Tag Archives: Visigothic Spain

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing some really big-hitting speakers but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty': Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain

I have mentioned Graham Barrett here before, not least as one of those people whom I fear would, if they’d done my doctorate, have done it a good deal better than I did (though, y’know, I’m happy with my outcome). When I mention him, moreover, people pipe up saying how impressed they’ve been with his papers and wanting him to publish on slates, so, you probably want to know about when he presented one called “The Literate Mentality and the Textual Society in Early Medieval Spain” to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 21st November last year, especially since this was kind of a mission statement for his soon-to-be-finished doctorate. So, okay, here I am to tell you about it!

Frontage of León cathedral

Frontage of León cathedral; there are worse places to have to work...

The main question Graham was addressing here was the social level of literacy in Northern Spain, 711-1031, not including Catalonia (though less because of me, I imagine, than because of Michel Zimmermann, whose monster work covers this kind of ground; Professor Zimmermann probably has more to fear from Graham than I do). This gives him some 4,000 charters to play with, of which roughly a quarter are now in the cathedral archive of León. Some useful figures followed, characterising the sample: 61% cartulary copies, 21% originals, 6% loose copies; 54% donations, 36% sales, 10% ‘other’, and so on. He then stressed, however, that these categories aren’t necessarily useful for his kind of enquiry: more relevant may be that only 19% of them are transactions between lay-persons. That’s a lot, by early medieval standards, but the vast majority of the material here still concerns the Church. Preservation peaks at around the year 970, which makes a kind of sense in terms of war and stability but surely needs a better explanation than frequency of randomised destruction; we are instead, Graham argued, probably seeing a sea change in the social uses of writing.

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970, complete with scribes busy altering the social fabric

[Edits to the first sentence of this paragraph, with apologies] At this point there was a pause to address the historiography, whose various offerings on what early medieval societies were doing with writing Graham didn’t find entirely helpful in his case, and the material he brought to bear more or less proved his point. For example, the boom in document preservation is in non-royal ones, so not driven by government directly.1 Instead he sees the pressure to write as having come from the Church, with monasteries and so forth being set up in new areas and effectively archiving community memories in such terms as boundary clauses, names of witnesses and knowledgeable persons, and so forth, and defending themselves at law in such ways that meant others needed documents too, when without that outsider pressure the whole thing might have rested on the community’s collective memory. (The references to documents the monastery didn’t make and didn’t preserve of course indicate that other people could write as well as the monks, and he would come to this.2) The fact that documents were valued at law – and Graham said that he has no court cases where a side with documentary proof ever loses, which surprised me and must, I think, despite its totality, be a factor of preservation as we’ve seen here before – meant that people were willing to forge them, store them, copy them and if necessary, destroy them.

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica

The law, which is the Visigothic Code on which Graham was presenting when reported here the time before last, even governed to an extent what documents were supposed to be written, and was itself a form of socially-active writing, albeit one that could be modified or ignored, and referred to silently, i. e. without saying that that’s what it was; it was, at least, a starting point and suggestion for how to deal with the situations it covered.3 One could argue—Graham did not, quite—that the Bible was used the same way, even though its status was rather different, and higher; nonetheless, it too was a source from which the writers of these documents drew their ideas of how things should be arranged (and, indeed, what would happen to those who disarranged them). These two texts were treated with at least some respect; other, lesser, ones were apt to be recycled, modified, edited or miscopied in fruitful ways, and the last part of the paper focused on their writers.

Three scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Three identified scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Scribes are surprisingly rarely identified in Graham’s documents (it surprises me, anyway, but then I am used to a corpus that is mostly originals) but those who are can be broken down into royal, episcopal, monastic, aristocrats’ and village scribes, almost all clerics or likely to be so. One third of these, roughly, only wrote a single document that survives, but as the period went on it became more usual for a few people to write a lot of charters, which I think probably tells us something about towns becoming spaces of public action and possibly, given its presence in the preservation, the development of León as a capital. These people had written models, of which at least one was the Formulae Visigothicae or, presumably, a version of those texts’ ancestor, with regional variations visible in the detail, and the documents they made could be done at the time of the transactions concerned, although sometimes they would come later. (This must be harder to judge with fewer individuals and I would want to leave some conceptual space for writing them before the ceremony too.)

Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978

Grant by King Ordoño I to Bishop Fronimio of León, 28 June 860, Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978; slightly bigger version linked through

What the ceremony at which the text was deployed, witnessed, signed and given to the property’s new (or new-again) owner did, argued Graham, was to embed the act of writing and its encoding of an action in society. The increase in specialised scribes, as he saw it (contrary to my suggestion above) was a recognition of this by the powers-that-were, monopolising the authority of text and the ability to make it. Here again is supposed a world where for a while, writing got ‘out’ into a wider social plane, but where before that, it had been mostly élite and rare. Michel Zimmermann would, I think, agree with this, but I’m still struggling to see that boom in access to text in the 970s, which I have in my material too albeit maybe a decade or two earlier, as a phenomenon of society rather than of preservation. I’m not sure that when documents are rarely preserved it necessarily implies that few people of that era could write, rather than just that they were not writing things that get preserved. The Visigothic Law and the Formulae Visigothicae envisage far far more things being written down than we have from the tenth century, and the very limited preservation on slate, rather than parchment, from that era seems to show that in action, with accounts, lists and so on far outnumbering solemn documents.4 I, instead, find it easier to imagine a continuity in attitudes to writing from seventh to ninth centuries and that what changed after that was less more people finding it necessary to get at quills and more a greater number of institutions surviving, due to economic growth and so on, that would preserve a certain sort of document better for us. And for that case I would cite girls being taught to write at home, the incredible scale of loss of documentation from the societies of the Peninsula who didn’t have the good fortune of a continuous Church presence through to the modern era and the apparent survival of Visigothic norms of writing, including to an extent the script (something which is a lot truer for Graham’s area than mine5). All the same, I would certainly have to admit, firstly, that Catalunya no es Espanya, secondly, that the evidence we don’t have is obviously impossible to characterise, and thirdly, that Graham’s more complicated version of the history of text in his area would, indeed, look just the same as my simpler one in terms of evidence that we now have.


1. Compare, most obviously, Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979, 2nd edn. Oxford 1993), for a governmentality-driven thesis.

2. And until this work gets published, there’s Roger Collins, “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), XVI.

3. Compare Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism, V, and Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55, just to stick to the English-language literature.

4. I am used to consulting the slates in Ángel Canellas López, Diplomática hispano-visigoda (Zaragoza 1979), but Graham informs me that I would find many more in Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Documentos de época visigoda escritos en pizarra (siglos VI-VIII) (Turnhout 2000), 2 vols, where there are also pictures, for which you otherwise have to go back to Manuel Gómez Moreno, Documentación goda en pizarra: estudio y trascripción (Madrid 1966), with the reproduction standards of that era.

5. On which see Anscari M. Mundó, “Notas para una historia de la escritura visigótica en su periodo primitivo” in Bivium: Homenaje a Manuel Cecílio Díaz y Díaz (Madrid 1983), pp. 175-196, though cf. Collins, “Literacy and the Laity”. I’m sure Graham could provide far more up-to-date references than all of these but they are where my views came from.

Kalamazoo and Back, V: say your piece and get

Sorry this has taken so long to complete. I actually put it off earlier today because of not having my notes before realising that I could actually remember pretty well because the only session I made it to on the Sunday was the one I was in… I’d have liked to see what my colleague Rory Naismith was saying in ‘562. Medieval Money: Coin, Trade, and Credit’ but as it was I kind of had to attend…

Session 536: The Court and the Courts in the Carolingian World

(Also covered at Medieval History Geek here.)

I had worried about sleeping late, given that this session was the morning after the dance and earlier than any of the others, but in fact nerves or drink-confused sleep had me awake quite early and I was on station in good time, both fed and caffeinated enough to make some kind of sense. And just as well because there was plenty of information to make sense of!

Extract from a manuscript of Marculf's Formulary

  • Warren Brown, talking to the title, “Local Conflict and Central Authority in the Carolingian Formula Collections”, reminded us as is his wont of the very different sort of evidence that formulas contain about what people were getting up to in the Carolingian period. These documents, templates for writing charters, have often only studied as sources for the documents that were abstracted to make them, but because they are not subject to the kind of preservation bias that means most of the rest of our record is mediated by a link to ecclesiastical property, here you get to see what else people needed documents for, from making wills and settlements to issuing a safe-conduct for someone enjoined to lifetime penitential pilgrimage for killing his wife… Warren’s paper was essentially a demonstration of these possibilities. There are as he admitted still limits: you get to see what documents people wanted because of events, which is not the same as a record of the events themselves, but it still gives a much broader picture of society and a much fuller impression of Western Europe’s use of documents. I’ve heard both Warren and Alice Rio deliver papers that are essentially, “Hey did you realise how much interesting stuff there is in formulae?” now, and the measure of how correct they are is that there has been hardly any repetition between the papers.
  • Following Warren, largely to keep him apart from Geoffrey Koziol I think, was me, giving a rather sketchy paper (I thought, but then I knew what I’d wanted it to be) entitled, “The Carolingian Succession to the Visigothic Fisc on the Spanish March”, which was mainly intended to ask what strength there could have been to a claim to be living on ‘royal land’ in tenth-century frontier Catalonia. I considered possible continuity with the Visigothic fisc as far as we can know about it, which isn’t far, although it seems to be what some of the sources imply; I also considered the Muslim interregnum that ran things in this area for sixty years, and some rather odd suggestions that historians have made about it, but considered in the end that we couldn’t really tell much about this either, and finally wrapped up by giving some specific examples of the sort of claims that were made, showing that they were likely to be mistaken but concluding that attachment to the past, which was at least possibly genuine in some cases, was important both legally and culturally whether it was true or not, all of which leaves quite a lot still to be investigated. Or at least, that’s what I was aiming for: if you want an impression of how it actually came across, have a look at Curt Emanuel’s write-up and my comments over at Medieval History Geek. Someone, I now forget whom, told me they’d been taking pictures of me presenting, so if that person owns up and if they were any good, I’ll add one here for vanity’s sake later.
  • Last up in this session was Geoff Koziol, talking to the title, “Power in the Palace in the Last Years of Charles the Bald (869-877)”. This was a fairly in-depth account of the shifting political constellations in the West Frankish king’s final years, as the title implies, and it would be rather difficult to summarise as it was full of small interesting parts but an overall scheme is perhaps no easier to determine for us than it was for Charles; certainly, existing overall schemes don’t quite cover it, though I would have liked to have a copy of Jinty Nelson‘s Charles the Bald to hand to check things against in questions and see where Geoff differed from her. One place where he certainly does is that he thinks that what we can see of the palace and its élites shows none of the office structure or church/laity separation envisaged by Hincmar of Reims in his tract De ordine palatii, which claims a far older source but must have been informed by Hincmar’s court experience under Charles. This makes it much more likely that the DOP is a kind of protest written to an ideology, which does rather threaten any claim made for it being an faithful record of the court of Charlemagne: Hincmar’s court may have been an effort to turn back to clock, but it was a clock he very definitely saw himself winding. (Not sure if that metaphor will hold up if you look too close, let’s move on…)
  • King Charles the Bald of the West Franks in old age

    I don’t have any notes on the questions, largely I presume because I was standing up and answering, but I also presume that no-one bowled me anything that I had to incorporate into revisions; as I recall, in fact, Warren and Geoff got most of the questions not least because we’d been told they would fight and they’d more or less refrained from doing so, so people were trying to kick it off, all in good fun, people, all in good fun. I was fairly happy with how this all went, anyway, and thanks are of course due to Jonathan Couser for organising it and Julie Hofmann for her inestimable chairing.

After all this I very much needed coffee, so Another Damned Medievalist and I set off in search of it. It proved to be harder to find than I’d anticipated because of distance, and because of lack of caffeine oh noes recursion and because the main coffee options weren’t running on this last day. I had intended to make it to ‘573. Topics in the History of the Frankish Empire’, not least because one of the people presenting, Wes Bush, had made a point of getting himself introduced to me the previous evening and because he was also talking about the charters of Charles the Bald. In fact, though, by the time we were near the building it was ten minutes after start time and I didn’t have the energy to face down the late entrance so ADM and I went and looked for book bargains and there found both coffee and Steve Muhlberger, so we sat and nattered and then once we were more collected we got our various baggages arranged and piled into cars by prearranged scheme to go and eat at a diner in town, whose name I have unjustly forgotten because it was really nice. This was almost another blogger meet-up: besides myself, Prof. Muhlberger and ADM there was also the Notorious Girl Scholar and Lisa Carnell, the Congress Coordinator who doesn’t have a blog as far as I know but you know, give her a break, she obviously had her hands fairly full! and there was a sixth person who was furthest from me at the table and damned if I can now remember who they were which is really unfair on them and I do hope they’re not offended. I spoke of long-distance travel in Canada to Steve and goth dress-up to Lisa (some of my best friends, etc.) and again didn’t really get to talk to Dr N., but the food was extremely welcome and very much what was needed to set me up for the long journey home. I also owe ADM and Lisa considerable favours for letting me get at and borrow a printer to reprint my plane ticket; what happened to the original I have no idea, but it went, so I would been a bit stuck without them: thankyou both.

CNN map of the infamous ash-cloud, April 17th

CNN map of the infamous ash-cloud, April 17th

Delivered back to the Goldsworth Valley Complex, we found firstly that some really enterprising tagging of one of the exhibitors’ lorries had happened while Lisa’s back was turned, and then that the buses to the airport were not exactly running to timetable. In fact they were making it up on the fly, it became clear once I’d got on one, and this meant that people asking whether this was the bus scheduled for such-and-such a time got some fairly unhelpful, if amusing, answers, because there wasn’t really a right one. I got to the airport in the end and there had the company of Dr Catherine Rider, whom I’ve known a long time and whom I’d seen at several points in the Congress and not actually been able to catch to say hi to. Eventually, though, there was a plane, stuffed of course with medievalists, and then another plane, just about. There was also an ash-cloud, of course, and as I arrived in the international departure lounge at O’Hare, the flight four hours before mine still hadn’t left; I was glad to have a different place to wait to see what was going to happen as there were some very tired and angry people waiting for that one. We heard the cheer when they were allowed to board from where we were, all the same. Up till then things had been extremely frustrating: CNN, broadcasting loudly over our heads, was telling us all that the Atlantic was shut and we’d had it, and the airline employees who could be found said they didn’t know, but to anyone who was alert it was plain that the signs were good: the cabin staff were waiting to board, as soon as the plane was there it was restocked with food and our baggage was loaded. The airport clearly thought we were going, but still people went off to find someone else, who didn’t know anything either but was happier than they were to make stuff up, and then coming back and reporting this hearsay as clear evidence that we weren’t going to be able to get home. This is why the critical disciplines are needful in education, people, so that people don’t panic and start demanding hotel vouchers on the back of uninformed guesswork. Anyway, they let us on when they were ready and then waited a short while longer and eventually we headed away and we were two hours late back, so I missed my planned bus home but on the whole it was still the most comfortable long-haul flight I’ve ever taken, I managed to sleep a bit and one of the important lessons I learnt from this whole trip was that the extra money you pay for flying British Airways across the Atlantic is worth it, because everyone else I knew on this journey was flying American and were rather later and less comfortable.

Cambridge, Parker's Piece, coach station

Cambridge, Parker's Piece, coach station

And then I went to work, not to do any but in order to pick up and fix a new bicycle on which to ride home on the back of a few hours fitful sleep and imminent jetlag, an effort which caused at least one good friend to diagnose me as completely mad, and this may be true (especially since I had stupidly had the bike tools in my carry-on, which gave the security at O’Hare some pause for thought) but it seemed an appropriately odd end to a long journey in which a wide range of silly things had happened as well as serious ones, and almost all of them fun. If I could get someone else to pay I would happily do it again next year. And thereby hangs another post I have yet to write, so I’d better get on with the backlog… Mind you, the books I bought and had shipped back only arrived at work today, so in some sense the whole saga has only now closed; but an awful lot has been happening meanwhile!

Seminary LXII: from these hilltops we can see for centuries

Here is a much-delayed seminar report for you. On 9th March, already, Damián Fernández of NYU came to speak to the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar. Since his topic was “Hilltop Settlement and Economic Change in Late-Antique Northern Iberia”, which isn’t Byzantine at all, it’s not entirely clear to me why that was, but it was of obvious interest to me (you’ve heard me mention hilltops here before, right?) and there are people in Cambridge I only see at the Byzantine seminar, so I happened along.

The basic question Fernández was setting out to answer came out of a couple of quotes from Hydatius’s Chronicle, of which one goes like this:

The Sueves under King Hermeric pillaged the central areas of Gallæcia, but when some of their men were slaughtered and others captured by the people who remained in possession of the more secure fortified sites [castella tutiora], they restored the peace treaty.1

The question that comes out of this is, what exactly were these castella? This treads lightly into some very tangled questions, about the degree of Romanisation in the north of Spain—Fernández thinks that recent work that has found seals, ceramics, buildings, walls to towns and so on demonstrates that it was more considerable than hard-line ethno-continuity theories would accept, but I know there are those reading who would say that this is what the authorities of the area want archæologists to find.2 However, what Fernández was mainly attacking was a historiography in which the period after the arrival of the barbarians in Spain and before the eventual attempted extension of the consolidated Visigothic kingdom into the north is a time in which all that the locals could do was, quite literally, run to the hills. As Fernández pointed out, however, a lot of the hilltop forts they supposedly found seem to have been there under the Romans, Gijón for example being a third- or fourth-century foundation (which was still going for the Muslims to try and run Asturias from when they arrived, of course). Some are more ancient than that, even, but are refurbished during the Roman period (castro ventosa, seen below). I suppose the question then becomes, is that Roman occupation or local resistance to the Romans? It’s all very well to say that Roman material culture indicates this area was part of the Empire, but we know from the Scots and German borders that the peoples on the outside of the limes are very often keen buyers of Roman gear, and even happy to join the army (and serve in far-away places) without that necessarily meaning that they’re now cives romani.3

Current state of Castro Ventosa, near Bierzo

Current state of Castro Ventosa, near Bierzo

Fernández’s answer to this was that this sort of question can’t be addressed from the archæology. The material culture doesn’t differ between areas that may have been outside the frontier and areas everyone is sure were in it; it’s not ethnicity, it’s just poverty. Okay, fair point, but we still don’t know what was going on. One thing that was going on, however, was wall-building, in the third century right through to the early fifth, not because of any particular threat but because walls are a prestigious thing to have round your late Roman settlement. They associate not with decline, but with wealth. He suggested therefore that fortified hilltop settlement (and indeed fortified lowland settlement, of which there is also lots contemporaneously) was not an aberration caused by military, economic or demographic crises but the new mode of settlement for the period, a cultural shift not a strategic one. He saw a state-driven change in the settlement network caused by, well, fashion as much as economy, though that too. This seemed somewhat circular to me, the state encouraging change in settlement morphology because lots of people have changed the morphology of their settlements because the state… I wanted to know whether these sites have rôles as burial centres, as my pet ones from later certainly do, but this didn’t appear to work here: apparently some do and some don’t, and almost none have churches. I don’t think I’d expect churches, actually, I think those would be more local until later, so this didn’t really get me anything.

Remains of the walls of the ancient fortification at Viladonga

Remains of the walls of the ancient fortification at Viladonga

So, okay, there were a lot of small things here, and some quite big things, where I think alternative theses might be arguable or even preferable, but what I did like about this paper was his overall argument that these castella need to be seen not as crisis symptoms but as part of the same growth that is, at the same time that many of them are being refurbished (or even built, like Muelas below), causing the sprouting of new villas in the lowlands from third right through to sixth and in some cases seventh centuries. (Visigothic Spain was, after all, not apparently short of wealth.) Where the land is good for large-scale agrarian agriculture, you get villas; where it’s better for pastoralism and living on hilltops, you get castella—it’s environmental not military. That makes a lot of sense to me. The other important thing that he stressed is that, unlike the situation with hillforts like Dinas Powys in Britain, these are not aristocratic centres.4 There’s no evidence of resource redistribution, of patronage of craftsmen or of accumulation or special treatment of food animals (such as Alcock found at Dinas Powys); they’re just where people live, villages with walls. That’s so in the south, anyway; in the far north we know (from the slates!) that rents were collected at these places. Here a situation where control over transhumance routes is a source of power becomes more likely, even if the material culture, as said, is no different.

The (fifth-century) settlement of Muelas del Pan, near Zamora

The (fifth-century) settlement of Muelas del Pan, near Zamora

So, plenty to chew on, and much that I thought other scholars would have disagreed with, not necessarily correctly but they would have. But my last paragraph of notes reads:

Settlements are a decision taken by social actors: response to soc.-econ. change by e. g. state, moving to a more dynamic organisation of a local kind under a hands-off barbarian k’dom; aristocracies, intensifying local and decentralised econ. Good places to put walls!

and I hope that shows that this is a guy with some big and powerfully explanatory ideas, which I’m sure I’ll meet again and which perhaps the readership might also find useful.


1. R. W. Burgess (ed./transl.), The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana (Oxford 1993), Hydatius cap. 81 rev. D. Fernández.

2. The most relevant reference that the handouts provide seems to be Carmen Fernández-Ochoa [& Ángel Morillo], “Walls in the Urban Landscape of Late Roman Spain: Defense and Imperial Strategy” in Kim Bowes & Michael Kulikowski (edd.), Hispania in Late Antiquity: current perspectives, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 24 (Leiden 2005), pp. 208-340, but Dra Fernández-Ochoa’s webpages would seem to be a good place to find more. That does of course rely on the assumption that she is not, contrary to what some people think, involved in the suppression of pre-Roman evidence from these areas so as to promote, “un pasado romano hipertrofiado por cuestiones políticas”. If you are concerned by that possibility you probably ought to follow the link; I’m not in any position to judge from here.

3. If you want an actual academic reference here rather than links to other blogs, no matter how authoritative they be, I offer you Karl Hauck, “Der Missionsauftrag Christi und das Kaisertum Ludwigs des Frommen” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 275-296, which manages with startling ease to be more relevant to this question than you would imagine from its title.

4. I’ve given all these references before, but because it was a dig worth reading, I’ll do so again: Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.

Staying in Toledo, Visigothic Council style

Here’s one for you all currently at a conference of the learned. I can’t now remember what it was, but there was some reference a while ago on one of the various blogs in the sidebar there to a medieval summit meeting of some kind which is recorded in a text that has the participants’ tents all round the central hall. Anyone? Anyway, it reminded me that some time ago I asked if anyone wanted more of the work of Velasco of San Millá de Cogolla. Kishnevi obligingly stepped up, and then I did nothing for months. Poor show Jarrett! So here, at long last, is the mentioned picture of Visigothic Toledo in council season as imagined and painted by Velasco to accompany those councils’ resolutions.

Imagination of Visigothic Toledo during a Church council by Velasco of San Millán, c. 976

Imagination of Visigothic Toledo during a Church council by Velasco of San Millán, c. 976

Tents, you see! Actually I imagine that in Toledo of the sixth or seventh centuries there probably could have been found rooms for all the likely attendants, but given that they’d been travelling hundreds of miles to get there, they probably did indeed have tents with them. More importantly, at the places where Velasco was familiar with meetings of churchmen and their lackeys, there probably wasn’t room for them all to stay indoors, so we get his version here. At which rate, whose are the tents? Are the bishops and abbots and their batmen all inside, and the grooms and cooks outside under canvas (if medieval tents would have been canvas, I assume not really but I could be wrong)? Or are there some lucky contingents who get inside all of them and the leftovers are seen here? Is that to be read from the apparent precedence that the churchmen have in their line before the king, or is that just a stylistic choice of how to represent a lot of people? Could their varied robes have been decoded, like academic gowns now? Or is it just variation for variation’s sake? Are they actually meeting outdoors, or did the Visigothic kings have pot-plants taller than a man in their palaces? Did they really paint the town citadel patchwork like Elmer (but with more expensive joins), or is that just Velasco adding the sort of ornament that we saw his colleague Emeterius do in his picture of San Salvador de Tábara de León? Can we take any of this seriously?

I don’t know. But I love it.

Words that all look the same: a way to deal with evidence for social change

Once or twice here, I’ve written about one particular development in the way that Spanish medieval history is viewed and talked about by Spanish historians, which can be viewed as a battle of two schools. This is not just a question of old rivalries and forgotten debating positions, though, as both schools have remained influential and they still have a lot to tell us, not just about medieval Spanish history but about ways to approach our sources in general. I came freshly up against this just the other day and decided that, with a bit of luck, the themes would be close enough to universal to make it a suitable Cliopatria debut topic. So I’ve bitten my lip and posted it there, and you can go read it and agree with the person who thought it was too long if you like. There’s not usually a post at Cliopatria with nothing in to interest even me, despite its fairly modern US focus, so you may already be reading.

On the other hand, I want the search hits too, and you may not want to start tracking me across two blogs, so employing the famous device of the cut, I’ve stationed the rest of the post with minor tweaks underneath this one… Continue reading