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Vicarious Byzantinist travel photos

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Reducing the backlog anothe tiny slice, two days after the seminar described in the previous post I was at the first General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham for autumn 2014. This venerable … Continue reading

Seminar CLIX: difficulties of studying medieval Balkh

The backlog now advances to the autumn term of the academic year just gone, a mere ten months now, and finds me in the Medieval Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham on 7th October 2014, when one of our resident scholars, Arezou Azad, was presenting with the title, “Balkh Art & Cultural Heritage Project: exploration, maps and Silk Road history from northern Afghanistan”. I should read Arezou’s book, because although Balkh is some way off my usual patch it’s really interesting, a real point where worlds met as the routes across the north of the Himalayas arrived at a junction heading both south to India and west to Persia, a major early Buddhist centre and that not the first or last faith to locate itself there, this also being the place of death of Zoroaster; under medieval Islam, likewise, it was a thriving university town that supplied many of the Caliphate’s leading scholars, and now somehow it’s a place almost no-one in the West has heard of.1 So I was eager to find out what I should already have read in the speaker’s book, which is always one gain of going to seminars, isn’t it?

What better image to borrow than the project website’s masthead, not least because it’s quite impressive…

The project about which Arezou set out to teach us is indeed an ambitious one: there have been eleven people involved both on site and spread across the scholarly globe, as the website says: “a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts”, and more besides given that some of the documents from the area are in Bactrian, a language that really very few people in the world now read (which is frustrating to me, as these documents are obviously charters and I want to know how they compare…). They have aimed to look at settlement patterns, resource use, connections and conversion, fortification (the city walls seem to have been almost gone between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is some suggestion that a new circuit was put up to encircle the whole oasis, a 72 km effort that it would be marvellous actually to prove), administration, religious building and a few other things besides including editions of the few surviving texts from the city. These include the Bactrian charters, which are apparently largely one family’s archive (which is perhaps even more intriguing than a civic one would be), and a fifteenth-century history of the city called the Fada’il-i Balkh, surviving in a Persian translation of its Arabic original and providing biographical notes about seventy generations of city luminaries, including a couple of notable queens and some learned women about whom Arezou has already written.2

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

All of this is however complicated by the fact that the project is trying to study a place now in Afghanistan, which is not currently perfectly accessible… Balkh is largely clear of warzone but local security is still quite tight, not least because that actually puts it very close to the border with Uzbekistan. That also has the complication that sites in the city’s old territory are now in fact across the border, meaning that they have to have a team member working with old Soviet archæological reports on finds that they can’t get at. The finds that they can get at, meanwhile, are in Kabul, were mostly excavated by French teams in the 1970s and were found in storage of the most dreadful kind, rooms full of uncatalogued potsherds and coins carefully stored in airtight plastic bags with perhaps just a little bit of moisture along with them that consequently provided perfect conditions for thriving populations of mould to grow on them then die in the bag.3 Even once conserved, the original records of these coins’ discovery context has been lost, and the situation is little better for many of the other finds, but what little is known suggests that they are only from two or three areas of the city, so that a great deal remains archæologically blank.

A coin of al-Mubarak (Balkh)

A coin of al-Mubarak, which is to say Balkh, cleaned and conserved; I can’t tell you metal or date but it’s one of the finds!

The team can’t afford to maintain an actual presence in either Balkh or Kabul except for local interns, who have been having to work largely unsupervised and unpaid with what help the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan is able to offer. This seems not to have stopped them making great efforts, but it’s obviously not ideal and putting their findings to work is very difficult. Indeed, at the time Arezou was speaking, the whole team had only been able to meet twice since they began the project in late 2011, although there was to be a conference in January 2015, which seems to have been the last time the project website was updated. The publication of those papers is obviously a desideratum, but at the end of Arezou’s paper my hopes for what they may contain were, I have to admit, considerably dampened.4 It seems as if new primary material is going to be very hard to add into any new synthesis, so the best we can hope for may be the refinement and greater accessibility of earlier syntheses. There are some places—and many worse than this, right now—which we just can’t study properly!

Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow at the BACH conference, Oxford 2015

The conference looks as if it may have been fun, though! Here the pictures from it show Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow.


1. That book being A. Azad, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford 2013).

2. A. Azad, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: The Quiet Legacy” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 56 (Leiden 2013), pp. 53–88, DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341277. The Bactrian documents have been being published for some years now as Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol I: Legal and Economic Documents (Oxford 2001), idem, Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol. 2: Letters and Buddhist texts (London 2007) and Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan III: Plates (Oxford 2013), which must have been a trial judging by the three different publishers. The Fada’il-i Balkh has been edited before, as Shaykh al-Islām al-Wā’iz & ‘Abd Allāh al-Husaynī (edd.), Fadā’il-i Balkh (Tehran 1350 [1971]), but this is apparently “inadequate” (Azad, Sacred Landscapes, p. 22 n. 2), and a new one by project member by Ali Mir Ansari, which will then be translated by Arezou and Edmund Herzig, apparently as Azad, Ansari & Herzig (transl.), Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (London forthcoming), is in progress still.

3. Kids, a curator’s advice to you: if you have old coins in a sealable plastic receptacle, like a zip-lock bag or something, poke a pinhole in that plastic or you too may face this problem after 35 years…

4. Arezou’s Birmingham webpage does mention as forthcoming something that looks as if it might be that publication, A. Azad, Edmund Herzig & Paul Wordsworth (edd.), Early Islamic Balkh: History, Landscape and Material Culture of a Central Asian City (forthcoming), but that’s the only trace I can find so far.

While it’s been quiet I have been reading (and writing)

So I am back from Leeds and there are now two Leeds folders of my notes to blog about in the pile which means that, sadly, I am about a year behind again. How has this occurred? Well, I explained a few posts ago that since January my days have been basically taken up with getting stuff written that might get me hired, one way or another—which of course worked, or something did—and also dealing with a truly heroic level of over-commitment, and that this has basically most days taken me up till midnight and bedtime before getting to any space of time in which I might blog. But I felt like some kind of list of what has passed before me in that time and what it was for might also be explanatory, maybe even provocative of thoughts and comments, and mostly generally make me feel better about the lag. So, this is basically a commented bibliography of my life over the last six months or so and I’ll then carry on attacking the backlog…

Jonathan Jarrett's workspace in Birmingham

The workstation as it currently stands, lacking only your humble scribe

Roughly in order then…

  1. Michel Zimmermann, “El bisbe català durant els segles X-XIII” in idem, En els orígens de Catalunya: emancipació política i afirmació cultural, transl. Antoni Bentué, Llibres a l’abast 248 (Barcelona 1989), pp. 137-165.
  2. This was for my Kalamazoo paper. I had to go to the British Library for the first time in possibly years to get at it, having completely failed to find a copy for sale anywhere; most of it is reprinted but without having access to a copy you can’t know how much, the online presence of it doesn’t get as far as a contents list. If it would help people I can actually say what’s in it, but I made a list, read this one chapter (which is only printed here) in a hurry, and then basically didn’t use it as though it’s quite interesting it has no references, which were deferred to a French version that seems never to have come out…

  3. Lutger Körntgen & Dominik Waßerhoven (edd.), Patterns of Episcopal Power: bishops in tenth- and eleventh-century Western Europe. Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaft im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6 (Baden 2011).
  4. Also for the Kalamazoo paper, which as you may be beginning to guess was about bishops, and much more useful, especially for the Englishing of a seminal German paper by Timothy Reuter.1

  5. The first 95 pages of Albert Benet i Clarà, Història de Manresa dels orígens al segle XI (Manresa 1985).
  6. This largely because for reasons that will sort of get blogged about, I had a spare day in Barcelona which I largely spent in the Biblioteca de Catalunya. I have been needing to get at this for a long time, even before I started working on priests around Manresa but especially since then, and I can really only do so in Catalonia. It turns out to be about eight hundred pages, though, so I will need a few more visits…

  7. The introduction of Antoni Pladevall i Font, Tona: mil cent anys d’història, L’entorn 16 (Tona 1990).
  8. For much the same reasons of opportunity, to break up the solidity of the Benet volume and because I’ve repeatedly cited it as a thing I know exists and I felt that I needed to see what it actually says in case this was a bad idea. I only had time for the introduction, though, so the jury is out till next visit.

  9. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: sanctity and power in medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16, DOI: 110.1353/cat.2002.0006.
  10. I should have read this years ago too, given how I like St Ermengol as an example case, but now I did so as to get it clear for the Kalamazoo paper, and in fact it turned out to be one of the pieces of scholarship around which I oriented the paper, so that was good to have done.

  11. Cécile Morrisson, C. Brendt, J.-P. Callu, J.-N. Barrandon, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé 1 : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest-Babelon 2 (Paris 1985).
  12. For work, really, and specifically the All That Glitters project, and for that very educational; there will be blog posts about this in due course…

  13. John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: studies of episcopal power and culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).
  14. Another volume of studies about bishops, and this one very useful; there were many case studies in here which I thought paralleled what I wanted to say, and it turned up a lot in the Kalamazoo paper’s footnotes.

  15. Sean Gilsdorf (ed.), The Bishop: power and piety at the first millennium, Neue Aspekte der europäischen Mittelalterforschung 4 (Münster 2004).
  16. And another, and in some ways the most useful to think with; it also exposed that even Timothy Reuter was not above publishing roughly the same thoughts twice, however…2

  17. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
  18. Read very rapidly, but avidly, for a paper I was giving in Oxford the week after Kalamazoo, a repeat offence I’m afraid, but I had a lot of reactions to this book (some of which, I will admit, were incredulous) and I will definitely be writing about this here as well as in the final version of that paper.

  19. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967).
  20. For the recent Leeds paper, and a fascinating read as well as being my first real brush with Byzantine source material; there will also be blog posts about this!

  21. Mark Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).
  22. Ths I was reading largely because it kept coming up in a project bid I was part of, about which there will be further blogging if it comes off at least, and I kept telling people how important it was on the basis of the paper I saw Mark give once when he was writing it, and felt I had better make sure. But it turns out it’s brilliant, so I was reassured. I’m not just saying this because he may be reading, I haven’t actively enjoyed a work of scholarship this much for ages. I have one post stubbed coming out of this which will engage with a tiny part of it, but meanwhile I can only say that not only is it required reading for anyone working on travel in late Antiquity, it’s also a good read. Enjoy the footnotes…

  23. Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperii. A Commentary, 2nd edn. (Washington DC 2012).
  24. Given the speed at which I was having to amass knowledge about the De Adminstrando Imperii, the fact that there existed a commentary volume was a godsend, even if it is by now fifty years old in its original form. I saw it while I was at Dumbarton Oaks (about which also future blog) and then made sure to read it, and without it the Leeds paper could not have existed. It was also illuminating about why the work on the De Adminstrando I’ve read is so unbothered about the obviously questionable state of the text, and I will certainly blog about that in due course too.

  25. And lastly, bits of Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008).
  26. This lastly just to get some kind of sense of where Byzantine scholarship on these areas has gone since Ostrogorsky and the edition of the De Adminstrando, and for that also vital, but it gives me less to say that wasn’t actually in the Leeds paper except that I wish Armenia and eastern Turkey were currently safer to visit.3

So that not only wraps up a list, but tells you quite a lot about what I’ve been doing and what you can expect here as, I hope, I reduce the backlog. Meanwhile, any questions? And thanks as ever for reading.


1. Timothy Reuter, “Ein Europa der Bischöfe. Das Zeitalter Burchards von Worms”, in Wilfried Hartmann (ed.), Bischof Burchard von Worms 1000-1025, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 100 (Mainz 2000), pp. 1-28, transl. Dominik Waßerhoven as “A Europe of Bishops. The Age of Wulfstan of York and Burchard of Worms” in Lutger Körntgen & Waßerhoven (edd.), Patterns of Episcopal Power: bishops in tenth- and eleventh-century Western Europe. Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaft im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6 (Baden 2011), pp. 17-38.

2. Reuter, “Bishops, rites of passage, and the symbolism of state in pre- Gregorian Europe”, in Sean Gilsdorf (ed.), The Bishop: power and piety at the first millennium, Neue Aspekte der europäischen Mittelalterforschung 4 (Münster 2004), pp. 23-36, which has maybe a three-quarters overlap with “A Europe of Bishops”.

3. George Ostrogorsky, Geschichte des byzantinischen Staates, Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft XII.1.2 (München 1940), transl. Joan Hussey as History of the Byzantine State (Oxford 1956), 2nd English edn. from 3rd German edn. (Oxford 1968) and then reprinted four times by the date of the copy I bought a few days ago, and as that implies still very much the standard reference.

Seminar CLVIII: too close to the action and yet too far

As you know, I dither about reporting on postgraduate seminars—in fact I dither about going to them but I always feel that more staff should, and you know, be the change you wish to see in the world, and so on—but the 19th June 2014 meeting of Birmingham’s Gate to the East Mediterranean Forum seems like fair game, partly because it was not a postgraduate speaking, but an alumnus of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, Kyle Sinclair, but also because the paper was interesting. It was entitled “Michael Attaleites and Eyewitness Accounts of Warfare in Byzantine Literature”.

The autograph signature of civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis

Allegedly, the autograph signature of the man behind our key source for this post, the civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis. By Dimik72 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the basic questions historians of any stamp have to ask about their sources is how they know what they claim to know, obviously, and in the hierarchy of the possible answers to that question there isn’t usually much to trump the eye-witness report. Obviously, they may still be mistaken or lying but at least they had the chance to get it right. Right? Dr Sinclair was testing this argumentative position with the sources for the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071, when the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV fought against the Seljuk Turks and lost, badly, his forces being routed in confusion and he himself captured by his opponents. In the subsequent government confusion, the Turks were able to sweep quite a lot of the local authority in what is now Turkey out of the way and take over while the empire was still trying to reconstitute its centre.1 And the chronicler Michael Attaleites was there.2

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey)

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey). By Bakayna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, we say he was there: he was on the campaign, indeed he was the army’s judge (krites ton stratepedou, say my notes), but when the actual battle was being fought, as Dr Sinclair excavated from his testimony for us, he was at the camp, not in the field. So rather than seeing the outcome himself, what he knew about was the reports of the survivors, every one of whom had of course been scattered in confusion and none of whom, it becomes clear as one goes through the account, knew what had happened to the emperor. Now, by the time Attaleites was writing that was in fact well-known, and he knew and used the work of fellow historian Michael Psellos on the battle, but Attaleites seems to have worked to give his contemporary impression as an eye-witness, and what he witnessed was, well, not very much but still more than most of the actual participants could have determined individually.3 All the same, what he tells us about is fear, confusion and the limits of everyone’s understanding of what was going on.

Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526

Emperor Romanos IV in happier times, as who could not be happy being crowned alongside your wife by Christ himself? Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526, and currently on exhibition in Inheriting Rome, along with its sibling B4524 the other way up! Yup; that should bring ’em in.

Now, it is of course possible that that is actually what being involved in or close to the losers in a battle that ends in an utter rout is like, but we did push a bit deeper on this. For a start, Attaleites seems to have been making the most of his own status as a witness, not least to raise the value of his testimony, a lot more favourable to his old boss Romanos than had Michael Psellos been. This also involved emphasising his own connection to the emperor, the importance of his role in the army and so on, in general trying to make sure that whatever had gone wrong didn’t reflect on him. As Dr Sinclair concluded, just because it’s eye-witness doesn’t make a source unbiased or without purpose! And here, the purpose was not least to give the ring of eye-witness testimony to events that our chronicler had not in fact seen, and didn’t really understand at the time. As usual, the methodological conclusion is that every source is evidence for something, even if only the motives of its maker, but you do need to consider those before pretty much anything else…4


1. Mantzikert has been much studied, but I’m afraid that I was writing in a hurry so I crib from Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2005), pp. 254-256. He and the work in the next note both spell Manzikert ‘Mantzikert’ so although Wikipedia and my own education vie against them, I’ve done so too.

2. Lately available in English as Michael Attaleites, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 16 (Cambridge MA 2012).

3. As well as the Internet Medieval Sourcebook version linked, you can if you like get more or less the same translation of Michael Psellos’s Chronographia as Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: the Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1966).

4. Cited at several points on such issues in the course of the paper was Ruth Macrides, “The Historian in the History”, in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys and Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, which sounded really interesting, but good luck getting hold of it…

Seminar CLII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…

Seminar CLI: absence of ornamentation in Byzantine churches

My last seminar of the spring term of this (calendar) year was back to Byzantium, in the form of turning up to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham to hear Professor Henry Maguire speak with the title “Why was there no Renaissance in Byzantine art?” Professor Maguire was known to me only as a name at this point, but I had been assured that it was quite a big name in the field, and this he demonstrated by having to apologise for the fact that he was giving us a version of a public lecture he’d done in the USA. He was apologising for what he called the “flourishes”, but actually I was glad of the nods towards accessibility. I am however faced with the peculiarity that though I remember him making a perfectly reasonable stab at answering the question of his title, my notes seem determined to answer another one, which was more like “why is Byzantine art so darn austere?”

Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Lucca, 1228x1236

Looking pretty Byzantine, this gold-on-tempera Madonna and Child is actually from Lucca, by a chap called Berlinghiero who was active in the first third of the thirteenth century, but it gets the idea over both of what was and what could change. “Berlinghiero: Madonna and Child” (60.173) in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/60.173 (October 2006).

Comparisons with the art of the Italian Renaissance certainly helped to mark a contrast: even when the subject matter was similar, the level of ornamentation was usually starkly different. To drive this home Professor Maguire showed us two suspiciously similar Madonna and child portraits, both with the classic long gloomy Byzantine faces and almost identical poses, but one from Italy having a background loaded with architecture, ships and trees and a Byzantine one, well, not doing that. This lack of ornamentation is characteristic of Byzantine art as we know it, and can be set with Byzantine theologians’ disdain for the Latins’ concentration on external things rather than the internal, spiritual ones that really mattered, but that feeling didn’t stop them celebrating the glories of God’s Creation visually elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, from the ninth century onwards it’s really hard to find much beyond geometric ornament and stylised portraits in Byzantine art as it survives. Why?

Dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus

Obviously there are exceptions… but even here, in the dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus, this twelfth-century painting is figures of holy men and geometric ornament and little more, however much there is of it. I’m not sure austere is quite the word, but… Link goes to a web-page with a zoomable image.

Well, one obvious factor is that survival, because we’re talking almost entirely about churches here and may suspect, from what little we have of secular art and even manuscript painting, that that was more lively. In church, however, such things could be criticised as distracting from the holy focus of worship from as early as the fifth century. Defacement of palæochristian mosaic pavements and so on has been put down to Muslim pressure, but it was happening in Christian buildings and does seem to thrive as an ethic of non-natural display even in unconquered areas (though it is definitely strongest in modern Jordan and Palestine, as Daniel Reynolds pointed out in questions). Professor Maguire suggested that the real enemy here, as evinced in the legislation that closed the controversy over icons at Nicæa in 787, was not Islam but paganism, an imagery of zoomorphs and human-animal hybrids essentially inherited from Egypt and the Classical era. He ingeniously argued that the removal of the natural world from ornamentation was in fact how one allowed the human figure to remain as a visual object, because of its unique potential to reside in the next world, to which churches then operated as a gateway as they should.2 Consequently the saints only appear in the upper registers of Byzantine church spaces, where one’s eyes are upraised to Heaven to see them; they stand between the worshippers and the uppermost spaces, it’s all quite plausible when put together like this.

A 'corrected' mosaic at St Stephen's Umm al-Rasas, Jordan

A ‘corrected’ mosaic at St Stephen’s Umm al-Rasas, Jordan, with all the human figures carefully replaced with blank or reused tessera. I’m really not sure this is the same phenomenon, myself…

It was this different focus on heaven in art rather than the world that Professor Maguire used to explain the lack of a revival of interest in the created world by which he was characterising the Western Renaissance, but the questions centred most of all on the issue of defacement of imagery in churches. Daniel Reynolds, as said, raised the issue of regionality, and Matthew Harpster that of chronology: whether or not such imagery was criticised earlier, the defacements that we can date are post-Islamic, late eighth or ninth century. There’s a certain sense in this as that’s when Islam generally hardened up in its dealings with the other Abrahamic faiths; it’s when the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar’ starts to be invoked, for example.3 Christians might well feel under scrutiny then… Daniel Reynolds doubted that this could be fear of paganism as late as the ninth century, at least, and also put forward an idea from his own research on the early Islamic Holy Land, which is that as far as he has been able to discover, such defacement happens only in churches which held to the Chalcedonian rite, not in Monophysite/Coptic or other non-Orthodox ones.4 If the attack on Classical imagery is only a Melkite thing, as he put it, then at the very least Islam, while it may have been the catalyst somehow, was not the only actor in play and it served as a reminder that there were lots of stakeholders in Byzantine Christianity, and presumably its art, even after Byzantium ceased to be able to control much of it.


1. Cited doing this were the Vita S. Andreae Sali, which you may be able to find in Lennart Rydén (ed./transl.), The Life of St Andrew the Fool: text, translation and commentary (Uppsala 1995), 2 vols, and Symeon of Thessaloniki, who apparently also provides the Latin-slagging and whose stuff is edited as David Balfour (ed.), Politico-Historical Works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1416/1417 to 1429): critical Greek text with introduction and commentary, Wiener byzantinische Studien 13 (Wien 1979) and idem (ed.), Ἔργα θεολογικά, Ἁγίου Συμεὼν ἀρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, 1416/17-1429 (Thessaloniki 1981), but only some translated; I don’t know which work was meant here, so I can’t be any more guidance than Wikipedia can I’m afraid. This is probably also the place to mention Professor Maguire’s most obviously relevant works, his collected papers, H. Maguire, Rhetoric, Nature and Magic in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 603 (Aldershot 1998) and idem, Image and Imagination in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 866 (Aldershot 2007), and his more recent monograph, idem, Nectar and Illusion: nature in Byzantine art and literature (Oxford 2012).

2. I believe I am prevented, both by good sense and probably also contractually, from mentioning Iconoclasm without citing Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era ca. 680–ca. 850: a history (Cambridge 2011).

3. Something that I know about mainly from Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365-384.

4. Dan needs to get more stuff into print (don’t we all?) but has some limited excuse what with only just having left his doctorate, “Monasticism and Christian Pilgrimage in Early Islamic Palestine c. 614-c. 950″, University of Birmingham 2013, behind him; he will at least soon be able to boast of D. Reynolds, “Monasticism in early Islamic Palestine: contours of debate” in Robert Hoyland and Marie Legendre (edd.), The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean (London forthcoming).

Seminar CXLVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

People who know the sad history of archæology as a subject at the University of Birmingham are usually surprised to learn that there still are any archæologists here, but there are, now housed in what is now Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. None are primarily medievalists, however, so while I was a lecturer here I had direct business with them only through teaching (which, indeed, I was repeating only yesterday) or when, on the 18th March 2014, I turned up at the Anthropology Seminar to hear Professor Paul Garwood speaking with the title, “Ashes, Smoke and Fire: rethinking archaeologies of ritual”.1 This was off my usual map in several ways: I’ve not been to an anthropology seminar for years and never this one, there was nothing specifically medieval about the title and it turned out to be much more theoretical than usual for me, but I certainly got some things to think with from it so perhaps you will also.

As Professor Garwood acknowledged, there is a much-mocked but genuine tendency for archæologists to classify objects and contexts they can’t understand as ‘ritual’, which is in some ways a function of a definition of ‘ritual’ as non-functional behaviour; when an object doesn’t have a clear function, therefore… This, as Professor Garwood explained in a painstaking review of the field with due nods to the contributions of anthropological thinking to it, given what seminar he was in, stems from the belief of earlier archæologists that beliefs were not recoverable in material evidence, at least without unusually superb evidence. One of the places anthropology helped to change this was in giving archæologists a greater appreciation of the rôle of systematised behaviours in orchestrating and regulating societies, which meant that examining things like fires with no cooking or object elements in them, stuff deposited under building foundations or in floors or boundary ditches or similar, could be got at by trying to work out what the rules of this particular system of behaviour were. Nonetheless, we still have people (in all our fields!) saying that ‘ritual’ just isn’t a useful concept because of how much ritual is everyday or even, of course, functional.2 I think, for example, of rituals that are not a specific activity so much as a way or order of doing that activity, like a Japanese tea ceremony, which with no other context might not be archæologically identifiable as anything other than a high-status means of making tea but obviously is.

Teapot, mug and strainer in my kitchen

Even outside the Japanese world, this functional equipment can serve ritual purposes, and anyone who thinks differently has never seen the reverence with which I brew up

So what is needed is some ways to think about ritual as an archæological target that might save it as a concept, and these have been generated, in particular that of seeing it as a performance where as archæologist one is looking not for the matter being communicated by its symobology but its physical outcome, its staging and the environment that guided action in the ways desired; here, recent approaches to Stonehenge are exemplary. Frequency might ideally be a factor here too: was such a setting used so much as to be everyday or was it deliberately unusual and ‘other’? (The tea comparison still makes me think that this isn’t fine enough: I have a couple of teas I will not be able to restock—some Mariage Frères stuff from Rwanda, for example, lovely but now rather hard to get—so that I brew them only when there seems some special reason, but I use the same kit to do so as usual…) Professor Garwood seemed himself to favour an approach he termed ‘chaines opératoires‘, constructing models from the evidence of what the sequence of events and types of object involved had to be for the ritual to ‘work’, so that the technology of the process rather than the outcome remains the target, and that’s certainly easier to approach from finds. (Though would it pick up how important it is to warm the pot and for the milk to go in first?) I found myself inwardly comparing this to Actor Network Theory and similar approaches and liking this better because it left agency clearer, myself, but I understand that those that like ANT do so not least because it spreads agency to the objects, and I suppose that with ritual that is worship, that could be important: look at the big early medieval debate over whether people believed icons themselves did things, after all, and how to stop those people doing so if they did.3 Professor Garwood also recommended a definitional approach in which one looked at the processes in terms of workflow, almost like industrial process analysis: what did people need in what order to do this and what do we find? These approaches could obviously run into one another, but as he said, they do get us out of the basic problem of saying what ritual actually is!4 Free your mind, as they say, and the rest will follow…


1. I don’t know Professor Garwood’s work really, but there are obviously bits of it that could be of interest to medievalists, not least P. Garwood, D. Jennings, R. Skeates and J. Thomas (edd.), Sacred and Profane: Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford, 1989 (Oxford 1991) or P. Garwood, “Rites of Passage” in Timothy Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford 2011), pp. 261-284, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0019.

2. I think straight away of Geoffrey Koziol, “The dangers of polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2002.00116.x but Professor Garwood cited Joanna Brück, “Ritual and Rationality: some problems in interpretation in European archaeology” in European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2 (Leeds 1999), 313-344, DOI: 10.1179/eja.1999.2.3.313 and Ian Hodder, “Triggering post-processual archaeology and beyond” in R. F. Williamson & M. S. Bisson (edd.), The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism (Montreal 2006), pp. 16-24.

3. I came to actor network theory as applied archæologically by Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), historical archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 42-64; I’m not sure what the canonical cites would be for any other uses. As for the debate over icons, you should now see Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), and Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009).

4. As is ineluctable with a paper about theory, there were a great many names flying about and I didn’t catch them all. Those I did I haven’t yet followed up, indeed, but they included, as well as those in n. 2 above, Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques et la technologie” in Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique Vol. 41 (Paris 1948), pp. 71-78, Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton 1980), Victor W. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York City 1982) and idem, The Edge of the Bush: anthropology as experience (Tucson 1985).