Tag Archives: Roger Collins

Iberia: your genes are riding up on one side

I’ve been sitting on this paper for a while, hoping I could get some geneticist to collaborate on the write-up, because while I recognise enough of the words in genetics at least not to fall off when the argument goes round corners, I certainly can’t evaluate whether it’s soundly based or not. Simon Ford back at Clare in Cambridge gave it a once-over and thought it basically sane, though—and my thanks to him—and the point has come to write about it. Please bear in mind that I am not an expert in this stuff and would welcome any corrections or different perspectives, and read on. The work in question is a paper with twenty different authors that appeared in the American Journal of Human Genetics for 2008 entitled “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula”.1 What it does is to take samples of the DNA of 1140 people from all over modern Spain and Portugal and compare them to similar datasets from Morocco and Tunisia plus an independently-derived average one for Sephardic Jews. The point of all this is the historical context that the Iberian Peninsula has, for a lot of its history, had a considerable Jewish population (`Sephardic’ actually comes from the Hebrew for Spain, ‘Sefarad’) and, of course, between about 710 and 1610, a fairly significant Muslim one that was ruling most of the area for most of that time. And, despite the fairly pompous title, what this paper does is compare what they consider to be the known history of the peninsula with the current genetic traces of population admixture.2

Haplogroup Distributions in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations

"Haplogroup Distributions in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations." "Sectors in pie charts are colored according to haplogroup in the schematic tree to the right, and sector areas are proportional to haplogroup frequency."

And these are, in a sense, the results. You have to realise, before you start to read this thing, that we are in a game not of certainties or clear causation here but rather of statistically significant correlation. So, you will notice that the three African samples (which they got from elsewhere3) are dominated by haplogroup E3b2 (and I’m not even going to try and explain what a haplogroup is; I would just have to copy it from a better explanation like this one anyway) but the Iberian ones are dominated instead by various branches of R1. This doesn’t stop each of those groups having some trace of the other one’s dominant element, because these things occur throughout most of humanity by now, and the question is not usually down to a single genetic signature like the ‘Cohen gene’ but to a pattern being convincingly like another pattern. If you compare it to the Sephardic Jewish signature at top right (again, from elsewhere, on this occasion a separate survey by two of the authors whose data is only given as supplemental information online4) you’ll see that there the significant marker seems to be the balance of groups G, J2 and all other J groups, which is a bit harder to spot. So, rather than just try and spot colour matches it seems worthwhile to say what the paper’s authors think they’ve found, given that they have crunched this data in a number of other ways that don’t make such colourful images, and then remark on that. Their conclusions were, roughly:

  1. Obviously, the Gibraltar Straits do mark a genuine divide in the make-up of the populations, which is not to say that there’s no common blood (ultimately, after all, we’re all cousins) but that there is a statistically significant (and fairly obvious) difference.
  2. The Basque country and Gascony have a strong showing from haplogroups that barely show up elsewhere (R1b3f, otherwise only strongly represented in Catalonia and the Balearics, weirdly; R1b3d; and in the Basque Country proper, R1b3b, which actually doesn’t show up anywhere else on the plot except for a sliver in North-West Castile, although I wonder if the big sample size there might not be something to do with that) and are also statistically quite different because of that.
  3. In the peninsula overall, admixture from an African-type parental population appears to be 10·6%, but this varies widely; there is none in the Basque zones, but 21·6% in Castile, i. e. twice as much as elsewhere.
  4. Admixture from a Jewish-type population is rather higher, 19·8% overall, but again with variation: none at all in Minorca, but 36·3% in Southern Portugal.
  5. The diversity of haplogroups within the dominant one from Africa is lower in the Iberian Peninsula than in Africa, suggesting that only a subset of the African population as it now is is represented in the peninsula’s genes.
  6. Contrariwise, the diversity of the Jewish sample in the Iberian population is higher, suggesting a longer-term admixture (though see below).
  7. The African sample is represented, not as one might expect most strongly in the south around Granada and least strongly in the north, but rather in the west, especially Castile and Galicia, that is the furthest parts north of the west, as well as also in Minorca which is less surprising maybe.5

Some of this makes perfectly good sense with what we know of the demographic history of this area, although it does persistently have to be borne in mind that we are talking about a history covering all of the last, say, three thousand years, piled up and indistinguishable. There is some possibility of distinguishing chronology with such evidence: as the authors say, the low diversity of the African sample in the Iberian peninsula compared to the Jewish or African-local ones suggests that it arrived more recently than the others because it has presumably had less time to spread and average out. But this is not ‘proving’ the Muslim conquest from genetics or anything; it is noticing a particular phenomenon that the conquest we already knew about provides an obvious explanation for. Likewise, the strong Jewish signal in South Portugal is odd until you consider that Portugal, unlike Castile or Aragon-Catalonia, didn’t expel its Jews and therefore picked up quite a lot of exile population from the reconquered areas of those two kingdoms, i. e. the south, in the fifteenth century, who have presumably left some trace in the genepool since then. On the other hand, the western-side bias of the African signal is very strange. It is certainly true that Muslim settlement, for most historians at least, is unlikely to have been substantial outside of Córdoba’s immediate zone of control, and we can do quite a lot about suggesting from place-names which groups wound up where.6 That would explain the low signal in Catalonia, but it patently conflicts with the high signal in Galicia. The authors suggest that this is down to the forced relocation of the morisco populations to the north and west after the war of 1567-71,7 and so indeed it may be—we have to watch that we don’t immediately conclude “OMG settlement in 711!” from this data given that it also includes all movements since—but if so it seems very strange to me that the areas where we know Muslims were for longest show less of a trace, and that suggests that the incomers were distinctive and also didn’t mix very much, whereas the moriscos blended into the wider population much more.

Horseshoe arches in the Leonese church of Santiago de Peñalba

Horseshoe arches in the Leonese church of Santiago de Peñalba, another kind of evidence for cultural admixture, more or less contraindicated by the genetic evidence

There are also three problems with their conceptual framework that I see which I think need discussion. The first, they have anticipated and headed off, although they don’t phrase it quite as I would, which is that if this Jewish signal prototype they have is already based on Jews from only this area then inevitably, you’d think, it is going to be much more admixed with Iberian material than a sample of a population outside Spain. In other words, there is a risk here of concluding, “Iberian Jews… are quite Iberian“, what is somewhat less exciting than the assertion “Iberian populations surprisingly Jewish”, which is more like what the paper actually says. The authors were not worried about this, as far as I can tell, but were concerned that the self-identification of the Jewish population that was used to obtain the sample on which they relied, i. e. the DNA of people who think they’re Jewish by descent, might well be less exclusively Jewish than those people thought. The counter that they have to this also works for my worry, however, it being that there are within that Jewish sample, as well as quite a lot of haplotypes shared with Iberian populations, three or four that are not but do match strongly with the Middle East. So, as long as they aren’t Greek or Phœnician (the long time-frame again), which seems unlikely given that they are as strongly visible in the West as the East, that does show some genuine Semitic ancestry to the sample group.

Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Admixture Proportions among Iberian Peninsula Samples

"Mean North African, Sephardic Jewish, and Iberian admixture proportions among Iberian samples, based on the mY estimator and on Moroccan, Sephardic Jewish, and Basque parental populations, are represented on a map as shaded bars on bar charts. Error bars indicate standard deviations, and three-letter codes indicate populations, as given in Figure 1."

That takes us straight to the second problem, though, which is one of missing populations. I am broadly happy that most of the Muslim army of 711 and subsequent settlement was probably composed of Berbers and other Africans (even if allegedly some of them might have been Vandals by descent…), I think this is one of the things that Guichard’s work makes acceptable, but nonetheless they weren’t all Berbers, there was an actually-Arabic presence in the officer corps, because we know some of them by name, and of course there was also a massive civil war in 741 kicked off, as the chronicles of the time (at least, compared to the chronology of the genetic evidence) see it, by a fresh wave of settlement direct from Syria.8 So it seems to me that when we see a Middle Eastern genetic sample, it doesn’t have to be Jewish, and that ideally there would be some way to check this sample for what might be a tiny tiny Arabic representation, but might not (and it would be really nice to know which and where).

The bronze inscription of Botorrita, in eastern Ibero-Celtic characters

The bronze inscription of Botorrita, in eastern Ibero-Celtic characters

Then there is another missing population, which is the actual Iberians. Quite early on the authors decide that the best comparator for the African and Jewish samples is the Basque one, as it shows no or little mixture with those groups, so everything else in the peninsula is then thought of as being more or less of a mixture between the three `parental’ samples. Well, OK, but whenever the Basques arrived in Spain, other groups followed, most obviously the Celtic groups we now call Iberians, and also maybe some Visigoths, you know, though we don’t seem to credit that those were numerically significant any more.9 I don’t think it diminishes the significance of the African and Jewish samples being different in the ways that they are too much, but I think that a better conceptual model might have been instead to take a total average of the peninsula and emphasise differences from it globally, rather than thinking in terms of `amibasqueornot’. Or, again, perhaps it would just be nice to have had some potential Celtic (or even Gothic) comparators factored in too so that we might get some sense of where those groups might have been best preserved, if they are at all. The paper’s only 11 pages long, after all, though I realise that I may just have idly asked for about three or four more years’ computing and sampling.

Interior of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, previously a synagogue built in Almohad style

Interior of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, previously a synagogue built in Almohad (i. e. a Berber Muslim) style. From Wikimedia Commons

So, in short, this stuff is really interesting but it’s very difficult to distill it down to historical events without essentially using what we already know to explain this new data. I get a certain kick out of knowing that some of the more traditional Reconquista-minded scholars would have been horrified to think that heroic Castile was actually more African and more Jewish than other areas of the peninsula but, if that’s down to post-reconquest resettlement by the kings, that becomes less of a delicious irony and more likely to be a reflection of the fact that populations who feel their identity may be dissipating are more likely to stress it aggressively. I think that these samples could actually be interrogated to tell us more about the settlement period by, for example, adding Arabic and Celtic comparators (if the latter can really be assembled, given how vague a group `Celtic’ populations are when considered historically10). At the moment, though, the main early medieval takeaway from this, which is what I at least am really interested in, is that it looks to be demonstrable that the African settler groups who (probably) arrived with and after the Muslim conquest really didn’t mix very much with the local populations. That’s not nothing, but I would still like to know if we might some day be able to guess at how much of the settling population they were from this kind of data, and thus guess also at the change in the élite too.


1. Susan M. Adams, Elena Bosch, Patricia L. Balaresque, Stéphane J. Ballereau, Andrew C. Lee, Eduardo Arroyo, Ana M. López-Parra, Mercedes Aler, Marina S. Gisbert Grifo, Maria Brion, Angel Carracedo, João Lavinha, Begoña Martínez-Jarreta, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Antònia Picornell, Misericordia Ramon, Karl Skorecki, Doron M. Behar, Francesc Calafell and Mark A. Jobling, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula” in The American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 83 (Bethesda 2008), pp. 725-736, DOI 10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.11.007 (open access). Twenty authors seems like enough, really, although I can’t help feeling that they could also have credited the historian they consulted with (see below) and, after all, this is very far from the most extreme case of multiple authorship I can think of.

2. For the known history, they appealed to Dolors Bramon (ibid. p. 734, Acknowledgements), who is the current expert on what is to be learnt about Christian Iberian history from Islamic sources; her little anthology, De Quan Erem o No Musulmans: Textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’Obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa (Vic 2000), is a frequent source of great help to me. So that was an unusually good choice, really, but apparently not a research contribution. Hmph.

3. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, p. 727, citing E. Bosch, F. Calafell, D. Comas, P. J. Oefner, P. A. Underhill and J. Bertranpetit, “High-resolution analysis of human Y-chromosome variation shows a sharp discontinuity and limited gene flow between Northwestern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula” in American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 68 (Bethesda 2001), pp. 1019–1029, and B. Arredi, E. S. Poloni, S. Paracchini, T. Zerjal, D. M. Fathallah, M. Makrelouf, V. L. Pascali, A. Novelletto and C. Tyler-Smith, “A predominantly neolithic origin for Y-chromosomal DNA variation in North Africa”, ibid. Vol. 75 (2004), pp. 338–345.

4. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, p. 727 and describing work by Doron M. Behar and Karl Skorecki; the data is tabulated in the online version of the paper as “Haplogroups and Y-STR Haplotypes of Iberian Peninsula and Sephardic Jewish Samples” here (PDF).

5. Here as elsewhere, the sample from Asturias is just too small to allow significant conclusions, which may be just as well considering how much that one would expect is missing from it. This gives me pause, again, about drawing conclusions too far from the other areas with proportionally lower representation in the samples, including not least Minorca of course.

6. For the somewhat localised nature of the Andalusi state, I am used to citing Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en la época de los Omeyas, Bibliotheca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), though I had the great pleasure of meeting the author this week and he tells me that he would now revise most of it! Extremely frustrating, as I have come to see it as canonical, which may be exactly why he would like to change it. Anyway. For place-names and settlement, the work of resort is by Pierre Guichard, either in French as Structures sociales « orientales » et « occidentales » dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris 1977) or trans. into Castilian & rev. as Al-Andalus. Estructura antropológica de una sociedad islámica en Occidente (Granada 1998), though Dr Manzano tells me this too must be considered obsolete now. I don’t know if I’d agree there (or, it turns out, with quite a lot else Dr Manzano would argue, which was fun; more on this in due course). Compare Jessica A. Coope, “Marriage, Kinship, and Islamic Law in Al-Andalus: Reflections on Pierre Guichard’s Al-Ándalus” in al-Masaq Vol. 20 (London 2008), pp. 161-177, which is interesting because it disagrees with Guichard in exactly the opposite direction to Dr Manzano. For an English introduction to these issues, albeit a controversial one, see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797, History of Spain 4 (Oxford 1989). Collins caught it from the critics here because he effectively refuses to use Arabic historical writing, reckoning it all far too late and legendary to be anything other than misleading. There is also, of course, the fact that he doesn’t read Arabic, and this makes him an easy critical target because of course how can he know what he’s missing? but if you compare the exactly contemporary and much more traditional ‘Abdul Wahid Dhanun Taha, The Muslim Conquest and Settlement of North Africa and Spain (London 1989), I would say that it is fairly clear that Collins had a point. The fact that we can get three books like Collins, Taha and Guichard all purportedly telling the same story and disagreeing so incredibly (to say nothing of Manzano’s Frontera) is a measure of how charged these debates are. Without that charge, after all, how could we ever have had the now-legendary Ignacio Olagué, Les Arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris 1960, 2nd edn. 1973), to which cf. Pierre Guichard, “Les Arabes ont bien envahi l’Espagne : les structures sociales de l’Espagne musulmane” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 29 (Paris 1974), pp. 1483-1513. I may have become sidetracked here.

7. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, pp. 732-733.

8. Testified to even in the Christian Chronicle of 754, also known as The Mozarabic Chronicle though `Mozarab’ is one of those words that means too many things and should be retired, as translated in Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians 9 (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999), pp. 111-160 with commentary pp. 25-42, cc. 82-86 in which the chronicler helpfully tells us that he wrote a whole book about this already so won’t repeat himself here. Do we have the book? No, we do not. Ah well. Nonetheless, it is this proximity to events that caused Collins to favour Christian sources over the Arabic ones. On the difficulties with the term `Mozarab’, see Richard Hitchcoock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), passim but esp. pp ix-xx.

9. Roger Collins, Visigothic Spain 409-711, History of Spain 3 (Oxford 2004), pp. 25-26.

10. On which you can see the brief and bracing statements of Guy Halsall, who risks Godwin’s Law at an early stage of a book by comparing Celticism to Germanism in his Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 24-25.

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Leeds 2010 report I

Since I’ve already been to one other conference that I’m already opining about on other people’s blogs, and since I there plugged all heck out of this blog (not that this seems to have brought any great slough of visitors) it’s probably time I wrote something about Leeds. This year’s was a good Leeds despite the weather; I’ve said before now that bad weather can ruin Leeds because everyone is crammed inside small overheated rooms and can’t find each other, but although it bucketed down for much of the conference I didn’t find that to be the case this year. I had the impression that there were fewer people there than usual, in fact, although there were as many sessions as far as I can tell so I guess it was non-presenters who decided they couldn’t spare the money this year. Fair enough I suppose, but those who were there had a good time I think.

1. Keynote Lectures 2010

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea, c. 1200

The theme of this year’s Leeds was travel and exploration, and I did as usual and basically entirely avoided the theme except for the keynote lectures. These were also about the only point when I didn’t have timetable clashes, too; for some reason the early medieval sessions were unusually conflictual this year, which I think may also reflect that there were an awful lot of them. Anyway. The keynotes were both good, and the first of them was Patrick Gautier-Dalché speaking to the title “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages”. What he was addressing here was the fact that to us, often, a medieval map looks worse than useless, used as we are to measurable scales and Mercator’s Projection. In fact, he argued, although maps were largely representational rather than scientific in the Middle Ages, they were far from useless. Some might be just for looking at, in the old picture worth a thousand words scenario, because a map, even a distorted one, is still a very good way of encoding geographical information.1 Then, they could even be useful for actually getting to places, if you approached them in the right way. The Map of the Atlantic Sea by Gerald of Wales above, M. Gautier-Dalché claimed though if the image above really is it I see no sign of this, is marked up with not just the pilgrimage routes through Western Europe, but the distances between their various stopping points. As long as you could find someone to put you on the road to the next destination, therefore, you would still be able to use the map to budget your provisions and journey time and maybe carry some very basic local information. In cases where precision navigation was a bit more essential, to wit at sea, maps perhaps served as aides-mémoire more than literal graphical information; a reminder of what a certain coastline looked like when you approached it, what the hills round the port are like, and so on. Not much use for doing it first time, but perhaps quite useful for doing it first time in say, ten years. The last example was maps’ use in judicial cases; unlikely, you might think, but apparently Columbus’s maps were produced in court in 1535 to prove that he had actually discovered, and indeed drawn, the coasts of South America. So a map might be a teaching tool, a contemplative resource, a planning aid, a piece of judicial proof, and was above all an interpretation, but Mercator has perhaps spoiled us to their possibilities.

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

The second keynote was given by Dionysius Agius, and was entitled, “‘In these Seas Horrors beyond Count Befell [Us]: travel in medieval Islam”. This was less of an argument and more of a tour of the evidence for medieval Islamic travel, which was fine by me as I know very little of it beyond the names of Ibn Battuta and al-Mas’Udi, and it was also accompanied with some fabulous, and indeed very presentist pictures, illustrating continuities of construction technique, goods trafficked, routes and so on, not least the stitched boats of which an older example is shown above. He talked us through the trade routes, both overland and overseas, without leaving much time for detail on any of them, just telling us a good story or two, and you know, this too is a skill, especially for a keynote on a specialised theme before a general audience. I did sort of know, for example, that the ends of trade routes across desert zones (and indeed the middle of them) tend to shift according to where the nomads who run the entry-points to them have currently got their shops set up, but it was as well to be reminded in the same few minutes as having the seasonal cycle of the currents of the Indian Ocean explained, there being a large part of the year when it’s far easier to go one way than the other, which is then reversed for another equally large part. After all, some people were plotting to get goods all the way along both routes. The other thing that I technically knew but which was well linked up here was that, at the period when Islamic ships were breaking out into the Indian Ocean (and indeed further) they were far from the only ships sailing it; indeed, as Professor Agius pointed out, they were sufficiently outsized and outnumbered by Indian and Chinese vessels that sometimes those groups were induced to provide warship escorts to keep away fleets of cannibal pirates (or so the travel narratives earnestly tell us, anyway). Whether the stories of Sindbad the Sailor really have a medieval context may, as we have said here before, be doubted, but Professor Agius happily brought them in anyway to illustrate the sort of stories that were probably told. So, not afraid to indulge in anachronism, and perhaps even Orientalism, but not to a bad purpose I thought and an entertaining lecture to attend.

105. Texts and Identities, I: Merovingian Queens – Narratives and Politics

Fifteenth-century illuminatiion of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

Fifteenth-century illumination of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

This was where the clashes started. I probably wanted, in retrospect, to go to 104. Popular Politics and Resistance in East and West but I hadn’t fully absorbed what I’d be missing (Robert Moore insisting there was no popular heresy that counts in early medieval Europe, Andrew Marsham saying what were apparently really interesting things about rebellion against the Umayyads and Bernard Gowers, whom I already needed to meet, talking about peasants, which I am very sorry I missed but may at least be able to get a copy of) until I’d run into one of the speakers from 105 and assured her I’d be at her paper. A man of my word, therefore, I was there for the following:

  • Julia Hofmann, “Betrayal or Portrayal? The Depiction of Fredegund and Clovis in Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum V. 39-49″. I mainly attended this so as to have seen Julia Hofmann and Julie Hofmann in the same room, in fact. Here the argument was that whereas Gregory of Tours was usually hopelessly partial in his depictions of Merovingian court politics, which is an obvious problem for working out whether he can be trusted to tells us about them, in this particular bloody and skulduggerous episode of family in-fighting he appears to have loathed both protagonists about equally, which suggests that it may even be a fair depiction. I’m not convinced we’d think the same if it were Liutprand of Cremona, myself, though I do understand the great emotional need not to write off so much of our evidence for the sixth century as Gregory represents.
  • Erin T. Dailey, “Merovingian Polygamy”, a title that drew me in but disappointed rather as it largely concluded that there probably wasn’t really any Merovingian polygamy per se, and did so largely by refusing to nuance the category of concubine, which as a couple of people pointed out to me afterwards needs doing because sometimes concubines’ children become kings. So, while marriage may be an important distinction (and valuable security for the wife, as long as the mother-in-law wasn’t Brunhild) it isn’t a total one, and the fact that there’s only ever one queen at a time doesn’t remove the need to ask how far queens are different. Only twenty minutes, I know, but he was pressed on the matter in questions and didn’t get much further with it.
  • Linda Dohmen, “The Adulterous Queen in Early Frankish Historiography”. Full disclosure requires that I admit that I’ve known Linda for ages and it was her I’d promised to come and see, but I thought this genuinely was a good paper, carefully balanced between spice and analysis. It also did something useful by balancing Gregory of Tours out with other sources covering the same era, in their equally biased ways, the Liber Historiae Francorum and ‘Fredegar’.2 What stories like the classic one about King Chilperic, coming home early to Queen Fredegund fresh out of the bath, catching her unawares with a slap on the rear and she telling off the lover she assumed it was rather than the husband it actually was, illustrate, other than in some ways there’s not much difference between a sixth-century court and a twentieth-century soap opera in terms of plot, is that a lot of people were prepared to get into risky situations for a chance to get with the queen, and not, we presume, simply because Merovingian kings selected irresistible brides Balthild not withstanding,3 but because it was a position of power; queens could bring legitimacy to a pretender or an arriviste, could be grounds for launching a coup or mounting a rebellion and could, also, be vital tokens of continuity when those events were unrolling for other reasons. Here as often happens we need a way to express this sort of position of power often occupied by women in the Middle Ages, power which is not the same as agency, which they often didn’t enjoy (Fredegund as with so much else an exception here), being unfortunate prizes to be contested between men who certainly did, but still incredible focuses of… what? One almost wants to use ancient anthropological terms like tabu, did I not know that modern-day anthropologists of my acquaintance (and indeed modern-day feminists) would probably kick me in the constructs for it. But the word ‘power’ doesn’t really get there, and it’s very hard to discuss without accepting the sources’ language of objectification. So yes, this one is still making me think.

209. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: reassessing politics and culture in the 10th century

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

My colleague Rory Naismith and I have been at the same conferences several times now, and at Kalamazoo we were somehow scheduled against each other, which has happened before too. This not being the case this time, I told Rory I would go to his session (221. The Anglo-Saxons and Rome, II: routes, coins and manuscripts) and then gathered that one of its speakers had pulled out and that this one was on in the same time-slot… I think I’ve still seen more of his papers than he has of mine but he definitely has the moral high ground for now. However, I struggled to find the session I was going to instead and so arrived in a terribly full room slightly after the beginning of…

  • Theo Riches, “Once Upon an Iron Age: telling the story of the long 10th century between Carolingians and ecclesiastical reform”. Some day I hope Theo will write a follow-up to Tim Reuter’s contribution to the feudal transformation debate; I’ve heard Theo discuss this and his Germanist’s perspectives are really interesting.4 However, he keeps letting some excuse about that not being his actual subject get in the way, and so this was not that paper but instead a likewise interesting one about bishops and ritual. He was picking up on a recent piece of Steffen Patzold‘s about the use of ritual in Ottonian court society, as propounded by Gerd Althoff, which makes the very useful distinction between the rules of the game and manœuvres in the game, and the need to be aware which the evidence is showing us.5 This fits well with my objections to some of the French school of dispute scholarship that emphasies competing norms; sometimes, I like to point out, people are actually abnormal, and this was implicit in Theo’s discussion.6 Theo also wanted us to remember the audience, and that it is not necessarily passive; these rituals may be worked out beforehand, but they are pointless unless they are seen, which means that they are also open to interpretation. Patzold sees a change in bishops’ rôles in these contexts in the 820s, from potestas to ministerium, moving from being in charge of their own subjects to the whole of God’s people, with a consequent distancing from politics in detail. Theo suggested seeing this as move from being a player of the ‘game’ to being an umpire, and that the 820s are the point when episcopal lordship starts to become qualitatively different. This was music to my ears as my very first Leeds paper suggested that bishops in my area were lay lords plus, with extra means of recourse and a few corresponding restrictions, but essentially doing the same things;7 Theo’s take here, and Steffen’s behind it, may give me the means to nuance this. I also really liked Theo’s statement in questions that “Canossa breaks deditio, you can’t use it any more” (deditio being a ritual of simulated self-abasement to demand forgiveness from a ruler for disobeying him). This is one of many ways in which the contest between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII overdrives medieval politics, he’s right, things do break in that contest, and arguably not least the Holy Roman Empire…
  • Steven Robbie, “The Duchy of Alemannia in the Early Tenth Century: an ethnic community?” followed Theo, which is hard enough to do, but Theo speaks quite loudly and Steven speaks quite softly; also, it was after lunch and the room was hot and stuffy. I fear Steven may have lost some of the attention of his audience for what was quite a subtle take on the question of the Stamme, the core ‘ethnic’ territories that are supposed to underlie German duchies in a certain old-fashioned sort of historiography. Steven illustrated that this won’t work for Alemannia, which is reconstructed pretty much as needed in the political circumstances of each age and only maps to later Swabia in fairly transient ways. When all of Alemans, Thuringians and Swabians are supposed to be the same ancestral community, you realise that ethnogenesis is a game that many can play.
  • Simon Williams, “Playing to the Gallery: reinterpreting Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapadosis in its contemporary context”, did indeed play to the gallery in as much while I may some day hear a Liutprand paper in which the speaker does not tell the story everyone’s favourite Italian scandalmonger reports about Queen Guilla hiding a valuable belt where only a woman could, this was not it (and neither, of course, is my report of it). However, he did do some interesting stuff pointing out how quickly Liutprand’s work circulated, well within his lifetime too, so even if he was initially writing for a small audience that wasn’t what he revised for. Simon in fact suggested that the target audience was Bishop Abraham of Freising and perhaps Bishop Dietrich of Metz as well as Bishop Rather of Verona, and that we underestimate Liutprand if we see him as a marginal player. Liutprand writing about you, in other words, was something like being mentioned in Tatler; probably unpleasant and trivial but unfortunately read by people whose good opinion of you may be important some day…

Coffee break next but I find it combines badly with adrenalin, so I didn’t, because next was nothing less than my paper!

301. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” is actually one of my better pieces of work, I think, and compares three contemporary Catalan counts’ reactions to what I’m now arguing is a resurgent Carolingian royal self-assertion by King Lothar III. This is kind of part two of my Haskins paper from 2008 and I hope to have them both in process soon so I’ll say no more here unless people are curious enough to ask.
Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

  • Levi Roach, “The Voice of Æthelred?” explored the group of lengthy royal charters of King Æthelred the Unready in which he apologises for the misdeeds of his youth and makes compensation gifts. Levi was arguing that the imagery employed here is sufficiently consistent, across several archives and many scribes, that these documents must represent an actual statement of sorts by the king, even if he probably didn’t choose the actual written phrasing. Charles Insley, who gave a not dissimilar paper a few years ago,8 was generous enough not to point this out in questions, but Levi rallied to what I think is actually new ground in reaction to a question from Steven Robbie about how long it can possibly take to be sorry; these documents after all span most of a decade. Levi’s response was that the only way it all makes sense is a rather paranoid policy of penitence till the bad stuff stops happening, which after these charters stopped was shifted onto the whole kingdom under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan; in other words, this court’s response to crisis is to escalate repentance until the handles come off and it all goes to Hell… Which, even if it’s overstated, gives one to wonder how neutral a perspective on things anyone at Æthelred’s court could possibly have maintained… What price groupthink? and so on.
  • David Woodman, “The Rewriting of the Anglo-Saxon Past: a Middle English Rhyming Charter of King Æthelstan and the Beverley Cartulary (BL, MS Additional 61901) in context”, lastly, dealt with a rather lovely piece of Middle English fabrication in which Beverley Minster tried to claim foundation by the selfsame rex totius Britanniae in the fourteenth century. The result looks and reads nothing like an Anglo-Saxon charter, and nor does much of the stuff it’s put into a beautiful cartulary with, but it still won them several cases. David set out exactly who the enemies were in this case, and explained the success of the claim not in terms of the cluelessness of the panel judging but of opposition between the abbey, Archbishop Neville of York and Richard, Second of That Name, Kynge, but one was still left with echoes of the story in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the eponymous publication’s lawyers successfully argue that beauty is truth so the prettier story is automatically true, as one would like rather like Æthelstan to have been one of those congenial souls

Now. I want to talk to you, Internet, about the Problems and Possibilities strand and what’s happening with it, but this is long enough already. I’ll do it in a separate post later on. Instead let it be noted that I managed to miss two separate receptions where free wine was available, somehow, mainly to get lightly drunk with such fine upstanding members of the Internet as Another Damned Medievalist and Ealuscerwen, in the same place but not with Gesta, which seems to be the usual way of things, and a few people who have real names, and I went to bed merry and exhausted.


1. Something that all of us who were in Siena and now also commenting at In The Medieval Middle seem to be agreeing on; a conceptual map of that city might be a lot more use than a strictly geographical one.

2. Pronounced, as I once heard Roger Collins say in a paper he was giving on the author in question, “with the inverted commas silent, like the P in Psmith”.

3. In fact, it surprises me that in a session about Merovingian queens not only did Balthild only get a passing mention, but her supposed seal was completely omitted. It’s got to be part of any discussion about how queenship is visualised, hasn’t it, especially since if it is what is claimed, it’s actually a source generated by or at least for the queen. I begin to wonder if there’s a perhaps a case for asking medieval historians to ask themselves, “is there a good reason your paper is entirely text-based?” And I am not just saying this because it’s lewd, I am saying this because I think we were already dancing near the lewd and it would have been a way to let it in without risking sounding as if one actually wanted to talk about sex.

4. Referring to T. Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Referring here to Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt 1997) and S. Patzold, Konflikte im Kloster. Studien zu Auseinandersetzungen in monastischen Gemeinschaften des ottonisch-salischen Reichs, Historische Studien 463 (Husum 2000).

6. See, if you should really want to, my review of Stephen D. White, Feuding and Peacemaking in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005) in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2006), pp. 124-125.

7. J. Jarrett, “Sales, Swindles and Sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What to Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, available to you as J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), pp. 289-313, online here.

8. His webpages mention a chapter, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in P. Barnwell and M. Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Brepols 2009), which will probably be worth consulting on this if it’s actually out; a rapid web-search reveals publication dates of 2008, 2009 and ‘in preparation 2008-2009’, but the publishers seem less sanguine. In fact, damn, I need that book even though I heard half the papers…

Leeds report 3: Wednesday 9th

Being slightly more together on the third day of Leeds, and almost avoiding buying any books, I had resolved to branch out at least slightly, if only because of having spent so much of last year in Texts and Identities (which wasn’t terribly lively this year). So first thing Wednesday morning found me in ‘Inside the VIP Suite: The Roles of a Ruler’s Favourite‘, three papers from quite different regions about those who secure the attention of the powerful to the exclusion of others. Hans Peter Pökel was enlightening about the rôles of eunuchs in the cAbbasid Caliphate, including the interesting sidelight that although usually regarded as less manly and effective than a full male, as ghazis (frontier troops) against the Byzantines they were considered unusually vicious and effective, this being because Byzantium was usually where they’d had their tackle removed. Stefan Bießenecker had a range of German examples, and John Dillon was mostly narrative about two relatively successful Neapolitan ministers who didn’t quite fit the definition, because of not excluding others from power so much. All in all it wasn’t terribly earth-shattering but did at least mean that I hadn’t spent the whole conference being strictly early medieval.

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

After that, though, I reverted to type and hid in Texts and Identities for what was apparently the sixth of a series of sessions on the mysterious chronicler or chroniclers we call Fredegar. In this Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz were extremely soft-spoken, to the extent that I having arrived late and being stuck on a window-ledge near the back, couldn’t really hear them. This was a pity as what I caught was quite interesting, as it should be given the speakers’ calibres, but really I couldn’t tell you what if anything I learnt. My notes however save me and suggest that Walter was trying to get at the way in which ‘Fredegar’ represents ethnicity and identity, in terms of gentes rather than regna which can contain several gentes but whose king always belongs to one gens not all of them, such as, well, the Franks, this being Fredegar; and that Dr Reimitz picked up that theme and showed how ‘Fredegar’ was building the Franks into the Roman tradition of Universal History much as Bede is supposed to for the Anglo-Saxons.1 Ian Wood‘s paper was much more audible and therefore interesting but didn’t really stick to its title, apparently having undergone some revision since an earlier presentation at a conference in Tübingen that was apparently being reprised in these sessions. He was talking about the earlier books of the Chronicle, which have a less clearly pro-Frankish agenda and make their points with anecdotes and fabulae whose sense is keenly contemporary and thus very difficult to reconstruct. After that much of this it was getting easy to see how the Friends of Fredegar had managed to put together so many sessions…

Graph demonstrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

Graph demontrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

I branched back out over lunch however, which involved a certain amount of dashing back and forth between campuses, but all the same I just made it into the lunchtime lecture which was on “Climate Change and the Historic Environment”. I’ve been known to blame the whole alleged feudal transformation on climate change in the past, and I felt I could use some actual data given how much polemic there is on the web about the ‘medieval warm period’. Actually, most of what Sebastian Payne (of English Heritage) was saying was well prehistoric. He talked about how we get ancient climate information at all, and then concentrated on disproving various media myths, firstly that it is currently usually hot for the Earth, secondly that storms and climatic disturbance are becoming more frequent, and there were some others I forget. Actually, he told us, things have been abnormally cold for the Earth for most of the last four thousand years, though individual years are all over the place within that broad limit, and actually we’ve been unusually quiet for huge storms and events this last thirty years. Also, as far as the medieval warm period was concerned, his graphs with that kind of definition did pretty much all agree that 700 onwards gets warmer, levels at about 900 and holds more or less till 1200 then tails off again and is quite bad by 1600. But most of his graphs were much longer-scale, pre-human, which did lead to the obvious point: if we’ve become a dominant species with a huge global infrastructure in this 4-millennium cold spell, any slight change in that could still be extremely worrying. We really don’t want a dinosaur-compatible climate! To this his rather dour answer was that we haven’t built sustainably in this kind of perspective, and that quite a lot won’t make it through any rough times of climate that are coming on; and his paper was ostensibly about preserving the historic environment in these times of change, but he spent most of it proving that we are very short-sighted as a species and that history might have a few things to tell us about what works and what doesn’t. Interesting, anyway.

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

A run back across the road took me into the seventh Fredegar session, this one focusing on other people than the Franks as shown up in Fredegar’s Chronicle. Stefan Esders showed how Fredegar used the lives of King Dagobert of the Franks and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as mirrors of each other, a good beginning spoilt by pride and subsequent punishment; Andreas Fischer showed how he also balanced Byzantines and Persians against each other as equally legitimate empires and forecast their conversion. Both these presenters were sure that Fredegar had some Eastern source, possibly even Syrian, and Fischer wondered if he might even read Hebrew; this seemed to me much weirder than they thought. (Ian Wood had earlier on said, ‘we always say he, it could be she for all we know’. Perhaps it’s a seventh-century historical Héloïse telling us all these stories…) And lastly Ann Christys, for whom I’d actually turned up, showed how he (or she) uses the Arabs in Spain and Provence not only to cast Charles Martel as a holy warrior, but also to align the Duke of Aquitaine whom Charles Martel cast out as a treacherous ally of heretics. In this scheme, the defeat of the Arabs Charles managed is actually not what Fredegar is interested in in this story; they just give him a good way to badmouth Duke Eudo. So that was all fun, or at least I thought so. Amazingly rich text; if only we had all of it, hey?

The last session on Wednesday was the first one where I really regretted not being able to be in several places at once. Where I actually went was a really cool session about burial archaeology called ‘Tombs and Identities’, but to do that I had to pass up another digital session and one with at least one good paper about wills in. Also, I realised later, I’d missed perhaps the only paper that will ever be presented at the IMC about Catalan archaeological chronology in my period, and I must contact the presenter and apologise for not having spotted her and asking her for a copy of the paper. Catalan ceramics are not very helpful but they’re about all the dating evidence there is and having a short guide to them in English would be very useful to me. Poor observation Jarrett…

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

That said, the Tombs and Identities session was really good; I just should have been somewhere else. Highlight was certainly Philipp von Rummel, who was arguing that attempts to see Childeric’s grave as a German adopting Roman culture was old-fashioned, because Childeric probably thought he was a Roman, but the definition of ‘Roman’ had changed a lot in the previous hundred years. He was a Roman military officer, holding a Roman position of rule, and he’d probably been born in the Empire. He looks like a (contemporary) Roman in his portrait (and von Rummel had some interesting lower-class Roman parallels for the famous Merovingian long hair here) and there’s no reason to suppose he thought of himself as a barbarian at all, so it tells us more if we stop using those categories like Victorians. But the other papers, which talked about royal and high-status burial in Italy, were also interesting though I did wind up questioning the significance of the second one’s graphs. Why is it me, with no statistical training, no particular mathematical ability and a love for showy representation, why is it me who has to ask the questions about bad maths? Why aren’t these being caught by anyone else? And why don’t people realise that if their graph only shows percentages, we want to know what the total sample was, and that if their graph peaks in the seventh century, and so does the density of their sample, then we want a Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test or similar to see whether that’s actually surprising? Who’s doing this bloody maths, me or you, huh? Okay, it’s me. But it really shouldn’t be because I know nothing about this stuff. It’s very annoying. If it has numbers in that had to be calculated, historians will swallow it uncritically. Anyway, I’ve said this before, let’s move on.

By now I was tiring, and though my original plan had been to make it to a round table about databases and prosopography that I thought would be useful, actually I sat down at the desk in my room to kill a few minutes looking at books before I set out, and woke up about an hour later just about to miss the last plausible bus to make it, and executively decided to go into Headingley and get food instead. Later, as I recall, there was drinking, and then I made an attempt to get an early night which the well-meaning concern of a friend who had carried on drinking entirely scuppered. And then there came Thursday, but that would be another post, after I’ve told you about something stupid I did at Tuesday’s lunch…


1. The so-called Chronicle of Fredegar owes its name to a name attached to a late manuscript, and there’s no real indication that that annotator knew anything we don’t about the author, or rather since it is several quite different books, probably authors; nonetheless, as we have no other name and this name isn’t much used elsewhere, it has stuck. For this reason, when Roger Collins gave an an excellent paper about the text at the IHR some time ago, he told us very solemnly that he would “pronounce ‘Fredegar’ as ‘Fredegar’, with inverted commas that are silent, like the P in Psmith”. Only about half of the audience got this allusion, and snickered quietly, to which Roger then followed up, with similar deadpan solemnity, “A joke which fell completely flat when I told it in Vienna, for some reason” at which point the audience collapsed en bloc. If you get a chance to hear Roger Collins present a paper, do go, it’s worth it.