Tag Archives: Syria

Seminars CCXLVIII & CCXLIX: dismantling expectations about statehood from Sicily and Sidon

There has been a gap here, for which I apologise; the second of those family occasions I mentioned last post was to blame, but now I am back on deck, and for this week I want ceremonially to move my backlog out of 2017 by talking briefly about two papers I went to see in December of that year, one in Leeds and one in London. The Leeds one was one of our own doctoral students, and indeed one of my advisees, Hervin Fernández-Aceves, now Dr and at Lancaster, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar we run with the title, “Reframing the Role of Nobility: misconceptions and omissions in the historiography of the kingdom of Sicily” on 6th December; and the London one was the Royal Numismatic Society Christmas Lecture, given by Lutz Ilisch with the title, “Mashghara – a Condominial Mint of the County of Sidon/Barony of Shuf and the Kingdom of Damascus” on 19th December. You wouldn’t think there was a lot of crossover there, but actually both had something to say about the ways that medieval government, especially when carried out in a disrupted environment, very often defies what seem to the modern eye to be ‘natural’ rights or behaviours of states. The modern nation-state is actually quite a strange beast, to my mind, weirdly willing to constrain itself by mutually agreed law and then be surprised when some polities won’t play. If we want to understand that better, I these days maintain, the Middle Ages is a good place to look, and so here are two examples.1

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, from Arabischer Maler der Palastkapelle in Palermo – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Hervin’s work in his thesis, which at this stage he had just finished, was to reassess the composition and political role of the nobility in the famously multicultural Norman kingdom of Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trouble he had run into, however, was that what he found didn’t match the historiography, which expected pretty much all nobles to hold their lands and offices either absolutely because of having conquered them by fire and the sword, or else to hold them by feudal grants from the kings, and their offices of state, especially the counties they ruled, to be essentially jurisdictional units attached to the territories they took or were given in fief.2 If this seems like a perspective constructed from really old textbooks about Norman England, well, that may not be a coincidence, but what Hervin found instead was that there were no templates and indeed no central administration that could be mapped out as counties. Instead, there were any number of competing nobles who fought with each other for space and office, not necessarily in the same places, and sometimes enlisted the kings or their ducal predecessors as help and backing for these claims. Meanwhile, there were also pre-existent fragments of Byzantine administration under strategoi who also looked to the rulers for guarantee of their position, which they often got. The records of the relationships thus formed do not talk about homage, vassalage, subjection or anything like that; there was no feudal constitution of this state, if indeed it was a state; that someone held a thing called a county, which in any case only emerged partway through the kingdom’s history, did not necessarily mean they called themselves ‘count’ (and if they did, others might not agree) and neither was a count’s territory necessarily a county. Counts’ children might well become counts, but rarely in the same place as their fathers, and the kings were generally able to move them around and keep them from getting too grounded.

The tendency was thus for the dukes and kings to be able to use the competition to constrain the nobility, whether local, incoming or heirs of either, with these agreements until everyone was more or less part of the same overall network, but to call it a system or a constitution would be to miss how very unconstructed this was. By the reign of William I, it was possible for the king to assert enough control to put his own officers in in many counties when they fell vacant and then make the nobility compete to be chosen as those officers, but that doesn’t mean he managed it everywhere. Heaven knows how the kings kept track of exactly how they stood with respect to any given aristocrat, but then I guess that’s partly why we have the records… In discussion Hervin had mainly to defend his anarchic picture of ad hoc government against his fellow doctorands and his supervisor, Professor Graham Loud, the former of whom especially felt that there must have been more coincidence between titles and territories, but Hervin had gone and checked… But this doesn’t seem too odd to me, and the late lamented Susan Reynolds would have been quite happy with the non-existence of the feudal model too.3 The thing I would have now liked to have heard more about is how the dukes and kings justified their right to intervene or determine allocation of these positions, and how much objection those claims met, but I could quite believe that these were basically recognitions that right fell to the biggest sword; it’s just that, as you may be aware, I’ve come to believe that medieval rulers did need both power and legitimacy and that they put much too much effort into the legitimacy for us to suppose that it didn’t really matter compared to force.4 Hervin’s picture was possible for me to accept without shifting that belief, so I was happy with all of this.

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Dr Ilisch, who had just been awarded the Society’s medal on this occasion, started from a much narrower problem of numismatics and, because coins are in fact sources for bigger things, wound up in a similar kind of larger-scale place. His problem was a species of coin like the one above; I’m afraid I can’t find an example of precisely the type he was discussing. The above is itself a weirdness with which I have several times enjoyed teaching. Its background is that, when the four Latin states established in the Holy Land around 1100 by the First Crusade ran into trouble at the end of the century, for various reasons of necessity they struck quite a lot of imitations of the silver dirhams of the Ayyubid sultans with whom they either fought or temporised for survival. These coins, of course, featured the Arabic shahada, the Muslim invocation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Crusader states were still doing this as the Ayyubids lost their position first in the south to the Egyptian Mamluks and then in the north to the briefly dominant Mongols. Once explained, these coins usually surprise people by the amount of inter-dealing between supposed adversaries they imply, and it seems to have surprised some newcomers too, for as the situation grew worse, a French bishop who found himself in charge of defending Acre in 1250 decided that this Islamicization was part of their problem and had the coinage ‘purified’ with the addition of the cross and a statement of the Christian Creed in Arabic in place of the Islamic stuff. I have always wondered whom he was paying with these things that could read them, and what they thought of this, and should obviously read more about it, but I now learned that they didn’t last very long and were soon replaced with much more plentiful coins using the bismillah instead of the Creed, but with AD dates.5 Despite that last fact, from their preservation context (said Dr Ilisch) these latter coins occur largely in Mongol hoards, not in the Crusader states, and were thus, I guess, used to pay tribute to the Mongols, presumably by Muslim issuers.

Silver imitation dirham struck in the name of the late al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Crusader Acre, in the 1240s

Here is one of the earlier Crusader pieces, struck in the name of al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Acre in the 1240s, VCoins e3014

It was one of these issuers Dr Ilisch was trying to track down, one Wajīh al-Dīn Muahhad ibn Suwayd, whom written sources claim was given minting rights by the last Ayyubid sultan and who probably ruled the city of Damascus for them, but whose coins have never been identified. The Mongols left him in place, so he had a while to strike in Damascus, but no Damascus coins fit the bill. There is, however, one particular type of imitation of the post-Acre coins which have the AD date in cursive, and which Professor Ilisch thought might be al-Suwayd’s. There are only 8 of these coins known, and 3 of them came off the same dies, suggesting that the issue might have been quite small (although also possibly very large—this is why die statistics probably shouldn’t be used, especially on tiny samples…), but one of them seems to name a mint, which after long consideration Professor Ilisch thought might been Masghara, a tiny place now in Lebanon which was actually the subject of a treaty between Crusader Sidon and Ayyubid Damascus, by which each side took 50 % of its revenue. And the relevant ruler of Damascus would presumably have been al-Suwayd, so while it’s not conclusive it does all fit. Apparently there is at least one other 13th-century Crusader condominial issue like this, so again we see here ideas about identity, autonomy and prerogatives in general that we would now expect states to care about just not being realistic in these times.

It’s thus reasonable for us to ask, I think, whether in Sicily or Damascus as everything changed around the people concerned, whether back-projecting our expectations about government, administration, sovereignty and the coinage and then declaiming our medieval subjects of study for somehow failing to do what we expect, is really useful. A better way of proceeding is surely to start by seeing what they did, asking what frameworks they had in which those things made sense, and then seeing how their responses to their own situation might speak to anything we have going on now rather than going backwards from where we are now and only grading them on what we expect to find… At opposite ends of the academic status scale, both Hervin and Professor Ilisch were offering us material with which to do that evaluation of the medieval response to circumstances in its own terms, and I’m always up for that.


1. Of coure, another famously good place to look to understand the modern nation-state is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd ed. (London 2006), online here, but I would like to encourage people to look a bit further back than he does…

2. I can’t by now tell which of these works Hervin invoked for what purpose, but the historiography he mentioned included things like Errico Cuozzo, “’Milites’ e ‘testes’ nella contea normanna di Pricipato” in Bullettino dell’Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo Vol. 88 (Roma 1979), pp. 121–163; Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993); and Annalise Nef, “State, Aggregation of the Elites and Redistribution of Resources in Sicily in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries: Proposals for a New Interpretation” in John Hudson and Ana Rodríguez López (edd.), Diverging Paths? The Shapes of Power and Institutions in Medieval Christendom and Islam, The Medieval Mediterranean 101 (Leiden 2014), pp. 230–247.

3. See Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996), where Italy is a close comparator.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online here.

5. I did, of course read something when I catalogued the coin which I’ve used as the image here, and that thing was mainly Alex G. Malloy, Irene F. Preston, Arthur J. Seltman, Michael L. Bates, A. A. Gordus, D. M. Metcalf & Roberto Pesant, Coins of the Crusaders States including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its Vassal States of Syria and Palestine, the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus (1192-1489), and the Latin Empire of Constantinople and Its Vassal States of Greece and the Archipelago, 2nd edn. ed. by Allen G. Berman (Fairfield VA 2004). I’d actually welcome recommendations for more here.

One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

Apparently I was mainly thinking about coins in late spring of 2016, as I seem to have stubbed a lot of posts in a row about numismatics. This is the third and last of them for a little while, which was occasioned by teaching the rise of Islam for my first-year module Empire and Aftermath at Leeds. I like to do this using the coinage as the key primary evidence, because I can and because, as has been observed by greater scholars than me, basically all the Islamic textual evidence for the actual seventh-century spread and conquest is post facto, written deep in hindsight, while the limited contemporary evidence we have is either largely written by outsiders and deeply hostile or written by non-Islamic insiders whose perspectives were unhelpfully local.1 Getting a picture of what was going on over, say, all of Syria, Palestine and Iraq between about 650 and 700 beyond the rough succession of caliphs and some key battles, is therefore very difficult, and even that can be tricky; consider, after all, that this is the period during which Shi’a Islam separated from the Sunni branch and each side’s historiography has a quite different view, not just about which caliphs were legitimate, but even about when they ruled and whose relations they were.2 The coins don’t settle those questions (though they open up others about faction and segmentation3) but they are at least directly contemporary sources from inside the territories newly run by Islam. That is, assuming that we can correctly date and attribute them. And that’s where the fun starts, of course!

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

The biggest problem here is that at first, the new authorities of Islam basically imitated the coinage they found in the areas they took over, by way of maintaining tax systems and basic economic exchange. It wasn’t until the 690s that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (of whom we have heard before here) unified the various disparate post-Byzantine and post-Persian coinages he now had in his realms. Up to that point, his territories ran a pseudo-Byzantine gold coinage, a pseudo-Persian silver one and a whole scatter of pseudo-Byzantine and some pseudo-Persian copper-alloy ones.4 Most of the copper-alloy, at least, carry little or no identifying information. It is generally assumed that there was a transition from things more or less like their originals, through things less like them with Greek rather than Latin legends to things even less like with Arabic text on them to the so-called Standing Caliph coinage and then unity, but actually, despite painstaking analyses of what was being restruck onto what, what is found with what and how weights might have changed down an utterly hypothetical declining scale, as I’ve said here before, we still can’t honestly say that all of those different sorts of coin and a whole set of ‘imitative’ issues weren’t being struck alongside each other, by issuers ranging from the state through town councils to local blacksmiths.5 The closer one gets to the latter picture, the more informative the coins seem about how the process of Islamic takeover might have looked on the ground, which is to say, more or less like a prolonged vacation by state authority, saving occasional visitations, and then some episodes of suddenly-tightening regulation, maybe only in some places.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Some day I hope to write about this, as I’ve said, but today I just want to write about coins like the one above. You see, one of the exceptionally problematic aspects of the coin evidence for a normal tale of military conquest and take-over is that, to all appearances, imperial small change continued to arrive in the ‘conquered’ territories for some years after their ‘loss’ by the Empire. This is really obvious, because the issuing emperor changed at about the right point; the supposedly-crucial Battle of Yarmuk that effectively debarred the Byzantines from Syria took place in 636, as near as we can be certain, Emperor Heraclius died in 641 and after some confusion his grandson Constans II succeeded, and Constans’s copper-alloy coins are frequent finds in Syria, arriving, it seems, up till about 655 (though dating Constans’s coins relies on those guesses about weight that I myself don’t trust).6 So why was the Empire still shipping in or selling to its supposed enemies? Part of an answer may lie in these coins, which are found very frequently in Syria and nearly as often in Cyprus, but don’t really occur elsewhere in the Empire.7 They look very much as if they were being struck in Cyprus for use in the now-Islamic provinces; it has been argued instead that they were being made in Syria and exported, but if so they occur more than any other sort of probably Syro-Palestinian issue in the island.8 By the 670s the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate had even agreed that neither of them could effectively take Cyprus off the other, and so there was established a condominium in which their two sets of representatives shared the island’s taxes; one wonders how many other areas might early on have had some such fuzzy arrangement in which the Empire grudgingly recognised the conquerors as new quasi-independent governors but still demanded recognition of its dominion in the form of tax, and then that situation got wiped out of potential record by changes in the 670s to 690s.9 If such areas had made a pact with the Caliphate, both sides might have quite happily claimed them as their own without either really having much control over them until they made an effort to assert it.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista where credited to Classical Numismatic Group

But there is a numismatic problem with such a hypothesis! And that problem is, these coins do not bear a mint-mark indicating Cyprus like the authentically-Cypriot one above (KVP or KVPR for Kypros), but carry the unhelpfully unspecific legends of the regular issues of Constantinople. And yet they do not look like the contemporary metropolitan coins of Constans II. Furthermore, just to confuse matters, coins that did carry the Cyprus mint-mark were almost certainly being made in Syria, imitating the earlier issues of Heraclius and Constans II!10 So, a number of options open up, one being that these sort-of-regular coins are actually somehow imitative or unofficial (whatever those words really mean in a situation like this), perhaps because there was a mint on Cyprus, potentially running under Islamic control and making what those authorities thought real coin looked like, or otherwise, that Constantinople was making an export-standard copper-alloy issue that was then being shipped to Cyprus for distribution into Syria.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

I’m not sure which of these hypotheses I find less likely, to be honest: the former requires effective forgers who nonetheless didn’t fully understand the system into which they were passing coin, and who made their coin larger and neater than the regular issues they were imitating, in which case what was the profit? and the latter seems like an administrative headache with no clear gain except keeping Cyprus slightly further from fiscal independence. But the latter also incurs numismatic disdain because numismatists really try to avoid hypotheses in which a single mint is issuing distinct sorts of coin of the same standard at the same time. They will even mount hypotheses on the basis that that couldn’t happen.11 Now, I’ve disproved a couple of these already in my small way, but in this instance I’m not so sure it needs doing; although we as a discipline don’t usually admit it, it’s very unclear as to why the Empire put mint-marks on its copper-alloy coinage. It’s often assumed that it was for accounting and authentication purposes, either knowing how much a mint was making or being able to track dud coins back to their issuing mint, but in the former case the only place you could do that was surely at the mint itself, before dispersal into currency, in which case why bother marking them? and in the second, it’s very peculiar that it was done on the effectively worthless metal of the small change but not on the highly-protected gold of the solidus, and no-one ever tries to explain that.12 Whatever the reason was, though, it’s not hard to imagine the mid-seventh century involving circumstances in which that just didn’t apply. Either way, the coins are telling us something about what’s going on here that a purely textual approach will never disclose; but numismatics also has to shed an assumption or two before we can do the kind of work with it that opportunities like this make possible…


1. Compare Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, 2nd edn (Harlow 2004), Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam (Princeton 1997), online here, and now James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001/acprof-9780199208593.

2. It’s actually quite hard to find a good reference for the history of this division, but Chase F. Robinson, “The Rise of Islam, 600‒705” in idem (ed.), The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, The New Cambridge History of Islam 1 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 171–225 at pp. 193-208, does the job OK.

3. Adam R. Gaiser, “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” in Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 130 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 167–187.

4. The best guide here is Stefan Heidemann, “The Merger of Two Currency Zones in Early Islam: the Byzantine and Sasanian impact on the circulation in Byzantine Syria and northern Mesopotamia” in Iran Vol. 36 (London 1998), pp. 95–112, online here.

5. I’m thinking here of Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008) as both guide and target of critique.

6. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 19-21, but see now Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72, online here.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, p. 21, and Phillips, “Import”, p. 42. Philip Grierson attributed these to Emperor Constantine III (641), despite that ruler not living long enough to reach the ‘anno III’ they indicate, but correctly noting that there is also a Sicilian variant of the issue: Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume Two: Phocas to Theodosius III 602–717 (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1993), 2 vols, II pp. 396-397 and 399 (DOC III.2 Heraclonas 5 & 9).

8. See n. 7 above; Foss argues for Syrian manufacture.

9. On which see now Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017), pp. 72-86, but with specific reference to numismatics also Zavagno, “Betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens: Coins and coinage in Cyprus in the seventh and the eighth century” in Byzantion Vol. 81 (Athens 2011), pp. 448–483, online here.

10. Regular coins of Constans II: Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue III.2, pp. 445-446 (DOC III.2 Constans II 62), and Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 20-21; the ‘Cyprus imitation’ issues are discussed ibid. pp. 22-24, emphasising the volume of the issue, and Zavagno, “Betwixt Greeks and Saracens”, pp. 466-467.

11. For example, one more relevant than the other, see Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Sabadell 2008), pp. 91–121 at pp. 91-106, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, or Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713–976: Structure of the Issues; Corpus of Coin Finds; Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History (Lancaster PA 2007), p. 45, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 521-522. In both cases the authors themselves invalidate the assumption in the same work, Crusafont in “Moneda barcelonina”, pp. 106-121 and Füeg in Corpus, p. 39.

12. Thus for example Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24 (inc. p. 21: “it was desirable, for administrative reasons and as a precaution against counterfeiting…”), or Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf, Réalités Byzantines 15 (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104 at pp. 61-69 (simply no explanation).

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 1

It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, this backlog, but yet it does reduce, and as a result I am now into the veritable height of the European medievalist’s conference season, the International Medieval Congress at what is now my home base at the University of Leeds. Now, in fact on this first day of the Congress there was a lot of sorting out of that ‘home’ aspect, so I missed the keynote lectures and the first session of papers, but finally arriving during the Monday lunchbreak, I was able to begin the academic day like this:

233. The Early Islamic World, II: Provinces and Frontiers – Syria and the West

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Berbers and Borderlands: frontier society in North Africa”
  • Anna Leone, Marco Nebbia, Ralf Bockmann, Hafed Abdouli, Moftah Haddad and Ahmed Masud, “Changing Landscape in the 8th Century to the 10th Century: the case of the Jebel Nefiya and Tripolitania”
  • Denis Genequand, “Elites in the Countryside: recent research on the Umayyad ‘desert castles’
  • I went to this session partly because of knowing Corisande, partly because of a vague fascination with the Umayyad desert palaces that has occasionally shown itself here and mainly because Corisande had waved the words ‘frontier’ and ‘borderlands’ at us, usually guaranteed to catch my interest. Certainly the area she was looking at challenges our usual ideas of borders, since the vast area of Africa taken over in the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century was so huge as for the presence of the notional occupiers to have to be very sporadic and consequently very concentrated, which leaves a distinct archæological profile marked off by garrison architecture, mosques, a greater range of foodstuffs and, most of all, coins from military pay, and beyond it, really very little presence. For me this paper was problematised by an assumption that Corisande verbalised in questions, that new buildings mean new people; if there were in fact assimilation of local populations into these fortress settlements going on, you could not detect it that way. Still, the extremity of the social division was a point well put.

    Remains of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Ironically, the best images I can find from the sites named in this paper are of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia


    Of the other two papers, the former was the more peculiar, as only one of the authors had in fact been advertised on the program and she had been unable to come, so the paper was read by Andrew Marsham and had a title that was also different from that advertised. Nonetheless, it was interesting: the team in question have been carrying out a survey of mosques over much of the old province of Tripolitania in what is now Libya and were now proceeding to join this up to a survey of settlements. Oddly, the mosques are not all at the settlements, which tend to cluster on hilltops in defensively-clustered fashion at distances of 5-7 kilometres from each other, whereas the mosques could often be in the wilds between them. Dating all this is the next problem, since some of the settlements began in the fourth or fifth centuries and some are Ottoman, with pretty much everything in between too, so the changing landscape had yet to become visible but the possibilities were considerable.
    The fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

    Also, the architecture is amazing. This is thirteenth-century, apparently, but I don’t care; it is the fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa, about which you can read slightly more here


    Lastly Dr Genequand took an overall survey of the various buildings in Syria that have been classed as Umayyad ‘desert palaces’, although he tried to avoid both of the words ‘palace’ and ‘castle’ because the variety between the 38 such sites is such as to make generalisations like that difficult; they are more normally estate centres, with areas around them irrigated for intensive farming and produce collection facilities in the complex, and while some are luxurious, with their own baths and mosque complex and so on, and some are fortified and a few are both, and they seem to have grown and changed over time, they are still probably more like really big desert villas than either palace or castle, if you have to find a single word at all.
    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad 'palace' of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan

    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad ‘palace’ of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan, image from Museum With no Frontiers

Then tea and a chance to see an old colleague kick up some fuss, as follows.

325. Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy and Power – Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

  • Mark Whittow, “Byzantium and Global History: towards a new determinism?”
  • Adam Izdebski, “The Middle Byzantine Revival from an Environmental Perspective: a return to antique models”
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Topography, Ecology and (Byzantine) Power un Early Medieval Eastern Anatolia and Armenia, 750-1000”
  • Myrto Veikou, “A Concerted ‘Discourse’: interplay between environment and human agency in the area of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in the 13th century CE”
  • This session had gathered a much bigger crowd than would fit into the tiny room it had been allocated to, which is a lesson about the revival of interest in Byzantium more generally in medieval studies, I think. Mark, coming very visibly from his involvement with the Global Middle Ages project, accordingly set out a manifesto for a new medieval European history in which the continuing Byzantine Empire was the default comparator, not the weird remnant, a sign of what ‘should’ have happened everywhere. This would, he then further defined, need to include the perspective that in the Middle Bzyantine period prosperity became rural rather than urban, a phenomenon that we also see in other places and which Mark bravely suggested might have something to with climate. The obvious point of reference here was Ronnie Ellenblum’s work, which Mark hoped one might be less deterministic than, but mainly I wonder how once you have scaled up to the level of climate one can make any single place central to a hypothesis, however big it was.1 The other papers tried to make such connections more explicit, nonetheless, Dr Izdebski comparing coin circulation and pollen patterns across central Greece (the only place where adequate survey evidence exists, he said) and determining two very similar-looking phases of expansion in the fourth to sixth centuries and the first half of the second millennium, but the coins and the pollen don’t agree about when the latter was and neither make a great deal of sense next to the supposed climate profile. Dr Preiser-Kapeller, meanwhile, ran us very summarily through the history of Armenia from the seventh to tenth centuries and concluded that while the fragile local ecology would impact the two surviving noble houses’ grip on power in the area after the year 1000, up till that point military conquest by Persians and Arabs was a far better explanation of how the area wound up with only two such houses from fourteen than was anything environmental. The point of Ms Veikou’s paper, lastly, was mainly to put the URL of her project before us, a project that as far that URL now shows had by then already wound up and has produced no further publications since it did. So no points from me for that, I’m afraid.

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia, from which lake Johannes’s climate evidence was largely coming, and fair enough


    I found the three actual papers in this session a paradoxical combination, and this came out in discussion. All three speakers were attracted by the idea that large-scale survey that factored in changes in the ecological sphere alongside more material evidence of human usage could tell us something, but when approached on what had to admit either that the data was not yet collected (as in Cappadocia, where much is visible but very little dated or interpreted, or that when it had been it had made sense only on a regional basis and not compared well with anywhere else or the global pattern (as at Lake Van or Miletus in Greece). The effect was to leave the audience, and indeed one at least of the speakers, much more sceptical that this was a useful approach than they had been when we all entered the room, as if Ellenblum’s book, like the first Velvet Underground album, has made every one of its readers determined to have a go too and then discover that trying to be less erratic and offhand than Lou Reed somehow doesn’t produce better rock and roll. I suppose the real point for us to work on here is the junction between macro-scale and micro-scale pictures; if at a local level one can entirely escape what is apparently the global trend one has to ask what difference the global trend really made to people, a problem that we have of course been seeing with generating concern about the current global ecological situation since, well, as long as I can remember really.

Presumably there was then food, as my conference program is pretty much marked up with receptions for the evening so there wouldn’t have been time later. Between the food and the wine, however, came one final academic event for the day.

401. Early Medieval Europe Lecture

    Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The modern state of the abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons


    The annual Early Medieval Europe lecture was this year given by none other than Professor Mayke de Jong, speaking with the title “Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate”, so as you might expect I went. Mayke was speaking about a difficult text on which she has been working for a long time, the Epitaphium Arsenii of Paschasius Radbertus. This is an anonymised critique of the policies of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious written in the form of a dialoguic account of the life of one of his relatives, Abbot Wala of Corbie (as he ended his earthly career).2 Just explaining what it is isn’t simple, therefore, but Mayke is one of three people who have recently written about it, all coming into the field (as she explained) with different historiographical demons to slay.3 The particular one she tackled here was the idea that the early Middle Ages was an era in which there was no public sphere and the ancient tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ died off, in which rulers were influenced not by the voices of the crowd but a closed circle of advisors. Texts like the Epitaphium show that this is not true, at least if Mayke’s right that its much more polemical second book was intended for an audience beyond the monastery at Corbie where it was written. The whole text rests on the idea that it was not just all right but morally necessary to try to correct the emperor about his mistakes, after all, and that this could be done by this kind of literary device. Mayke had other examples of people rewriting events in literary fashion to put their view across, but it now strikes me after teaching it for a term again that another obvious one of these texts is Einhard’s Vita Karoli, because whatever its date and purpose was it’s certainly using praise of Charlemagne in the reign of his successor to do something. The whole lecture was full of wry wit and sharp observations about the way that people’s intellectual traditions have constructed their opinions, and she was quite right that if we as scholars of the early Middle Ages want to get our field away from the old idea of the Dark Ages we need better to understand why people find it useful to put it there.4 But her final point, that the Carolingian religious sphere was a public one that included laymen, shows how far our categories are crumbling as we better understand what authors like Paschasius were doing with their texts.

And so that wound up the first day of the IMC of 2015, and I will alternate the reports on the remaining three with shorter and more discursive content but I will, by my blogger’s pledge, get it done, and then continue onwards!


1. Ellenblum’s work referred to here is R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: climate change and the decline of the East, 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012), to which at some point I am also going to have to pay attention I suppose. On issues of scale, it always seems worth my citing Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

2. It is available in a deprecated but still unique translation for the English-speaker as Allen Cabaniss (trans.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalard and Wala (Syracuse NY 1967).

3. Referring to M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Cambridge 2010), but also to Courtney M. Booker, Past Convictions: the penance of Louis the Pious and the decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009) and some unnamed work by Steffen Patzold that I don’t know, but which might be (or be referred to in) his “Consensus – Concordia – Unitas: Überlegungen zu einem politisch-religiösen Ideal der Karolingerzeit” in Nikolaus Staubach (ed.), Exemplaris imago: Ideale in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, Tradition, Reform, Innovation 15 (Frankfurt 2012), pp. 31-56 (non vidi).

4. Mayke cited, among other things, Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), and I might add, with my original cautions as linked, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2006).

Exciting things out of the ground!

There’s been quite a lot of heavyweight braining here over the last little while, so I think it’s OK if I slack with a links post this time. Some of the stuff that was done by archæologists in the last few months of 2009 might turn out to be pretty significant, in fact. Firstly, you can find at Martin Rundkvist’s Aardvarchaeology a report of new dendro-chronological dates for two Norwegian ship-burials. They turn out to be prime Viking-Age examples, and the oldest dendrochronologically dated ones there are. He also notes that the famous Oseberg ship can now be dated to 820 but that it was built far away from Oslo where it was modified and eventually buried, which allows one to think new, if unprovable, thoughts about the origins of the princess supposedly buried therein. So that’s fun, and, you know, furnished burial, Vikings and women, pretty much all the cool medievalist points there are except plague or trebuchets.

A brooch from the Merovingian-period cemetery at Noisy-le-Grand, Paris

A brooch from the Merovingian-period cemetery at Noisy-le-Grand, Paris

Then, in a case of ‘all of those except the Vikings’, I see from Archaeology in Europe that News for Medievalists reports on the location of two Frankish cemeteries in the Parisian area, at Noisy-le-Grand, which date from the 5th-6th centuries, when the kings were Merovingians (in some cases) and most Franks were probably pagan and burial was furnished and boxed, and the 8th-10th centuries, when the kings were Carolingians, Christianity was Generally prescribed and to be taught in schools and that, and burial was apparently austere and shrouded. This kind of direct possibility comparison is a real boon and I hope for a suitably glossy booklet to snag illustrations from (or perhaps, you know, a Flickr site as per Staffordshire Hoard).

Excavations at church of Varnhem, SW Sweden

Excavations at church of Varnhem, SW Sweden

Then, this time with ‘women, Vikings and burial which I don’t know about the furnishing of’, and that for a fairly broad use of the term Viking, a team of Swedish archaeologists have apparently found a church dated to c. 1000 in southern Sweden, which would be the oldest yet known there: so at least reports News for Medievalists on the basis of an article in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia that would cost you twenty Euros to read. From the report at News for Medievalists, though, it seems that the church was raised over an existing female burial dated to c. 975, and that other older burials are nearby. The article as they quote it suggests that this means a Christian site all along, but I wonder (and I note that if that burial and that church have both been dated from radio-carbon, the real dates could easily be in the opposite sequence, which might give us a ‘prominent noblewoman converts and founds oratory in deathbed gift’ scenario or similar).

Ruins of Qasr al-Banat, Rakka, Syria

Ruins of Qasr al-Banat, Rakka, Syria, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, something and somewhere completely different, News for Medievalists has a notice, one of many in recent months, about the ongoing digs at Qasr al-Banat in Syria. This time the find appears to be a bathhouse, in remarkably good order allowing us to distinguish, for example, that it had a separate toilet block, but for some reason I’d not taken on board the significance of the site as a whole, which is that it’s an cAbbasid palace complex in Syria. This is mainly significant because early medieval Syrian Islamic palaces are usually a thing of the previous, Umayyad, dynasty, as the cAbbasids were much more Persia-based. It’s only small, but Caliph Harun al-Rashid seems to have sorted himself out quite nicely.

Bronze Age flowers found in a grave at Forteviot, Perth, Scotland

Bronze Age flowers found in a grave at Forteviot, Perth, Scotland

Lastly, not medieval at all but quite touching: in the ongoing digging at Forteviot, site of a medieval Scots royal palace near Perth, a monumental Bronze Age grave has been opened that proved to contain, among more normal things like a coffin and a dagger, the heads of several meadowsweet blooms that have somehow lasted 4,000 or so years in the ground. Pollen has apparently been found in such sites before but was put down to honey; now we can suspect that even in the Bronze Age one might deposit flowers with the dead. (Ha! a dagger and flowers and no surviving body. Gender me that, processualists!) The report is apparently out in British Archaeology, but I got this from this BBC News story which I was alerted to by Archaeology in Europe. So there you are.