ Ninth Century” organised at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. The organisation here, and I hope a colleague of mine who was involved in it will forgive me for saying this, was peculiar. Pick a room with space for only forty people in it, do not advertise except by word of mouth and e-mail, only the most minimal internet presence, just in case anyone might, you know, turn up… and then put on this programme:

    8th-9th March 2010

    MONDAY

  • 9.45-10.15 James Barrett “Introduction”
  • 10.15-11.00 Richard Hodges “Charlemagne minus Mohammed”
  • 11.00-11.30 Tea/coffee

  • 11.30-12.15 Nora Berend “The concept of Christendom: A product of crisis?”
  • 12.15-13.00 Søren Sindbæk “Routes for crisis? Early medieval networks and ninth-century ‘relinking’”
  • 13.00-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Dagfinn Skre “The origins of Kaupang’s settlers and traders in the ninth century”
  • 14.45-15.30 Mark Blackburn “Were the Vikings a drain or a stimulus to the ninth-century monetary economy?”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.45 Vaughan Grimes “Isotope analysis and the Norse ‘crisis’: Reconstructing climate, diet and human migration events in the ninth century”
    16.45-17.15 DISCUSSION

    TUESDAY

  • 9.45-10.30 Jesse Byock “Vikings and Iceland in the ninth century: Crisis, what crisis?”
  • 10.30-11.15 Stephen Driscoll “The archaeology of the Scottish political landscape: Viking age transformations
  • 11.15-11.45 Tea/coffee

  • 11.45-12.30 Máire Ní Mhaonaigh “A cultural crisis? The nature of learning in Ireland’s Viking Age”
  • 12.30-13.15 Rosamond McKitterick “Representations of crisis in ninth-century Frankia”
  • 13.15-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Gareth Williams “Without the Vikings we would have no Anglo-Saxons: Discuss”
  • 14.45-15.30 Gabor Thomas “Brightness in a time of dark: Metalwork from Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.30 John Hines “The ninth-century Viking raids and the kingdom of Wessex: A cloud with a silver lining”
  • 16.30-17.15 Andrew Reynolds “Measuring the indigenous response to external threat: Defining Wessex in the Viking Age”

I mean, had places not been so limited I would have taken two days off work to go, but they were, and I was slow to ask, so I didn’t get to do that. (Magistra et mater did, or at least did rather more effectively than did I, and has been reporting in what is so far two parts.) However, I did take the chance to sneak in for one paper, because although I’ve written about him here, I’ve never before heard Richard Hodges speak, and he’s been quite important for my thinking. So I begged my way in and the seats didn’t quite fill up so I didn’t feel bad about denying properly registered people their chance to hear. So with all that clear, what was being said?

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Well, it is probably simplest for me to summarise Magistra’s report and then add my own few penn’orth. We took a tour of European development via the sites Richard has mainly worked on, which might cause one to worry about sampling, but Hodges’s big thing has always been to make his sites part of something much larger, and he’s had some splendid sites to do it with. So we started with emporia, right back to Dark Age Economics, and Hodges’s current feeling that these proto-urban trading settlements are already in decline before the Viking Age, though the North Sea networks into which they fit are apparently doing well enough for Scandinavian sites like Kaupang and Hedeby to be building in the ninth century, even though at points west this settlement form was over by the mid-eighth. They also appear to hang on in the Adriatic, however, where Hodges speaks from the authority of San Vincenzo al Volturno in Italy, pictured above where a monastic settlement into which massive Carolingian patronage is briefly poured and which acquires a substantial rural hinterland naturally becomes a local entrepôt, and Butrint in Albania, where urban decay was fairly pronounced between the sixth and ninth century but which then picks up a bit. This is a different local network, and the local variations are significant, but not enough to wipe out the similarity; yes, in the North Sea there are Vikings, but in the Adriatic a good few sites are wiped out in Saracen raids in 881, which is part of why Venice gets a head start thereafter. In general, as Magistra has it:

Overall, Hodges was arguing for two phases of trade. At the start of the ninth century there’s trade of prestige goods – including Chinese jade found at San Vincenzo. By the end of the ninth there’s been a shift away from this small-scale presige [sic] trading to larger scale trade and the beginnings of real sustainability. This was also reflected in more stratified buildings in C9 AS England, the multiplication of Frankish silos (for grain storage) and the development of fortified small manors in Italy. Hodges saw this large-scale economy developing from the 840s onwards and powered by the Vikings and Arabs.

Well, this all works pretty well for me, because the idea that there is a low-level economic solidification in the ninth century prior to the taxi run for the later take-off in the tenth century, fits with what I see in my material, an intensification of settlement and exchange, so you might expect me to quarrel with little except a bizarre defence Hodges made of hedge fund managers as being necessary for the economy like the Vikings, which I have all kinds of problems with which needn’t be explored here. And I did like his warning that archæology shouldn’t be expected to show negatives: we have very little evidence of activity in Venice in this period, but we know full well from other sources it was getting going.1 I also rather like his assessment of the size of the population at San Vincenzo by how many beds you could physically have fitted into the dormitory. I mean, the monks probably slept on the floor if they were proper reformed Benedictines, but the number is probably about right (110 maximum, which is considerably below some estimates, including that of the abbey’s own chronicle—I suspect lay brothers of some early kind were being included here). And a pointed question about the slave trade elicited Hodges’s opinion that it was marginal until the end of the ninth century, except in the East where both Byzantium and the Caliphate increase demand for slaves hugely as they stabilise; he willingly admitted that Michael McCormick sees things very differently here, but as we have recently discussed, indeed, neither texts nor archæology are particularly good for demonstrating slavery. So, on the whole a well-grounded, if opinionated, tour of a pretty large part of the European economic sphere in a fairly short time, and with some suitably impressive pictures and factoids to remember. I found this one useful and snuck back out with a feeling that I’d used my time wisely.

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint


1. Something I know quite well, from when a particular Cambridge archæologist set me to do a seminar presentation on it during my M. Phil., and then had to admit after I came back to them, panicked, four days later with no data, that they couldn’t find any published archæology on it either, now that they came to look.

I should have read this the moment I bought it, III

9780754662549

The third main paper in Davis’s and McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe presents two problems.1 One is that to critique it is to speak ill of the dead, because its author Riccardo Francovich died in an accident while the book was in its long press process. The other is that of balancing the fact that what he said is important and deserves notice but was also really quite exaggerated. The basic case that he was making is that although one of the many things we tie up with the much-vaunted ‘feudal transformation’ is that medieval settlement seems from its documents to have become much more nucleated in the tenth and eleventh centuries—for reasons that may include castles, development of the trading economy, violence and insecurity, and so on, the usual problem with causation when so many factors are in play at once—in actual fact, when we do the digging, nucleation often turns out to have been much older than that, often predating the castles or whatever by a few centuries.

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

Well, OK. Actually I think we knew this in England, where rather than the ‘nucleation of the year 1000’ or whatever we have the mid-Saxon settlement shift.2 This is just that for a while Anglo-Saxon settlement archæology was the field leader, I think, and it’s not surprising to me that other areas show similar things. The problem is with how similar. Although Francovich cited some work from France and Germany too, his evidence is mainly from Tuscany, where he worked most of his life and where indeed he died. There, there is a definite pattern where settlement moves onto the hilltops and indeed after a while fortifies itself, and then later the towns in question develop castles.3 But the Tuscan hilltop towns are not like very many other places! Not least, in good ol’ Catalonia, which is geographically and agriculturally not so different in this period and which may even have seen a small amount of Italian settlement, this doesn’t happen. In fact the nucleation doesn’t even seem to occur till the transformation period, and unlike elsewhere here we have both early enough documents to see the difference and some digging. There certainly are hilltop sites with early medieval phases, but they’re almost always much older than that, and far more often cemeteries and burial grounds than settlements. In England, settlement stays low and by rivers for the most part: that’s largely because cereal agriculture is more important than pastoral there and that obviously implies staying close to the fields, rather than the fascinating multi-level mountainside plots that Francovich described.4 Angeliki Laiou wonders in his summary paper whether the things that Francovich saw are really more than Tuscan phenomena, and his dissonant examples come from Byzantium, where of course a different and older tax system might be expected not to have permitted such a change if previous contributor Joachim Henning be right.5

Figure 3.1b from Francovich, "Beginnings of Hilltop Villages"

But it’s not just that the data is regional. His title recognises that, even if the text forgets it in places. It’s that some of the data is misleadingly handled. Never mind the use of percentages from less than a hundred data points. See this graph.6 It’s lovely and clear but first, you can’t reason back from the graph to the data and secondly, its axis is not steadily spaced. (I know there are some graphs where that can’t be done, logarithmic scales and so on, but really, this isn’t one.) What do I mean? Well, count it up. We’re dealing with a range of what, 800 years? It’s hard to be sure because the categories overlap.7 Are the fourth-century sites at the first graph point with the first-century stuff or are they with the sixth-century stuff halfway along? Similarly with the sixth century indeed. So let’s be generous and assume that the categories don’t overlap, and that really we’re running from years 1-350, 351-550 and 551-700. Those are still periods of 350, 200 and 150 years respectively, so putting them equidistant along the axis is cheating. It makes the figures a lot less surprising too. 2521 divided by 350 is 7·20, 506 divided by 200 2·53 and the last ratio is 1·34, so overall the change is by a factor of 5, not more than 12 as his percentages suggest. How did this get through review? As many times before, I am frustrated by historians’ inability or unwillingness to apply the mathematics they presumably learnt at school.

The castle and church of Montarrenti, Tuscany, centre of one of Francovichs most important projects

The castle and church of Montarrenti, Tuscany, centre of one of Francovich's most important projects

Of course a factor of five is still a factor of five even if it’s not a factor of twelve. That is still a massive drop in settlement density. A big change did happen here, I’m not denying that, and it needs explaining: Francovich’s paper goes a very long way to do that and contains innumerable references of work that proves his local points, as well as interesting tendrils to other places. The analysis of building change and of settlement formation is really valuable and also well illustrated, as is the example that a purely documentary view is doomed to missing things. But not only is this, as with any other explanation of social change in that period, not going to explain everywhere, but we have to read it as if we were marking it in order to know what’s really being presented, and that annoys me. It doesn’t serve his memory well.


1. †Riccardo Francovich, “The Beginnings of Hilltop Villages in Early Medieval Tuscany” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 55-82.

2. See Helen Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.

3. A more moderate version of the same findings can be found in Richard Hodges, “Size matters: new light on the Italian Dark Ages” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 223-229, but given that Francovich originally presented this material in 2004, and so did Hodges his, and that the first footnote of Francovich’s article includes the words, “My habit of thinking in parallel with Richard Hodges, in a dialogue that has developed over twenty years, has inspired gratitude toward my friend that equals the intellectual stimulation that he provides”, I am mainly sad for Hodges rather than suspicious at the coincidence.

4. Francovich, “Beginnings of Hilltop Villages”, pp. 63-64.

5. A. Laiou, “The Early Medieval Economy: Data, Production, Exchange and Demand” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 99-104 at p. 100; J. Henning, “Strong rulers—weak economy? Rome, the Carolingians, and the archaeology of slavery in the 1st millennium AD”, ibid. pp. 33-53.

6. Francovich, “Beginnings of Hilltop Villages”, p. 65.

7. It should be admitted that the categories may not be his, as the data is coming from a database system via the interpretations of another archæologist, Marco Valenti, L’insediamento altomedievale delle campagne toscane (Florence 2004), acknowledged Francovich, “Beginnings of Hilltop Villages”, p. 64 n. 42. I don’t think that excuses the faults in its presentation.

The unbearable emptiness of being post-Roman: Aragonese depopulation and the rest of the field (Feudal Transformations XII)

The latter part of a conference volume that I was recently reading, so as to make watertight the final revision of a forthcoming paper, has set me thinking about the whole transformation argument one more time.1 (Still not ready to write that paper yet.) However, because that conference was concentrating mainly on late Antiquity and was largely attended by archæologists and historians who travel with them, it’s left me looking at it from an unusual point of view, and one that I have some trouble articulating (though that may just be shortage of sleep or coffee). So here is a slightly wandering review which may help me clear my thoughts. It’s a long long post, so it mostly lies behind a cut; you’ll be able to tell, I hope, from what lies above that whether you need to read either the post or the book.

Cover of Philippe Sénac (ed.), <u>De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d'al-Andalus

Cover of Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d'al-Andalus

Because of the late antique focus, the book’s input is much less about the feudal transformation concept we know and, well, know, and more about what Chris Wickham has called ‘the other transition’, the end of the Roman system of trade and land ownership and the development of successor kingdoms. He, and some others, have argued that those kingdoms are ultimately based on a system of service-for-land that is later formalised as what the « mutationnistes » call feudalism and that others have wished that they wouldn’t.2 Okay so far?

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

Because, also, the book is mainly about the old Tarraconensis, the Roman and later Visigothic province of North-West Spain and the northern side of the Pyrenees, the contributors also have to deal with two other historical or historiographical complexes. First and less disputable is the effect of Islam on this furthest reach of Islamic Spain, though there is debate here about how strong that effect was. Second is the supposed Reconquest and its attached depopulation-and-repopulation historiography, which holds or held that the frontier zones between the new Islamic polity and the surviving or following Christian principalities along the Northern edge of Iberia became almost empty and were then settled by an aggressive movement from those kingdoms that culminated in the demolition of the fragmenting Islamic Caliphate and the recovery of Toledo, Tarragona, Lisbon or whatever your favourite important Iberian capital is. This historiography has, as we have seen before, come under less attack for Aragón than for elsewhere, and since that was definitely in the conference area opinions here varied quite widely. However I still have a sense of some consensus that the historians of the transformation who approach it mainly from documents are missing a number of important tricks, and am therefore trying to get my head round what these suggestions do to that historiography. Continue reading