IMC 1: Early metal, dodgy horses and the meaning of gifts

I’m finally starting my first report on the 2011 International Medieval Congress in Leeds, talking mainly about things I heard on the first day (though the last paper of the day will be postponed till the next report). So first of all, I went to hear the keynote lectures:

Scavenging and Its End in the Early Medieval Britain, Robin Fleming, Department of History, Boston College, Massachusetts

Rich and Poor in Late Medieval Europe: The Political Paradox of Post-Plague Economics, Samuel K. Cohn Jr., Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, University of Glasgow

I’m going to start with the second paper, which had as it basis one of the ideal moments for doing comparative history: the continent-wide demographic shock resulting from the plagues of the late fourteenth century (Cohn didn’t discuss in this lecture one of his more controversial views, that this disease wasn’t bubonic plague). But he started by pointing out that c 1375-c1475 was a rare period, in which the gap between the rich and poor narrowed in a number of different societies (at least those where we can see wage rates). Did this have wider social effects? Robert Brenner argued that even if the wealth of the poor increased, they didn’t necessarily have increased liberty. There were diverging fates west and east of the Elbe, with compulsory labour declining in the west, but tighter bonds on peasants in the east. Demography wasn’t key here: there were different trajectories.

Brenner, however, didn’t look at towns, and Cohn’s main argument was that if you compared rural and urban settings you could see differences even within the same societies. Very basically, in both England and northern Italy, you could see peasants and the urban poor gaining financially, but the urban poor losing rights in cities. In England, early concessions to artisans were rolled back, in Italy, cities such as Florence were more and more dominated by the oligarchs. In contrast, the mountain peasants in the Tuscan highlands were actually winning rights in the late fourteenth century, during the struggle between Florence and Milan.

Cohn asked the question of why the urban patricians were more successful than rural landlords and argued that we needed to connect together the study of political rights and poverty (rather than separating them out as constitutional/economic history). He saw the urban elites as better at divide and rule tactics, consciously splitting middling sorts away from the urban poor, and offering them selective patronage, while also using recurring bouts of plague to set up a pattern of policing both moral and physical cleanliness of those at the bottom of the heap. Cohn’s argument, finally, was that the study of poverty is a political matter, and that political and economic impoverishment didn’t necessarily go together.

I really don’t know the period well enough to be sure about the detail of Cohn’s argument (this was one of the occasions when I’m particularly conscious that the IMC covers more than 1000 years of history and some very different societies), but as a general reminder of the complexity of poverty, it was a useful paper. But before that we’d had one of the most eye-opening papers I heard at the whole conference: Robin Fleming on metalworking in fifth and sixth century Britain.

Robin’s argument was simple, but impressively backed up by archaeological data: today, you don’t just have poor individuals, but poor societies. In the same way, Britain in the fifth and sixth-century was desperately poor; as she put it, Roman British society fell hard, fast and early. And one of the key signs of this poverty was the recycling of metal. Roman Britain had been producing so many hundreds of tons iron, that you can see the pollution effects in Greenland ice from C1 to C4. A Roman fort excavated in Scotland (I didn’t catch the name) had more than a million Roman nails found there.

But from the late C4 the production of fresh metal faltered, and then ceased. Smelting metals produces copious amounts of slag, which survives well into the archaeological record, and the contrasts are immense. The C6 settlement of Mucking in Essex probably produced about 10 kilos of iron. Beauport Park in Sussex was producing hundreds of times more in the Roman period. Iron production declined elsewhere in Europe as well after the second and third centuries, probably to around 10% of its original level. But in Britain it effectively vanished, along with the industrial communities carrying out the work, and their skills-base.

Instead, metal was scavenged: iron clamps from the Roman baths at Bath were hacked out about 400-450, and a late C4 cache of scavenged lead has been found in Northamptonshire. Robin was suggesting that votive offerings from shrines were probably also scavenged. Another sign of this scavenging is that the metallurgy of early Anglo-Saxon objects made of copper/bronze/brass is very variable, depending on what was in the mix they’d been able to recycle.

One of the key points that Robin made is that while recycled iron is fine for most things, it’s not good for sharp objects. As a result, while a lot of knives have been found in graves, they’re poor quality. There are more swords surviving from the C6 and C7, especially in Kent and they’re often made with quite complex iron alloys that English swordsmiths couldn’t have produced. Robin suggested that it was these people with access to imports who became able to gain more surplus from others and thus increase their wealth, though she admitted it was also a chicken and egg situation. By C7 there were specialist smithing sites developing again in Britain, but there were some technologies that still took a long time to recover. Woodworking saws were a lost technology until the C12, with all surviving boards from before then axe-cut.

Robin’s talk provided yet more food for thought in the never-ending Fall of Rome debate. On the one hand, it rather scuppers the happy peasant idea of the post-Roman optimists, like Chris Wickham. Just because the elites are taking less from you doesn’t necessarily mean you’re better off, and in particular, I suspect crappily inadequate blades would literally blunt your enthusiasm and your productive skills. On the other hand, it once again confirms that post-Roman Britain is an outlier, and the dangers of generalising from that to the fate of the whole of the Roman Empire. It’s also interesting because it’s precisely from Britain that we can see particularly clearly the signs of economic revival in the seventh century, as a later paper from the day would show.

After this, I spent most of the rest of the day hearing about gifts, as part of a mammoth series of session organised by King’s College London. The sessions were:

Gift-Giving, I: Gift-Giving and the Early Middle Ages

Paper 121-a Gifts: classical legacies/timeless pathologies: three preachable moments and a gift horse Danuta Shanzer, Institut für Klassische Philologie, Mittel- und Neulatein, Universität Wien / Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC

Paper 121-b The Gift of the Elephant: On the Meanings of Abulabaz Paul M. Cobb, Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania

Paper 121-c Voluntary Enslavement: From Self-Sale to Self-GiftAlice Rio, Department of History, King’s College London

Gift-Giving, II: Gift-Giving and Objects

Paper 221-a Offering Brooches to the Dead: The Changing Gendered Value of a Gift between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages Irene Barbiera, Dipartimento di Storia, Università degli Studi di Padova

Paper 221-b Making the World Go Round?: Coinage and Gift in Early Medieval England and Francia (c. 675-900) Rory Naismith, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Paper 221-c The Star Cloak of the Emperor Henry II Stuart Airlie, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow

I particularly enjoyed the first session, which commenced with a breathless dash through ideas of the gift by Danuta Shanzer. She started out by saying that good gifts were all alike in some ways, which was boring, and that what she was interested in was possible pathologies. She then sketched out the minimal set of data that we’d like to know for each gift occasion:

1) The contemporary value of the gift
2) Its nature
3) Whether publicly given or not
4) Whether it was an appropriate gift
5) Whether it was solicited or not
6) The relationship between the giver and receiver
7) The giver’s motivation
8) The receiver’s reaction
9) Sequel

After a brief reminder of the classic O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi in which a wife secretly sells her long hair to buy a watch chain for her husband, while he in turn sells his watch to buy her a comb, we then got a rapid tour of some of the bizarre vagaries of classical and late antique gift-giving, including:

  • Ruricius of Limoges (Epistola 2-5) sending ‘the best gift’, which could be given and yet not lost, a gift which turns out to be the letter itself (the text of which he then reuses in another letter).
  • Fronto, Ep. graec 5, who gets sent 2 slaves. He says this is too great a gift for him, and therefore the only possible countergift he can give is to return the slaves.
  • Seneca and Martial complaining about tactless or aggressive gifts: sending wine to a drunkard, a shawl with the inscription: ‘I dread busty women’ (?)
  • Venantius Fortunatus’s poem (11.114) on the joy of receiving a milk-pudding with Agnes’ fingerprint in it (sentiment here obviously outweighing hygiene)
  • Jerome’s tendency to send ‘squelching exegesis’ in letters replying to the gifts he received from women (Epistola 31 and Epistola 44), explaining how unsuitable the gifts were. (This confirmed once again all my prejudices about Jerome).

Finally, we got back to Ruricius of Limoges and a letter of his (Epistola 2-35) recommending a paragon of horse he’d sent to Sedatus of Nimes, as big enough to carry him. In reply, we have a joking letter from Sedatus saying the horse is recalcitrant. As Danuta pointed out, how do we judge the tone of this exchange: what was the horse really like? And what about when this description of a horse was reused in the C9 in a letter of Antonius of Brescia to Salomon II of Constance? (MGH Formulae p 421, Collectio Sangallensis 39). Is this an obscure literary joke about gift horses or what? How do we get at the realia behind the intertext?

In contrast to these gifts dissolving into literary effect, we then got a very tangible gift, and one for which, unusually for the early Middle Ages, we may actually have almost Danuta’s proposed minimal set of desired data. This was the gift of the elephant Abulabaz by Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne in around 800. We know quite a lot about the gift from Frankish sources, but it’s not mentioned in Arabic sources.

Nevertheless, what Paul Cobb was doing was looking at the meaning of such a gift in the Islamic world. Muslim rulers didn’t use elephants in war, unlike earlier Persian rulers. Instead, elephants were a gift for kings, with sources such as the “Book of Animals” building on Greek and Roman elephant lore to say that elephants signified kingship and relating the belief that elephants can sniff out kings in disguise.

Cobb also brought up the significance of the elephant in the Koran: Sura 105 is called ‘The Elephant’, and refers to the story of the Year of the Elephant in which the Christian king of Yemen attempted to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca, but instead the elephant he was riding bowed before the walls of Mecca. The name of the elephant was Mahmood, one of its technonym was Abulabaz, probably the same name as Charlemagne’s elephant (although there are queries with transcriptions of the name). Was there a hidden message in the name of the gift about Islamic theology? Was this a slightly passive-aggressive gift like some of those that Danuta described?

Cobb concluded by saying how the gift, which Charlemagne specifically requested, showed the common roots of Western and Islamic culture in the post-Roman world: Harun was perhaps less civilised than we like to pretend and Charlemagne more so; both were fluent in the language of late antiquity kingship.

The morning session concluded with an outstanding paper by Alice Rio, which started from a long discussion from the Edict of Pitres 864 on self-sale, in which Charles the Bald (or, as I suspect, Hincmar) discussed Roman and Biblical texts on the matter. As Alice pointed out, Charles had to scramble around for Roman legal texts which made the point he wanted, because most Roman law was extremely hostile to self-sale. Selling oneself into slavery was illegal in Roman law, but also a profoundly perverse act: the punishment for self-sale was, in fact, remaining a slave, because the act had revealed a character flaw that meant one was naturally servile.

This view was changed by Christianity’s increased moral valorization of slavery: indeed, a couple of late antique holy men even sold themselves (St Peter the Tax Collector and St Serapion). Late antique moralists, such as Salvian tended to see self-sellers as victims and their buyers as oppressors of the poor.

In contrast, Charles the Bald sees buying a self-seller as a charitable act, and Alice then traced differing discourses of self-sale through to the Marmoutier book of serfs in C11. On the one hand, there was the charitable idea of the buyer as taking someone destitute into service. On the other, from the mid-eight century in Farfa, we can see charters in which self-giving (the emphasis on the financial side of the sale is dropped), is seen as a honourable Christian gift. Who was doing the favour for whom then became the question: by the time of the Marmoutier texts, both the gift aspect and the extreme poverty were stressed, making both seller and buyer of the new unfree person look good. Alice admitted that this change from the idea of self-sale to self-gift probably didn’t make much difference in practice, but the results in symbolic capital were very different.

After lunch, we had the second session, on gifts as objects, which I found less satisfying. For me it confirmed that archaeology, which is superb evidence for some aspects of early medieval life (as Robin Fleming showed) is less effective for a topic where so much resides in specific and contested meanings.

We started with a paper by Irene Barbiera that I found slightly hard to follow, so apologies if my summary isn’t clear. It was also a little uncomfortable as a fit into the session, but quite interesting in itself, as a discussion of gender and brooches in early north Italian graves (from the 1st century BC to the ninth century). Partly this confirmed a point made by Guy Halsall’s work on gender and burials, that grave goods aren’t a simple reflection of sex. For example, whereas in the first century BC, brooches of the same type were found in both male and female graves, there was a lack of brooches in male graves after the C5, even though both sexes still used brooches,

Barbiera had also been looking at texts for the term ‘fibula’, often used for a brooch (though it could also mean belt-buckle). It could be used for either a male or female dress item and she suggested it was used more for male items in C2-C4 and C8-C10, but about equally for both in C5-C7. Male brooches had become a symbol of authority from late antiquity, and remained so into the early Middle Ages. If the fibula was still being conceptualised as a male dress ornament, why did it only appear in female graves, she wondered? She had also discovered that fibulae associated with women were more often referred to as either gold or as a gift in texts from C5-C10, and was arguing that fibulae were becoming a mark of femininity and of treasure in the period, placing owners within a social network. The increasing value of brooches as gifts (I wasn’t clear if she was talking about male, female or both here) meant, she argued that they were becoming too valuable to place in graves.

The second paper was from my colleague, Rory Naismith on coins and gift-giving. The first part of this was countering Philip Grierson’s influential argument (in ‘Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, 9 (1959), 123-140) that there was relatively little commerce in the early medieval period, and that much of what we thought was evidence of trade might actually be gift-giving. Rory was reminding us that the numismatic evidence from southern England made this implausible: we’ve now got over 3,500 single finds of coins from the late C7 onwards. (This was also a useful reminder that England may have crashed hard in the post-Roman period, but it did clearly revive more quickly than we might realise from the textual evidence alone).

In the second part of his paper, he looked briefly at textual evidence, mainly from hagiography, for the use of coins even by relatively low-status peasants. But this shouldn’t be seen as evidence for a purely market economy. Church sites, for example, aren’t necessarily noted for their coin finds, even though they’re important drivers of local economies.

Finally Rory looked at the symbolic role of coins, pointing out how when Anglo-Saxon charters refer to money, it’s overwhelmingly gold that’s mentioned, even though the Anglo-Saxon economy is largely dominated by silver coins. Coins were still something more than just money, something that could still be special enough for gift-giving, like Offa’s imitation of a gold dinar, donated to the Pope. There was a move away from the gift-economy in the period, but it wasn’t yet a total shift.


The session ended with Stuart Airlie on the star cloak of Henry II of Germany preserved at Bamberg Cathedral. As Stuart pointed out, there were obvious meanings to this cloak, but also some questions about it. With its images of Christ and the zodiac, it speaks of Henry as lord of the cosmos, and brings parallels to a similar cloak owned by Otto III. But though it’s easy to see it as a ‘symbol of state’, was there really a state for it be a symbol of? Were the designs and the inscriptions meaningful, or the equivalent of Offa’s imitation of Arabic writing on his dinar? We don’t know whether Henry II ever wore the cloak. It was the gift of Duke Meles of Bari: was it intended mainly for Bamberg, where it ended up, a gift to be given through Henry, rather than to him? It was remembered there as the gift of Melis rather than of the emperor until the C12, when the gift’s meaning retrospectively shifted. As Stuart commented at the end of his talk – and it’s a good summary for the whole two sessions: we’re talking about ‘a solid object from a very fluid world’.


2 thoughts on “IMC 1: Early metal, dodgy horses and the meaning of gifts

  1. Leeds 2011 report 1, with bonus apologyI have to start by saying sorry for the long silence here. It’s no shortage of stuff to say, but shortage of time to write. The end of term has been more punishing than it should be, as we gear up for admissions interviews next week as well as tr…


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