Tag Archives: Stefan Esders

A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

This is a post that arose from the 2017 International Medieval Congress, believe it or not, and it’s about a literary motif that crops up in a couple of my sources of resort. The basic shape of it is that someone said something in a paper at the Congress that made me trot out an old theory of mind in discussion and they had, kindly but clearly, to point out a reason that that theory was wrong. And then a week or two later, once back from Lleida, I did a tiny bit of looking into it, with that occasional luxury to follow threads that summers used sometimes to permit, and found that on the one hand was I considerably more wrong than I had thought, but on the other hand that maybe no-one has before combined the sources I now apparently know about. That last probably isn’t true, but at least I can perform putting the pieces together for you all.

Illustration of Notker the Stammerer

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

So, let’s start where I started, with the Gesta Karoli by the Frankish monk Notker. This supposed biography of Charlemagne was written for one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Fat about whom we have spoken here, and really contains very little factual information at all; it’s basically a set of kingship parables for the young Charles, using Charlemagne as its ideal monarch.1 One of these stories is about a Byzantine embassy to Charlemagne, and its basic thrust is this. Charlemagne was supposedly trying to make a point to the ‘other’ emperor about the mistreatment of some of his envoys, so had had the incoming delegation escorted by the longest possible route so that their money ran out, then brought them to Aachen.2

“When the envoys finally arrived, [Charlemagne’s masters of ceremonies] ordered the official in charge of the stables to sit on a lofty throne in the midts of his ostlers, in such pomp that it was impossible to believe that he was anyone else but the emperor. The moment the envoys saw him, they fell to the ground and wanted to worship him… Those who were present said: ‘That is not the emperor! That is not the emperor!’ and hit them to compel them to move on.’

This gimmick is replayed several times, with the Count of the Palace, then the Master of the King’s Table, then his steward, each one more splendidly caparisoned than the last, but eventually they finally get taken to the boss man:

“Charlemagne, of all kings the most glorious, was standing by a window through which the sun shone with dazzling brightness. He was clad in gold and precious stones and he glittered himself like the sun at its first rising.”

He is leaning on the originally mistreated envoy, and abject apologies and grovelling therefore ensue, moral victory for the Franks and the clear model to follow is established. As I say, there’s no real sign that this happened but the story is a good one.

Safavid miniature illustration of Ibn al-Arabī with students

16th-century Persian miniature illustration of the philosopher Ibn al-Arabī with some students, author unknown – http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/treasureofcompassion.html, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I must have read that story first as an undergraduate, but then I had nothing to connect it to and it wasn’t till I first taught the Carolingians some years later that I came across it again and by then it struck a chord in my memory because of my having since read, I think in the fundamental work about the first autonomous Catalan counts and how they got that way, Ramon d’Abadal’s Els primers comtes catalans, a very similar story.3 This story was, Abadal thought, about an embassy of the counts of Barcelona, my boys, to Córdoba in the reign of the first Andalusi caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III, perhaps around 950, and in the story the same trick is played on the ambassadors. This time, however, the punchline is different, because after falling on their faces before officials enough times they are finally brought to the presence of the caliph, who is seated on a wooden stool, ‘in a white robe worth less than four dirhams’, in a room otherwise empty apart from a copy of the Qu’rān on a stand, a sword on another, and a small brazier busily aflame, and he tells the terrfied envoys that they have a choice between the authority of the first or death by the second and consumption in the third.4 Result, abject grovelling and all caliphal terms gratefully accepted, moral victory for Islam and the model is established, and so on.

So when I first made this association I had to wonder if there was a connection, and once I speculated about the possibility that, in an earlier embassy which we know brought down a chronicle of the Frankish kings to Córdoba, either a copy of Notker travelled too or else that that chronicle, of which we only have the barest abstract, contained this story from Notker.5 I still think this was an ingenious solution, but as it turns out there is a much much simpler one which makes me very likely to be wrong, and this is what I found out about at the IMC, because it turns out the instances I knew of this story were not the only ones. In his paper, Professor Stefan Esders had made passing reference to another, and when I quizzed him about later he said that he’d got it from a conference paper by one Jacek Banaszkiewicz, whom he believed was publishing it.6 Actually, it turns out that paper was already out, but it’s in Polish and so I cannot claim to have fully absorbed it.7 Still, the basic thrust of it is possible for me to pick up by grabbing at recognisable terms and references. Professor Banaskiewicz is interested because another of the users of the story is the pseudonymous chronicler Gallus, who uses a slightly different version in which Emperor Otto I of the Germans comes to visit King Bolesław I of Poland and is so dazzled by the reception that he hands over his imperial diadem to the Polish ruler. The way this plays to validate the Polish kingship and its own wider claims is pretty obvious. However, Banaskiewicz also finds the story in the Chronicum Salernitanum, in which it’s Charlemagne visiting Duke Arechis II of Benevento, and this time the dance with a long diversion and officials set up to look like the ruler is in place. And there are further, later, instances too. At the very end of the paper he introduces Notker as an older version, but the underlying trope as he sees it is very much older, being the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in the Biblical book of Kings (Kings 1:10).

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from the 15th-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the Biblical story does not have the increasing levels of false identification thing going on, but the Ancient History Encyclopedia quickly tells me that it acquires them in some later Jewish and Islamic versions, and as Banaskiewicz is mainly concerned to show, it’s not an uncommon device, so the interesting question now perhaps becomes how Notker got hold of one of those versions, or what the common source is. In any case, though, it’s no longer necessary to draw the link from him to Córdoba; the Arabic writer in question, the Andalusī philosopher Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn al-ʿArabī, could obviously have picked up the trope more locally, though his inversion of it is still quite original and cute. However, my being wrong sadly didn’t end there…

You see, having got Professor Esders’s message and done my first bits of digging, I went to a book I hadn’t had when I previously made the connection between Notker and Ibn al-Arabī, the invaluable little anthology of Arabic sources which refer to Catalonia edited and translated by Dolors Bramon. The extract is there, of course, because she is a thorough scholar, but with it came several notes that forced me to rethink again.8 You see, no other Arabic source, let alone any Christian one, records this embassy; it doesn’t name the participants, like all of Ibn Hayyān’s records based on the work of people who had actual court archives do, and the outcome seems to imply the conversion of the ambassadors to Islam, which definitely wasn’t required of any of the Christian rulers in the Iberian Peninsula even at the height of the Umayyads’ aggressiveness there. For all of these reasons, in 1974 Fernando de la Granja had concluded that the whole thing was probably just a literary construction, placed in the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III because Ibn Hayyān and so on made that the obvious context for such a meeting.9 In other words, they think it’s fictive. Bother.

The very episode, depicted in Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer, ‘Abd al-Rahman III Receiving the Ambassador at the Court of Cordoba’, 1885, Universitat de Barcelona, image allegedly public domain via the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Now, there is actually some evidence to suggest that ‘Abd al-Rahmān did play court ceremonial like this, as something vaguely similar appears in the tale of another ambassador to the court, The Life of John of Gorze, which has the long-delayed ambassador finally meet the caliph alone in a space only adorned with fountains, but he has a reclining bench rather than a stool and John told his biographer that was the custom.10 For that reason, it doesn’t seem as if this tale is a clone of Notker or indeed of the Bible, and I’m inclined to think the caliph really did use such presentational tricks, but of course he and his advisors may also have known the story! This would then be life imitating art. All that said, however, there’s no really sound evidence for the actual embassy detailed, or rather left undetailed, by Ibn al-‘Arabī, and I probably have to delete it from my list of data about Count-Marquis Borrell II. That will only hurt my ego, rather than my arguments, so that’s fine.

However, there are a lot of pieces to this jigsaw now. Banaskiewicz knows Notker, Gallus, the Chronicon Salernitanum and some more stuff besides, but not the Arabic version of the story. He also doesn’t cover the Biblical story’s development as far as I can see, and the sources I can quickly find for that don’t realise that there are medieval tropes of it. Meanwhile, de la Granja seems not to have known and Bramon shows no sign of knowing that there is a Biblical tradition behind the story, and they don’t mention the Latin analogues. Right now, as far as I know, it is I, I alone, who have all the pieces of the puzzle! Well, and now you, of course. But we can keep a secret, right… ?


1. Here accessed from Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, L213 (Harmondsworth 1969); I know the newer translation by David Ganz is better, but right now this is the one I can reach…

2. Ibid., II.6.

3. Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalans: sèrie històrica 1, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1965), pp. 316-317.

4. Although I now have Abadal to hand, the account here is paraphrased from the version in Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §396.

5. The chronicle was carried by Bishop Godmar II of Girona, around 940, and is recorded for us in the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas’ūdī, which is accessible only in very abridged English as El-Mas’ūdī, Historical Encyclopedia, entitled ‘Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems;’ translated from the Arabic, transl. Aloys Sprenger, 1 vol (London 1841-), online here; the whole thing is in French, as Maçoudi, Les prairies d’or : Texte et traduction, edd. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet De Courtelle, 9 vols (Paris 1861-1877), all on the Internet Archive, but I admit I did not go look for this anecdote there and have it right now from Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §400.

6. Professor Esders’s paper, by the way, was S. Esders, “The Synod of Erfurt: Ottonian and Mediterranean Politics in 932”, paper presented at the International Medieval Congressm University of Leeds, 5th July 2017.

7. Jacek Banaszkiewicz-Pokorny, ‘„Na koronę mego cesarstwa! To, co widzę, większe jest, niż wieść niesie”. Mechanizm fabularny „wizyty Saby u Salomona” w średniowiecznych realizacjach kronikarsko-epickich (Kronika salernitańska, Kronika Galla, Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, Galien Restoré)’ in Agnieszka Teterycz-Puzio (ed.), Na szlakach dwóch światów: Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Jerzemu Hauzińskiemu (Słupsk 2016), pp. 365–382. I have to thank Professor Esders for sending me an English version of the paper he saw, without which I’d not have got far with this.

8. Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §396.

9. Fernando de la Granja, “A propósito de una embajada cristiana en la corte de ‘Abd al-Rahmān III” in al-Andalus Vol. 39 (Madrid 1974), pp. 391-406, cited in Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, p. 291 n. 111.

10. I’ve actually done my own translation of this text for my students, which may even some day be published, but until then there is most of the relevant bit in Colin Smith (ed.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: AD 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 1

People in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo

Other people in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo (official photo)

Well, we’ve had another lapse in posting, for which I apologise, but there was good reason, I promise you, not least the International Medieval Congress just gone, which was a success but really very busy. I will write about that at some point, I promise, but my ridiculous backlog is only made more so by the passing of another IMC, not least because the next thing I have to write about is an ICMS, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at West Michigan University, which I didn’t make it to this year but did last year, that being where the trip to the US lately described wound up, and that’s how far behind I am. Given that, while I don’t want to say nothing about it I do want to say less than usual, so: I am going firstly to let all the stuff about dreadful accommodation, food and coffee go as standard; secondly I will add that the actual town of Kalamazoo does however have some places worth exploring for food and drink if you are not, as I used to be, determined to scrounge all the free alcohol going on campus; and thirdly, I will try and keep my reportage on the papers I saw down to one sentence of summary or commentary each, a writing challenge I should probably set myself much more often. So, here we go with day 1, 14th May 2015!

45. The State and its Loyal Constituencies in Late Antiquity

  • Michael Kulikowski, “Saying No to Government: Disintegrating and Reinstating States”
  • One sentence for this is actually all I have, because I arrived late to the session and missed almost the whole paper. That sentence therefore is: “A ‘collective sovereignty’ model of northern barbarian kingship gets picked up by those further south over the 5th and 6th centuries”; make of it what you will, but I wish I’d seen more.

  • Stefan Esders, “Regnum, Civitas, and Pagus: Rearranging Spatial Structures in Merovingian Gaul”
  • Arguing that although in Merovingian Gaul many of the functions of the Roman state fell away or were loaded onto new counts or old bishops, the territorial structures through which they continued to be organised necessitated a continuing level of fiscal sophistication that we could safely call a state. As Julie Hofmann pointed out, the missing part of this picture was Church organisation and its imprint on bishops’ fiscal responsibilities, but that was a part of the study still to come.

  • Guy Halsall, “Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities”
  • Guy, who it was that I had particularly come to see, argued instead that Merovingian Gaul was not a state, in as much as there was no single identity of which people could claim membership, but several, Frankish military, Catholic Christian, Arian Christian, Gallo-Roman aristocrat or peasant, all partially replacing the now-discredited Roman civil and patrician identity that, until Justinian I’s campaigns excluded them from it, the ruling élites in this area were still emulating. Michael Kulikowski pointed out that that identity had never been available to most of the Roman population either, but Guy argued that patronage would have joined them up to its holders.

Gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London

Arguably a part of a state apparatus, a gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London. By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969234

80. Leadership Profiles in the Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Church

  • Edmund McCaffray, “Leading by Example: customaries and abbatial conservatio at Cluny in the eleventh century”
  • Argued that we should see John of Salerno’s biography of the famous Abbot Odo of Cluny less as a straight biography than as a set of descriptions of the abbey’s custom justified by Odo’s good example, something that became irrelevant as actual custumaries became common and the Life was rewritten.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “In the Teeth of Reform: reprofiling the Catalan Episcopate around the year 1000”
  • Argued that the commonly-propagated picture Catalan Church of the millennial era as a worldly monopoly of the comital family is based on misreadings of Catalan secondary work, rather than actual evidence, but that a binary appraisal of them in terms of being reformed or not in any case misses out what most of what made them suitable for their jobs. Rereading this paper makes me think I should get on and do something more with it, it’s maybe quite good.

  • Pieter Byttebier, “Intitulatio or Æmulatio? Developing New Forms of Episcopal leadership in Eleventh-Century Lotharingian Contexts”
  • A series of examples of new, and often foreign, bishops, boosting the reputation and even cults of their predecessors in order to better anchor themselves in the local traditions of their offices, and arguably imitating what could be known of their lives—Heer Byttebier argued it, but some of those supposed imitations were post mortem so I had trouble taking his case at full strength. Someone in questions asked about the æmulatio part of his title and he admitted that he had no examples as yet, so probably more could be done here.

St Clement of Metz  leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille

One feat probably beyond imitation, St Clement of Metz leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille, a legend of the tenth century. Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17574925

99. Women and Power to 1100 (A Roundtable)

Quite how I, with only one paper on anything like gender to my name and that unpublished, got in on this may never be entirely clear but it was fun and I don’t think I disgraced myself. I think Julie Hofmann won the day early on with her remark that we’ve been being surprised by women with power in the Middle Ages since 1908, but her deepest point may have been that when you’re dealing with power, their gender is not as important in defining what power someone has as their placement in society and their efficacy at using that. There was a general preference for the word ‘agency’ over ‘power’, which got challenged in discussion by Teresa Earenfight for I think good reason—Lois Honeycutt offered ‘autonomy’, a right to decide, as being closer to what we were getting at. Martha Rampton spoke about magic, one sphere in which women were perhaps dominant, up until around 1000 at least, and I focused on the apparent plenitude of examples from my material of women doing stuff without reference to men, usually with property but still untrammelled, and suggested that even that could more usefully be seen as a way they operated within larger family contexts than trying to separate them out into a female sphere that never existed by itself, any more than a male or indeed, as Jonathan Lyon pointed out, royal or imperial, sphere did. Lastly in the formal section, Phyllis Jestice pointed out that work on women and power has either focused on individual strong women or the whole aristocratic class and asked if there was a middle level where variation and over-generalisation might coalesce into useful conclusions. In discussion I managed to steer that through my favourite point that we need to distinguish between things that are usual but infrequent and things that are actually unusual, and Julie reminded us that the limits on female power were less institutions than straightforward misogyny, so looking at rules about what women could do only gives us the tip of the iceberg. This was all fun to be part of and I felt a lot like a real scholar afterwards, but I can’t help feeling looking back that although progress does seem to have happened these are all quite old problems. The new work that many of us were agitating for seems to be hard to do.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Not everybody can be Matilda of Canossa…

So that was the end of the first day, and then there was a certain amount of free wine and catching up with people. I can’t, by now, remember who those were, or what we did for food, but I don’t think we can have gone far because there was a blogger’s meet-up later in the evening. I felt somewhat as if I shouldn’t show my face at that given how little blog I’d written in the previous few months, nay, years, but others were in the same case and in any case these are to some extent my people, so, if any of you are reading, Another Damned Medievalist, Notorious Ph. D., the Medieval History Geek and Vellum (and others? Sorry if I’ve forgotten you), it was good to catch up and I learnt a lot in that conversation too. It overran well into the evening sessions: does anyone ever go to those? I’m not sure I ever have. Anyway, with that all concluded, it was off to my awful bed and ready for the next day, on which I will try and report shortly!

Leeds 2010 Report III

The amount of time I have for this is quite small, so this post may be subject to the law of diminishing returns as I try and compress a day at a busy conference into rather fewer lines than I have been doing up till now. On the other hand, I said that last time. So, Wednesday. I woke up extremely confused for non-academic reasons and eventually got myself together to head over to Weetwood for some really small-scale stuff.

1003. Landscape and Settlement in Early Medieval England: using the evidence of minor names

This session was mainly about getting down into not just place-names but field names to try and dig down into really old toponymy in various areas of England.

Map of field names circa 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire

None of these field names, recorded c. 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire, were harmed in the course of this session

  • Simon Draper, “Minor Names as Evidence for the Roman to Medieval Transition”, focussing on Wiltshire about which he has a book out, argued that it’s fairly easy to demonstrate Roman site survival into the Romano-British and Saxon periods, and among sites where this has been demonstrated those with names containing the elements ‘wic’ and ‘chester’ feature strongly, as we might expect, and thus encouraged us to look at them suspiciously. I raised awkward points about whether it would not in fact be unusual for an Anglo-Saxon site to be on virgin ground, given how densely the land was settled under the Romans, and Dr Draper conceded there was a point there, but his technique was still fairly demonstrably valid, as far as it went.
  • Susan Oosthuizen, “Early Medieval Land Use and its Wider Context”, was working on areas local to my current home, which made it especially interesting to me; she thought that areas of pastoral agriculture could be differentiated from those where arable farming had been carried out from the names for the fields that survived, and these names matched the geology and flood area of those lands quite well. So another proof of concept, but perhaps questionable how much it told us that wasn’t obvious; I suppose the point is that we can check things haven’t changed and that the landscape isn’t misleading like this.
  • Chris Lewis, “Field Names as Evidence for Dispersed Settlement: an example from East Sussex”, was why I was really there, because Chris is always interesting whether he’s working at tiny scale or national, largely because he is capable of both. Here he was also trying to prove a concept, which was what can we do with this sort of evidence in areas where there is almost no other, and picked an area of the South Downs about which this is the case to try it with, the villages of Medehurst and Heberden, the latter of which is the older name, meaning ‘Hygeburgh’s swine pasture’, but which appears to have been a dependent of the older which looks like a hundred meeting site even though it’s not attested till 1120. From this he teased out strings of history of dispersal and agglomeration of bits of settlements like a slightly tentative conjurer, all very hypothetical but certainly a valid demonstration of his exercise.

I quite like this stuff but it’s arguable that I don’t learn very much from it, I just like seeing the little picture drawn out by people who care. The big picture remains the one that offers the chance of making big connections, though, so after much-needed coffee I admitted necessity and went and rejoined the Texts and Identities sessions, which had now stopped talking about Modes of Identity and started talking about Louis the Pious, a subject on which they have been fruitful for many years now. Additionally, now the Hludowicus project have all got themselves t-shirts, identifying them with notable figures of the era in football-player style. I approve of this, mainly. I see that no-one has got Bernard of Septimania, which is tempting, but Mayke de Jong has the Judith shirt (of course) and that makes the ultimate Barcelona-based Carolingian bad boy an awkward choice. Anyway, I’m not part of the group, so let me talk about people who are.

1105. Texts and Identities, VIII: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), I

  • Stefan Esders, “Missi and Inquisition Procedure under Louis the Pious: a new style of government”. I should make clear here for web-searchers that this is not inquisition like Monty Python and Torquemada, this is inquisition in the sense of inquest: Stefan was talking about the representatives of the court, missi, who were sent out to settle cases by holding inquiries. Stefan saw these as the hands and ears of the general initiative of correctio that formed so much of Louis’s royal policy, although he stressed that they only dealt with cases where ‘public’, that is royal, property or persons were involved, not often enough realised I think; monasteries and churches were allowed to conduct their own such proceedings. There is a particular flurry of these enquiries in 829, though they had been running since the beginning of the reign and never clearing their own backlog of cases. His main point was the sheer disruption that all these suits, enquiries and threats to office-holders would have caused; it could not have aided the smooth running of the empire to question all its operators like this, and so Stefan asked what kind of crisis Louis and court thought they were in that it might actually be better to do this. Not for the first time, parallels between the way people are thinking about Louis the Pious and Æthelred the Unready were unavoidable for anyone who’d been at both this and my session, I think.
  • Martin Gravel, “From Theory to Practice: top-down governnance and long-distance communications in Louis the Pious’s ordinatio of 825″ added to this by tracing the manuscript context of the so-called Programmatic Capitulary and including the second half of it that isn’t very programmatic, usually separated, what are cc. 25-28 if you care about such things, seeing the whole thing as a set of instructions for the operation of the Empire’s system of long-distance reporting, pragmatic as well as programmatic. I thought this was perfectly convincing, though I don’t know the text half as well as some so other views would be interesting.
  • Philippe Depreux, “Videte ut nullam negligentiam habeatis: reception of the King’s missi, tractoria and the Carolingian sense of proportion for hospitality of travelling agents”, took this a stage closer to the ground by looking at how much the royal agents of this sort were allowed to demand by way of hospitality from the king’s subjects when about their business. He stressed that while such provisions go back to Marculf’s Formulary, and therefore this was a seventh-century mechanism, it was being used much more heavily by the Carolingians, and so Louis the Pious was engaged in an ongoing effort to restrict the opportunities within the rules for venality and thus for corruption.
  • Whether this all actually worked would be a project for another time of course: it was stressed in question that though we have a lot of orders for how this was supposed to be done we have very few documents showing it being carried out, though Mark Mersiowsky predictably knew of a few. I offered to explore the early Girona documents for this question for them next year but was rebuffed with polite confusion; I might still do it for Kalamazoo. Rosamond McKitterick made the last, excellent but somewhat acerbic point, that Charlemagne and Louis both wanted people to be able to reach them to complain of malpractice,1 but that the officials those people had to go through were not necessarily so keen, especially the ones in the local positions who were likely to wind up ‘corrected’.

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

This then continued after lunch, with a slightly less administrative and more ideological bent.

1205. Texts and Identities, IX: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), II

    Here we had hoped to see Steffen Patzold, who had been so thoroughly invoked two days previously, but though we must have said his name five times, he was still unable to attend so instead things went like this…

  • Jens Schneider, “Louis the Pious on the Road”, which was an old-fashioned attempt to map Louis’s itinerary. This has of course been done, and big problems since found with the technique because we are no longer half so sure that the charters that are issued in king’s names with places of issue on them necessarily indicate any presence of the king, even if the dates are to do with the grant rather than whatever occasion, maybe weeks later, that the document was actually drawn up. Jens elected at the outset to ignore these problems, and so I thought it wasn’t surprising that he found that charter issue locations didn’t look the same as the spread of recorded assembly locations. He wound up with a further methodological problem, in as much as we don’t know how far the king was able to set these locations or how far they were guided by events: I was minded of Jennifer Davis’s argument at Kalamazoo that most of Charlemagne’s so-called policy was a reaction to immediate and present crisis. So as you can probably tell I thought that any charter historian would find big problems with this and so it may not surprise the attentive reader that Mark Mersiowsky stood up in questions and basically tore the method to pieces, allowing as a saving throw the fact that the documents still allowed us to show a connection between king and subject. Stuart Airlie, who was moderating, said he was cancelling his subscription to Archiv für Diplomatik forthwith, which would be a pity if he meant it as I’m in the next one. Anyway…
  • Between these questions and that paper was a rather calmer one, Eric Goldberg, “Hludowicus venator“, which asked what we should take from the unusual attention that is paid to Louis the Pious’s hunting in the sources. It’s not that Charlemagne, who built a huge deer park around his palace and so on, was immune to the thrill of the case, but the chronicles and biographies that cover Louis’s reign do largely pay a lot of attention to his hunts. It has been suggested that this was a way to engage a military élite who were having to come to terms with the fact that there would be no more big conquests, a means of continuing to supply victory, albeit on a smaller scale. Eric balanced the sources that make so much of this with others that don’t (Nithard and Thegan for example) and suggested that though it was plainly only one strategy out of many for leading an imperial-style court lifestyle, it might well be one in which Louis was a greater success than his father.
  • Because we’d only had two papers, Dr Airlie as moderator gave us an improvised “Response” to fill some of the time, reminding us that the court authors and even the legislators of the Carolingian era were often aware of each other’s work, and that while Aachen might well not be the be-all and end-all of Carolingian power, as it sometimes seems, it is still a pretty big deal, a centre of tension and above all suspicion. (Dr Airlie’s vision of ninth-century politics is often darker than many others’.) However, he also said, people were not just passive consumers of Aachen: the audience who beheld it also thought about it and interpreted it to their needs, and they evidently did interpret it as the key centre even though perhaps, in realpolitikal terms, it wasn’t. This seems like a good point, though somehow cheating in a way I can’t pin down.

By the later afternoon, I was flagging. I’d been up too late the night before, it had been three fairly intense days, and caffeine was becoming vital. Also, the rain impeded use of the silver machine, which is the only way I can explain why I was late to the next session, which was a pity. It was this one.

1302. Medieval Monuments as Technologies of Remembrance, II

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

  • So I came in in the opening minutes of Niall Finneran, “Subterranean Memories: rock-cutting Ethiopian churches as commemorative practice”, which meant that although I got to enjoy the pictures, which were fabulous, I didn’t get the paradigm he was setting up that he then spent the part of the paper which I saw contesting. We were talking about churches actually carved from the living rock, hollowed out chunks of cliff or cave, so it was easy to have fabulous pictures. I got to hear about the Axumite culture, which carved its churches so carefully that they look like wood, and had subterranean tombs in their centres just like the pagan shrines they replaced, and the slower process in which the same change-over happened in rural areas, so that Axumite features were still being replicated a millennium later 400-500 miles way. This sounded pretty amazing and then I thought, wait, what about a religion that likes its places of worship with a long hall, let’s call it a nave, crossed by another one with a place for a choir beyond the cross… how far could that spread? But the proof of the continuity of ideas is still worth something, especially when some of these buildings are in such inaccessible places. Who’s the audience? Someone who can replicate it, apparently…
  • Second paper was Meggen Gondek, “Revealing the Pictish Stones: carving ritual, memories, actions and materials”, which was why I’d chosen this one: Dr Gondek’s stuff is always very engaging and deeply thought-out. I was very glad to hear her say that the Picts weren’t one group, as you might expect, and tried to encourage her towards saying that the stones were an élite means of self-identification in questions; she wouldn’t, but did admit that the stones define the region, at the same time saying wisely that their use might not be uniform. The most interesting part of the paper was where she outlined a small group of supposedly Pictish stones which are in fact reused prehistoric standing stones, Pictishly carved, spread over the whole Pictish symbol zone. Whether this was an adoption or an erasure of the previous heritage, given that these things are displaced and arguably disfigured, however, is a lot more tricky to say. If you thought you might say, pairs of these stones in which only one is recarved, like Nether Corskie below, might then still mess up your theory. She instead chose to argue that the process of carving may be the important thing, which we are left trying to read from its results as if they were the thing the act had been focussed on, when in fact it may not have been. You see what I mean when I say her work thinks deeply…
  • The two standing stones at Nether Corskie

    The two standing stones at Nether Corskie, one of which shows Pictish symbols still in the wet

  • Last up was Howard Williams, “Technologies and Transformations in Anglo-Saxon Architecture”, which was exactly the sort of theory-driven paper that might get certain blog acquaintances’ backs up were they not friends of the speaker, but which was focussing on temporary structures, buildings for example that went on top of funeral pyres, built only to be burnt, and in that to be compared to funeral boats or the pyres themselves. Again the focus was on process: we get to see a body, a burial, and the stuff that is buried with the body, and so that’s what we think is important, but we don’t get to see, as it might be, the three or four days that the elaborate room burial is left open to be viewed by visiting relatives; by the time it’s filled in, Williams argued, its purpose might well be over, so intuiting things about belief from its durable contents might be trickier than we’ve so far imagined. The other end of this scale, of course, is the re-use of much older structures, forts, burial mounds, and so on. All this has something to do with memory, but the nature of that memory may be very little like what we think it was; it certainly wouldn’t have to be actually remembered or in any way correct to have a working effect among its holders. The ultimate point of the paper as Professor Williams pitched it was to remember that architecture is built for many more reasons than just settlement, but what I was mainly left with was the urgent need to actually conceptualise the process of burial when dealing with graves. Burial’s always kind of been the archæological focus I don’t have, though, so others may have heard different parts of this rich paper more loudly.

Now this evening was the dance. I actually nearly didn’t go, so tired was I, but I recognised from long experience that giving into that urge is a sure-fire way to feel wretched and friendless so instead I went, drank enough beer to loosen my legs and gave it some. There were enough people who wouldn’t normally dance dancing that I didn’t feel I could really claim it wasn’t my thing, after all. But some mention needs to be made of Kathleen Neal, who if there were prizes being given for enthusiasm ought to have won one, I don’t think she stopped dancing all night and this was no small reason for my also doing such as I did. This is supposed to be a point in the proceedings when you can let your hair down (in my case quite literally) and have fun, after all, it has a cathartic function, and while it’s never going to let me lose it like something where they play the music I actually own would, it’s so much better to join in than to be snotty and aloof. I went back to my room long after I’d meant to leave, reasonably happy with the state of things and much more relaxed than I had been when I got up. Now this entry has been brought to you by Amon Düül II’s Phallus Dei and Country Joe McDonald and The Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body, so don’t worry that I’m losing my élitism, but I can put it down for occasions such as this, and just as well really.


1. Would you like an example? Here’s a good example because of the extra complications about how people might not have wanted the plaintiffs to reach the emperor. One occasion in 839 sees Louis the Pious make a restitution to a trio of fellows whom the Abbot of Notre Dame de la Grasse brought all the way north and east to Frankfurt, modulo my concerns about the truth of such information, where they told the emperor a sorry tale of oppression by evil men, at what comes over as very great length. The thing that makes this especially interesting is that the three men, whose names were Gaudiocus, Jacob and Vivacius, were Jews, and moreover Jewish farmers or at least, rural landholders. Presumably they were also clients of the abbey of la Grasse or they wouldn’t have got that kind of representation, so although Louis or Louis’s scribe find some good Biblical cites for not being les nice to non-Christians than to Christians, there’s really no obvious way in which these men aren’t part of the usual network of patronage and landholding in their area. People are conscious there’s an ethnic, or at least a religious, difference, but with the right intermediary they get their hearing and the verdict is just what you’d expect, albeit with a lingering impression that Louis might have given them anything just to get the lead guy to shut up: his speech is reported for some time

I guess this is in E. Magnou-Nortier & A. M. Magnou (edd), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse Tome I 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), but I know it from the rather older Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. E. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach & A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. II (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

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.