Monthly Archives: April 2010

This Should be Good

I’m something of a Rosamond McKitterick fan (not enough to start a Facebook page or anything). I’ve read three of her books and enjoyed each of them and I have another three on my shelves which I’m looking forward to getting to. I told someone once that I was turning into a groupie.

So after I came across a post titled, “Cultural Memory and the Resources of the Past, 400-1000 research project gets funding” on Medieval News I immediately thought this sounded like something she should be involved in and was pleased to see that she’s the lead on the project.

The professionals will be well aware of this but for quite some time McKitterick has been one of the most respected researchers in the field of Early Medieval Europe, particularly on the Carolingians though I know she’s done some work with a broader focus. What I’ve read of hers seems to involve; thought processes in Early Medieval Europe; the uses of language and literacy and; societal self-awareness and identity. In everything of hers that I’ve read she extensively utilizes source material and does a very nice job of explaining their meaning and implications for the society under discussion.

There are parts of the official announcement from the University of Cambridge which might ordinarily concern me, in particular the part of this paragraph in bold type:

It will focus on two principal issues – the ways in which texts were “transmitted” from one individual centre to another, and the problem of identity formation itself in the complex social, political and religious melting pot of early medieval Europe.

Basically, part of this project will involve exploring ethnogenesis. As I’ve noted in a previous post, I think the ethnogenesis debate has quite often become overly emotional, even verging on unprofessional in some cases. However McKitterick has already shown how this debate should be carried forward.

Until reading this announcement, her name was never one I associated with ethnogenesis but on giving it some thought I realized that McKitterick has been researching this, or something very like it, for a long time. History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004) which I posted a review to Amazon on a few years back, discusses how the Carolingians used language and writing to establish both a sense of place and a societal identity. That’s ethnogenesis, or part of it – but for a subject group I don’t usually associate with the term. The other two books of hers that I’ve read, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989) and The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge, 1990) also touch on it, though for the latter she’s the editor and a contributor for a volume of essays. She doesn’t come across as having a need to “prove” something, or as having a particular axe to grind. She studies the topic, provides extensive evidence – you want to learn something about the use of sources, read one of her books – and reports her findings. To be fair, there are what in technical terms I’d call a boatload of differences between discussing the Carolingians and 4th and 5th century Germanic groups however I look forward to her taking what she’s learned from her study of Carolingian cultural and societal evolution and applying it to this earlier period.

Placing such a prominent study in such good hands is fantastic news. I expect she’ll help bring the discussion level back to where it belongs. A couple of doctoral students are also going to have a great opportunity. Hopefully they’ll publish the results in a volume or volumes that are reasonably priced and accessible to non-specialists. And for those who are interested in the issues targeted by the study, I recommend you read some of her earlier work. While these are academic books, they are fairly readable and she works hard to provide detailed explanations of where she’s going and how she gets there.


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Book Review: Plague and the End of Antiquity

Little, Lester K., ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. New York (2007). Pp 360. ISBN: 978-0-521-71897-4

This volume contains 12 essays discussing the first well documented incidence of Bubonic Plague which substantially impacted the Eastern Empire and had at least some impact in Western and Northern Europe during the period identified in the title. The book is divided into five broad topics. The essays are as follows:

I Introduction

  • 1. “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” by Lester K. Little
  • 2. “Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers” by Jo N. Hays

II The Near East

  • 3. “‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources” by Michael G. Morony
  • 4. “Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence” by Hugh N. Kennedy

III The Byzantine Empire

  • 5. “Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541-749” by Dionysios Stathakopoulos
  • 6. “Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources” by Peter Sarris

IV The Latin West

  • 7. “Consilia humana, ops divina, superstitio: Seeking Succor and Solace in Times of Plague, with Particular Reference to Gaul in the Early Middle Ages” by Alain J. Stoclet
  • 8. “Plague in Spanish Late Antiquity” by Michael Kulikowski
  • 9. “Plague in Seventh-Century England” by John Maddicott
  • 10. “The Plague and Its Consequences in Ireland” by Ann Dooley

V The Challenge of Epidemiology and Molecular Biology

  • 11. “Ecology, Evolution, and Epidemiology of Plague” by Robert Sollares
  • 12. “Toward a Molecular History of the Justinianic Pandemic” by Michael McCormick

This is a good, interesting book – with a few issues for individual essays. The first two essays, by Little and Hays, respectively, provide a summary of the evolution of the study of the plague – in brief for all plague events and in greater detail for the pandemic covered by the book. Little focuses more fully on the Justinianic Plague and only branches off to the discussion of other plagues as points of comparison while Hays addresses some of the issues and methodologies historians face when studying plague, pandemics and epidemics. These essays do a nice job of setting the stage for the remainder of the discussion, though as I will address later, including one additional essay here rather than where it appears might have been useful.

I won’t discuss each essay as, again, that would require a review article, not a book review. However I will touch on some essays that stand out for me.

Michael G. Morony’s essay is highly informative – and at times troubling. He discusses the Syriac sources in some depth, particularly the second part of John of Ephesus’ Ecclesiastical History which is the primary Syriac source for the plague. 1 He provides a very nice summary of what contemporary literature has to say about the plague, including the mention of symptoms pointing to this as plague as well as how the geographic progression of the disease can be traced through the sources. Where I have issues with this essay are in the conclusions. He accepts the scope and scale of the devastation of the plague as described in the sources in a relatively uncritical manner. He accepts as “realistic and believable” that the plague may have killed a third of the population (p 73) despite later accepting that other causes may have had an impact (pp 84-86). He also provides an interesting statement which I believe requires additional support, “But monasticism arguably drove down the birth rate among Christians in general compared to non-Christians.” (p 85). Is there evidence for this? In any case, I enjoyed this article, however I believe some of his conclusions lack support.

Alain J. Stoclet’s essay on the plague in Gaul discusses how the plague was both blamed on and responded to through; religion and religious practice; secular leaders and; superstition. There’s a fair amount of information and references to source material, however it lacks a cogent message and came across to me as a bit of a ramble. He fails to tie the information together or even provide a conclusion or summary. When I finished it, my mental thought was, “So what?”.

While the two preceding essays stand out for me as having issues, there are several that are memorable for their quality. Michael Kulikowski provides archaeological and textual evidence for the impact of the Plague in Hispania. As always, his discussion is detailed and thorough. However in contrast to some of his other work – namely in Gillett (2002) and Kulikowski (2004) – he is willing to offer conclusions related to the cultural and economic changes which may be attributable to Plague impacts. 2

Robert Sollares’ contribution is, in my opinion, the most outstanding in this entire volume. For someone such as myself, who is relatively unfamiliar with the plague (I have, as anyone who’s ever read on the 14th century does, at least a passing familiarity with The Black Death) this detailed discussion of the Plague, both from the evolution of the study of the Plague and its epidemiology, is extremely useful. Sollares somehow manages to take hundreds of years of research, tie it all together and apply it to Medieval studies in one essay. I believe that for many people it would be more useful to read this as chapter 3, following Hays, than where it is placed in this book.

As he has done elsewhere, Michael McCormick provides something of a “future directions for study” related to microbiology and molecular biology. 3 He discusses methods in which current and future areas of scientific study may lead to a greater – in some cases far greater – understanding of the plague. Possibly due to my science background, I enjoyed this essay tremendously.

This is a high quality, useful book, certainly appropriate for an amateur with some knowledge of Late Antiquity. The essays are geographically quite broad and range from Syria and North Africa to Ireland and England. It is obvious that the respective contributions were written independently of each other as quite frequently the same area is covered in more than one essay – and reach different conclusions. What is most lacking is that final essay to tie it all together. McCormick provides a look forward, however someone tackling a summation of what was covered in this volume would have added value. There is also a lack of emphasis on attempts to quantify the long-term, subsequent impacts of the plague. This is touched on at times, such as by Sarris and Kulikowski, however the emphasis of most of the essays are on the contemporary impacts. Still, this is an excellent opening effort toward a comprehensive discussion of the Justinianic Plague which had such an impact, particularly on the late Roman world in the east. I hope that a more narrative type volume will soon follow to provide a more focused path of study.

1 The Third part of John of Ephesus’ Ecclesiastical History, translated by R. Payne Smith, is available both in print (as a reprint edition) and as a download from The Internet Archive. However to the best of my knowledge the second part is not available in its entirety in English but is largely recounted (according to Morony – I have this wishlisted, not in hand) in Harrak’s translation of The Chronicle of Zuchnin (1999).

2 In Gillett, Kulikowski provides arguments in opposition to Pohl (1998) regarding what archaeological evidence can tell us about ethnogenesis. He argues that there is extraordinarily little we can tell about the evolution of social structures and ethnic groups from these – particularly regarding the Goths but also in general. He provides substantial evidence but I found his conclusions unsatisfying. In his Late Roman Spain and Its Cities he frequently offers statements such as, “Thus, although Zaragosa would appear to have lost the last vestiges of its Roman townscape by the middle of the sixth century – in the sense that however many Roman buildings were still standing, the last lingering social aspects of that townscape were no more – there is no reason to think that the number of people who lived in the city declined or that the city underwent any sort of urban shrinkage.” (p 297) To my mind, when the structures – social, governmental and physical – that are typically associated with urban life disappear (and are not replaced), it is very logical to conclude that it is likely that some loss of population occurred. Either this or we assume that Medievals were capable of adopting some sort of communal behavior whereby large groups of people can live together without urban social structures without substantial social disruption. Kulikowski uses Ampurias as a parallel example – except in Ampurias, according to him, a major rebuilding program took place in the sixth century, something he does not attest to for Zaragosa. While there is no direct evidence for population loss from Zaragosa, there appear to be plenty of indicators – enough to reach an at least tentative conclusion. This absence of conclusions, even tentative ones, based on archaeological evidence is a common thread in this – still very good – book.

3 See this blog post from Jonathan Jarrett for another example of McCormick discussing the use of modern scientific methods in historical study.

Gillett, Andrew, ed. (2002). On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity (Turnhout). ISBN: 978-2503511689 – I apologize for not correctly citing Kulikowski’s contribution here. I will correct this the next time I get to the University library and can take a look at the book (provided it isn’t checked out).

Harrak, Amir (1999). Chronicle of Zuqnin: Parts III and IV, AD. 488-775 (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto). ISBN: 978-0888442864.

Kulikowski, Michael (2004). Late Roman Spain and Its Cities (Baltimore). ISBN: 0-8018-7978-7

Pohl, Walter and Reimitz, Helmut (1998). Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800 (Leiden). ISBN: 978-9004108462


Posted by on April 25, 2010 in Books, Disease and Medicine


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I love mythbusters, particularly Medieval ones. Maybe it’s because 15 years ago I believed a lot of them. For example, I totally believed that at the end of the Roman Empire the Western world completely, 100% fell apart. I believed that Medievals never washed and that virtually nobody could read. I can’t tell you today exactly why I believed this stuff (I’m sure I had my reasons) but I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone as far as William Manchester and thought everyone ran around naked (having done agricultural labor myself, that just seems an insane concept) but if someone had analyzed Lord of the Rings and told me that no, in Tolkien’s mind Sauron wasn’t analogous to Hitler but to a historical bloodthirsty, raging killer maniac warlord who set up shop in Trier after the end of the Empire, I’d have bought it.

Most of us have probably seen what I call “The Baby and the Bathwater” e-mail that’s gone around. Fortunately, this has been soundly debunked by Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes

Thanks to Steve Muhlberger for pointing out this site which identifies more common historical errors. Most of the errors are ancient but there are a few Medieval ones sprinkled in. I particularly enjoyed number 27 though I think he could have changed that to read, “The Christians systematically destroyed ancient manuscripts” and had even more of an impact.* I haven’t really given it much thought but I bet I believed this one too 15 years ago.

* The book on manuscript transmission that’s been referred to me by someone who should know (I haven’t read it) is Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature by Reynolds and Wilson, Oxford University Press (1991). ISBN: 978-0198721468. There are plenty of newer books out there on this too.


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This is a Good Publication

I’m not Ralph Mathisen and I don’t even portray him on TV – though I’d give it a shot if that meant I’d lose about 30 lbs and grow hair on the top of my head – and yes, I realize the weight thing’s my own fault (though I’d be interested in knowing how male pattern baldness fits into natural selection). I want to put a plug in for the Journal of Late Antiquity (JLA), which Dr. Mathisen is the editor of.

I try to read three Medieval History Journals – or at least mostly read them. Those are Speculum, Early Medieval Europe and JLA. I also try to scan The English Historical Review and The American Historical Review. For these last two, mainly for reviews so I can add books to my ever-growing “to buy” list.

I subscribed to JLA for two reasons. First, last year at Kalamazoo Dr. Mathisen promoted it at the Society for Late Antiquity Sessions. Second, it’s cheap – $30 annually for an individual subscription, which gets you two issues. And the reason I’m writing this post is because, after having received three issues, I’m very impressed by the quality. For 30 bucks, it’s been well worth it.

The latest issue (Vol 3, No 1) arrived a couple of weeks ago. Among the articles is one by Bernard Bachrach discussing fortification building in 3rd and 4th century Gaul and the implications this has for the degree of financial distress of the Empire in the late third century and articles by Walter Goffart and Guy Halsall discussing Goffart’s taxation theory regarding the settlement of Barbarians on Roman lands in the Fifth century. And Mark Handley has provided another addition (274 of them actually) to Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Earlier issues have included articles by Adam Becker, Timothy Barnes, Peter Heather, Neil McLynn, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Michael Richter and many others.

The articles are quite good and the price is very reasonable. The one area it is lacking in, so far, is that it does not contain the number of book reviews as the other journals I mention above. For subscription info, go to the JLA page at Johns Hopkins University Press.

So if you attend a Society of Late Antiquity Session at Kalamazoo and Dr. Mathisen mentions JLA; for whatever it’s worth, I also give it a thumbs-up.

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Posted by on April 18, 2010 in Resources


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Another Tip for Amateurs – Library Features

This post originally began as a tangent to a post about another topic. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my tangent would detract from what I wanted to get across there – and to figure out that this was worth its own post.

For an amateur, access to reasonably priced books is often a significant limiting factor. I know when I first started reading history it was a bit of a jolt transitioning from buying $6.95 paperback fiction to $20-$30 non-fiction. Eventually I got used to that enough to where I frequently buy books in the $60-$80 range – it has to be a very useful book though.

This brings us to the world of the Inter Library Loan (ILL). Many if not most of you are at least somewhat aware of this so this is more of a reminder. Use it. I’ve been astonished at what our little (town of 15,000 people) public library has been able to acquire for me. I’ve received fairly specialized books housed at Notre Dame, Indiana University, Taylor University, Oberlin College, etc. And the fee is next to nothing. So if you see a book and buying it is beyond your means, talk to your library.

What many people don’t seem to be aware of are subscription services your local library may have. I’ve told several people to check and find out if their library subscribes to JSTOR – a subscription service which provides access to many journals, in digital form. They are frequently surprised to find their library has it. If your library doesn’t, you may want to try finding several people interested in having journal access beyond what the library subscribes to – these don’t have to be history people either – and talk to the library. If they see there’s an interest in the service they may be willing to purchase it – or if you get enough people, ask the library if they’d consider subscribing if you can find enough donors to cover the cost. There are other services besides JSTOR – Project MUSE is one I’m familiar with. I’m not up on the inner workings of all this because through my “nothistory” job at a university I have access to all sorts of stuff through the library and they make it easy, but it’s amazing how many good public libraries offer many of these same services.

And finally, since I mentioned university libraries, if you want additional access to resources, ask the college or university you graduated from about alumni library accounts. Depending on the type of institution, they may not have many of the books you may be looking for but they often have JSTOR or other journal access. I try to keep up on things by looking through 5 journals on a regular basis – Speculum, Journal of Late Antiquity, Early Medieval Europe, the American Historical Review and the English Historical Review. I subscribe to Speculum (access through JSTOR isn’t available for the most recent 5 years) and JLA, and access the others through the University. And often something from another journal is cited, such as the article I mentioned in my Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant post which I can access through JSTOR.

Many institutions of higher education offer alumni accounts. Sometimes you may not receive all the bells and whistles of faculty and student accounts but it is absolutely worth asking about. And in this day and age of digital information, even if you’re physically thousands of miles away from your library, you can still access many of the resources.


Posted by on April 16, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Resources


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Book Review: Egypt in the Byzantine World

Bagnall, Roger S., ed., Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700. Cambridge, UK (2007). Pp. 480. ISBN: 978-0-521-87137-2.

Roger Bagnall has assembled an impressive collection of papers regarding Egypt in Late Antiquity. These papers are arranged in three topical segments with a fourth section consisting of a single essay regarding the Arab Conquest.

The Sections and Papers are as follows:

  • 1. “Introduction” by Roger S. Bagnall

Part I: The Culture of Byzantine Egypt

  • 2. “Poets and pagans in Byzantine Egypt” by Alan Cameron
  • 3. “Higher education in early Byzantine Egypt: Rhetoric, Latin and the law” by Raffaella Cribiore
  • 4. “Philosophy in its social context” by Leslie S. B. MacCoull
  • 5. “Coptic Literature in Egypt and its relationship to the architecture of the Byzantine World” by Stephen Emmel
  • 6. “Early Christian architecture in Egypt and its relationship to the architecture of the Byzantine world” by Peter Grossmann
  • 7. “Coptic and Byzantine textiles found in Egypt: Corpora, collections and scholarly perspectives” by Thelma K. Thomas
  • 8. “Between tradition and innovation: Egyptian funerary practices in late antiquity” by Francoise Dunand

Part II: Government, Environments, Society, and Economy

  • 9. “Alexandria in the fourth to seventh centuries” by Zsolt Kiss
  • 10. “The other cities in later Roman Egypt” by Peter van Minnen
  • 11. “Byzantine Egyptian Villages” by James G. Keenan
  • 12. “The imperial presence: Government and army” by Bernhard Palme
  • 13. Byzantine Egypt and imperial law” by Joelle Beaucamp
  • 14. “Aristocratic landholding and the economy of Byzantine Egypt” by Todd M. Hickey
  • 15. “Gender and Society in Byzantine Egypt” by T. G. Wilfong

Part III: Christianity: The Church and Monasticism

  • 16. “The institutional church” by Ewa Wipszycka
  • 17. “The cult of saints: A haven of continuity in a changing world?” by Arietta Papaconstantinou
  • 18. “Divine architects: Designing the monastic dwelling place” by Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom
  • 19. “Monasticism in Byzantine Egypt: Continuity and memory” by James E. Goehring
  • 20. “Depicting the kingdom of heaven: Painting and monastic practice in early Byzantine Egypt” by Elizabeth S. Bolman

Part IV: Epilogue

  • 21. “The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the beginning of Muslim rule” by Petra M. Sijpesteijn

I will not be discussing each essay – that would require a review article, not a review. Where this collection excels is in the breadth of topics. If you are interested in the presence of the military in Egypt, Bernhard Palme covers this. Want to know about education? Criboire covers this in depth however MacCoull also discusses it. There are essays on law, village life, city life, rural life, governance, the church, monasticism – I am very impressed with the ground covered in this collection.

The essays are well written with some simply providing information for the reader while others argue for a particular point of view. I am not able to provide a detailed analysis as I do not have extensive knowledge of Egypt during this period. I do, however, have a fair degree of knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire overall and there were several essays which certainly provided unexpected information. Chapters nine through eleven and fourteen all discuss the nature of property ownership and wealth in Egypt however Todd M. Hickey in particular argues that the influence of The Great Estate is sometimes overstressed and that smaller landholders and even villages still were able to exert considerable influence. I was evidently laboring under some misconceptions of desert monasticism and asceticism. James Goehring argues – and argues well – that the extreme poverty and asceticism, such as that portrayed in Athanasius’ Life of Antony was much more of an ideal than a reality and that monks and ascetics often still owned property and had access to wealth. He argues that the reality of the ideal often involved detachment from wealth and property, rather than outright renunciation. Elizabeth Bolman’s excellent article discusses monasteries down to the individual cells and her article, accompanied by numerous illustrations, shows that monks did not live in completely barren accommodations but their cells were often richly decorated with images of the holy serving them as a means of focus for prayer.

Because of the breadth of this collection, I feel this book would be suitable for those with little knowledge of Egypt in Late Antiquity. However a reader should be aware of some of the major issues involving the Eastern Roman Empire. Athanasius’ struggle in maintaining his position as Patriarch in Alexandria comes up, however the reasons for this issue are not fully explored. Similarly the evolution of the Coptic Church in light of the Chalcedon/monophysite controversy is discussed – however the details of this controversy is not. There is also a discussion of Egyptian law and the degree to which Egypt followed the Justinian legal reform, however the Justinian reforms are not discussed in any depth. So a reasonable knowledge of the Eastern Empire during this period would be helpful.

The one criticism I have of this work is that almost no attention is given to the Arab Conquest. The final essay does discuss it briefly however it is mostly an assessment of the lack of source material (or the lack of source material that has been studied) and the changes in Egyptian society are discussed in a fairly general way. In essence, this book could as easily have been called Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-640.

However, Bagnall has gathered an excellent collection. In-depth, perceptive, well argued essays provide a great deal of information about Egypt in Late Antiquity. I strongly recommend it for students of the Eastern Empire and, particularly, those who would like to learn more about what was truly the breadbasket of the Eastern Empire before the Arab Conquests.

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Posted by on April 12, 2010 in Books


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Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant

I like reading about peasants – don’t ask me why. I’d much rather learn about them than the nobility/aristocracy any day. Who cares whether Lord whassisface went hawking each Wednesday, or whether Lady so-and-so got it on with the hired help? Instead, talk to me about the poor guy and girl digging in the dirt. Could they get ahead, if things worked out for them? Could they read – even a few words of a psalter? If they got in a legal argument with someone more powerful did they stand a chance and would their fellow dirt-grubbers band together, possibly at the village level and help them out? Problem is, we don’t know much about peasants but it’s getting a little better. Archaeology’s starting to tell us – something. It’s a matter of trying to figure out what. 1

After the end of the Roman Empire in the West (I’m opposed to the term “fall” because it was more of a stumbling, staggering, tottering march toward a post-Roman reality) the general theory has been that those in the lower economic classes (I’ll refer to these as peasants from this point though even this term can be problematic) fared a bit better than they had under the Empire. Several reasons have been put forward for this including; the end of Roman taxation; the end of the Roman Great Estates; the end of large, complicated exchange networks that led to production specialization and their transition to smaller, regional networks and; the transition of rule from Romans with a long tradition of a hierarchical, relatively static society to that of Germanics (sorry Goffart) with far less of a hierarchical tradition enhancing the opportunities for social mobility. And the role of the Church in discouraging slavery, particularly of other Christians, also contributed.

I’m pretty comfortable with this basic concept and I’m also comfortable with the idea that the lot of the peasant began to decline again as we venture further into the period, post-Carolingian, prior to it improving again in the late Middle Ages. But there are a ton of details within these broad concepts which intrigue me.

My current “Favorite Book on the Middle Ages” is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages. My only gripe (though I disagree with him on a couple of things) is I need the hardcover – I refer to it so much that the Pb edition’s beginning to show a lot of wear. Peasants are a favored topic of his and he goes into a fair level of detail in this book about how they fit within the social and economic environment of the early middle ages. Wickham himself would likely slap me for how general I have to make this for a blog post but for the Merovingian territories, while peasants could still find themselves at the mercy of a large landowner, these large landowners were far less imposing than during the empire. Peasants are portrayed as very much a landowning class themselves. They are able to accumulate additional wealth and lands. At the village level, peasants are often found engaged in all levels of society, including as elites. And there’s no evidence of what we find later in the medieval period – the “once a peasant, always a peasant no matter how much you’re worth” mindset that inspired so much literature as I’ve previously mentioned.

But there are a few cracks appearing in this (massively oversimplified as I’ve described it) model. One crack I’m aware of comes from Joachim Henning (2008). He uses archaeological finds of shackles to argue that Carolingian society caused a significant setback to peasant society by resulting in “. . . an accidental rebirth of Rome that was imposed on a previously flourishing peasant society.” (p 52) For him, the combination of shackle finds with the rise of the bipartite estates indicates a loss of village and, therefore, peasant society by bringing back two aspects of the Empire – slavery and The Great Estate. 2

I very much enjoyed Henning’s article and appreciate the detail he went into explaining his findings and hypothesis however his theory has some holes. While I am convinced that the lack of shackle finds during the Merovingian period coupled with an increase of finds in the Carolingian period likely points to a regrowth of slavery in places and under some circumstances, the geographic distribution of said shackle finds is a huge issue. These shackles were found in three regions of Carolingian control or influence – Jutland and nearby islands, near the mouth of the Somme(northeast Neustria), and just west of Bavaria – Avar country. (p 39, fig 2.3). These were regions the Carolingians were involved in conflicts with or, in the case of the Somme, may have been trading centers. Shackle finds may indicate the temporary imprisonment of those taken in war, more permanent enslavement of those taken in war who would be taken to the Mediterranean for trade, or even the shackling of hostages who would be taken and placed with various Carolingian notables to help insure “good behavior” on the part of Carolingian neighbors. What’s most problematic is that there are no shackle finds from the center of Carolingian territory – it doesn’t seem that slavery was very widespread, and Henning may be over-extrapolating here. For me, this theory came down to, “Interesting – but not enough evidence for me to buy into this.”

Thanks to a recent post from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe blog there’s a little bit more to add to Henning’s hypothesis in the way of supporting evidence. The linked article intrigued me for a variety of reasons. First, it appears to further debunk the old “the world fell apart post-Roman and naked peasants spent their miserable lives grubbing in the dirt (or eating each other) for food while being indiscriminately killed by roving bands of armed thugs” apocalypse theory. Second, based on the research done, it might provide evidence in support of Henning.

After a fairly simple bit of searching (enter the author’s name in Google) I found an article co-authored by the researcher mentioned in the article. (Koepke and Baten, 2005) This article is from the 1st through 18th centuries AD rather than from the 8th century BC which is fine for what I’m interested in. In it they analyze the heights of people based on skeletal remains in order to evaluate what they term a “biological standard of living” which boils down to nutrition. They evaluated evidence for the height of over 9,000 skeletons for the 18 century period. The simplest summary (p 76, fig 2) shows that average height from skeletal finds in Europe were (male and female combined) around 170 cm for the Roman period, jumped to 171-172 cm for the 5th-7th centuries, and then dropped back to just a tad above Roman era levels in the 8th-10th, back up in the 11th and 12th (though not as high as either the 6th or 7th) and then a precipitous drop in the 13th. They do further analysis by dividing measurements by gender and by three geographic regions – Mediterranean, Central/Western Europe and Northern/Eastern Europe. 3 These measurements generally hold up across gender and geography. 4

The 13th century drop in height is the most surprising to me as I would have guessed the 14th century – this was when all the famines seem to have been reported (well, not all – there were always famines but the early 14th seems to have had more than its share) as well as the Black Death. OTOH, maybe post-plague there was a lot more to eat because there were fewer mouths. You can (and the authors mention this in the article) make the same argument for the post-Roman period as well though I have my doubts just how far the overall population fell as opposed to moving – the “dark earth” indication of settlements built with wood has only relatively recently started to be considered on a large scale.

This seems to be a good point to interject that the authors themselves are uncertain of causation. Income inequality is a factor they consider, as is climate, population density, public health, gender inequality (if women encountered poor nutrition their children would also be smaller), technology and income levels. They make some interesting arguments and some I find flawed. For example, they consider the Romans more technologically advanced than the medievals where I would argue that the technology didn’t change a whole lot – but the number of people who had access to it in urban settings did. OTOH, what percentage of the population of Rome would be admitted to a Roman bath during the days of the Empire? Ultimately, all of the variables the authors tested for come out as statistically insignificant however they argue that population density is economically significant and that climate, social inequality and gender inequality are at the margins of economic significance. However, in their discussion they offer that by breaking the period into smaller time frames, social inequality becomes more significant for the first 6 centuries of the millennium while climate does the same for post-800. But even with these, it’s hard to know if the authors inputted correct values when testing for those variables. Some of their values seem a bit off-the-cuff to me. And receiving some input from medieval or ancient scholars may also help – for example, they discuss attempting “. . . to capture the potentially beneficial effects of the Roman public health system . . .” (p 84). What is that? If your slave was sick there was a hospital to bring him to? I can make a pretty strong argument that between the monastic orders and the Church itself there was a fair amount of public health going on in the medieval period – though I sure wouldn’t want to call it a system.

To conclude this post before it gets laboriously long (maybe it already is – I could write on this for hours – fascinating stuff), initially I thought Henning’s theory interesting, possible, even plausible, but from an evidentiary perspective, definitely just a starting point – not enough there to, at this point, buy into. The Koepke & Baten article changes that dynamic – somewhat. They offer independent supporting evidence, at least somewhat supporting Henning, based on the decline in height from the Merovingian to Carolingian period. In essence, two articles, each with its own holes, that somewhat corroborate one another. Now I’m at a, “Something may have been going on during the Carolingian period” point. It may not have been what Henning theorized – possibly there was a climactic shift I’m not aware of or some other factor. But for some reason(s), the majority of people do not appear to have gotten along quite as well during the Carolingian period as the Merovingian, despite our belief that Carolingian society was substantially wealthier overall with more complex exchange networks and a greater degree of administrative governance. Koepke/Baten have plenty of issues in their article when it comes to demonstrating causality – in fact one of the things I took from reading it is that while their examination of height data for 9,226 skeletons is pretty comprehensive, they very much lack the information they need for the other variables they try to work their study around. But even with that, the height differential is intriguing.

1 When I say, “us” I don’t mean me personally because I’m not some archaeologist digging in the dirt(my colleagues in my real “nothistory” job would yell at me for using the 4-letter “d” word), or even trying to translate a source text – mine is an empathy connection which, if you tell me you’re an archaeologist or medievalist will probably get you a beer and, as a special bonus, quite possibly some tedious conversation.

2 For those a bit newer to the period, a bipartite estate basically means an estate which had two segments – the demesne, which existed solely for the benefit of the Lord of the estate, and the tenancies which were farmed in what’s very much a sharecropping type of system (generally though occasionally a monetary fee was used). As this estate system evolved peasants became increasingly bound to the land though even when it became more oppressive there are cases of peasants taking their share and utilizing it to move up the food chain, at least economically.

3 Table 2(p 64) details the areas and the number of remains for each century covered by these regions; Center/West = Bavarian/Austrian, Northern Rhine, Southern Rhine and UK; Eastern/Northern = Eastern Europe and Northern Europe and; Mediterranean = Mediterranean Region. This gives us something and tells us that the Carolingian areas are likely Center/West except for Southern Gaul and Italy which would be Mediterranean (though how Carolingian was Italy anyway?) however a map depicting this would have been preferable.

4 The gender measurements provide a strong positive correlation. The only exceptions are the 10th century where female height dropped and male did not, and the 15th and 16th when female heights rise sharply (though still not to the 6th century levels) while those for men did not. Geographically they still match up fairly well but, as might be expected when comparing three data sets instead of two, there are a few more points of divergence, in particular the 8th century which is a high point for the North/East and very low for Center/West.

Henning, Joachim, “Strong Rulers – Weak Economy? Rome, the Carolingians and the Archaeology of Slavery in the First Millennium AD”, in Davis and McCormick, (eds.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe, (Burlington, Vt. 2008), 33-53. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6254-9.

Koepke, Nikola and Baten, Joerg, (2005). “The Biological Standard of Living in Europe During the Last Two Millennia”, European Review of Economic History 9, 61-95.

Wickham, Chris, (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (New York) ISBN: 978-0-19-921296-5.


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Kalamazoo Book Giveaway!

You know how it is – you’re in a used bookstore, you see something you’re interested in, you buy it – then you get home and find out you already have it. I did that with two books over the past couple of months and, being the brilliant person that I am (though evidently not brilliant enough to avoid buying a book I already have), I’ve decided the best thing to do would be to give them away to someone who’ll be at K’zoo.

Neither of these books are all that expensive, exclusive or anything but maybe someone will want a free copy. Here are the details.

William Rufus by Frank Barlow. Published in 1983 by the University of California Press. This is the hardcover edition and part of the English Monarchs Series (this book doesn’t say “Yale” English Monarchs but the Pb, issued in 2000, does). The book’s in good shape and has a dust cover. Pages are a bit yellow with normal wear – dust cover is minimally tattered but still pretty good. The binding is sound.

The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth Translated and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware. Published by Faber Paperbacks in 1983, first published in hardcover in 1979. This book’s a paperback but also in good shape. Minimal wear – it looks like it’s been opened several times but the binding’s in good shape and it has just a couple of scratches on the cover. Of course if someone has 2 copies of Volume 3 and wants to trade, I’d be up for that – I have Volumes 1, 2 and 4.

Here’s how you enter.

1. Be an attendee at the 2010 International Congress on Medieval Studies.

2. Be a student – grad or undergrad. I’m not going to ask for student ID or anything but I figure professors have dept funds and amateurs who are attending should have the cash to buy a couple of $20-$40 books if they need to. I was a starving student once (good thing you could carb up on beer).

3. E-mail me with the following details – the book(s) you want, in order of preference, and some sort of contact info – e-mail would be preferable since I don’t want to run up a big LD charge by calling someone from England or Spain. If you know me from an online site – Facebook, Library Thing, etc., you can send me a message there with the same info.

The contest works like this: I’ll write the name of each entrant on a slip of paper. Over the weekend of May 1 when one of my bum friends who’ll work for food comes over (no lie – they help me do something around here and I buy pizza and beer – the dinner of champions) I’ll have him or her draw out of a hat (or a big saucepan if I get hundreds of responses). I’ll e-mail (hopefully – see above) the winners with my cell number and sometime at K’zoo you call me and we’ll arrange the handover. Also, you must be willing to have your name posted here as a winner – I’m not e-mailing everyone who doesn’t win – they can read it here.

My e-mail (hopefully the spammers won’t pick it up but I’ll use my powers of deception) is this embedded link.

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Posted by on April 4, 2010 in Books



Book Review: A World Lit Only by Fire

Review of: William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 1992. Pp 322, xvii. ISBN: 978-0316545563.

I know that as a reviewer I should begin reading a book with an open mind. In this case, that was impossible. Those wishing to know my motivations for opening this book can read my blog post here.

As Manchester tells us in his introduction, he first began writing this due to an illness, “. . . I had no intention of writing it at all. In the summer of 1989 while toiling over another manuscript – the last volume of a biography of Winston Churchill – I fell ill. . . . I emerged cured but feeble, too weak to cope with my vast accumulation of Churchill documents. . . . The fact that I wasn’t strong enough for Winston did not, however, mean that I could not work.” (xiv)

And so it began. There are three sections to this book. Chapter 1 is titled, “The Medieval Mind.” Here Manchester provides his vision of what life was like during the Medieval period. Life was brutal. The Dark Ages were truly dark with, apparently, periods of such a lack of sunlight that, “If war took a man even a short distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of returning to it were slight; he could not find it, and finding his way back was virtually impossible.” (22) Little wonder as “In summertime peasants went naked.” (22) As someone who has been scratched up simply scouting wheat fields when fully clothed, I have a lot of sympathy for what those naked peasants must have endured during harvest. “Any innovation was inconceivable; to suggest the possibility of one would have invited suspicion, and because the accused were guilty until they had proved themselves innocent by surviving impossible ordeals – by fire, water, or combat – to be suspect was to be doomed.” (23)

However hope would come in the form of the Reformation, “Shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear and sheathed in superstition, they trudged into the sixteenth century in the clumsy, hunched, pigeon-toed gait of rickets victims, their pale faces pocked by smallpox . . .” (27)

Chapter 2, “The Shattering” covers the end of Manchester’s Medieval Period. I nearly stopped reading at this point, convinced I had read enough. Fortunately, I carried on. While the second half of this chapter does indeed discuss the Reformation and, sort of, the Renaissance, the first half returns to the Middle Ages. Peasants lived with each other and the entire family slept in one bed – if they had a bed at all. “Everyone slept there – grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs . . .” (53) If someone chose to visit, they hopped in as well and if they happened to get it on with your wife or daughter, well, that was just how things were done back then. Manchester neglects to mention the possible fate of the pig. Our summertime nudist peasant would have counted himself fortunate for now, “The peasants might be forced to sell all they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and be reduced to nudity in all seasons.” (54) Young women would apparently couple with anyone and everyone and, “On Sundays, under watchful parental eyes, girls would dress modestly and be demure in church, but on weekdays they opened their blouses, hiked their skirts and romped through the fields in search of phalli.” (67-68)

Chapter 3,”One Man Alone” is a discussion of the Voyages of Discovery and ultimately, Magellan. I read this in a much more cursory fashion. This is not my period and I am unable to comment on the accuracy of much of it. However here Manchester appears to at least have his facts somewhat straight and his tracing of the explorations beginning with Henry the Navigator appears to be reasonably well done.

This book, filled as it is with what can only be termed as rubbish, should have angered me more. Manchester clearly did little research and picked only those anecdotes which fulfilled his preconceptions of the Medieval Period. I was entirely surprised to find myself occasionally laughing out loud as I read through the first hundred or so pages. The assertions given are so ridiculous that it reads as some sort of parody, more suited to a Terry Jones Monty Python movie than something that might be called history. At any moment I half-expected to read, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” 1

It is simple to see where Manchester went wrong – however it is astonishing that it was not corrected, at least to some degree. First, as he stated in his introduction, he felt unable to write a book which would entail a great deal of effort following his illness and turned instead to one which would take little effort. And little effort appears to have been expended here. A glance at his bibliography, particularly when combined with his note about his sources, shows this much.

However where the massive, appalling errors of fact arose is from Manchester taking any tale told by the nobility of those dirty, monstrous peasants, and recounting it here for truth, without any analysis of text or the motivation of those authoring these tales. He has done the same for stories told of the Church, or segments thereof, by those denouncing its excesses. I have no doubt that every anecdote told in this book is mentioned somewhere. He recounts the fabliau story of a peasant passing by a spice shop (though in this book it’s a street of perfume shops) and passing out due to the unfamiliar smell and being revived when dung is held under his nose as fact, not as a tale authored by aristocrats and designed to demonize and dehumanize an entire class of people. (57) 2 He believes the Pied Piper of Hamlin to be a thinly veiled story of a pedophile operating (or more likely not since this seems to be a 17th century invention) in the late 15th century, (66) this despite the fact that the Pied Piper story originated in the 14th. And the Church comes across as a center of debauchery (I’ve chose to focus on the peasants here – to list every error would require its own book). 3

This book is amazingly bad. However what is worse is that it has such a wide following. Library Thing has over five million books cataloged – unique works. This book is at 3,132 in popularity, owned by nearly 1300 members. On Amazon the story is worse. There it ranks sixth in sales among books about the Renaissance and 43rd among Medieval books overall. 4

In any case, this book has virtually nothing positive about it. Even the seemingly reasonable discussion of Magellan is more than offset by the errors of the first half of this work. Ultimately, Manchester bought into the most sordid tales told of the peasants by the nobility, or of the Church by those denouncing it. The nobility barely considered medieval peasants to be Human, an attitude Manchester has chosen to project upon all who lived between the time of the Roman Empire, and that of Martin Luther.

Link: Alternatives to Manchester

The above link lists books which contributors have suggested may be appropriate alternatives to Manchester for use in an AP European History Course. Some of these are also good alternatives if you want to learn about Medieval History from a more reliable source. I will add to this list as contributions come in.

VERY LATE EDIT: May 31, 2010. I usually don’t edit posts after they’re a week or so old – if I screwed something up and it survived that long then let it live on in infamy. However Vaulting and Vellum are about to embark on a detailed analysis of Manchester’s sources of information. If you’d like to track their progression through this train wreck of a book (I know I will) you may want to bookmark their blog. I think this will be an extremely informative journey.

EVEN LATER EDIT: July 31, 2010. Since this review continues to receive frequent traffic, I’d like to do more than just criticize but be able to offer alternatives, particularly for high school AP history teachers who may be looking for course materials. Please see this post for additional information.

1 From Cinema Five Distributing. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Gilliam, Terry and Jones, Terry, directors. Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Gilliam and Jones, writers.

2 As told in Thibauld de Champagne’s “Du vilain asnier” from; Levine, Robert, (1985) “Myth and Anti-Myth in La Vie Vaillante De Bertrand du Guesclin” Viator 16, 270.

3 For those who may be newer to the study of Medieval History please see my followup comment to this post for a brief discussion of some of these conflicts and characterizations.

4 For both of these, as of April 1, 2010.


Posted by on April 2, 2010 in Books


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A Difficult, Disagreeable Task

I blame Edward James for this. I’ll get to why in a minute.

I’ve always been a split personality when it comes to the value of entertaining popular histories – film or book – which contain substantial errors of fact. I’ve settled on, “If this book or movie gets more people interested in and reading about the Medieval Period, it’s a good thing. If this is the one thing they ever read/see about it, then it’s not.” Since I’m unaware of anyone ever doing a survey of people who watched Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven or read Tuchman, Weir or Cahill, I don’t know where those books/movies stand on my “net benefit to mankind” scale.

But there’s one book that seems to be above suspicion. Its place on the net benefit scale is secure. That book is William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. I get a lot of questions through various forums (feel like I should write fora here but I guess “forum” has become ingrained enough into US culture that I’ll anglicize it – after all, I just read “sarcophaguses” in a blog post) about good books to read as a starter and spend a fair amount of time telling people that no, William Manchester isn’t a good starting point. From what I hear Manchester is SO off base that you can’t even recommend him to raise interest in the period.

My pet joke when talking about erroneous popular histories has been, “By looking in A Distant Mirror illuminated by A World Lit Only by Fire you can see How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

But I haven’t read it. I’ve read other people’s opinions of it. The book certainly garners a response among Medievalists. I’ve read Jeremy Adams’ review in Speculum, 1 but my criticism is second hand – the old, “I’ve been told that …” or “This is what so-and-so thinks …”. And this is what I communicate to people – but it lacks that, “I’ve read it and this is why it sucks” personal touch. Plus I couldn’t legally testify at a trial in the US.

A few months ago I came across a copy of Manchester in a used bookstore for about $3. I bought it with the idea that I’d force myself to read through it and put together some sort of review of my own. I was figuring I’d read it when my employer sent me to a conference somewhere – I can never get serious reading done in an airport or on a plane anyway (though I can work on a presentation or other task there – go figure). Well, money’s tight and travel funds for a couple I was going to have been withdrawn in favor of salaries – a decision I support.

So there Manchester sat, unread and unloved (or even unhated). I have it in a “special” place on my bookcase so I see it every day. Then I came across this post related to Cahill by Edward James. If someone as accomplished as Dr. James has read something like Cahill, then what the heck is little old me putting Manchester off for? So he shamed me into it – and last night when I woke up with my typical insomnia and needed to read something for a bit before getting back to sleep, instead of grabbing Roger Bagnall’s Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700 which I’d just started, I grabbed Manchester and knocked off 30 pages.

I’m going in. If I don’t come out, I hope someone will come rescue me. ;)

1 Adams, Jeremy DuQuesnay, (1995). Speculum 70, 173-174.

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Posted by on April 1, 2010 in Books


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