Lies, Damn Lies, and Fanfiction

There’s a kind of source-critical fallacy that gets used a fair bit.  In its most boiled-down form, it goes something like this: “The author of Text X wouldn’t have been able to get away with saying ‘Y’ if it weren’t true, because its audience would have known they were lying!” This is, no two ways about it, wrong. I don’t think this is particularly controversial, but today I want to talk about a particular text I’ve found illustrating that this is wrong, because it does so in a particularly interesting way that reveals an intriguing aspect of both the writing and reception of medieval texts.

There are, of course, bad-faith efforts to propagate untrue stories. Political propaganda is an obvious reason (and Dudo of Saint-Quentin naturally springs to mind as a purveyor of alternative facts that anyone in the audience would have known were incorrect even if emotionally satisfying), as is forgery over legal disputes. There’s actually a whole literature on medieval forgery I’m not going to go into here, because I want to go in a different direction. Here’s a charter:

ARTEM no. 2077 (probably c. 1100)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, amen.

I, Odo [II, r. 995-1037], count palatine of the Franks, and my wife Ermengard, wish to make it known to both the present and the future that we, making use of sound advice and reinforced by the salubrious example of good men, beholding that the things which are of the present world never endure in the same state and setting our eyes on the things which are to come, to wit, which are unchangeable and eternal, for the redemption of our souls and the salvation of our successors, give a part of our goods pertaining to Château-Thierry, that is, the redecimation of grain and wine and other crops, to the canons of the holy mother of God Mary and St Seneric in the same place, to increase their provisions, to be possessed in perpetual right. But that this gift might stand more firmly and never be shattered by anyone, those who were present at this our gift confirmed what we had done with their assent and presence, and damned anyone who invades or perverts this deed, whosoever they may be, with a perpetual anathema; they were: Seguin, archbishop of Sens [r. 977-999] and Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims [r. 845-882], Fulbert, bishop of Chartres [r. 1006-1028], who all came to my court.

The witnesses to this matter are: the aforesaid archbishops and Bishop Fulbert; Thierry, dean of the church; Prior Haimeric, Cantor Erlebald, Saxwalo, my seneschal; Isembard, later count [of Rosnay, fl. 1030s], Viscount Odo, Hezelin the knight, Walcher of Le Boschet and Wibald the Rich and Hagano of Meaux.

Also I, Bishop Berald of Soissons [r. c. 1020-1052] praised and confirmed under an anathema those things written above.

I, Pope Alexander II [r. 1063-1071], at the petition of the glorious Count Odo, praise this same and confirm it with my seal, and by the authority of St Peter and Paul and Ourself, henceforth forbid anyone from presuming to steal the goods of the same church.

Notre-Dame de Château-Thierry is so obscure I can’t find a photo of it, so here’s the actual castle (source)

So, as you can see from the dates of the people in this charter, the problem here is obvious: none of them lived at the same time as one another. Moreover, if you know enough about Church history to be impressed by this assemblage, you would also have known that. Whatever this author is trying to do, therefore, is saying ‘Y’ safe in the knowledge that anyone who understands the text knows ‘Y’ is untrue. Their aim, clearly, is not to convince anyone that this is factually accurate.

Instead, this is fanfiction. Very high-brow, ecclesiastical, fanfiction; but fanfiction nonetheless. In fact, it’s specifically wish-fulfilment self-insert fanfiction, with the entire community of Notre-Dame de Château-Thierry as the Mary Sue. Fanfiction Studies has some overlap the world of medieval scholarship – I’ve read a reasonable case to see Dante’s Divine Comedy as self-insert fanfic – but (perhaps unsurprisingly?) it hasn’t had much to do with diplomatic. Moreover, I’m clearly not the right person to do a full deep-dive into this, although I’d really like it if someone else did. Moreover, what the bit of literature I’ve poked around in dealing with ‘Mary Sues’ tends to do is reinterpret the character archetype as expressing the resistance of oppressed groups such as women and queer people; this resistance evidently does not have a one-to-one correspondance with the interests of a twelfth-century male monastic community.

Still, there’s some overlap between the purposes of self-insert fanfic and this charter. We tend to think of charters as being aimed at outside audiences, but recent work has emphasised the importance of forgeries for the internal identity of institutions. It’s this context which we’re dealing with here, I think. Bonnstetter and Ott have argued (in a piece whose writing style is quite annoying but which is nonetheless useful to think with) that to write self-insert characters is to create a space where one’s self ‘is accepted and acknowledged, celebrated and loved, not by strangers but by people (media characters [or in this case famous Churchmen]) [one] respects and values’. (In the article, this is framed in terms of resistance to sexist societal expectations regarding female appearance. This, again, doesn’t apply to twelfth-century canons; but the wider point works.)

The fanfic analogy, moreover, explains why this is done in a fictional context. After all, the point of forgeries is generally to be plausible and this is self-evidently not. Yet in modern times, people find personal validation from gaining the approval of people who aren’t real. There’s no reason that people in the Middle Ages couldn’t have felt the same way. We don’t know much about Notre-Dame de Château-Thierry, not enough to work out what pressures were acting upon it around 1100, but the general outline is clear enough. Even if Hincmar of Rheims and Alexander II could never have met in real life, let alone have validated the abbey, the community’s identity could nonetheless be strengthened and expressed by the story that, once upon a dream, they did.     


Fantasy Writing and the Early Middle Ages

A long legacy of fantasy, as Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir in this twelfth-century carving from Hylestad Stave Church.

Places and people from the past become inextricably linked to particular genres of writing in the present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story set in Regency England will be in want of a costume romance. The spectre of the Gothic looms over any tale located in Transylvania before the twentieth century. And any fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1940s is going to let you know they’re trouble when they walk into your office with legs that go all the way down to the ground. In the case of the Early Middle Ages, that genre is fantasy. The association stretches back to the Middle Ages themselves. Well before Tolkien began crafting a world for his languages, jongleurs carried songs of Arthur, Attila and Charlemagne through the courts of Europe, while farmers and merchants in Iceland passed long lightless winters listening to sagas about years gone by. That the writer who did more than anyone else to codify modern fantasy was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies with a special interest in Beowulf certainly didn’t hurt either.

The bibliography on the influence of the early medieval world on Tolkien’s fantasy writing is enormous and I have no intention of attempting to add to it. But as a professional specialising in the Early Middle Ages with a deep fondness for fantasy as a genre, it struck me that it might be interesting to think about the ways in which fantasy writers since Tolkien have engaged with the period in their writing. In doing so, I’d like to consider what it is about the early medieval world that they find useful and interesting, what that says about popular perceptions of the period, and what ideas, if any, historians can take from them. My method in selecting examples is highly scientific – I raided the contents of my book shelves and my kindle in no particular order. For this reason, it is by no means exhaustive, being anglophone, with a heavy emphasis on the 2000s (aka my teenage years when I had pocket money and a lot of free time) and reflective of my (very) peculiar tastes. Nonetheless, upon reflection I think certain trends emerge which are potentially revealing.

Filing the Serial Numbers Off: Guy Gavriel Kay

Few fantasy writers have made the inspiration they drew from the Early Middle Ages more obvious than Guy Gavriel Kay, whose literary career began when he worked as Christopher Tolkien’s assistant in editing his father’s unpublished works. The majority of Kay’s books are set in fictionalised versions of real-world settings, many of which are from the early medieval period. These include The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998, 2000, based on Byzantium in the age of Justinian), The Last Light of the Sun (2004, Alfred the Great and the Vikings), and, my personal favourites, The Lions of al-Rassan (1995, eleventh-century Spain) and Under Heaven (2010, eighth-century China).

Although Kay clearly does considerable research for each book, the setting is ultimately there to serve the story and he very reasonably compresses timelines and characters for narrative economy. The early medieval world provides Kay with epic backdrops, settings filled with colour and scale, and dramatic events kickstarting the conflicts that drive the plot. Generally the broad sweep of the history remains the same, with the big exception being The Sarantine Mosaic which throws a couple of fairly large counterfactuals into the mix. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Kay’s use of the Early Middle Ages, and one of my favourite things about his books in general, is how beautiful his settings are. As we shall see, when the early medieval period is used to provide a fantasy background, it’s normally for a rather grim state of affairs. Kay’s early medieval worlds are culturally rich, filled with art and poetry and song. Despite widespread prejudice, they are also spaces where people of different faiths and races can meet and try to understand each other. Unlike many other works that draw on the period, the tragedy in Kay’s stories is not that the Early Middle Ages are here, but that they are going and with them their beauty and their tolerance. His best writing evokes these fragile middle grounds, creating quiet moments of grace that take place just before the wrecking storm. These spaces are doomed, but that makes them all the more precious. Kay’s ability to see the wonder in the Early Middle Ages helps explain his popularity among medievalists more generally, and is the reason The Lions of al-Rassan is a book I return to every year.

Widukind and Friends: Kate Elliott

As we shall see throughout this post, some early medieval settings are more attractive than others. Arthur and the end of Roman Britain will always attract a crowd. Similarly, anything with Vikings in it does well, particularly when we throw in the compulsory trip to Constantinople. Fantasy depictions of tenth-century Germany on the other hand are rather more unusual. Hesitant though I am to say it, I fear that the Ottonians lack the raw sex appeal of other inhabitants of the Early Middle Ages (Saxon-appeal on the other hand…). Fantasy books that cite Widukind are rare birds indeed.

Rare, but not unheard of thanks to Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series (1997-2006), which is set in an unusually convincing fantasy world based on Ottonian Germany. Fantasy it most certainly is, being stuffed full with magic, monsters, rock-creatures for Vikings, and interdimensional elves which come in Roman and Aztec flavours. These elements are grounded by a thoroughly researched human society based on tenth-century itinerant kingship. (It probably helps that the author’s sister is a professor specialising in medieval German literature.) Elliott adds weight and believability to her world through her close attention to material culture and day to day logistics. A hundred warriors are a considerable army in this setting, and one that needs to be fed. Elliott is skilled enough that such realities add to the plot rather than slowing it down. Even the magic acquires a certain verisimilitude from her use of early medieval scholarship (and a healthy dose of Macrobius).

Perhaps my favourite element is the handling of religion. Modern fantasy writers tend to struggle with the role of religion in their early medieval analogues, if they don’t drop it altogether, often reverting to faith as a cynical con perpetrated by a corrupt church. Crown of Stars certainly features plenty of ecclesiastical shenanigans. But Elliott constructs an interesting religious world based on the teachings of Bardaisan of Edessa, where faith imbues every part of society. Although all the characters have different relationships to it, religion matters practically, spiritually and culturally for our protagonists. The result is a vivid depiction of an early medieval world.

Stories of Arthur: Philip Reeve

In discussing the Early Middle Ages as an inspiration for fantasy writing, Arthur is the 1000-pound bear in the room. There is no possible way anyone can briefly summarise the influence of Camelot and company. Generally, when people write stories about Arthur, they follow one of two routes. Either they embrace the weirdness of the medieval source material with plenty of magic and very little attention to historical context, or they go full ‘Dark Age Arthur’, cutting the mythology out in favour of a gritty allegedly realistic setting. As a rule, I tend to prefer the first approach (which is how you get the superb The Green Knight film from 2021) to the second (which is how you get a horribly miscast and inexplicably Pelagian Clive Owen fighting the Saxons on Hadrian’s Wall). But because this post is about using the early medieval past for fantasy narratives, the latter strand is more directly relevant for us today.

In these sorts of stories, the early medieval past is used to strip out Arthurian weirdness and replace it with something more grounded. Done straight, ‘Dark Age Arthur’ can be very good indeed, with Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (1995-1997) being a fine example. But something about the contempt with which a lot of these narratives cannibalise the mythology rubs me the wrong way. For this reason, the book I’d like to mention in this section is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007). Despite being written for a YA audience, Reeve’s Arthurian world is a dark place indeed. His Arthur is one armed thug with a retinue among many fighting over the carcass of western Britain, distinguished only by his violence and by his patronage of Myrddin. The latter, who is a bard, wizard and spin-doctor extraordinaire, is determined to unite Britain against the Saxons by turning Arthur into a heroic legend. Our main character, Gwyna, becomes Myrddin’s assistant in this endeavour.

Reeve has a lot of fun with Myrddin’s cunning schemes, as he stage-manages a number of familiar literary episodes. But what I particularly like about this book is his willingness to embrace some of the weirder elements of Arthuriana and medieval culture. His handling of gender and sexuality in the Early Middle Ages is particularly bold for 2007 and serves as a nice nod to the complexity that medieval gender studies have been revealing for decades. Reeve’s Age of Arthur is a fluid world, defined by the stories that people tell, and all the more fascinating for it.

In the Far Future there is only the Dark Ages: Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie

One recent trend in fantasy writing is to use the Early Middle Ages as the blueprint for a postapocalyptic world. This is something employed by Mark Lawrence in his The Broken Empire trilogy (2011-2013, followed by The Red Queen’s War, 2014-2016 set in the same world) and by Joe Abercrombie in his Shattered Sea trilogy (2014-2015). Both feature elite young male protagonists relying upon their intelligence and ruthlessness to survive and thrive in a Hobbesian war against all. Both are also incredibly dark narratives, in which our main characters do appalling things. Because of these parallels, I’m talking about them together.

Much of the action in The Broken Empire takes place in a setting that draws heavily on traditional views of France in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our teenage protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, reads like a cross between Fulk Nerra and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We encounter him leading a merry band of droogs on a brutal rampage across a war-torn northern France. The Shattered Sea treads slightly more familiar ground, set in a postapocalyptic Baltic with a strong Viking flavour (our protagonists even travel to Miklagard in the second book). Born into a royal family with a crippled hand, Yarvi was meant to enter the church but unexpectedly becomes a king. Betrayed and sold as a slave, Yarvi seeks his revenge, giving the plot a pleasing hint of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The first thing that raises eyebrows is of course the idea that the Early Middle Ages is what naturally happens when civilisation collapses. I’ve talked about my problems with the idea of the Dark Ages before. This sort of thing undermines our ability to see the period on its own terms, and understand both its beauty and the unique factors that shaped it. There is nothing natural about the Middle Ages, and treating it as a short hand for the state of nature short-changes it. That said, Lawrence and Abercrombie do make good use of the concept. The visual image of a dark age warlord hunkered down in a fortified office block rereading his treasured copy of Plutarch, or of a band of Vikings exploring the irradiated ruins of modern Stockholm, is a striking one, which adds to the atmosphere of the narrative. I particularly like the way radiation and other postapocalyptic standbys are interpreted via medieval stories of magic and the Monstrous Races, giving a fresh feel to both sets of concepts.

I think as a medieval historian I should probably object to the depiction of the Early Middle Ages as a period of constant warfare characterised by political instability and treachery. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I can. I think it’s safe to say that both Lawrence and Abercrombie struggle with the role of faith and ideology in politics. The idea that people might actually believe in things beyond survival, self-advancement and loyalty to one’s intimates doesn’t really make much of an appearance. That said, I can’t think of many successful well-sourced early medieval rulers who didn’t have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Frankly, the Early Middle Ages could be extremely violent and unstable, although not all the time or at a constant level, and not mindlessly.

Both The Broken Empire and the Shattered Sea take a stab at thinking about how people’s environments and the structure of their societies turn them into bloodstained villains. Where I think they differ is on what they lead into. Lawrence hints that the game can be won, that a Leviathan can emerge to create peace, but that it may require a monster to do so. (Whether a good person can break the wheel is a question he ducks in one of the more disappointing moments in the series). Abercrombie is more sceptical, viewing these events as an escalating cycle, in which efforts to create order through violence lead to more chaos as acts of cruelty beget further cruelty. Trying to read too coherent a philosophy of politics and history into books that are meant to be entertaining may be missing the point. Ultimately both series succeed at their basic ambition of being enjoyable reads if your taste runs to dark fantasy.

Magic and the Waning of the Early Middle Ages: Naomi Mitchison

Travel Light (1952) is probably the weirdest book I want to talk about today. It’s certainly the shortest, clocking in at 135 pages in my copy. Into that relatively brief length, Mitchison crams a huge amount. The book begins as a fairytale for children, a charming and funny story about how a girl named Halla is raised by bears and dragons in the wilds of Scandinavia, with strong nods to Norse mythology. The tone very quickly acquires a tragic air, eventually becoming a surprisingly dark political thriller in which Halla must navigate literally Byzantine court intrigue in Miklagard. But this is merely the second act, leaving a final act that is sad, ambiguous and hauntingly beautiful.

Naomi Mitchison refuses to make things easy for us as the reader. Every time we think we know what genre of story we’re reading and what kind of endgame we’re leading towards, she upends our expectations. Even as she changes, Halla ultimately chooses to remain free and authentic to herself, even when those choices impose costs upon her. Having experienced human civilisation, she sides with the world of magic and dragons, even when its clear both that that world is doomed, and that her own humanity makes it impossible for her ever to truly be a part of it. Halla walks her own path, and not even the Allfather, or the love of her life, can stop her.

In terms of its depiction of the early medieval world, what I find interesting about Travel Light is that it shows the onset of the Early Middle Ages as a tragedy not because it represents an anarchic breakdown of order, but because it is too civilised. The colonisation of the wildernesses of the north marks the end of freedom and magic. Whether it is the corrupt inequality of Byzantium, or the patriarchal brutality of the Russias, the world of men (and it is very much men) does not come across well in this story. Throughout the narrative there are nods to an ancient world were humans were more in touch with nature and power came through personal sacrifice rather than through coercion and violence.

Mitchison also walks the line between medieval literature and history in a way unusual in more recent fantasy. The former provides the basis for the disappearing older world of magic. We’re invited to sympathise with the likes of the Grendels (family friends of Halla) and with Fafnir. In this she resembles Tolkien with whom Mitchison had a long correspondence (she also proofread The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The result is a story that brings back some of the alienness of the Middle Ages, which I very much enjoyed.

Concluding Thoughts

A lot of fantasy writing that draws inspiration from the Early Middle Ages leans hard on the image of the period as a Dark Age. If you want to tell a story about a poor, violent world, with low levels of technology and stability and high levels of mud, popular perceptions of the early medieval period will give you plenty to work with. Further, the idea of the early medieval world as postlapsarian place, a world in decline in the dying afterglow of Rome, allows for some really compelling stories, which you can also apply to postapocalyptic settings. I don’t really have a problem with this, so long as the stories that we get are entertaining, but it’s worth noting that it reflects a particular interpretation.

It’s also not the only way that you can depict the period. It’s possible to give a much more positive interpretation, as in the case of Guy Gavriel Kay. Other writers, such as Kate Elliott, lean much harder into the primary sources, using her understanding of the Early Middle Ages to ground more fantastical elements. One interesting trend is a move away from medieval literature to history. While they knew a huge amount about history, I suspect that the formative encounter for older writers like Tolkien and Mitchison was with Old English and Norse literature, and that shapes the feel and texture of their writings. By contrast, my sense is that more recent fantasy writing draws much more upon history, which informs their plots and settings but perhaps not the actual language they employ, resulting in books that feel much more modern and less alien. (Kay may be a transitional figure, still active today, but imbued in the older tradition).

As I mentioned above, this is a very brief survey of a somewhat random selection of books. It is by no means exhaustive. I should also say that for all my occasional criticisms, this is a genre I genuinely like. I am already compiling a list of promising sounding authors for the next moment I have some time to read for pleasure (summer of 2057 is going to be amazing). At the moment I have Saladin Ahmed, Poul Anderson and Katherine Kurtz on my radar, but I’d invite readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Translating Latin Texts: Le mot juste

Recently, I was doing some peer review on a translation. I thought it was a good translation, and recommended it be published with only a few tweaks, but it was one of several things I’ve seen recently that raised a question which might be interesting to discuss. We do a lot of translation on this website, and if you’ve read them you’ll know that we tend to render every word in English. The translation I was reviewing, and it’s not the only one I’ve seen, kept several words in Latin. I’ll say up front that there’s a case for either approach and I don’t think either is objectively worse, depending on your perspective and goals; but it may be worth writing down why I go for the former option.

First, let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. Here’s a passage from the Bachrach and Fanning translation of Flodoard of Rheims’ Annals (chosen because it’s the easiest example of this in print for me to get – as I write this, which is several weeks before it will go up, I’m in isolation with COVID so my resources are a bit more limited than they otherwise would be):

…King Louis gave the castrum of Amiens to Erluinus. Heribert’s sons took the munitio of Clastres, in the pagus of Vermandois, due to the treachery of Raoul, one of King Louis’s fideles. This Raoul secretly slipped out of the stronghold when Heribert’s sons entered it and plundered the treasures before abandoning the deserted municipium.

B.S. Bachrach & S. Fanning (trans), The Annals of Flodoard of Rheims (Toronto: 2011), p. 39.

As you can see, in these two sentences, five words are untranslated: castrum, munitio, pagus, fideles and municipium. Were I translating the same passage, I would have rendered them as ‘citadel’, ‘fortress’, ‘district’, ‘followers’ and ‘fortress’ again. So what arguments could justify either approach?

I wish my translation work was this well remunerated… (source)

The main argument for leaving some words in Latin is that the word is ‘untranslatable’. In some cases, English can’t convey any of the nuance. Take Vergil’s Aenid, which repeatedly refers to its main character as pius Aeneas. That seems like it should be ‘pious Aeneas’, but a Classically-trained friend of mine once spent a good fifteen minutes explaining to me that this is a very flat translation: pius doesn’t mean that Aeneas is religious, necessarily (although it does include that meaning with its ambit) but that he is dutifully loyal in appropriate ways, especially towards his family. In other cases, English can’t convey wordplay or puns. Gregory the Great’s famous pun that beautiful English slave-boys looked like non Angli sed angeli (‘not Angles but angels’) does work in English, but his follow-up puns don’t – they were from the kingdom of Deira (modern Yorkshire), and Gregory responded bene Deiri, de ira eruti (‘Deira is a good name for it – they will be snatched from God’s wrath’). Or – my favourite – the description of Dominicans as domini canes, ‘the dogs of the Lord’, which also doesn’t really work in English (‘Dominicanines’?). Finally, there are technical terms which some translators deem more appropriate to keep in Latin, in much the same way that people who work on eighteenth-century France tend to keep the French word gabelle rather than putting it into English as ‘salt-tax’. I see these most often in the case of titles (dux is probably the most significant, but marchio also gets this treatment) and fortifications (some well-known medievalists have argued that the endless different Latin words for ‘fortified place’ – arx, castrum, oppidium – and so on all have different technical meanings and so leave them untranslated). I personally find this last point the least sympathetic, not least because at least a few of the arguments that X or Y is a technical term are tendentious and not translating them smells too much of stacking the deck. That is, by leaving these terms untranslated, an artificial sense of a coherent technical terminology is created which might be as if not more misleading than just putting the word in English. Nonetheless, there are certainly ambiguities. Dux is a case in point: I don’t think anyone would object too strenuously to translating dux Normannorum applied to the Viking leader Ragnar in 845 (as indeed it is) as something like ‘Viking chief’ or ‘Scandinavian warlord’; or to translating the same phrase applied to William the Conqueror as ‘duke of Normandy’ in 1066 – but what about when applied to Richard the Fearless c. 970?

All these points are valid, but to leave words untranslated because of them seems to me like an abdication of responsibility. This is a personal point of view – another person may very well see it as due caution – but let me try and explain. To start with, I don’t think translation is the process of transparently rendering a Latin text into an English one; it is (in an academic context, at least) a work of mediation and explanation, a tool to help with understanding the original version. This is so far from being a controversial opinion that it might be almost a commonplace – to go back to the example from Flodoard at the top of this post, the word ‘stronghold’ in the translation isn’t in the Latin but has been added by the translators, making the structure of the sentence smoother in English but also providing a gloss on munitio and municipium – but I think an approach which says that some words are translatable and others aren’t runs the risk of implying it. To take the Bachrach/Fanning translation as an example again, they choose to leave dux in the Latin but render comes as ‘count’, which implies that a comes is straightforwardly comprehensible to English speakers in a way that a dux isn’t – and I am on record on this very blog as not thinking that’s true.

What that means is that not translating Latin words hamstrings a translation’s value as a tool to aid understanding. An important part of translating a text is deciding what the words mean, and refusing to do that in (say) 3% of cases means that the translation is only 97% useful as a tool. It certainly means you as a translator have to make interpretative judgements; but the whole translation is an interpretative judgement, making refusal in particular cases somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes, choosing one rendition of a word or phrase is tricky – but this is exactly the sort of thing that scholarly apparatus exists to discuss: nuance, wordplay and technicalities find their home in footnotes. This does mean that translations are not very useful for doing detailed linguistic analysis of sources. On the other hand, that’s not their job: a translation isn’t a source, it’s a translation of a source, and anything which rests on particularities of the language needs to be related back to the original text. For this reason, I think my comments apply even to translations aimed at an audience of academics, who might have more grounding in the source languages than interested non-academics – anyone who is going to be doing serious research based on an historical text will need to have a copy of the original to hand anyway if the language matters, because by their nature translations are useful but not dependable for this: trust, but verify, as the saying goes.

As I’ve said several times, I think leaving words untranslated is a legitimate choice, and I don’t find it reprehensible or unjustifiable. However, I do think that translating all the words, even the difficult ones, is more helpful, and that’s why I do it.

(Oh, and it almost goes without saying that calling this a post about ‘translation philosophy’ is a little pretentious – there is a large literature which is actually about translation philosophy, to which my only exposure is a couple of comments at the front of Penguin Classics. Consequently, these are only the little musings of a rough-and-ready practitioner and may seem rather naive to anyone who’s actually well-versed in these ideas!) 

All’s Fair in Love and Holy War: A Response to My Critic

One of the things that makes being an academic often seem slightly unreal is that you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re screaming into the void. You craft articles by conducting the research, honing the argument in conference papers, writing and re-writing variations of the same words over again until by some curious alchemy they are transmuted into something resembling coherence, before scurrying off to the library to get the last footnote just right. You benefit from/endure the advice of anonymous peer reviewers. You edit, and edit some more, and question your intelligence and sanity when at the very last minute you spot a ghastly spelling mistake that somehow escaped the ministrations of the past half year or more of work. At last, you finally place it into the journal’s online submission system, and away into the aether it goes. And then, if you’re anything like me, in the quiet moments in the middle of the night, you ask yourself whether there was in fact any point to the exercise, whether any of that work will make any difference, and if anyone, anywhere, will ever read your labour of love.

This is why my first emotional reaction to reading a chapter criticising my work was joy. In this piece, ‘Holy wars’? ‘Religious wars’?: The perception of religious motives of warfare against non-Christian enemies in ninth-century chronicles’, in the recent volume Early Medieval Militarisation[1], Professor Hans-Werner Goetz spends a couple of pages (pp. 214-216) discussing an article of mine (‘“Those same cursed Saracens”: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare’, Journal of Medieval History 42 (2016), pp. 405-428). I think it’s fair to say that he’s not a fan of it. Nonetheless, the excitement of opening the volume, seeing my name in print and realising that someone somewhere had read my work and thought it worth their time demolishing it was very real.

My attention was drawn to this chapter for a couple of reasons. These begin with the fact that Hans-Werner Goetz is a major scholar whose work on medieval frontiers and perceptions of other religions I have greatly benefited from. But also, this isn’t the first time that my article has attracted the attention of Professor Goetz in print, having featured previously in his ‘Glaubenskriege? Die Kriege der Christen gegen Andersgläubige in der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Wahrnehmung’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 59 (2019), 67-114, specifically at pp. 99-102. Given this, I thought it might be useful for me to take some time to respond to Goetz’ concerns, not least because he raises some interesting questions about the relationship between war and religion in the early medieval period.

The argument in my original article, which you can read in full here, runs as follows:

1. Charlemagne’s wars in the Iberian Peninsula, which include both the disastrous invasion of 778 and the campaigns conducted by his son Louis the Pious as king of Aquitaine in the 790s and 800s, are normally understood as secular affairs, opportunistic wars of expansion. This is because the most important primary sources, particularly the Royal Frankish Annals, don’t depict them as religious conflicts.

2. This is quite striking when compared to wars against other non-Christian neighbours such as the Saxons, where Charlemagne deliberately targeted sites of worship such as the Irminsul and forced the population to convert to Christianity at the point of a sword, imposing multiple laws defining what it meant to be a Christian.

3. However, by looking at a wider range of sources that relate to Carolingian warfare in the Iberian Peninsula in this period, we can see a more complicated picture, where defending and even expanding the Christian faith are key motives for these campaigns. These sources are:

  • a. The Continuations of the Chronicle of Fredegar, compiled during the reign of Charlemagne’s father, which celebrate his ancestors in their wars against Muslims.
  • b. A letter of Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne discussing the 778 expedition.
  • c. The liturgies of war contained within the Sacramentaries of Gellone, Angoulême and Arles.
  • d. Charters from Charlemagne, granting land to the Hispani on the Spanish March in about 780 and 801.
  • e. A letter of Alcuin from around 790 concerning Charlemagne’s expansion of the Christian world, including in the Iberian Peninsula.
  • f.  A poem by Theodulf from 796 calling upon Charlemagne to bring the Arabs to Christ.
  • g. A letter from Charlemagne to Bishop Elipandus of Toledo from around 794, saying that he had sought to liberate the Christians of al-Andalus from Saracen rule.
  • h. Ermold the Black’s praise poem of Louis the Pious (written 824-6), which has Louis declare that if the defenders of Barcelona in 801 were Christian, there would be no need for him to go to war against them.

While individually each would be a thin reed to base an entire argument, in accumulation they become increasingly convincing.

4. Based on these perspectives from within and without the court, Frankish wars in al-Andalus in the reign of Charlemagne can be characterised as holy wars, because they were presented as wars to protect and expand the Christian church in Francia and in the Iberian Peninsula. This does not mean those were the only motivations for those conflicts, but they were a major one, and the dominant explanation provided in contemporary or near contemporary sources.

5. I speculate that the reason the annals avoid much of this religious language is that with the exception of the capture of Barcelona in 801, the majority of the campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula did not go particularly well. While this was never desirable, it was particularly embarrassing if you had previously raised the stakes by making it a war of faith. Therefore, annalists linked to the court played down the religious fervour that surrounded the expeditions.

As mentioned above, Hans-Werner Goetz has disagreed with this article in two separate publications. Both resemble each other closely, often sentence-by-sentence and footnote-by-footnote, so unless specified I’m going to treat them as the same text. His broad argument is that the category of ‘holy war’ is not a meaningful one in the early medieval world, because all of culture and society was so imbued with religion that there was no other type of war. All conflicts were justified and legitimised by the faith so the idea of a war of religion is a modern anachronism. This is an idea I find extremely interesting and which I want to discuss later.

However, Professor Goetz has also disagreed with my article on more specific grounds and, with your indulgence reader, I would address them first, if only because anyone who read his pieces would fairly walk away under the impression that I am a poor scholar indeed. But let’s start with places where we both agree. Goetz begins by saying that my work ‘still pre-assumes (setzt voraus) that Charlemagne’s wars were religiously motivated’. Basing my work on assumptions would indeed be unfortunate. However, prior scholarship for several decades tended to assume the opposite, and it was this prior scholarship which the case that I made was responding to. The professor also notes that ‘the fact that the Saracens are recognised and judged as non-Christians’ is not proof that wars against them were holy wars. I agree! My argument was that the apparently ‘secular’ ethnic labels often used in the sources such as ‘Saracen’ or ‘Agarene’, were in fact imbued with Biblical significance, implying that they were non-Christian and antithetical to Christianity; but this was not meant to be evidence for holy war, but rather against standard arguments that the language of the annals is secular on the matter. In the longer German treatment, Goetz argues that we cannot use the religious motivations that the biography of Louis the Pious written by the anonymous author known as ‘the Astronomer’ attributes to Louis for his campaigns against al-Andalus, because they are too late. I agree and did not use it in my article for precisely that reason.

Turning to the pieces of evidence underpinning my argument listed under point 3 above, Goetz only mentions b, c, d and g; and I will deal with these in order. With regards to Hadrian’s letter to Charlemagne on the eve of the campaign of 778 (b), he argues that the Pope’s language comparing the Saracens to Pharaoh in the Bible says nothing about his motivations and was applied to every war. I disagree. The reference to Pharaoh is relevant because Hadrian notes that the reason he and the Egyptians drowned is because ‘they did not believe in God’. Charlemagne will triumph because he is Christian and the Saracens are not. Goetz’ argument is not strengthened by the examples of other wars he himself lists where similar comparisons were made. These include the statement in the Life of Bishop Athanasius of Naples c.7 that God helped the people of Naples defeat the Saracens and cast them down like Pharaoh. However, insofar as this language is also being used to describe non-Christian enemies this comparison would seem to support my case better than his. The other examples listed in fn.193 of the German article are all considerably later but also don’t strike me as entirely convincing in this context. Henry of Latvia describing the conversion of Baltic pagans as being akin to the casting down of Pharaoh does not scream secularity to me. I am not intimately familiar with Otto of Freising or William of Newburgh and so won’t comment on them. Nonetheless, I would argue that two of the four examples which Goetz chose to prove that comparisons to Pharaoh did not have connotations of holy war actually do look like precisely that. 

Goetz also dismisses the sacramentaries (c), writing that ‘people prayed to God for assistance before every war’. This is true, but not every sacramentary contains a mass specifically for wars against non-Christians, in the case of that of Gellone against ‘the infidel people’, in that of Angoulême ‘the pagans’. These are highly unusual masses, and in the case of the Sacramentary of Arles, the relevant mass had to be added to the manuscript at a later date than the other liturgical texts. All three of these sacramentaries are to be located in Aquitaine or Septimania, where the most likely non-Christians to be encountered were Muslims. That of Gellone may have belonged to Count William of Toulouse, who spent much of his career battling al-Andalus.

Nor is Goetz impressed by the charters (d), stating that ‘the granting of charters and donations to individual followers is a completely normal procedure’. In this case, though, what is significant is the unusual content of these documents. Charlemagne explains that he is giving the land because the recipients have had to flee the oppression of the Saracens in their homes in al-Andalus. The reason they are oppressed is that they are Christian, and the Saracens are ‘the enemies of the Christians’. The reason that Charlemagne is helping them is because they are his fellow Christians and they take part ‘in the unity of the faith’. In turn, they would perform military service, fighting with Charlemagne against their shared enemy the Saracens, who were their enemy because the Saracens hate Christians. This is strengthened by a charter from the 790s which rewards a soldier named John with land because he had killed ‘the heretic or infidel Saracens’. In fn. 49 (fn. 197 of the German article), Goetz claims that I explain the presence of Arab or Berber sounding names among the charter beneficiaries as ‘a misconception of the scribes’. However, my argument was somewhat different: I suggest that this points to the possibilities for nuance and complexity, where grandiose rhetoric and ideology meet reality. I don’t think even the most hardcore scholar of holy war would doubt that there were places where lines blurred at the edges, as any historian of the crusades could tell us.

In the longer German treatment, Goetz states that Charlemagne was more concerned with heretics than with non-Christians. This refers to Charlemagne’s letter to Elipandus (g), where the Frankish king informs the Adoptionist bishop of Toledo that whereas before he had striven to save them ‘from worldly bondage’, that is, being ruled by Saracens, but now that he knows they are heretics, he will leave them to their fate. Moreover, in this letter Charlemagne claims that his motivation for his earlier wars against al-Andalus, including the invasion of 778, was to save the Christian population, his co-religionists, who were being oppressed because of their religion. If that’s not a religious war, I don’t know what is. Further, Charlemagne’s statement that he felt less inclined to wage war on the Saracens now that he knew he wouldn’t be saving his fellow catholic Christians again seems to me to fall on my side of the ledger.

Goetz finally observes that in 778 Charlemagne treated the Muslims of Zaragoza gently, while sacking the Christian Basque city of Pamplona. The reason Zaragoza got off lightly is that Charlemagne didn’t conquer it. It was never in Carolingian hands. The ruler, Husayn al-Ansari, refused to let the Franks in and they were balked by the mighty Roman walls of the city. Pamplona may have been sacked because it was perceived to be in rebellion, something Charlemagne was never gentle in his dealings with. In any case, as the ignominious example of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates, religious military campaigns can be vulnerable to mission creep.

Roland duels the giant Ferragut in an illustrated Grandes Chroniques de France (source)

Having said all that, Hans-Werner Goetz does raise an interesting point. Religion suffused medieval society to the point that it was the air that it breathed. Kings begged for divine aid in their endeavours and sought the help of their advisors who were learned in such matters. Spin doctors legitimised conflicts as being pleasing to God, encouraging people to believe that their cause was just and that they would triumph. Those engaged in battle beseeched the heavens for survival. He also notes that unlike the idea of a ‘just war’, there is no clear category of ‘religious war’ in the sources.

To take the second point first, while avoiding anachronism is an important part of comprehending the past, historians apply categories and ideas familiar to us but unfamiliar to the period all the time when it helps us to analyse and understand the past in ways that the people who wrote our sources were not consciously able to. A nice example here is economic history, which uses methods and concepts developed by modern economists in order to build up a sense of how resources, labour and exchange interacted to underpin the medieval world in ways that would not have been articulated at the time, but which reveal something real about the period that we can use. This applies to other topics related to the world of ideas and identities. Studying subjects such as gender and sexuality requires that we both understand the way they were categorised in the past and relate them to our own concepts in the present. Sticking purely to the intellectual constructions we find in our sources traps us in the worldview of the sorts of people wrote those sources. Those include few women, poor people or slaves. To get their history, our history, the history of the vast majority of human beings alive at the time, we need to be able to read our sources against the grain, and to ask questions which cut across the purpose and mindset of their writers.

But I would also suggest that there are points where we can in fact see people from the early middle ages categorising a particular war as specifically religious. When Pope Leo IV exhorted a Frankish army in 852 going to war against the Saracens, he famously promised them ‘that the kingdom of heaven will be given as a reward to those who shall be killed in this war’. This was because they were ‘fighting for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul, and the defence of the country of the Christians’. The Pope draws an implied distinction between this type of war and other types of wars. Unlike other campaigns the Franks might find themselves on, this one would see them win the ultimate prize because they were fighting for a holy cause. The same point was made by Pope John VIII in 878 in a reply to the bishops of West Francia who had asked for clarification on this. John wrote ‘those who, out of love to the Christian religion, shall die in battle fighting bravely against pagans or unbelievers, shall receive eternal life’. The Pope emphasises that this is because of the nature of the cause and of the enemy being fought. Again, this distinguishes between a religious war and other sorts of conflict.

The statements made by Leo and John are old chestnuts in scholarly circles because it is unusual to have anyone be this explicit on the matter in the early medieval world. But we might also be able to identify holy wars by the behaviour of those who undertook it. There were any number of possible reasons that Charlemagne might want to conquer the Saxons that would not involve religious motivations, ranging from a desire for a more secure frontier, military glory or expanded resources. None of those explanations would require the Frankish king to destroy Saxon cultic sites or forcibly convert the population to Christianity. Such a policy was if anything more likely to inspire resistance and rebellion. His father, Pippin the Short, had not felt the need to do such things when he invaded Saxony in 747 and 758. The way Charlemagne prosecuted the war against the Saxons was specifically shaped by his motivations. This was a holy war in a way that Pippin’s had not been, and his behaviour and that of his men and his opponents was different because of it.

This is where I think the concept of ‘holy war’ comes in useful, because by identifying it as a meaningful category, we can use it to draw up hypotheses and make predictions about people in the past. This is not to say that all religiously driven warfare was the same, or that all people involved in it had no other motivations. The past is complicated. People are complicated. But, by having ‘holy war’ in our tool box, we can understand and interpret patterns of behaviour that would be otherwise baffling if we didn’t have it.

I want to close this post by expressing my gratitude to Hans-Werner Goetz. If he had not taken the time to seriously consider and respond to my work, I might not have been motivated to think about this topic in this way, and clarify in my own mind why ‘holy war’ strikes me as an interesting and meaningful topic. Scholarship makes better progress through friction. So thank you, Professor Goetz, for making me feel less like a voice screaming into the void.

[1] Edited by Ellora Bennett, Guido M. Berndt, Stefan Esders and Laury Sarti (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).

Louis the Pious and the Cynocephalus

As all learned folk of the Middle Ages knew, monsters were warnings, their twisted forms messages from a nature at war with itself, a dread portent of the evil men do writ large in their debased flesh. Hybrid beings such as cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs, broke down all the safe barriers that made life secure, unsettling the hierarchy that placed humans above their beasts. But warnings prompt the wise to observe what needs to be noticed. The writers of the middle ages found instruction in these unnerving transgressions. In the stories they told about people with the heads of dogs we can hear the echoes of their thoughts on those with the heads of apes. The land that lies between human and animal, fact and fiction, is often fertile, even if it produces curious fruit. It is in this country that I find myself walking with this post.

In the year 814, the recently crowned Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious was presented with a dog-headed man.  That this extraordinary incident is not better known is entirely due to an error in our primary source, the Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents Old and New of Jakob Mennel, which is a historical survey of portents and omens produced in 1503 for the Emperor Maximilian I.:

In the year 914, a monster having the head of a dog and other limbs like a person was presented to Louis. And well could it represent the monstrous state of that time, when people without a head wavered in their loyalties hither and yon barking like dogs.

Mennel reported the incident faithfully, but accidentally dated it to 914, a time when there were no monarchs called Louis. As the previous portent in Mennel’s catalogue refers to the age of Charlemagne, we can reasonably assume that the jurist intended to refer to Charlemagne’s son before an accidental slip of the pen made the very idea of Louis the Pious encountering a dog-headed man seem ridiculous.

A visual depiction of Louis’ meeting with the cynocephalus illustrating Mennel’s Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents old and new, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek cod.4417 f.9v, also containing the text quoted above [Ed: the source won’t let us link directly to the page, so if you’re curious it’s image number 27/60]. Note also the evidence that Louis the Pious invented vaping.

Establishing that the emperor met a cynocephalus is thus trivial. The hard part is determining what this encounter meant. Mennel was well aware that monsters are messengers, delivering signals from the heavens. As Isidore of Seville tells us in his Etymologies (11.3.15):

omens (monstrum) derive their name from admonition (monitus), because in giving a sign they indicate (demonstrare) something, or else because they instantly show (monstrare) what may appear.

Mennel interpreted the cynocephalus as a prediction of the vacillating character of the people of the age. Anyone who has ever had to study the twisted accounts from the Field of Lies in 833 will feel some sympathy for this assessment of the reign of Louis the Pious.

However, if we are to truly understand this moment, we need to go a little deeper into the nature of the dog-headed man. Charlemagne had been widely celebrated when in 802 he had received an elephant from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid. Likewise, as I may have mentioned once or twice, Louis’ son Charles the Bald was to receive camels from the Emir of Córdoba. It’s not hard to imagine that Louis was aiming to continue that tradition. Exotic animals provided rulers with an opportunity to demonstrate their power over nature and the respect held for them by far off peoples. By demonstrating their special relationship with distant lands, kings built a sense of magic and glamour about themselves.

That the cynocephali were beasts is attested by a number of authorities. Isidore of Seville said of them that ‘their barking indeed reveals that they are rather beasts than humans’ (Etymologies 11.3.5). The Liber Monstrorum, composed in the late seventh or early eighth century in a southern Anglo-Saxon context, tells us that they ‘do not imitate humans but the beasts themselves in eating raw flesh’ (1.16). Classical authorities placed the cynocephali in the far east, with Ctesias and Pliny locating them in India. The dog-headed man might therefore have been a gift from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, the follow-up to the elephant.

There are problems with this hypothesis. First, it is difficult to attribute an eastern origin to the cynocephalus. In these years the Caliphate was in the midst of a civil war between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, who all had better things to think about. Further, our sources from the Carolingian period strongly suggest that the cynocephali population of the period were more strongly concentrated in Scandinavia. The Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister locates them in the well-known island of Munitia, which lies in the North Sea, where they traded with German merchants. Likewise, the letter written by the missionary Rimbert to Ratramnus of Corbie places the cynocephali in Scandinavia, close to the people Rimbert was attempting to convert.

The correspondence between Rimbert and Ratramnus raises a further issue for the assumption that Louis was attempting to compete with Charlemagne’s elephant, because they clearly demonstrate the humanity of the cynocephali. Rimbert provided Ratramnus with an ethnographic description of the dog-headed people as reported to him. Ratramnus used this to demonstrate that the cynocephali must be rational, thinking beings, organised in cities with laws, crafts and a sense of morality. This rationality was the key factor in deciding whether the cynocephali were humans. As Augustine noted in City of God (6.18), evidence of rationality would reveal even those ‘Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men’ to be human beings. As Ratramnus commented, by these criteria the dog-heads of Scandinavia were clearly rational and therefore human. This is reinforced by the evidence that St Christopher was in fact dog-headed, something traditionally downplayed in modern accounts (in yet another example of the erasure of the cynocephali community from history).

Understanding this gets us a little closer to what was happening in 814. Far from being a present from Baghdad, the cynocephalus brought to Louis the Pious was clearly an ambassador sent by the dog-headed people of Scandinavia. Relations between Charlemagne and the cynocephali had been strained. As Notker the Stammerer tells us (2.13), the dog-heads allied with the Danish king Godfrid (r.804-810) when he invaded Frisia in 810. Following Godfrid’s retreat, Charlemagne is said to have bemoaned that he ‘was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends’. We know that Louis was much concerned with northern affairs at the start of his rule. His earlier career had been primarily based in Aquitaine, but in 815 he visited Saxony for the first and only time in his reign. The death of Charlemagne provided an excellent opportunity for Louis the Pious to reset Frankish relations with the cynocephali.

The same year that the dog-headed man made his appearance, Harald Klak, one of the struggling contenders for the Danish throne, also came to the court of Louis the Pious. Having been driven out of Denmark, Harald sought Louis’ aid in order to be restored to the throne, which Louis agreed to, helping him return to power in 819. Given the Scandinavian location of the polity of the cynocephali and their past association with Godfrid, it seems plausible that the dog-headed man may have been connected to Harald, although in what capacity is unclear. Perhaps the cynocephalus was a supporter of Harald.

Alternatively, the collapse of the Danish polity into warring factions at this point may have convinced the cynocephali that they needed to find new allies in a wider world. Aachen could be extremely generous to northern peoples who made themselves useful. The Slavic Abodrites in modern Pomerania had been rewarded with land and gifts for supporting Charlemagne in his wars against the Saxons. Louis may have had ambitions of converting the cynocephali. Much of his diplomatic activity in the northern lands was aimed at making things easier for his missionaries. Certainly, the interest of later writers such as Rimbert and Ratramnus lay in their desire to know whether they should attempt to bring the word of God to the dog-headed men.

This seems to me to be the best way to understand the material presented by Jakob Mennel. One could of course tell a different story, in which dog-head, signifying cruel stupidity, was an ethnic slur applied to Scandinavians, which over the years was taken increasingly literally, until a Danish prince at the court of Louis the Pious lost any vestige of being a human, and instead joined a menagerie of curiosities intended for the amusement of a much later emperor. Perhaps that was the tale I should have told in this post, the story of how a man became a monster. But I must confess I have never had much patience for such accounts. So instead, I shall walk a little further into the strange country, looking for men within monsters.

Did India have an Early Middle Ages?

When writers in Europe started dividing history into the ancient-medieval-modern periodisation system familiar today, they did so in light of a past and future which they believed to be Roman. The end of the Western Roman Empire marked the beginning of their medieval period. Likewise, the revival of classical culture and city life that figures such as Petrarch and Bruni perceived in their own times signalled the onset of modernity, a new era that rescued the spirit of the ancient from the medieval caesura. Historians can (and do) question the usefulness of this periodisation for Western Eurasia, but it looks even worse when applied to the majority of the human world for whom Rome was at most a name. While the Roman Emperor Valens was dying in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople in 378, Teotihuacán was expanding its political and cultural influence among the cities of the Maya. As Alaric sacked Rome in 410, the Gupta empire was enjoying a year of unexpected peace, following the successful conclusion of a series campaigns by Chandragupta II. And 476, the year that Romulus Augustulus began his career as a former emperor, was the same year that Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei ended his by being assassinated; but was otherwise just another year in the age of the Northern and Southern dynasties. In this light, attempting to fit these places into a periodisation synchronised to that of the western half of the Roman empire seems perverse.

Worse still, such efforts come with their own history. This is particularly the case with India, the region I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. James Mill’s periodisation of Indian history into Hindu-Muslim-British (The History of British India, 1817) was quickly conflated with ancient-medieval-modern. This naturally suited colonial administrators, as it made modernity in India coterminous with British rule. It was also surprisingly popular with certain groups of Indian nationalists, because it reified their vision of Hindu culture as the output of a pure ‘classical’ period that represented the true India, while implicitly making the ‘Muslim age’, generally identified with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, the bad ‘medieval’ period.

The Ghateshwara Mahadeva temple, dedicated to Shiva, in Rajasthan. Tenth century, but is it early medieval? (source)

All of this context is intended to signal a note of caution for the rest of this post. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time than I previously expected reading about the history of India in the eighth and ninth centuries, initially as I tried to track down the origins of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abu al-Abbas, and later out of straightforward fascination. One of the things that has struck me are the parallels between what I found in India and Western Europe in this period, in ways that I don’t think exist in the Caliphate or Tang China, to give two examples. What I’d like to do today is consider some of those parallels and ask whether we can meaningfully talk about an ‘early medieval India’.

I am grossly beyond the limits of my competence here, with my expertise merely stretching to having read a few books. In the interests of brevity, I have removed most of the qualifications and admissions of ignorance that should follow nearly every sentence. The Indian subcontinent is enormous and fantastically diverse, and most of what I have to say applies to Northern India (the Imperial Cholas are fascinating but seem to me to be doing their own thing). Everything I say should be taken with extreme caution, and I would welcome comments and corrections on this post even more than usual.

I’m also by no means the first person to talk about ‘early medieval’ India. In the 1950s and 60s Marxist historians such as Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi and Ram Sharan Sharma began applying that label to the period between about 550 and 1206. These scholars used the term for these centuries because although they pre-dated the Delhi Sultanate, they identified the rise of feudalism in this period, making it medieval in their eyes. I have spent a career avoiding talking about feudalism in Europe (and most historians who deal with it would probably say it develops after the early medieval phase) so I’m certainly not going to engage with it now in India, except to say that’s not what I’m talking about. Nor am I necessarily talking about the implied chronological sequence inherent in the terminology. My ‘early medieval’ India does not need to be followed by a period resembling the high or later Middle Ages in Europe. Rather, it seems to me that early medieval Europe is defined by a number of features that also appear in India at roughly the same time.

Feature 1

The region used to be dominated by a single large empire with pretensions to universality, run in large part by appointed officials. It is now divided between a number of competing successor states which are each still large entities, and which explicitly claim the legacy of empire, but which are increasingly devolving administration to local landed elites. There is nonetheless considerable continuity in political institutions, as well as in language and culture.

This is fairly obviously the Roman empire, whose legacy carried on most straightforwardly in Byzantium, but also in the ‘barbarian’ kingdoms to the west, seen through continuities in political elites and structures, and the prestige of Latin and Classical culture, right down to Charlemagne having himself crowned Emperor in Rome.

But it’s also the Gupta empire, which dominated northern India from the late third to the sixth centuries. After its decline, large kingdoms emerged, all influenced by the Sanskrit language and culture fostered by the Guptas. The most successful of these competing rulers, Harsha (r.606-647), briefly united most of the region, but this was short-lived. The empires that came after all fought for the same sites, including Harsha’s capital of Kannauj. Particularly interesting is the tendency for tax collection to be farmed out and gradually diminish. Imperial administration increasingly depended on a network of maharajas and rajas embedded in the locality whose status was inherited, rather than the court bureaucrats who had previously been more important.

Possible Objections – The successor kingdoms to the Gupta are generally much less explicit about their imperial inheritance and there isn’t anywhere that resembles Byzantium in terms of prestige and continuity. Although many of the texts that these monarchs drew upon took their form in the Gupta period, the actual legends they’re interested in were set in much earlier centuries. 

Feature 2

A class of religious and cultural specialists spreads across the region. Although they and their beliefs existed before, this period sees the standardisation of their spiritual texts and status. They acquire new prominence, legitimising secular rulers who give them land and the resources to build large temples and other cult structures. A lot of the really interesting intellectual ideas emerges in the form of commentary on scriptural texts, and older literature gets repurposed to fit the spiritual demands of the time.

This is Christianity in Western Eurasia, manifesting itself in the network of church buildings, church officials and institutions such as monasteries, employing large numbers of people and getting resources in the form of land, tithes and influence. Lay and ecclesiastical leaders combined in order to try to determine correct beliefs and practices. Moments like the Carolingian Renaissance get started with the preservation and reinterpretation of Classical work and Patristic writings, with an explosion in expositions and encyclopaedic writings. Classical texts such as Virgil’s Aeneid were reread to reveal Christian truths.

This manifests itself in India as the codification of Hinduism in the post-Gupta world. Key texts such as the Puranas are compiled or standardised, and commentaries start being produced on classical texts. I particularly enjoy the coincidence that Bede (672/3-735, best known in his own time for Biblical commentary) and Adi Shankar (likely early eighth century, the great commentator of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Ghita among others) probably chronologically overlapped. Brahmins start appearing across the region, acquiring large landholdings from the rulers they advise on correct practice and morality. Kings also found large temples which dominate the landscape. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata start acquiring a much more normative and sacred quality than they previously had.

Possible Objections – There is no equivalent to the Ecumenical Councils, or a Pope or a Patriarch trying to ensure unity and coordinating believers from above. As a consequence, you get much more variety in practice (see for example the Upapuranas which adapt the Puranas with Bengalese local customs). The religious landscape was much more eclectic, with Buddhism (see the Pala empire) and Jainism (the Chalukya empire) continuing to receive royal support, with a little bit of everything showing up everywhere. 

Feature 3

A decline in the size of urban centres and in the volume and importance of long-distance trade, as power moves to the rural countryside.

Cities across the Roman world, but particularly in the western half, become smaller and less dense, and trade, particularly in bulk goods such as grain and pottery, declines. Economies become simpler and more local, with fewer specialists. Similar patterns are described in India in the period.

Possible Objections – This is the one I’m least happy with. Most of the literature I can find makes this case for India, but I’ve also read some convincing work that suggests that the archaeology hasn’t yet been done to really say for certain, and that our understanding of long-distance trade in this period is based on some dubious assumptions, so possibly treat this with even more caution than the rest of this post.

Comparative Thoughts

Assuming that these parallels are real, it’s hard to point to a shared cause. Both the Guptas and the Romans had to deal with invasions by steppe nomads from Central Asia in the fifth century (the Hunas and the Huns respectively, and whether or not these are the same people is an argument I am very happy to stay clear of). But beyond their contributions to the collapse of said empires, it’s hard to see the Hunas/Huns as particularly important to shaping what followed. Likewise, while these regions represented respectively the eastern and the western frontiers of the early Caliphate, it’s difficult to see that commonality as being significant for other shared features. Arguments based on pan-Eurasian or global phenomena such as climate would need to explain the different paths taken in China or the Caliphate at the same time.  

At the moment, I’m inclined to see the parallels as the symptom of a shared pattern – what happens when a unipolar world with a complex literary culture and urban economy starts breaking up. Being a specialist in a different region, what I’m most interested in is how this type of comparison can help me get new perspectives on the places I work on. For me these fall into two categories: things which strike me as very different, and things that are the same but which I hadn’t previously noticed.

An example of the former is discussion of forest-people, now often known as Adivasi. Indian monarchs had a complicated relationship with the inhabitants of the forests, which could be found across the subcontinent, needing the products of their home (including elephants) and their expertise at extracting them, but finding them hard to control. Both parties benefitted from exchange, but viewed each other with suspicion, with the forest-people often being depicted as not quite human.

I can’t really think of an equivalent to this in the western early Middle Ages, where multiple lifestyles based on dramatically different ecological niches were entwined in quite the same way. Mountainous regions like the Alps, or marsh like the Fens just aren’t large enough or essential enough. The closest I can come to are places like the Hungarian Plain, or the homes of the Sámi, but these are fairly geographically contained. Instead, it puts me more in mind of the mutual dependence of pastoralist steppe nomads and their sedentary cereal-agriculture-practising neighbours along the Silk Road. One of the things this suggests to me is just how ecologically specialised the Roman world was. (Another point here might be to compare the thin strip of wheat-producing coastal North Africa ruled by the Roman with the much deeper reach of the Caliphate, which does a better job of engaging with the pastoralist peoples in the interior).

But there are also things that come which I recognise but the significance of which had previously escaped me. Indian scholarship puts a great deal of emphasis on this period as the age when monarchy becomes the default political system, eclipsing the oligarchical republics (gana-sanghas) that had previously spread across India. This is of course something that also happens in the Mediterranean, as the myriad city-states of the Mediterranean with their varied constitutions were first brought together under Roman rule and gradually subsumed into a political world shaped by emperors and kings (the new urban republics of Italy, Flanders and the Hansa would emerge after the early medieval period). This is a process that was obscured to me by my tendency to begin somewhere in the fourth or fifth century, in the more centralised administrative regimes of late antique Rome and the Sasanians, but is something I’d like to keep in mind in the future.

Another point that leapt out to me is the emphasis that many of these studies (particularly those of B.D. Chattopadhyaya and Hermann Kulke) put on the spread of the state to new places and the intensification of the presence of the state in old regions. Competing empires expand their reach into previously peripheral regions while in other places new states emerge in conversation with those from outside (the Deccan being a prime example). Elsewhere, the growing number of sub-kings and temples means that the land is being more intensively governed than it previously was, particularly in the countryside.

I was initially inclined to put this down as something that was different from Europe in this period. However, further thought suggested a number of places where state structures start emerging in early medieval Europe where there hadn’t been before, such as Saxony or Scandinavia. Elsewhere, by the tenth century places such as lowland Britain or northern Iberia are far more intensively governed than they were in the Roman period, through state systems that were less dependent on cities and more on palaces and religious institutions than previously.

I don’t have a grand thesis to conclude this post with. Historians are by necessity specialists in something, if only because the alternative becomes extremely shallow and loses all purchase in historical reality really quickly. But what I hope I’ve suggested are some of the possible benefits of looking for situations and environments that resemble one’s own specialisms in order to get a sense of what similarities and differences we find.

[Editor’s note: after reading this post, there were a lot of points in it I wanted to explore further. I am therefore pleased to say that – schedules of all involved allowing – a specialist in the history of the Indian Ocean has agreed to help us delve deeper into this comparison sometime in Q1 next year, so keep an eye out for that!]

[Further Editor’s note twelve months down the line: I’m sad the previous note didn’t work out, but schedules of all really didn’t allow: all three of us involved changed institutions at least once; in two cases that involved international moves and in one case multiple international moves. I’m still hoping we can work something out but academic precarity being what it is, it’s a difficult thing to co-ordinate…]

Pondering Priests and Puppies for a Puppy Princess

This is Savannah. She is a very good girl.

2021 has not been a great year for a whole variety of reasons, but one of the main ones is that back in summer we found out that Sav had cancer. As you can imagine, this was quite distressing. However, after months of treatment, the news has come back that Sav’s recovery is almost complete and our fluffy girl is well again*! To celebrate, I thought I’d write something about early medieval dogs in her honour.

*The vet said “You’re a very good girl, aren’t you, Savannah? I don’t just mean behaviourally, I mean physiologically.”

I have to say that the main problem is that the most common time in my sources I find references to dogs aren’t very complementary. There are a persistent series of references to dogs in a church’s cloister being a sign that the Church has gone seriously wrong. The archetypal statement comes from the 909 Council of Trosly:

‘”Monasteries should always stay monasteries, and cannot afterwards become worldly dwelling places.” But now, lay abbots loiter in the abbeys of monks, canons and nuns consecrated to God, with their wives, with their sons and daughters, with their soldiers and their dogs.’

But the trope is widespread: in the early ninth century, the author of the Fontenelle Gesta Abbatum criticised Abbot Guy (who reigned a hundred-odd years before he was writing) for being followed everywhere by his hunting dogs. Centuries later, the author of the Chronicle of Saint-Pierre-le-Vif (and very probably the author of the Gesta Episcoporum of Sens he was using) lambasted Archbishop Archembald of Sens, who ‘kept his dogs and hawks in the cloister of Saint-Pierre-le-Vif’ and praises God for miraculously killing those of them left there overnight. Letald of Micy described how, in the mid-tenth century, Bishop Ermentaeus of Orléans handed Micy over to his provost Benedict (note the irony): ‘he put a stable for his horses in the brothers’ chambers; here a roost for hawks; here food for the dogs, here the lads played with shield and club…’

As you can tell, the concern here is pretty obvious. The authors are worried about the values of lay aristocrats entering into what is supposed to be a protected, sacred space. These are not merely dogs in question, these are hunting dogs, and they are usually accompanied by the other markers of lay masculinity: hunting hawks, armed retinues, women – violence, sex and riches in a place supposed to be marked by peace, chastity and self-denial. The dichotomy between the two lifestyles was illustrated by the eleventh-century Vita of Hugh of Anzy-le-Duc. The Vita describes the foundation of Cluny in the early tenth century, with Abbot Berno of Gigny persuading William the Pious of Aquitaine to give up his favourite hunting lodge at Cluny to found an abbey: ‘kick out the dogs and send in the monks – you know what the Lord will give you for dogs versus what He’ll give you for monks!’ Clearly, the tenth century did not believe all dogs went to Heaven.

The concern in a Frankish context was doubly potent, because there was also an ethnic marker: not only were dogs crucial to hunting, and thus to lay masculinity; the Franks in particular were famous for their skilled and well-bred hunting dogs. Notker the Stammerer tells a story of how Charlemagne sent Harun al-Rashid Frankish hunting dogs, which were able to capture and kill a Persian lion. The story is pretty unsubtle allegory, but it only works because Frankish dogs were sufficiently imbued with ‘Frankish’ identity to make the parallel clear. This image had legs: several decades later, in one of his viciously comic vignettes, Liutprand of Cremona described how our old friend Hugh of Arles sent the Byzantine emperor a pair of hunting dogs, only for his ludicrous Greek clothing to provoke the dogs into attacking him, thinking he was some kind of exotic prey. Dogs, then, were part and parcel not merely of a lifestyle which hard-line ascetic churchmen wanted to forbid their fellows, but had the potential to be a particularly tempting one.

After all, what could be a more fearsome beast than the vicious hunting dog on the right?

And, of course, the emotional connection between dogs and people must have been there, even if not in the minds of the severe churchmen who wrote these particular sources. After all, my personal cloister may not be very large, but I’m very happy that Savannah will be staying in it for some time yet. Clearly – unlike the poor dogs of Archbishop Archembald – God is on her side!

Thinking about the Dark Ages

Transformation in action

When I tell people that I work on the early Middle Ages, one of the most common questions I get, apart from ‘can you please go away now?’, is ‘is that the Dark Ages?’ I’ve never quite come up with an answer to that question that I’ve really liked, so this post is my effort to try to do that. In particular, I want to talk about some of the problems with the term as I see them. I’ve played around with ‘the Dark Ages’ in the past in my teaching and outreach, because I think it’s a dramatic name that grabs attention and is occasionally usefully provocative. What follows are the reasons that I would ultimately reject it in an academic context. Note that not all people who work on the early Middle Ages will agree with my reasoning, even if they also don’t like the term

Note on periodization

To misquote George Box, ‘all systems of periodization are wrong, but some are useful’. Speaking as someone with a PhD in the subject, history is big and there is much too much of it for us to cope with all in one go. We have to break the past down into convenient chunks to allow us to get some mental purchase on it. We do this in a number of ways, such as by date (nineteenth-century, second-millennium), technology (Bronze Age, Industrial Revolution), political regime (Roman empire, Tang China, Tudor England) and a wide range of others, with much overlap between them. What unites these diverse systems is that they are all in some way lacking or inadequate. Some are arbitrary, while others privilege one characteristic over a number of other salient factors. We use them because they are useful, not because they are perfect. They are tools that help us understand the past, and we almost all have a number of different methods of periodization in our toolkit that we shift between depending on the job at hand. These periods have to bear some relation to the past they are applied to, but after that we’re primarily interested in how useful a label is.

What is a Dark Age?

The important thing about the idea of a Dark Age is that it is always used in contrast to other periods. It doesn’t stand on its own, but is rather as a foil for other ages. Most people who talk about a Dark Age, including Petrarch, who stands at the origin of current discussion of the idea, are much more interested in the Golden or Light Ages that surround them, which shine all the brighter by means of this comparison.

Traditionally, Dark Age is a polemical term, denoting the period in question is uncivilised, undeveloped, chaotic and brutal. While there may be a certain romance to it, it’s generally an unpleasant, uncultured and probably immoral place. This is ‘Dark’ as in bad (Star Wars Dark). Most significantly, such a period is less civilised and developed than the era that preceded it, or those that followed it. It therefore goes hand in hand with ideas of decline and fall. It is defined by the features it lacks, which typically include widespread literacy, urbanism and large, intensively governed, political entities.

Another reading of Dark Age is as a period where there is a dramatic drop in evidence, particularly written sources, so we know a lot less than in previous and subsequent ages. This is ‘Dark’ as in hard to see. While in theory this is a value-neutral term, in practice this tends to meld with the more negative usage. Being generally bookish members of literate societies, people interested in the past tend to assume on some level that writing is a good thing, even if we don’t articulate that notion fully. 

Both ideas of the Dark Ages are normally applied to the same periods of time. There have been multiple periods thus identified, such as the Greek Dark Ages. The one we’re interested in today is the most famous one, the European Dark Ages that are placed after the end of the Roman Empire in the West, traditionally associated with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 for convenience.

Problem 1 – When and Where are the Dark Ages?

I think there are two ways in which describing this post-Roman period as a Dark Age is not useful. The first is that pinning it down in space and time is a little bit tricky. There are lots of places in Western Eurasia where the term ‘Dark Ages’ clearly doesn’t work at all. Applying it to the lands conquered and ruled by the Islamic Caliphate starts looking silly very quickly what with the booming cities, vibrant domestic and international trade and major centres of intellectual learning. For similar reasons, it seems quite hard to use it for Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire), which resolutely refuses to stop trucking on, although the sources for it do get decidedly threadbare in the seventh and eighth centuries. It’s worth noting that these two empires encompassed within their boundaries more than half of the provinces of the old Roman Empire, including the majority of its population and economic output, including key regions like Egypt, Syria and North Africa. For most of the Roman world, the Dark Ages never happened.

We also need to rule out places that were never ruled by the Romans in the first place, such as Ireland, Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe. While peoples here were no doubt affected by changes in the Roman world, it is not obvious that sixth-century Ireland belongs to a Dark Age in a way that first-century Ireland did not. 

What we’re then left with is mainland Europe west of the Rhine and Danube, and lowland Britain. This probably needs to be restricted to the centuries before the ninth century and the age of the Carolingians, from which thousands of written manuscripts survive. Although this is low compared to later centuries, the output of this Carolingian moment dwarfs the surviving material from Europe from all previous centuries combined, including that of the Roman period. Indeed, a huge proportion of Roman writing that survives today and which we continue to benefit from was preserved in this period. Given quite how massive the source base for the ninth century is, the term Dark Age comes across as really inadequate to describe it.

It is in western Europe in the sixth-eighth centuries(ish) where the strongest case for a Dark Age can be made (and yes, I am already pre-emptively ducking to avoid missiles from outraged Merovingianists). I don’t want to spend too much time here because it takes us into arguments about post-Roman decline which would need multiple blogposts to do justice to. This is very open to debate. Most academics would agree that a reduction in size and complexity takes place in this period, starting before the end of the Western Empire and continuing after then. Cities shrink and have fewer amenities. There is less trade, and industry gets smaller and more localised (embodied by much more homemade and frankly crappy ceramics). They are fewer specialists like engineers and lawyers. States get geographically smaller and less administratively sophisticated, with things like taxation slowly vanishing (death was still doing roaring business).

While I am more sympathetic to the view that on balance all of this was not a good thing than some, the overview I just gave flattens a huge amount of variance. The most dramatic change happens in a place like lowland Britain, where almost all the old Roman infrastructure seems to vanish in the course of a generation. South of the Loire in particular things are very different, and if we look at Italy in the early sixth century we might be forgiven for noticing very little change at all, although bigger alterations will come later.  Describing both of these moments as part of a period defined by a generic ‘darkness’ feels fundamentally misleading.

And that matters even if we don’t think that the changes that took place in western Europe after the fifth century amount to much or that they had only a limited impact on the lives of most people in those centuries. It matters because the ‘Dark Ages’ is part of the story we tell ourselves about humans and how they work, and therefore getting it right has an impact on how we understand ourselves. We see this in the tedious and misleading arguments among my fellow atheists about ‘how the adoption of Christianity destroyed civilisation’; in the pompous newspaper articles about how the ‘Dark Ages’ prove that migration leads to the inevitable annihilation of the host society; in the terrifying Mountain Dew-fuelled reddit posts about the inherent savagery of the Arabs and Islam. We deserve an accurate understanding of the past, our past. And we need it, desperately, because the past that we perceive are the stars by which we sail and the tracks by which we step.

Problem 2 – Seeing the darkness

The sceptical reader might want to interject here that even if ‘Dark Age’ doesn’t fully and accurately convey every single nuance of every region in the post-Roman west, it is close enough and is no more misleading than referring to ‘the Renaissance’ or ‘the Age of Enlightenment’. This is where, to my mind, the second problem comes in. Most period labels employed, such as the ones very conveniently named by my fictional disputant, are either neutral or vaguely positive in nature. The Dark Ages is neither of those things. Its name is the exact opposite of the Enlightenment and it represents the death the Renaissance is reborn out of.

This may seem a really petty thing to complain about, but it matters, because it translates into much less research into the period with the consequence that it is much less well understood than it might be. This is because at its best, the term ‘Dark Age’ implies an era with so little evidence remaining that nothing can ever be known about it. At its worst it suggests an age of such miserable brutality and squalor that nothing worth knowing could ever be retrieved by studying it.

Once a narrative like that has been set it is really hard to counteract it. Not only does such a periodization discourage enquiry, but it also distorts the way specialists of the era talk about it, because it forces them onto the back foot. Once you have to constantly defend the centuries you study, it limits the sorts of conversations you can have with non-specialists by making you into an advocate or a cheerleader. This means time spent talking up all the things that we find impressive today, making it harder to give a balanced view of the period. All historians need to find ways to communicate their work, but a scholar of the ‘Dark Ages’ has to highlight all the things that seem positive about their period to a modern audience in a way that someone talking about, say, the Romans or Georgian London doesn’t have to. Because it needs to be sold the actual period gets flattened and drained of what makes it special.

Worse than that, trying to defend the Dark Ages with reference to its art or culture often doesn’t work. Once your period has a reputation for savagery, everything gets interpreted in that light, or lack thereof. In the first episode of the classic television documentary Civilisation (1969), which holds up surprisingly well for a series now over half a century old, Kenneth Clark explained why he felt there was no true civilisation in Western Europe in the centuries after Rome, despite his familiarity with art from the period, because:

Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies, in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality.

Clark was a learned and thoughtful, if old-fashioned, art historian. If he could look at the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Gokstad and see no evidence of civilisation because he already knew they were the products of a time of barbarism, then it points to the challenges of getting anyone else interested in such a dark age.

And that’s a problem. Ranke’s injunction that ‘every epoch is immediate to God’, meaning that every period was equally worthy of examination on its own terms, remains as true now as it was when he said it. The lives and experiences of people in the past deserve to be studied not because they were beautiful or uplifting for us in the present (although sometimes, in every era, they were both of those things). They deserve to be studied because every one of those lives is another example of what it means to be human, another fragment of the human story. That means plunging into strange and difficult worlds to find the alien and the familiar uncomfortably and fascinatingly entwined. When we talk about the ‘Dark Ages’ we make it harder for us to understand our past and thus claim the historical inheritance that belongs to all of us. And that is why, on balance, the Dark Ages is probably not a useful historical term.  

Finding Troy

In the dying days of May 2021 I walked from Cambridge to Troy. It was a long and hard journey, taking me two hours under a hot sun, as I crossed the river Scamander and climbed the hill once graced by the high-walled city. There, where Priam himself had stood to survey his realm, I gazed north, beyond the dykes that had protected the Troad, to the great mound where the Tomb of Ilus once lay.

At least, that was where I was according to Iman Wilkens in his Where Troy Once Stood (London, 1990), in which he imaginatively relocates Troy to the Wandlebury Ring, an iron age-hillfort that stands in the Gog Magog Hills, south-east of Cambridge. Wilkens is unconvinced by the conventional placing of the site of Homer’s epic at Hisarlik in modern Turkey. The book as a whole stands as a case study for how not to do historical enquiry, as dubious etymologies and forced readings of texts and archaeology lead one along a chain of associations worthy of Black Dynamite. Particular highlights include the idea that the siege of Troy must have involved Northern Europeans rather than ‘the more peaceful Greeks of the classical era’ (p.15, something that would be news to Thucydides, Xenophon and the state of Sparta), and that the references to rain suggested ‘that the climate of the Troad is more like that of England’ (p.39). As a result of some spectacular onomastics, the River Cam becomes the Scamander and Ely Cathedral the Tomb of Ilus.

It is safe to say that despite the chapter in which Odysseus and company get lost in the Caribbean on their way back to Ithaca/Cadiz, Wilkens’ book has not achieved wide academic acceptance. Nor is it immediately obvious that the landscape he places Troy in is in urgent need of historical embellishment. In addition to the Ring itself and the remains of a mansion built for James II within it, Wandlebury is flanked by the remains of two further hill forts at Cherry Hinton and Copley Hill. Below it runs a network of roads built by the Romans, including Wool Street, which linked their military bases in Cambridgeshire to Colchester, and the Icknield Way running from Suffolk to Berkshire. Walk half an hour north-east from the Ring and you’ll hit Fleam Dyke, one of four great earthworks raised in the area in the post-Roman period that cut across the Icknield Way. The great island of Ely has more than enough stories of desperate battles and sieges to fill another Iliad. The remains of Ilus would rest with those of Byrhtnoth, and his spirit with that of Hereward. In short, this is a corner of the earth with no shortage of human past.

Where Priam put the Trojan Horse? The stables of Wandlebury House, all that remains of the seventeenth-century hall built in Wandlebury Ring (photo by author).

And yet Wilkens is hardly the first to feel that this area could be improved by the glamour of distant lands. In the centre of Cambridge you will find Jerusalem, or at least a Church of the Holy Sepulchre, better known as the Round Church, built in the early twelfth century after the First Crusade, inspired by that in the Holy Land. Follow the Icknield Way south and you reach Baghdad, or Baldock, named thus according to local legend by the Knights Templar after the great city in the east. Local institutions also acquired deeper histories. Should one consult Dyer’s The Privileges of the University of Cambridge (London, 1824), you will find record of the charter granted to the university by King Arthur on 7th April 531, sparing it from all secular duties and taxation. The king was busy in London at the time, possibly deep in domestic drama, so this privilege was delivered by Gawain, of Green Knight fame. That the charter was entirely invented in the fifteenth century, in competition with Oxford’s claim to be founded by Alfred, is a bit of a blow for Cambridge’s Arthurian heritage but I have every confidence in Fraser’s ability to use it to reconstruct the history of the sixth century.* [Hey! – Ed.]  Some of these stories would cross the Channel, and Gervase of Tilbury, writing in the thirteenth century, would amuse Emperor Otto IV with stories of nocturnal duels against supernatural knights within Wandlebury Ring (Otia Imperialia III.59, possibly Hector come again?).

Nor indeed is Wilkens the first to link Britain with Troy. Most famously Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136), tells of how the island was named after Brutus, the banished great-grandson of Aeneas, who first settled the land and founded London, or New Troy. Among the native giants slain in this process was one named Gogmagog. Geoffrey places this event in Totnes but given his notorious unreliability we can be forgiven for locating it in Cambridgeshire instead. Such an ancestry does not place Britons in a very exclusive club, alas, as other descendants of Troy include the Romans, Franks, Normans and basically nearly everyone else in Europe. Indeed, given the multitude that claim Trojan origins, it’s something of a wonder that the Greeks ever prevailed against them in the first place.

There were many reasons that people might seek to link a place to a distant past or a faraway land. Some are fairly obvious and easy to understand (the necessity of one-upping Oxford, for example). An ancient origin, particularly one that linked you to Troy and therefore Rome because of the myth of Aeneas, gave you a pedigree and therefore a dignity and status. This is something I thought about a lot as part of my role with the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project. You learn a lot about the stories that people love and the histories that they value from examining the pasts that they seek to integrate themselves and their pasts into. Founding churches in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre gave your city a link not just to the beginnings of Christianity but also to the Crusades and the wider involvement of Western Europe in the east. Being patronised by Arthur meant that you were an institution at the very heart of the Matter of Britain, esteemed by the noblest and most celebrated king in the country’s history. And if you could claim descent from Troy, then you acquired a history and a place among the ranks of nations that was easy to fit into pre-existing stories about the world and put you on the right side.

Such efforts happened across Europe. A link to the Iliad was important for the status of a city in ancient Greece. In the second century AD, Pausanias expressed his doubts about whether the settlement of Panopeus qualified as a city because of its lack of physical infrastructure (Description of Greece 10.4.1-2). Panopeus’ case for city status was reinforced by its mention in the Iliad, as Schedius, king of the Phocians, who ‘dwelt in a house in famous Panopeus’, was slain by Hector in the battle for the body of Patroclus (Il.17.1307). Sometimes efforts to link a city to a well-known past could be charmingly ludicrous. My favourite is the Libro Fiesolano, a late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century history of Florence, which sought to develop an alternative Roman past for the city by saying it was founded by the son of Catilina, magnificently, and utterly plausibly, named Hubert Caesar.

It’s very easy to be sarcastic about all of this (as I’ve demonstrated throughout this post, never let it be said that I climbed the high road when the easy slide into a ditch was available). But it seems to me that any history of a landscape that only included what actually happened misses a great deal of importance. What I love about Cambridgeshire is that it is a land that has been created by human labour, sometimes literally in the case of the draining of the Fens. It is the result of centuries of human occupation and work, a place that generation after generation of people have built on, fought for and been buried in. We can see their hopes and their fears and their loves written into the countryside. When we write the history of this space, we are translating those passions from earth to paper. Such a transcription must include Iron Age forts and Roman roads, Anglo-Saxon dykes and medieval cathedrals. But it should also trace the contours of the human imagination, so that spectral knights, distant Jerusalem, open-handed Arthur and, most recently, Troy take their place in the examination of the ways in which people have understood this landscape.

* For more on this, see A. Putter, ‘King Arthur at Oxbridge: Nicholas Cantelupe, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cambridge’s Arthurian Foundation Myth’, Medium Aevum 72 (2003), pp. 63-81.

Why is Donkey Kong like tenth-century Flanders?

Birthday post! OK, it’s not actually my birthday (I ain’t putting that on the internet), but it is proximate thereto, which is one reason I haven’t been posting recently. Posts will resume after I’ve moved house and gone to the EHS Conference in two weeks, but recently I discovered something fun which is almost entirely devoid of scholarly content, but tickled me so I’m putting it up here anyway.

I have on occasion hinted at something which I like to call the ‘Arnulf Problem’, but I don’t think I’ve ever explained what it is. Basically, in late tenth-century Flanders, Count Arnulf the Great was having family troubles. One of his nephews rebelled, and so he had him executed, earning the hostility of the executed man’s brother, who was also called Arnulf. These two things, that he was a nephew of Arnulf the Great and that he was also called Arnulf, are the only things we have to identify this man. This is a problem, because ‘Arnulf’ is an incredibly common name. Hence, there are about six potential candidates for our Arnulf – and thus, the Arnulf Problem: not knowing who someone is because everyone has the same damn name.

(Ninth-century historians have a different version of this known as the Three Bernards Problem, although these Bernards at least have better nicknames – Bernard Hairypaws, anyone?)


Segue! (source)

Now, as I say, I recently discovered that medieval history is not the only field where this is true. It turns out fans of the venerable Donkey Kong franchise have to deal with a similar problem. The first appearance of Donkey Kong was in 1981, in the arcade game Donkey Kong, which also featured the first appearance of Mario – then named Jumpman – as an animal-abusing builder’s carpenter. However, in more recent games we have learned that the current Donkey Kong is in fact the second holder of that title, the first being the ape now known as DK’s grandfather Cranky Kong (not to be confused with either Swanky Kong or Lanky Kong…). It is, though, not quite clear when the current Donkey Kong took over from Cranky Kong. It certainly happened by Donkey Kong Island, but although the wiki claims that the Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong 3 is Cranky Kong, in fact there’s no real way of knowing. Essentially, it’s the Arnulf Problem all over again.

In fact, there’s a specific equivalent. At some point in the 960s, a series of English bishops wrote to Count Arnulf of Flanders about various matters. Problem is, because Arnulf I (the Great) was succeeded by Arnulf II, we don’t know which Arnulf they were writing to. It’s even a grandfather-grandson transition (although, unlike the current Donkey Kong, we know exactly what happened to Arnulf II’s father)!

So there you have it – if you’re a gamer, then tenth-century historians face your problems. And if you’re a tenth-century historian, then… let’s see if we can get a Mario Kart tournament going at the next IMC?