Seventh Century Colloquium: Report

First a confession: while I was genuinely looking forward to this conference, for various reasons I was unable to attend the first day, so I can only offer a partial account of what happened. Nevertheless, when I did arrive on Day Two, Roger Collins assured me over coffee that Day One had been very good indeed. Over the course of the day it transpired that some wounds had been reopened about the relative merits of early and late Arabic sources for the seventh century, which culminated with Hugh Kennedy declaring over wine that he felt the debate was becoming unimportant (and clearly also just a bit irritating). So what about Day Two?

Alex 2

Alex Woolf In Action

I arrived in time to see Alex Woolf (St Andrews, has the office across from mine) in action, talking about Sutton Hoo and Sweden. Ship burials, he argued, were not necessarily a sign of colonial culture, but perhaps instead a sign of the stretching out of social hierarchies. People buried there were probably not just the most powerful, but also those with the most to lose, with their families effectively making argumentative statements. For whose benefit? Here Alex suggested that for both Sutton Hoo and Swedish ship burials such as Vendel we need to pay more attention to their relationship with the Danish cultural centre they were surely reacting against.

A nice thing about the way the conference was organised was that every paper had a respondent, with established academics paired up with postgrads/ postdocs. Responding to Alex, Brian Wallace developed comparative frames of reference by comparing the ship burials to Childerich’s burial at Tournai as a statement for reinforcing fledgling dynastic claims, and Offa’s use of Repton in the eighth century. Chat afterwards at lunch raised anxieties about the audiences for burial and whether we are looking for too many ‘statements’. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

Next up, Jörg Drauschke (RGZM) talking through Eastern finds in the Merovingian world. The seventh century presents a fascinating low-point here because the mid-500s and mid-700s witnessed relatively lively diplomatic exchanges; in between, however, things were quieter (or at least the documentation has failed to survive). Amphorae have been found in Provence but rarely beyond that. Syracuse buckles are common in the Mediterranean but not in Merovingian lands. There are some Coptic bronze vessels, but almost all in Austrasisa. Pirenne was not mentioned once yet it was hard not to see a definite shift in Frankish-Byzantine relations. Tom Brown (Edinburgh) opened out discussion on three fronts:

1) Italy provides different evidence here, and the turning points there are the loss of North Africa to the Arab conquests and the opening up of the Lombard kingdom, all leaving a ‘turning point’ closer to c. 700 which must have had some influence on the North.

2) In the North maybe people were acclimatising to Northern products and so communities were less dependent on the Mediterranean.

3) Maybe the Merovingians just were not worth the diplomatic gold in the seventh century – their weaknesses meant they could offer little to the East. (I would argue that even when strong there was little they could offer the East given the problems they faced).

To finish off the morning we had a paper by Julio Miguel Román Punzón (Granada), Miguel Jiménez Puertas and Jose C. Carvajal (Sheffield) on changing settlement patterns in south-east Spain. They focussed on the example of the Vega of Granada an constructed a narrative in which the collapse of Roman authority led to the abandonment of lowland areas in favour of more-defensible plateaux and hill-slope sites. There was more use of lowland areas subsequently under Muslim dominance. What this showed, it was argued, was the importance of local leaders to shaping settlement patterns. Javier Martínez Jiménez (Oxford) provided a wide-ranging critique of the paper, asking in particular what role the church might have played here and whether kings might have been as absent as the paper suggested. (Similar arguments were later made about the Balearic Islands).

By this point it was only lunchtime and we were overloaded with information. But the lunch buffet was good.

Returning, the afternoon began with Helen Lawson (Edinburgh) providing a close reading of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica to suggest that Abercorn was not the centre of an Anglo-Pictish bishopric run by Trumwine but really just a monastery in a more fluid socio-political environment. Adrian Maldonado (Glasgow) was inspired by the revisionism.

After the Balearic Islands paper – which I will skip round, sorry – Marie Legendre (Oxford) gave a fascinating paper on the administrative reorganisation of Egypt in the wake of the Arab conquests of the mid-seventh century. This is work that comes out of the Leiden project on papyri, which offer an under-tapped resource for exploring the impact of the conquests. Two important things she was able to sketch was that over the first 60 years or so there was a shift away from forced labour (which had provoked many people to flee) towards a cash taxation system, while the administrative units were simplified until there was only really Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Andy Marsham (Edinburgh) applauded the paper for pushing forward both a ‘history from below’ which focussed on labour patterns, and also for concentrating on actual seventh-century sources. This last point threatened to reignite the debate from the previous day (apparently) but he ended by saying that we should not prefer one kind of source over the other for the narrative, but rather embrace different insights from wherever. Which seems sensible enough.

Onto the last session of the day. First up, Austin Mason (BC) promised a reassessment of the veneration of relics in Anglo-Saxon society. Such devotional practice was not entirely new, he argued, but at least in part a repackaging of other trends in Anglo-Saxon burial tradition. Now, as people know, I am often suspicious when people announce that they are going to expose the pre-Christian elements in thing x, because often it involves ill-advised appeals to folk legends or Icelandic sagas or something. But Austin provided compelling evidence from Anglo-Saxon burials in places such as Spong Hill to show that Anglo-Saxons often reopened graves, took body parts, kept bones in urns for a while before burial, and so on – in other words, many of the things that we would expect from relic curation. Jamie Wood (Lincoln) was impressed at how bodies could be cut-and-pasted just like a text in these examples – he works on Isidore of Seville, after all – and he also pointed out that Austin’s insights could be used to continue to reassess how networks and communities were forged across time and space.

And finally: Caterina Franchi (Oxford) gave a lovely paper on the attributes of Antichrist and the Last Emperor in Greek tradition, building on her work on the Alexander legends. She made many good points about how apocalyptic expectations were often hopeful and about how Antichrist was still an embryonic figure in Eastern theology at this point. The meat of her paper was a brief study of the descriptions of physical attributes of emperors to see how they matched up against Antichrist/ Last World Emperor standards, finding Phocas in particular to have come across as rather demonic. The respondent for this paper was me, and I was still feeling rather hyperactive having finished writing the main text of my book on apocalyptic traditions last weekend. I pointed out that looking at this kind of thing is important because apocalyptic thought can be found everywhere, so it tells us a great deal when we can see how it is treated locally – especially when we have a text such as Pseudo-Methodius which, as Caterina stressed, does not mention Antichrist by name… but it does, I added, in the Latin recensions composed in the eighth century.

It is perhaps a good thing I didn’t attend more of the conference otherwise who knows how long this post would be. It just needs to be said, first, that Alessandro Gnasso, Emanuele Intagliata, Tom McMaster and Bethan Morris did a great job pulling together such a stimulating event, and second, that in developing lines of east-west comparative history, those involved have helped make the seventh century look a rich and vibrant world. There might be a second colloquium next year, and possibly even a book. The seventh century will not look like the ‘armpit of history’ (Fouracre) for much longer at this rate.