Tag Archives: Venice

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.

Seminary LX: sneaking in to hear Richard Hodges

I need to write something substantive, but I have very very little time at the moment; three papers need finishing before Kalamazoo, and all need reading (which is the hardest thing to find time for, paradoxically). All the same, I am badly behind with reports on things I’ve been to. So, let me renew the seminar reports with something that was actually part of a conference, an event entitled “Crisis, What Crisis? The ‘Long’ Ninth Century” organised at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. The organisation here, and I hope a colleague of mine who was involved in it will forgive me for saying this, was peculiar. Pick a room with space for only forty people in it, do not advertise except by word of mouth and e-mail, only the most minimal internet presence, just in case anyone might, you know, turn up… and then put on this programme:

    8th-9th March 2010

    MONDAY

  • 9.45-10.15 James Barrett “Introduction”
  • 10.15-11.00 Richard Hodges “Charlemagne minus Mohammed”
  • 11.00-11.30 Tea/coffee

  • 11.30-12.15 Nora Berend “The concept of Christendom: A product of crisis?”
  • 12.15-13.00 Søren Sindbæk “Routes for crisis? Early medieval networks and ninth-century ‘relinking’”
  • 13.00-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Dagfinn Skre “The origins of Kaupang’s settlers and traders in the ninth century”
  • 14.45-15.30 Mark Blackburn “Were the Vikings a drain or a stimulus to the ninth-century monetary economy?”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.45 Vaughan Grimes “Isotope analysis and the Norse ‘crisis’: Reconstructing climate, diet and human migration events in the ninth century”
    16.45-17.15 DISCUSSION

    TUESDAY

  • 9.45-10.30 Jesse Byock “Vikings and Iceland in the ninth century: Crisis, what crisis?”
  • 10.30-11.15 Stephen Driscoll “The archaeology of the Scottish political landscape: Viking age transformations
  • 11.15-11.45 Tea/coffee

  • 11.45-12.30 Máire Ní Mhaonaigh “A cultural crisis? The nature of learning in Ireland’s Viking Age”
  • 12.30-13.15 Rosamond McKitterick “Representations of crisis in ninth-century Frankia”
  • 13.15-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Gareth Williams “Without the Vikings we would have no Anglo-Saxons: Discuss”
  • 14.45-15.30 Gabor Thomas “Brightness in a time of dark: Metalwork from Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.30 John Hines “The ninth-century Viking raids and the kingdom of Wessex: A cloud with a silver lining”
  • 16.30-17.15 Andrew Reynolds “Measuring the indigenous response to external threat: Defining Wessex in the Viking Age”

I mean, had places not been so limited I would have taken two days off work to go, but they were, and I was slow to ask, so I didn’t get to do that. (Magistra et mater did, or at least did rather more effectively than did I, and has been reporting in what is so far two parts.) However, I did take the chance to sneak in for one paper, because although I’ve written about him here, I’ve never before heard Richard Hodges speak, and he’s been quite important for my thinking. So I begged my way in and the seats didn’t quite fill up so I didn’t feel bad about denying properly registered people their chance to hear. So with all that clear, what was being said?

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Well, it is probably simplest for me to summarise Magistra’s report and then add my own few penn’orth. We took a tour of European development via the sites Richard has mainly worked on, which might cause one to worry about sampling, but Hodges’s big thing has always been to make his sites part of something much larger, and he’s had some splendid sites to do it with. So we started with emporia, right back to Dark Age Economics, and Hodges’s current feeling that these proto-urban trading settlements are already in decline before the Viking Age, though the North Sea networks into which they fit are apparently doing well enough for Scandinavian sites like Kaupang and Hedeby to be building in the ninth century, even though at points west this settlement form was over by the mid-eighth. They also appear to hang on in the Adriatic, however, where Hodges speaks from the authority of San Vincenzo al Volturno in Italy, pictured above where a monastic settlement into which massive Carolingian patronage is briefly poured and which acquires a substantial rural hinterland naturally becomes a local entrepôt, and Butrint in Albania, where urban decay was fairly pronounced between the sixth and ninth century but which then picks up a bit. This is a different local network, and the local variations are significant, but not enough to wipe out the similarity; yes, in the North Sea there are Vikings, but in the Adriatic a good few sites are wiped out in Saracen raids in 881, which is part of why Venice gets a head start thereafter. In general, as Magistra has it:

Overall, Hodges was arguing for two phases of trade. At the start of the ninth century there’s trade of prestige goods – including Chinese jade found at San Vincenzo. By the end of the ninth there’s been a shift away from this small-scale presige [sic] trading to larger scale trade and the beginnings of real sustainability. This was also reflected in more stratified buildings in C9 AS England, the multiplication of Frankish silos (for grain storage) and the development of fortified small manors in Italy. Hodges saw this large-scale economy developing from the 840s onwards and powered by the Vikings and Arabs.

Well, this all works pretty well for me, because the idea that there is a low-level economic solidification in the ninth century prior to the taxi run for the later take-off in the tenth century, fits with what I see in my material, an intensification of settlement and exchange, so you might expect me to quarrel with little except a bizarre defence Hodges made of hedge fund managers as being necessary for the economy like the Vikings, which I have all kinds of problems with which needn’t be explored here. And I did like his warning that archæology shouldn’t be expected to show negatives: we have very little evidence of activity in Venice in this period, but we know full well from other sources it was getting going.1 I also rather like his assessment of the size of the population at San Vincenzo by how many beds you could physically have fitted into the dormitory. I mean, the monks probably slept on the floor if they were proper reformed Benedictines, but the number is probably about right (110 maximum, which is considerably below some estimates, including that of the abbey’s own chronicle—I suspect lay brothers of some early kind were being included here). And a pointed question about the slave trade elicited Hodges’s opinion that it was marginal until the end of the ninth century, except in the East where both Byzantium and the Caliphate increase demand for slaves hugely as they stabilise; he willingly admitted that Michael McCormick sees things very differently here, but as we have recently discussed, indeed, neither texts nor archæology are particularly good for demonstrating slavery. So, on the whole a well-grounded, if opinionated, tour of a pretty large part of the European economic sphere in a fairly short time, and with some suitably impressive pictures and factoids to remember. I found this one useful and snuck back out with a feeling that I’d used my time wisely.

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint


1. Something I know quite well, from when a particular Cambridge archæologist set me to do a seminar presentation on it during my M. Phil., and then had to admit after I came back to them, panicked, four days later with no data, that they couldn’t find any published archæology on it either, now that they came to look.

Knight Landing Ships!

Okay, so, that’s all very depressing, makes you wonder why on earth you’d be a medievalist no doubt. Well, here’s one reason. While updating myself on the Fourth Crusade by reading Jonathan Phillips‘s excellent The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, I found something I never knew before. Stupidly I gave the book back to Cambridge UL before transcribing the relevant section, and the way the UL works, it won’t be back on the shelf yet. However, I find someone who clearly read the same book writing an article on Historynet.com which basically repeats the relevant text:

To complete their side of the bargain, the Venetians closed their entire commercial operations for a year — a demonstration of the massive effort required to build and equip a fleet of such a size. The ships were of three basic types: troop carriers, horse transports, and battle galleys…. The horse transports had specially designed slings to carry their precious cargo; once the ship drew close to shore, a door below the waterline could be opened to allow a fully armed and mounted knight to charge directly into battle — rather like a modern landing craft disgorging a tank.

I try and restrict my use of this term, but: dude! Why did no-one ever tell me the Fourth Crusade had Knight Landing Ships before? (And, research reveals, so did the Byzantines, as early as 960, so it’s on topic!) Seriously, you reenactment types, you should get on this, that’s a spectacle I’d cross the Atlantic for all right. And you might not have to do all the work yourselves: fruitless Googling for images turns up a guy who’s trying to make a film about the Fourth Crusade and has already started building a 23 ft model of one of these vessels to use in it, of which this seems to be the skeleton:

Ribs and keel of a model Venetian ship for the film Blackernae

Ribs and keel of a model Venetian ship for the film Blackernae

This is not the only reason to be a medievalist in this. There is also the fact that someone has done some work on this, and in particular the question of whether or not the door (or ‘horse-port’—y’see, what’s not to love about this?) was really below the waterline. Do we imagine these things beaching? It seems that we have to, or disbelieve Joinville. But dammit: I am in a field where people struggle to work out how people eight hundred years ago landed fully armed knights onto beaches from ships. If you don’t think that’s cool, er, what are you doing reading this?


Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constaninople (London 2004), which compares startlingly to his Defenders of the Holy Land, 1119-1187 (Oxford 1996) because, where that is dense and detailed and learned, this, while not lacking the learning, is nonetheless a page-turner. He has of course a great story to tell, but I knew how it ended already and I still stayed up late to finish the book. Seriously engaging writing style, and as I say, one much changed from the earlier book, which is still very useful. The detailed work on the ships that I found, meanwhile, is Lillian Ray Martin, “Horse and cargo handling on Medieval Mediterranean ships” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 31 (Oxford 2001), pp. 237-241, and has a few very fuzzy illustrations that weren’t worth breaking the copyright to reproduce here but might be better in hard copy.