Monthly Archives: September 2010

Amateur Tip: A Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve highlighted some of my favorite blogs before. Thought it might be helpful if I did the same for some websites.

On the left of this page, part way down, are some links I consider useful for folks like me without access to some of the academic resources historians have access to. Actually, I have a lot of that access since I work for a University – I just don’t know how to use all of it. In any case, I have over a hundred medieval and ancient sites bookmarked for my use but including all of those on my blog wouldn’t help anyone. The ones I’ve included on my blog page are those leading either to online journals or source material.


If you’re into maps, these sites may be of interest:

  • Euratlas is the map site I visit most frequently. It has dozens of maps of interest ranging from the 4th millennium BC to now. I particularly like the century-by-century progression of Europe myself.
  • The Ancient World Mapping Center goes well beyond providing some free maps (which you may find through a link on the left of the main page). It also includes information and links related to current research into mapping and cartography.
  • The Collaborative Numismatics Page has much, much more than just maps. I’ve linked to the map page here but you’ll want to check out the Numiswiki main page for loads of information, primarily ancient.

Art and Images

One of my very favorite, recently discovered sites is Kornbluth Photography. I probably shouldn’t call this a “discovered” site so much as one I was led by the nose to. Genevra Kornbluth gave a very interesting paper on archaeological finds in 5th-7th century Western Europe at the 2010 International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. She provided her website address there. After looking through it, I was hooked. If you’re into Art History – or, like me, just like looking at very old pretty stuff – she has bushels of images with accompanying descriptions. And if you’re an academic and looking for an image for your current book project, you may find something of use (this is what she does for a living so there will likely be a fee – these images are NOT public domain or for indiscriminate use). I also love the fact that when; in addition to never bathing, indiscriminately killing one another and nobody reading; someone throws the old, “after the fall of Rome nobody did any art” at me, I have a wonderful site to point them to that illustrates that no, this is very, very wrong.

Texts and Source Material

I’ve mentioned before how I like to do my reading. Generally, I read several secondary works covering a topic at the same time. While taking my notes, on a separate sheet of paper I also write down a list of materials I want to find; additional secondary works, journal articles, etc., and; primary and contemporary or near-contemporary source materials. The following sites are those I’ve found very useful when looking for sources:

  • The Medieval Sourcebook is such an astonishingly useful site that I have a hard time describing it. Dozens of sources translated into English, or links to them. Paul Halsall, the author, is a God – at least when it comes to his contribution to access to Medieval resources. Even though he is no longer (I don’t believe) actively maintaining the Sourcebook, it remains a wonderful resource.
  • I’d call Roger Pearse a God too except I know he’d prefer some other term. So I’ll revert to Steve Muhlberger’s characterization of him as a Benefactor of Humanity. The Tertullian Project is his main page (he has others) where the results of his effort to translate public domain source material into English are displayed. If you’re looking for materials on early Christianity, this is a wonderful site.
  • Another excellent source covering the same general area (and one I know Roger has contributed to) is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. This site contains a treasure of source material related to Early Christianity and the Early Church, translated into English. Downloading materials requires a small fee however you may read them online for free.
  • The final site I’m going to point out today is Fordham University’s Bibliography of Medieval Sources Page. When I start looking for source materials, this is one of the first places I look. The bibliography is searchable and easy to use. Generally I only input the medieval author name, the original language, and that I’m looking for materials translated into English. It includes materials available online as well as those that have been translated and published. Obviously, it’s not 100% complete but it’s a great starting point and, if you happen to go there and notice they’re missing something, use their feedback page to help them update the site.

So these are just a few of the sites I consider useful for finding source materials for those without access to a university or comprehensive public library system. This is just the tip of the iceberg and most of my links here are to other collections of sources, or online journals. If you have other sites to add, please either e-mail me or include them in comments on this page.

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Posted by on September 26, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Resources


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How the Bodies Are Buried

There are aspects of the study of the middle ages which I know are important but I don’t know much about – and don’t feel I need to know. I always hold up numismatics and philology as examples. I don’t need to know the details of how those folks go about their work to understand the significance of a coin find or how, exactly, a researcher determines when a change in word usage signifies a major societal shift to understand its significance.

I’ve never fit archaeology into this category. I can sit through a K’zoo session on archaeology and follow the discussion perfectly well, even enough to ask a question if I feel the urge.

When it comes to Late Antique burial patterns and practices, this is not true. I know how researchers go about a dig, roughly. What I don’t have is a clear enough handle on how they reach their conclusions. I had no idea this was a problem until last fall when I read Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. At several points in the book Halsall delineates the argument over whether burial ritual can be taken to indicate the presence of Barbarians settling within the Empire in the 4th century. (153-61) That was an eye-opener, as was his discussion of archaeology and ethnogenesis. (466-68) What was interesting was how Halsall provided a strong, powerful argument in favor of his views – many of which contradict those of Peter Heather, who also presents a strong, powerful argument. From that point it was clear to me that, when I found the time, I would have to dive into the issue of how people were buried in Western Europe from the 4th through 6th centuries, and the significance of the finds. The differences between Halsall and Heather are important and I want to figure out what I think, whether that means I fall into one “camp” or the other, or somewhere else.

So a couple of months ago I picked up several books on the topic and looked for some journal articles. The first book I opened was Bonnie Effros’ Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages. I’m not typically a big fan of books which spend a great deal of time on historiography though it shouldn’t be ignored either. However this topic is very intertwined with 19th and early 20th century research. My comments on this book will be brief – my ignorance regarding the topic will keep it that way. Also, the first 118 pages covered the evolution of studies of burial finds. I’m not going to track that other than to say it was comprehensive and well done, detailing the research done on burial finds from the High Middle Ages to the present and how she believes that many of the conclusions of previous researchers, particularly regarding ethnicity, are unsupportable.

I could almost sum up the final two chapters as Effros saying, “Those grave goods – they likely don’t mean what you think they mean,” in conjunction with, “Be careful about assigning motivation to finds,” particularly when it comes to ethnicity. I think that a couple of examples might be useful..

An example of a conclusion which, on its surface, would appear obvious is that of sexing the occupant of a grave based on the presence of weapons and/or jewelry – gender-linking artifacts. While there is a positive correlation between such artifacts and gender, detailed analysis at some sites, including DNA, has shown that this is far from perfect and frequently women were buried with weapons and men with substantial jewelry and no weapons.

Another example is the case of abnormal burials. In this case the discussion centers around graves where the occupant was buried in an unusual position, such as face down or facing in a direction other than the majority of the graves and, specifically, where the head was separated from the body – or absent altogether. Initially it was proposed that these graves represented an individual who had been executed. Recent investigation has found that in many cases these represent individuals whose remains had been disinterred and removed to another location, that the head had been removed from the body well after death and this was a sign of respect and even reverence, a lay parallel to the movement of relics of a saint.

One area in which she believes some conclusions may be drawn is regarding the relative amount and value of burial goods. She believes that lavish burials are a sign of social competition, that by showing themselves capable of extensive burials, families were engaging in a visible show of their clout – or what they wanted others to believe was their clout. By the later 6th and 7th centuries, less extensive burials indicate an increasingly static social hierarchy, one in which such displays were unnecessary.

There’s a lot of info in this book, many specific characteristics of finds which she discusses. Even so, this is something of an overview where she spends just a few pages on each characteristic. For more detailed information I need to pick up her, Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. This book made a useful starting point but it’s clear that I need to read a lot more on this and I need to start going through journals, such as Medieval Archaeology. I also need more time – 30-hour days anyone?

Books cited:

Effros, Bonnie, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780520-252440.

Effros, Bonnie, Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press (2002). ISBN: 978-0271021966.

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-43543-7.


Posted by on September 25, 2010 in Archaeology, Books


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Ode to a Book Search

Yup – I’m buying again. But this time it was a limited buy. In honor of a rare success in my effort to limit my purchase to my initial goal, I’m going to detail how I spent the last two hours.

First, I’ve already spent my September budget – mostly. Technically I had about $20 left but my to-read stack is massive and there aren’t a lot of books on my wishlist for under that. So I thought my September spending was over – with the possible exception of a one-day Conference September 28 which will bring me in close proximity to a really good used bookstore. Used bookstores are exempt from all purchase requirements, as are buys at conferences because, well, I know when resistance is futile.

To get back to business, this morning I received an e-mail from Barnes & Noble about a 30% off coupon offer for a single book, offer expiring September 21. My mother may have raised some stupid papooses but I ain’t one of ’em – 30% off gets me close to conference discount territory (hence negating my monthly limit). Like that little bit of rationalization? This afternoon after getting home from work, I went for it.

The key to this offer was the single book. My next planned purchase is Libanius – but the combination of the Translated Texts for Historians selection of his work and the Loeb set are counted on a hand – not with a finger.

So I had to set out to find the book. For this I used Library Thing. Logged on, went to my wishlist and selected books tagged Late Antiquity. From there it was book-by-book. Now I didn’t closely examine every book. I probably brought 40 titles up and copied them onto the B & N website. Not all of them made the initial cut. Some were just too expensive – 30% off a $150 book is still beyond what I planned to spend. Others weren’t available at B&N. I like their site and service and buy from them when I can but Amazon has more books.

Once the smoke cleared I had 13 books listed. One was priced at only $21 so it left early – no point using up a discount just to save 6 bucks. Others had weak reviews or, once I checked out their content in some detail, weren’t what I’m looking for right now (no book lost its place on my wishlist). In the end I narrowed the search down to four titles (I’m not properly citing because this is an informal post); The Cambridge edition of Origen’s Contra Celsum, translated by Henry Chadwick; Claudia Rapp’s Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition; Jeremy Schott’s Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity and; Ann Marie Yasin’s Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community.

Out of that list the early leader, based on price, was Yasin. Taking an $80 book into the 50’s? Not bad. And she had received an excellent, not a review actually but comments from Bill Caraher’s Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog. But as I scoped the blog again I decided it looked like it might have an emphasis on the Eastern Empire and I need to hang out in the West for a bit.

That got me to Origen. The Contra Celsus is just plain necessary when discussing the early Church. I have a downloaded version but this is the only way I’ll ever read it. Here I encountered disaster (well, in a very shallow, book-buying-on-the-internet-with-a-coupon sort of way). For whatever reason, this book wasn’t eligible for the discount. I read the terms and still don’t know why.

So that got things to Schott and Rapp. I re-read both reviews and still liked both books. But Rapp seemed a bit broader and did not have as much emphasis on detailed examinations of early Church literature. I like detailed examinations of literature, but today I wanted an examination of the evolution and role of the office of Bishop from the Third through Seventh Centuries.

In the end, I saved about $12, less than I’d anticipated. But I also spent less than I’d anticipated and even stayed pretty close to my September budget. Libanius in October is still part of the plan and the next time I come back from Kalamazoo with 60 books and a busted budget, I’ll have this post to remind me that for one brief, shining moment, I acquainted myself with self-discipline.


Posted by on September 17, 2010 in Books


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Book Review: Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul

Jones, Allen E., Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul: Strategies and Opportunities for the Non-Elite. New York: Cambridge University Press (2009). Pp 379, xi. ISBN: 978-0521762397.

In this book, Allen E. Jones sets out to provide a new perspective on the degree of social fluidity in Merovingian Gaul. He believes that in discussing this region and period, society was not divided into two classes – elite and popular. Individuals could and did move from poor to elite and the strategies used by the lower elite to move higher, and for the non-aristocrats to move into the ranks of the elite, were similar. He presents his argument through a detailed analysis of textual sources, most particularly Gregory of Tours but also by examining others such as Caesarius of Arles. While social movement among elites is presented as a comparison, this book focuses on the poor and the writings of Gregory and others are given a detailed examination to discover evidence of social fluidity among the lower classes of society.

Chapter One, “Introducing Barbarian Gaul,” examines the current perspectives among historians. Jones discusses his belief that several current constructs are in error. He believes that during this period Gaul should not be discussed in terms of Northern and Southern (Frankish and Roman) or Christian and pagan. He believes that Gaul has been largely Christianized by this time, albeit with pagan influences, and he discusses it as such. He provides an overview of what will be his argument against a two-tiered social model by posing the question, “What would become of the ‘two-tiered’ model if one were to discover that important social behaviors and activities among people from Gaul’s various social ranks differed only by a matter of degrees?” (p15) He intends to construct a microcosm through a detailed textual analysis of individuals, a prosopographical approach and, “Ultimately, this study relies upon interpretations of collective biographical data extracted from literary sources.” (p17)

In Chapter Two Jones discusses the sources. The sources themselves – Gregory, Avitus, Caesarius, Venantius Fortunatus, etc. – will be well known to any student of the period. However here Jones sets out the context within which he will use them. For example, he believes that Gregory can be read as a valid source of historical events, but he must be used in context, considering Gregory’s objectives and prejudices. This is an extremely valuable, well constructed section of the book and is vital to the remainder.

Chapters Three and Four titled, respectively, “Social Structure I: Hierarchy, Mobility and Aristocracies” and “Social Structure II: Free and Servile Ranks” proceed to examine the biographical data for evidence of social mobility. Jones uses examples from sources to discuss methods of “social climbing” which various individuals used. Examples of these methods include; marriage and the acquisition of land through marriage; taking advantage of one’s literacy; patronage and service; visions and acts of healing; conspicuous acts of public service such as building a church and; military service. Jones details why he believes elites of this period should be discussed as aristocrats, but not as members of an aristocracy or aristocratic class and discusses how the Merovingian royalty worked to avoid the development of a definable, entrenched aristocratic class. Numerous examples are provided detailing how individuals achieved social advancement. These examples encompass both the elite and non-elite and he compares and contrasts methods used by these two groups to show how the strategies were similar, whether for a lower level aristocrat becoming a Count or Bishop, or for a slave advancing to the priesthood. It is important to note that Jones stresses that the divide between an aristocrat and a wealthy freeman was generally less than that between a wealthy freeman and a slave.

Chapters Five and Six discuss two classes of the poor; prisoners and pauperes associated with a church. Jones describes how each of these groups might achieve social advancement. For prisoners he spends significant time detailing their role in what he terms “The Ritual of Miraculous Release.” This ritual was used by ecclesiastics to promote or develop the cult of a saint. One aspect of this included a prisoner or prisoners being miraculously released from their prison or bonds when visited by a dream or vision of a saint, or when a procession honoring a saint or carrying relics passed nearby. For pauperes similar, miraculous occurrences are found in the sources. A role of a Church paupere might include, beyond providing a visible example of the local church’s beneficence, guarding the poor box or the church itself. Sources detail how thieves were found “miraculously” unconscious in the act of thievery or how the local saint physically repelled the intruder. Jones believes that both of these cases – the miraculous freeing of prisoners and the repelling of invaders – involved ecclesiastics arranging or explaining the event to promote the local saint. In the first case, the freeing of prisoners was likely arranged with secular approval and in the second, defense of a church by pauperes was explained as a miraculous intervention. In each case, the prisoners and pauperes found opportunities for advancement. A freed prisoner might become identified with the saint and church while pauperes often were rewarded for their service.

The final two chapters of the book discuss Merovingian healers. Chapter Seven examines physicians while Chapter Eight covers sorcerers and enchanters. Jones discusses how through providing a service to Gallic society members of both groups found opportunities for advancement. In examining the sources he finds that physicians were generally well-respected and that, while Gregory might advocate that healing from St. Martin was more effective than that received from a doctor, he retains a high opinion of physicians and considers them to be a valuable part of society. Enchanters, faith healers, etc., receive different treatment from the sources. While Gregory denounces them, here Caesarius provides the most specific argument; that their power comes from the Devil and that he will happily heal the bodies of the sick, so long as he kills their soul. Nonetheless, Jones provides evidence of how enchanters and faith healers are able to advance and are viewed by the community as providing an essential service.

This is an important book. Jones provides clear, abundant evidence in support of his model of social fluidity. His arguments are well structured, well written, and easily understood. The book is surprisingly readable for one which takes such a close look at textual evidence. While he does not take on other interpretations head-on, he does seek to refute some previous work, particularly Valerie Flint’s belief that paganism continued to be a potent force in Merovingian Gaul. 1 Jones believes that pagan influences may be seen, however Gaul at this time was largely Christianized.

If there is one criticism I have, it is that Jones virtually ignores archaeological evidence. Granted, his is a book about textual evidence, however archaeological evidence has been used to argue that Gallic social structures were becoming more hierarchical and entrenched at this very time. Jones chose to provide his argument without attempting to refute these opinions. I think the book would have been even stronger had he chosen to do so. 2

Nevertheless, this is an excellent book. The evidence provided is considerable, the textual sources are examined in detail and Jones’ argument is clear, well-reasoned and powerful. Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul is a book which should significantly influence studies of Merovingian Gaul for years to come.

1As discussed in Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, Princeton, Princeton University Press (1991). This book happens to be the first I ever wrote a review for, nearly ten years ago which you can find on Amazon. Not my best but we all have to start somewhere.

2See Bonnie Effros, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Middle Ages, Los Angeles: University of California Press (2002), pp 9, 130. She believes the reduction in the number of lavish burials in row grave cemeteries during the Sixth and Seventh Centuries points to an increasingly entrenched aristocracy which made ritual expression of status less important. To be fair, this process appears to have begun in the Sixth Century and accelerated in the Seventh, beyond the period covered by Jones.


Posted by on September 12, 2010 in Books


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