Tag Archives: teaching

Chronicle I: July, August and September 2015

I’m back in the UK, and even if you’re not, you may have gathered that quite a proportion of this country’s academics are currently on strike about proposed cuts to our pensions. In theory, therefore, I can do nothing like work today, but for various reasons I think blog can be allowed; after all, given that the main reason I haven’t been blogging regularly of late is my job, it seems all sorts of perverse if when the job halts I still can’t blog. So, without further ado, I’m going to test out the new format with a short account of the three months of my academic life following the last backlogged event I covered, a conference in Lincoln which you can go and read about if you so desire.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

We begin here… The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Now, I say my academic life but it’s even more difficult to separate that from the rest than usual for this particular patch of my existence, as in this time I was transferring that existence from Birmingham to Leeds. The two themes of my life in this period were therefore movement between cities, and counting coins. The latter was because one of the things the Barber Institute had hired me to do when I started there was an actual audit of the coin collection, whose records from the previous few years were sadly not all they should have been. In the event, it was only once I knew I was leaving that I really got started on that, becuase immediate priorities were all more, well, immediate. But now it had to be done, so I was spending most of any given working day in the coin room comparing trays to spreadsheets, and occasionally finding where someone had evidently dropped such a tray at some point then put things back in the wrong places. There were only a few of those but they really slowed things down… But it did, finally, happen and I wrote a big report which not only confirmed that the Barber was then in possession of 15,905 coins, 35 tokens, 22 medals, 165 seals, 42 weights and 10 other objects of paranumismatica, as well as collections not formally part of its holdings like the so-called ‘Heathrow Hoard’, but gave them something much more like a firm footing for future development of the collection. At the same time I was also setting up a lecture series for my exhibition, which I was now going to miss, processing uploads which you already heard about, and zapping coins with X-rays on occasion. It wasn’t a bad job, really. Oh yes, and I was also supervising two MA dissertations, one of which was on the Heathrow Hoard, indeed, so there was some teaching even though it was outside term.

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735, which did not get dropped

So all that was busy enough, but in August my old diaries and e-mails betray a slow shift: correspondence about workshops I would be doing in Leeds, moving company quotes, a farewell party at the Barber (bless them) and eventually the actual close of play. Somewhere in there, of course, was also happening the slow packing-up of stuff and eventually it all going into a Pickfords lorry, in coordination with my partner’s stuff coming up from London to be so shipped as well, and finally our actual installation into what we then thought would be our new home for the foreseeable future. I also did a medievalist tour of Dudley with a couple of friends, and I will post about that separately, with photographs, because there is actually medieval stuff to photograph there. But it’s September where the itinerary just gets crazy: from Leeds to Birmingham on the 8th, crashing for one last night in my now-empty previous home to hand over white goods and keys the next day, and then back to Leeds; to London and then Harpenden, of all places, at the weekend for a gig, then back to London and back to Leeds; and back down to Birmingham again on the 15th, for reasons I’ll say more about in a moment, and back up to Leeds again on the 16th; and then on the 20th I flew to Sicily, where I was for the following 6 days for reasons I’ll likewise mention below. And the day after I got back, we had to start having our house hot-water system replaced and I started teaching in my new job, opening up my career there with a lecture on Charlemagne and the Carolingians, all fairly fitting I think. Up to that point I’d been on campus quite a lot anyway, for induction and training, and also organising next year’s frontiers sessions for the International Medieval Congress, but now it had really started.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

Can it be that we have got so far through this post without an actual coin? Here’s a good big ugly one to make up for that, a copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

I’m still quite smug about the second Birmingham trip, just because it involved seeing an opportunity coming from a long way off at a time when I was otherwise completely lost in the weeds of the job. As I mentioned, there were a set of lectures intended to support my exhibition at the Barber. For various reasons they took a long time to organise, and I was having trouble finding suitable guest speakers. But as the date slipped back and the new job became clear, I suddenly realised: by the time they happened, I could myself be a guest speaker, because I would no longer work there! So that’s what I did, giving my successor in the post the job of introducing me for a lecture I’d set up. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem like a triumph, but it did. After all, if you want something done, do it yourself… The lecture was called “Small Change and Big Changes: minting and money after the Fall of Rome”, and it basically went through the changes that the imperial coinage system underwent as large parts of the Roman Empire fell into the control of non-Roman rulers, using Barber coins as illustrations throughout; the background idea was that of the exhibition, that we are still the heirs to Rome’s monetary and iconographic vocabulary of power, but the foreground was much more me working out ideas that I intended to take into the classroom; the lecture title is, after all, suspiciously similar to that of one of my current modules

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Which means we are now here, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds,once again. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

So, what haven’t we covered? Well, one thing that this new post format means sacrificing is the old write-up of trips, papers and conferences. I should still mention what they were, however, I think, so this is the list such as it was:

  • 3rd August: the medievalist outing to Dudley and Claverley, of which there will be separate photo posts;
  • 12th August: Eleanor Blakelock, “Secrets of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmiths: underlying truth of the Staffordshire Hoard”, a seminar in the Department of Physics at the University of Birmingham whose details have now gone from the web, but a very useful contact with someone who genuinely knows about metallic analysis of early medieval gold, which resulted in an exchange of references as well as some useful knowledge about how Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths seem to have made their work look shinier;
  • 23rd August: an actual visit to the then-new display of the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was good but probably isn’t worth recording separately for you all at this long remove given how much coverage the Hoard has already had here;
  • 21st–25th September: the XVth International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, Sicily. This needs a post of its own, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll keep it to one, but I am determined; it was a good but intense experience and I’m still trying to find out if my paper at it will be published. As you might imagine, I also managed to fit in some medievalist tourism here and there will be photos of that too.
  • 29th September: David Hinton, “Personal Possessions in Medieval England: archaeology and written evidence”, Institute for Medieval Studies Public Lecture, University of Leeds: my first academic event at my new job put one of the great figures of Anglo-Saxon archaeology before me and he was, of course, interesting; he emphasised the great spread of standards of living and wealth that Anglo-Saxon and medieval English material culture covered, from subsistence farming with almost nothing incidental owned (or at least lost) up to hoards of treasure such as have already been mentioned. Nonetheless, probably more people than that implies had precious items, however paltry; these were kept for lifetimes, which can make dating them from context difficult to do, but were also often metal and therefore recyclable, so the evidence all needs careful interpretation. Of course it does! But here was someone very used to doing that who made it sound manageable.

So, firstly that sort of summarises two and a half of the busiest months of my life until last year, but secondly I seem already to have promised five more posts of various kinds, mainly photos. I’d better therefore leave this one here and thus properly establish the new state of the blog! More will follow! After all, we haven’t got our pensions back as yet…


Seminar CCXXII: counterfactuals and computer games

There were more seminar series at Birmingham than I could easily keep track of, and less well advertised than would have made it easy, but I was delighted nonetheless to see the name of old acquaintance and general nice guy Robert Houghton, now of Winchester, on a poster at some point in late 2014 and made a point of making it to the paper on 11th December 2014 even though I had no real idea what the seminar, the History and Cultures Workshop, was. It transpired to be one of the many postgraduate-run events and I think I surprised them by being a staff member (just about) there at all, but perhaps they were no more surprised at me than I was at Rob’s title, which was “Modelling the Middle Ages in grand strategy computer games”.

Game start screen for Charlemagne in Crusader Kings II

Not my screen, I don’t play, but this seems to be game-start condition for Charlemagne and you know, it could be a lot less accurate…

It transpired that Rob had, while teaching at St Andrews, also managed to find some extra work advising the makers of the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II—so if you play it and have been favourably impressed by its apparent accuracy that may be his fault—and the coincidence of his two rôles had made him start to think about how such games might be used as teaching tools, and whom that would reach, and he had started doing some very informal research among his teaching groups. After all, if it can work then games are an interactive and exploratory tool that are quite unparalleled by anything we can offer by more conventional means; I remember an admissions interview at Oxford in which the candidate was courageous enough to say that there was probably no better way of getting a sense of what it was like to walk around medieval Florence than playing Assassins Creed, and although I’m pretty sure it should be easier to kill yourself falling off the Duomo than it seems to be, I got and get their point.

Of course we are not complete strangers to walk-around visualisations in historical teaching, but it's obviously not as interactive as a game environment and you can hardly climb anything

Rob’s findings, anyway, with a very small cohort as he freely admitted, were more or less that most people don’t get their medievalism this way but for those that do it may actually influence their understanding very deeply. In that case it may matter what they are playing, because what’s available gives a rather Eurocentric, ultra-violent, male-dominated picture (although this is not unique to computer games, of course). However, there are limits on what can be done and still have a playable game. Particularly with grand strategy games the player has a level of abstraction, information and control that no medieval ruler ever did, but the gradation from there to single-handed sword swinger is very shallow. Also, the computer can’t create the environment without solid parameters. Where you don’t know something, you can’t just leave it blank; that pixel, that bit, must be present. There were other issues usefully pointed out too, both by Rob and the others present, but I got particularly engaged with the issue of counterfactuals.

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

Again I should preface this with a tale of an Oxbridge admissions interview but this time it’s my own. You see, at school, for the sins I mostly had yet to commit, I ran a paper-based wargame of my own invention for a year or so. I more or less stole the combat system from Fighting Fantasy and made it work for World War II and imagined-World-War-III air and sea combat. Because my path was probably already clear, I got interested in trying to recreate certain battles as tests of the game system, and especially the above, the Battle of the River Plate. I got it to the point where I could, with all kinds of reservation, make River Plate come out about right two-thirds of the time. Now, I must have mentioned this in my application form as most of what I remember about my Cambridge interviews is the late lamented Clive Trebilcock pushing me for five minutes or so on whether I thought such things could be used as tests for counterfactuals; if I could make River Plate come out right two-thirds of the time, for example, did that mean that this gave some basis for saying that the odds were genuinely against the Germans despite appearances? And I gave no ground: no, I said, because firstly I know the desired outcome and so can make player decisions that are likely to create it; also, because I can’t test for how important chance ought to be. I have set the parameters of the system—damage delivered by weapons, ability to minimise and inflict it, resilience of ships and crews—to give what seem to be like the ‘right’ outcomes, but the more accurate I get with that the less of a rôle chance has, and the more it slides from being a test of alternatives to just a recreation with dice. On the other hand, the more room for actual play there is, the less testably accurate it will get. I probably didn’t put it as eloquently even as that while 18 and nervous as hell, and there are ways I can now see to refine it—retests varying single factors, for example—but I still think it wouldn’t work.

Screenshot of a Crusader Kings II game

Not quite Rob’s example, but a situation in which something alternative has quite clearly and thoroughly happened whose story would be quite fun to know

More to the point, though, it wouldn’t be much fun if you could make it into a useful predictor system. And here Rob was on the same page. He had a marvellous Crusader Kings II screenshot in which someone playing as the ‘Duke of Alba’ had managed to conquer or otherwise gain control of basically all of north-eastern Europe and the Baltic. Now, I can just about think of ways something like that could be set up in fiction—royal Scottish exile during a succession crisis who has a monastic conversion and joins the Teutonic Knights, rises to be Grand Master and then gets recalled to the throne and, like Ramiro II of Aragón marries, for the sake of the dynasty, an heiress to Brandenburg whose brother dies soon after…—but it really is fiction, this could never have happened (even if ‘Duke of Alba’ were a real title). But should the game exclude it? Many reasons why not come to mind, not least trying to program for all such eventualities, but most obviously that one of the ways people treat computer games is to try and bring about heroically unlikely outcomes, winning through with the least likely playable character or from the weakest starting position and so on, and that this is one of the things that makes such games fun, because you can win against great odds. In Assassins Creed, I don’t believe it helps you particularly but you can climb the Duomo.

Screenshot of an attempt to climb the Duomo in Florence in Assassin's Creed

Go on…

Now, obviously sometimes in history people did win through against what seem to have been great odds, but as far as we are concerned as historians there was actually only one possible outcome of all the actual variables in play, and part of what we’re doing is trying to account for what seems to have been unlikely by identifying the significant variable. But even at age 18 I could see some reasons why a game will probably never be a tool for testing such outcomes; too much must be preset by assumptions about the outcomes. In some ways it might be better for teaching them, because then the presets are actually part of what we want to teach, but if the Duke of Alba can’t wind up ruling the entire southern Baltic coast or the Aztecs somehow reverse-conquer the Spanish Empire, then I’m still not sure I wanna play…

My only halfway reputable cite for using counterfactuals in medieval history is Jes Wienberg, “Europeanisation around the Baltic Sea: a counterfactual perspective” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region: papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 421-429, but that has a good go at defending the practice.

I built a resources page

But you already have one of those, you may say, and indeed a whole ragbag of links on the sidebar here that you should really organise so that people may know why they could be useful. All true, but this one I built for my previous job, for the Birmingham graduate course Research Skills in Medieval Studies which I then convened, and since I no longer have access to the virtual learning environment where it resides, I thought almost as soon as I created it that it would be worth stashing the code and later copying it here also. I’ve stripped out the institutional-only bits and updated a bit of text, replaced dead links and so on. Hopefully you may find it interesting or useful…


Digital Resources

Sources of data

Object databases

Images and Maps

As far as images goes, one obvious resource that avoids problems with copyright restrictions is Wikimedia Commons, from which Wikipedia’s images all come; most of these are licensed for re-use and the metadata is usually helpful. The museum catalogues above, especially the British Museum and the Walters, also provide images of many significant objects and manuscripts. (We also deal with dedicated manuscript resources below.) Other image resources on the open web of interest to medievalists include the REALonline image server (whose sophisticated search however requires a certain amount of German), the Web Gallery of Art, and the site of Genevra Kornbluth, a medievalist art historian and photographer who is slowly digitising her photo collection.

For maps, the most obvious resource, being worldwide, sophisticated and free, is Google Earth, but of course this is not historical information. The University of Edinburgh runs a historical map archive as part of its much larger Edina service which covers the UK. Further afield can be at least partly covered by the various historical maps offered by the commercial concern Euratlas.


One of the most exciting applications of digital resources for medievalists has been the sudden and still-expanding accessibility of our original source material, manuscript books and single-sheets, in digital form. The following are only a few of what is now too substantial a set of initiatives of which to keep track. It is by now always worth seeing if the manuscript you need has been digitised by its owners. (As an example, the Vatican project listed below was brought to the editor’s attention by a friend while he was actually in the act of writing this bit of the webpage.)

Full-Text Databases

There are an ever-growing number of these. The one you will probably be most used to is Google Books, but Google’s adherence to US copyright law makes its availability outside the USA vexingly partial.

  • The most important alternative, because publicly-funded and more fully available although still largely composed of old texts, is the Internet Archive, which includes as well as texts a vast archive of music and the Wayback Machine, an attempt to archive the actual Internet.
  • The Bibliothèque nationale de France has a similar server mounted at its Gallica site, which makes its copyright-free collections fully available.
  • Another such server is to be found courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum, which also makes available the periodicals published by the Sigmaringen publishing house and the Staatsbibliothek’s manuscript collections.
  • The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is a venerable but still invaluable collection of primary sources in translation.
  • It forms part of one of the oldest medievalist sites on the Internet, the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. This is a collection of material largely intended for teaching, mostly now some years old, but with some nuggets buried in it.

Many more could be added. There are also specific groups of texts of interest to medievalists that are now available in digital, and searchable, form. These include the Acta Sanctorum and the Patrologia Latina, both published by ProQuest, though these are subscription-only. The Monumenta Germaniae Historica, however, is online for free and now fully searchable.

A particular group of sites can be mentioned that collect periodical literature. These are all European, where the whole open-access question (see below) has largely been solved with state money as if there was no problem there.

  • Persée is the French one of these portals, collecting most French academic journals.
  • In Germany we have DigiZeitschriften, which does the same job there.
  • In Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas maintain the latest five years of all their journals on the web for free.
  • In Catalonia (que no es Espanya!) almost all journals in current publication are available through Revistes amb ACcès Obert.

Data Archives

A cautionary tale is offered by the Arts and Humanities Data Service, whose surviving web presence is located here. The AHDS was set up by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now Council) to ensure archiving of the digital outputs of researxch done under its auspices. An important part of this endeavour was permanence and ongoing attention to making data available in current formats, all requiring a continuing investment. Unfortunately for those goals, funding for the initiative was cancelled in 2008, after which its contents, frozen, were kept available by the Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), now a private company known only as Jisc. The only part of the old AHDS that still receives and archives information is the Archaeology Data Service, which is however an invaluable and highly searchable resource that contains, among other things, copies of all ‘grey literature’ from archaeological investigations done with state funding in England.

Other archives of scholarly data or source information (beyond manuscript archives, detailed above) include the National Archives at Kew, the French site ARCHIM, the Spanish one PARES and the wider-spread Europeana.

Bibliographical Databases

One of the most obvious ways in which digital resources assist historians of all stamps is in locating the work of other historians. Some tools like Google Scholar are pluridiscplinary, but the medievalist is favoured with several specialist databases.

  • The most well-known of these is the International Medieval Bibliography, published by Brepols. Until 1996 this was a print serial, then made available (and searchable) on CD-ROM, but now it exists only online through the Brepolis portal, again accessible only via subscription.
  • Much of the IMB’s content is, however, also available along with monographs (which the IMB does not index) via the OPAC server of the Regesta Imperii project at Mainz. This is a truly invaluable resource.
  • For those whose interests are focused on the British Isles, the Royal Historical Society maintains a similar but locally more comprehensive Bibliography of British and Irish History that can be found here.
  • Lastly (of more that could be named) the site Magazine Stacks aims to index most scholarly journals important in medieval studies.

Structured Data

Making data searchable by any means than free text, which is less and less useful the larger a sample gets, requires some form of structuring. All the catalogues and databases above obviously have some structure, but this section notes some resources that aim to give you processed information resulting from scholarly work, not the raw texts from which that work could be done. Many more of these tools exist than can be listed here, and creative web-searching is to be encouraged.

  • The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England gives biographical and source information on every identifiable person recorded in Anglo-Saxon source materials, and now also those in Domesday Book too.
  • Many other prosopographies exist: one that can be compared is People of Medieval Scotland 1093-1214, but it is worth searching for more.
  • Nomen et Gens is a similar project atbthe University of Tübingen that collects information covering the early medieval Frabkish kingdoms as part of a study of ethnicities.
  • Cathalaunia is proof that worthwhile projects of this kind can be done by one person, if that person has coding chops and a lot of spare time…
  • French-speaking areas have been especially forward-looking in the digitisation of medieval documentary materials. TELMA and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi are two such databases that between them collect a good proportion of the early and high medieval charter evidence of modern France, the former among many other collections.
  • In England the Electronic Sawyer and various other resources available through the Kemble website offer similar possibilities for the much scanter Anglo-Saxon charter material.
  • As with the manuscript projects, the number of such initiatives now threatens to become untrackable; the editor could link to similar endeavours going on in Italy, Serbia, Russia and Germany with no trouble. MÕM (Monasterium.net) aims to unite these different projects into a single searchable database covering all medieval European charter evidence, and has not yet given up with 250,000-plus documents incorporated.
  • A perhaps unique way of accessing such information is offered by the site Regnum Francorum Online, which uses historical maps as a front-end for an index of prosopographical, bibliographical and archaeological information on the Frankish kingdoms of the early Middle Ages. This is hard to use but immensely informative when it can be made to work.
  • Another map-based project with more limited but no less impressive aims is ORBIS, based at Stanford University, which runs journey-planning software on a database built around the Roman road network!
  • Information from coins lends itself particularly well to this sort of treatment. The Early Medieval Corpus at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge collects all information published on coins from the British Isles of the period 380-1180, including both museum collections (the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles) and archaeological finds (the EMC proper). (Full disclosure: Dr Jarrett used to maintain this.)

Digital interpretations of data

3D reconstructions

There are increasing numbers of these on the web. Some particularly illustrative ones are this amateur one of Ryd Abbey near Flensburg in Germany done in Blender 3D, which makes the construction stages of the model very clear or this one of the early Anglo-Saxon royal vill at Yeavering which is very true to the site. The one that perhaps most fully illustrates the potential of the medium, albeit not a medieval one, is this video showcasing a reconstructed seventeenth-century London on the eve of the Great Fire.


  • We’ve already mentioned Blender 3D, a free 3D imaging programme; there are also Microsoft Photosynth, a cloud-based application requiring Windows, and the app Autodesk 123D
  • For graphical representations of complex data, the current popular choice seems to be Gephi, which can be found here.
  • All the above software is free and usually open-source.

The Digital Humanities debate

There is a recent and heated debate about whether digital humanities is its own field or merely a way of approaching questions belonging to other humanities disciplines. One way to answer this has been to suggest that the discipline or sub-discipline is concerned with ‘big data’, accumulations of information so huge that only computerised analysis can produce results from them; a counter-attack has been that such work has so far done little beyond assembling its data. One scholar who discusses such matters accessibly is Scott Kleinman, whose blog is here; another is Jack Dougherty, whose blog is here.

Such issues have also resulted in publications, however, as scholars try to acquire digital ‘chops’ to increase the relevance and possibility of their studies and computer specialists get interested in humanities questions their techniques may be able to approach. Very few of these latter studies are conducted with the cooperation of experts in the relevant subjects, which limits their usefulness. Within the humanities, however, positions range from the extreme one that the new digital era necessarily brings with it an entirely new set of models for scholarly practice – this is most stridently set out in the edited volume Hacking the Academy, which is online for free here – to the Luddite one that the whole field is only a fad that frequently offers no more than expensive ways to check what we already ‘knew’. A middle position, that digital resources vastly increase the ease and potential of our research, seems most reasonable to us, with the added potential that if humanities scholars acquire enough of an understanding of such fields they will in fact be able to take the lead in directing such endeavours toward genuinely new outcomes.

One very recent book that explores the new possibilities of the ‘digital age’ for historians is Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, which is also online for free here and was itself experimental in construction, being edited openly online with comments from both solicited and unsolicited reviewers. A recent issue of the journal Literature Compass entitled ‘E-medieval: teaching, research and the ‘net’, even looks at such issues with a lens firmly on medieval studies. (Full disclosure: Dr Jarrett got into both these volumes, but the other essays are very good.)


That volume contains an essay written in entirely digital collaboration by Dr Jarrett on the scholarly value of blogging, which is something about which he has views. As this implies, he has a long-running academic blog, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, which links to many other worthy medievalist blogs and a range of further resources. You may like it.

And lastly and perhaps most importantly, even if the comic PHD: Piled Higher and Deeper doesn’t seem relevant at this stage of your studies, it will!


Foreground, right to left: laptop displaying mark scheme; notepad and red marking biro; unmarked exam script, obscuring mark-sheet; mug of strong Kenya tea; typewriter with hard-copy comment sheet wound in.1 Rear of table: exam paper, atop one of three packets … Continue reading

Lady Cynethryth at home

OK, that was three heavy posts, time for something lighter. This time without naming the student, since the bits I’m actually quoting are all mine, I had a tutorial some months back in which we were looking at the Mercian Supremacy, when the kings of Mercia were top dogs in England as no doubt you know, and we spoke of King Offa’s queen Cynethryth, who has the unusual distinction of being the only queen consort in English history, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly the only Anglo-Saxon one, to have coinage struck in her name. She also turns up in Offa’s charters, and was generally recognised as a presence in a way few other queens of the period were. Whether that tells us anything about her, however, as opposed to how much she was important to Offa’s claim to the throne, is more of a debate, and getting at her actual rôle in the kingdom is very hard indeed.1 So, one of the pupils tried pitching her as a kind of Lady MacBeth character, the driving force behind the throne. There’s some material to do this with, if one wanted, with Alcuin (him again) telling a half-story in one letter of a throne acquired and held by spilling copious blood, but I’d never before envisaged Cynethryth standing behind Offa goading him on in the way that Shakespeare’s MacBeth, who is really Holinshed’s MacBeth and not really a historical MacBeth, was driven by Gruach.2 And before I could do anything my mind had gone somewhere entirely otherwise with the idea, snippets of home life in the Mercian court which owe more to Barrie Took than the Bard:

Offa                 : Mek room there lass, I want some breakfast before I sit in judgement.
Cynethryth: Well you haven’t seen this letter from Archbishop Jænberht! I ask you! Who does he think he is, dreadful little man! You’ll have to do something about him.
Offa                  moans: Not Jænberht again. What do you want me to do, ‘e’s the Archbishop, I can’t just mek me own now can I?
Cynethyrth Nonsense, of course you can. In any case it won’t do. We shall holiday in Kent this year, Offa.
Offa                 : Can’t we ‘ave just one spring without a war?
Cynethryth: It won’t do.
Offa                  sighs and gets up.
Cynethryth: And where are you off to, exactly?
Offa                 : Blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m going to get me hair done…

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Yes, OK, not very likely, but seriously that hair demands some explanation. The real question, I suppose, is whether this counts as Oxbridge-quality teaching or not, a question to which I don’t intend to solicit answers. Back to seminar reports next, featuring indeed he of n. 2 below, the one who’s still alive that is, and no coins at all for once!

1. This is kind of a general problem with studying powerful women in the early Middle Ages; they are all unusual. The best place to start is probably with Pauline Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: the king’s wife in the early Middle Ages (London 1983), repr. in Women, Power and Politics (Leicester 1998), but if you wanted Cynethryth specifically a different piece by Pauline Stafford would be more useful, her “Political Women in Mercia, eighth to early tenth centuries” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Studies in the Early History of Europe (Leicester 2001), repr. in Continuum studies in medieval history (London 2005), pp. 35-49.

2. Alcuin’s letter, to the Mercian Ealdorman Osbert, is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini Vol. II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae no. 122, and translated in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), no. 46 and Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 202. Meanwhile, if you didn’t know either of the facts that the real King Macbethad of Alba had a relatively long and mostly secure time on the throne (1040-1057) and that he might even have been the first King of ‘Scots’ to have ruled from the north coast to the border with England, you should probably get hold of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), where pp. 225-271 will set it all out for you. If you knew the first bit, but the second has you piqued and you want all the detail, then Alex has written it up in “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, though it is also briefly covered in the book, and I’m not sure he’d necessarily choose to present the conclusions in quite the way I just did.

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part III

On the third day of the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, I appear to have followed almost exactly the same trajectory through sessions as the Medieval History Geek,1 and of course he wrote it up long hence, so you could just read about them at his. Because time is short and space is infinite but this doesn’t mean I should fill all of it, however, I’ll basically just list the papers and give comments where I have anything different to say to what he did, and therefore you may want to read (or re-read) his post first as that will, you know, actually tell you what they were about.

Session 398. Early Medieval History

Antiochene gold solidus of Emperor Maurice Tiberius (584-602)

Obverse and reverse of gold solidus of Antioch in the name of Emperor Maurice Tiberius (584-602), showing (obverse) a bust of the emperor facing with cross on globe and (reverse) Victory standing facing with labarum and cross-on-globe

  • Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 CE”. What I liked about this paper, which is also common to a lot of late antique history, was that although from the title you’d expect it to be very specific – one year, two polities – of course the reasons for that Byzantine support enmeshed most of the other kingdoms of Europe and what they were doing and one wound up with, not the scheming Byzantine emperor pulling strings all across our map that one sometimes gets from the more `classic’ literature but a picture of Emperor Maurice I receiving the latest unpredictable news from Spain, from Burgundy, from Neustria, wherever, taking stock of it all and rolling out a new plan to try and stay ahead of as much as he knew about developments as best he could. This seems more realistic and more useful as a comparator than the kind of gilded Byzantium-was-always-more-clever paradigm I’ve met in some work.
  • Luigi Andrea Berto, “In Search of the First Venetians: some notes and proposals for a prosopography of early medieval Venice”. I’ve had a kind of bitter interest in the origins of Venice ever since being set an assignment on it that I couldn’t do during my Master’s. The paper here was however more about the sort of problems that one gets trying to database any early medieval dataset than any specific new findings, I thought, and my notes were therefore brief because I’ve met those before.
  • Sebastian Rossignol, “New Perspectives on the Origins of Towns in Early Medieval Central Europe”. This was that slightly dubious thing, a conference paper that is basically cut down from a paper already in publication. This of course means that any feedback the presenter gets cannot profit them at all, so I find it an odd choice to make. I felt, anyway, that although the problems with deciding what is and isn’t a town were well expressed and explained here, they are also something that several people had a decent go at dealing with before I was born, so that it sounded as if Dr Rossignol had laboriously reinvented the wheel.2 Talking to him afterwards I discovered that he did know the Continental side of this literature, but whether it was useful for him to explain it all to us again I am still not sure.

Then lunch and a return to battle, or at least, opposition, with:

Session 455. Early Medieval Europe I

  • Walter Goffart, “An Experimental Introduction to Christianity for Today’s Students of Medieval History”. This, which has been gone into in detail by the Medieval History Geek so do have a look there, was another rather odd thing, since it was a pedogogical paper not a research one, unusual in this context. Also, because he is now free of undergraduate teaching, Professor Goffart was able to be fairly uninterested in suggestions about how he might modify it, because he himself would not need it. This made for a rather odd back-and-forth in questions where he basically implied that interpretation was our problem not his, leaving me with the impression that Holy Writ had just been handed down.
  • Glenn McDorman, “Diplomacy in the Post-Imperial West and the Gallic War of 507-510”. I was not convinced by the central contention of this, which was statedly that there was an agreed set of rules for conducting royal politics in the sixth century and that we can prove it—as with any system based on norms, I want some consideration of the incentives and disincentives not to play and of how the norms are communicated before I am ready to believe—but I thought it did have some value as an analysis of the way that King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths conducted his foreign relations, which might be described roughly as, “everything possible to avoid war but then go in with overwhelming force and without hesitation”. In that light, this paper was about the tipping point between these two states and that way I found it quite enlightening.
  • Gold solidus of King Theodoric of Italy

    Obverse of the gold solidus of King Theodoric of Italy that shows the "invincible" moustache

  • Jonathan J. Arnold, “Theodoric’s Invincible Mustache”. I absolutely loved this paper, not just because it managed to sneak some genuine historical import about unchecked assumptions by historians, fluidity of early medieval ethnicity and so on, past us but because it made really good use of a slideshow and graphics and was thoroughly entertaining. Dr Arnold is a presenter to seek out. How many people have you seen give a paper in which they said, “OK: get ready to have your mind blown” and then not delivered anything exciting? Not this time, and he had an extra slide ready to anticipate the most obvious question; I give him maximum points for preparation and style that Congress.

I think that the coffee in the more modern part of the West Michigan campus come Congress time is a little too hard to reach. The spaces between sessions are generous, but this year as last year I would be talking to people after sessions, go to seek out coffee, get slightly lost, and either only just get the vital caffeine or actually have to give up and run back. Thus, somehow, the sessions I was most likely to be late for this year appeared to be the ones where I didn’t have to change rooms. I seem to have a full set of notes on this next one so I assume that I wasn’t late; however, my notes seem sufficiently grouchy that I suspect I didn’t get the coffee. I apologise in advance to the speakers in this panel, therefore, for what may be a less generous appraisal than they deserved.

Session 511. Early Medieval Europe II

The so-called Tassilo Chalice, preserved at Tassilo III's foundation of Kremsmünster

The so-called Tassilo Chalice, preserved at Tassilo III's foundation of Kremsmünster

  • Jennifer Davis, “Charlemagne and Tassilo in 794: a final encounter”, arguing that Charlemagne’s final display of the deposed Duke Tassilo of Bavaria at court was more a display of power and confidence than a response to any real threat from him or his old duchy.3
  • Courtney Booker, “The fama ambigua of Ebbo, Bishop of Reims and Hildesheim”, arguing that we should consider Ebbo‘s choices and decisions when trying to weigh up his involvement in the deposition of his old master and patron, Emperor Louis the Pious, more than has been done. I would be inclined to agree and found the interpretations persuasive but I thought it was odd that, in a paper that urged us to hear Ebbo’s voice, none of his actual writings got quoted. I’m sure they will be in the print version.
  • Phyllis Jestice, “Constructing a Queen: Adelheid’s Great Escape and the Ottonian Image”. This was another great presentation, full of humour and irony but without ever letting go of the subject, the way that this somewhat unlucky but prestigious Queen of Italy and then Germany was presented and, well, used, by those who attacked her, captured her, married her or wrote about her (the first three groups sometimes being the same people). Even her history was worth claiming, it seems, and Professor Jestice certainly made it worth hearing about.

And then, I believe, the dance, and I also believe that I had failed to make any sensible plans for dinner and that Michael Fletcher, again, obligingly drove us out to town to get something as part of a general mess of collapsing plans that had been made somewhere around the beginning of the mead tasting and fallen apart by the end, can’t imagine why. I do remember that somewhere in that press of mead-bibbers I met, at last, the inimitable and now-unlinkable Jennifer Lynn Jordan, which was of course a delight, but mainly I have to thank Michael for making sure I got fed at the expense of his time and gasoline. By that generosity I was set up for the dance, which was loads of fun even if this time I didn’t have as much freedom (or indeed cause—no Sex Pistols this time) to let my hair down and fling it around as I had last year, because of presenting the next day. Michael and I did clear a reasonable area around us when we undertook to give `Bohemian Rhapsody’ the full Wayne’s World treatment towards close of play, however.4 I was there at the end, but not for long after, and then it was sleep before the last day of the whole shebang.

1. This nomenclature feels awkward, since I have met him and know his name and I don’t think he’s even keeping it secret; but I learnt netiquette in the old days and one of the tenets of the old school was and probably is, “you use the name that someone gives you, because identity on the Internet is meant to be different if someone wants it to be and anyway to do otherwise is kind of like calling someone a liar about their name”. Lacking instruction to the contrary, I’ll stand by that.

2. Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953) non vidi, cit. Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David M. Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150 at p. 100 n. 4, that Biddle chapter being the basic starting point for this whole deal even now I reckon.

3. Cf. Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119.

4. Except that we did not pause to recover someone from another party because we were all the party already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozymandias just ain’t in it.

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

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

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

4. Ibid., pp. 151 & 157.

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

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