Holmes on Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England

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Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone Press, 2014.

I didn’t plan on writing another book review this soon but I do have to share the news on this book – my find of the month. I discovered that this valuable book is available from the publisher in PDF form for only  € 4.50 ! Its also available in print for about $40 and somewhere in between for e-books from other vendors. The PDF works just fine on e-readers.

On to the review: This is the publication of Matilda Holmes PhD thesis on archaeozoology of early medieval England. Holmes cataloged and analyzed 315 archaeological reports or collections from 241 sites. Results are segregated into Early Saxon (450-650 AD), Middle Saxon (650-850 AD), Late Saxon (850-1066 AD), and Saxo-Norman. Not only does she catalog the regular domestic animals (cows, pigs, sheep/goats) but also horses, dogs, chickens and geese. It doesn’t stop there! She also does a variety of deer, hares, 38 species of wild birds, 27 taxa of freshwater and migratory fish, and 37 marine taxa of fish. The main domestic species- cattle, pigs, and sheep – have additional data on age and distribution of butchered parts. All of this data is listed by site and period. She then analyzes it for type of site to look at the economy and evolution of sites like wics and ecclesiastical sites. So if you want to know exactly what was found at Ælfric’s abbey at Eynsham it is here for domestics, game, fish and fowel. Same for site of Hartlepool for the entire period, and multiple collections for sites like York or Wroxter. Unfortunately the ongoing excavations from Lyminge are not included, and neither are the excavations from Bamburgh. I suppose these haven’t been published yet.

I haven’t had time to completely explore all the data tables. A few things jumped out though. Remember that story in Bede’s History that Bishop Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish for something other than eels? Well, guess what, the only fish remains found at Bishopstone in Sussex in the Early Saxon period are eels (freshwater) and whiting (marine). Not an abundance of fish species. This of course doesn’t really say anything about the Wilfrid story other than that they really did fish for eels.  Overall, eels are very abundant at sites all over England. So were pigs in towns, as well as in rural areas. Its not surprising that there were significant differences between rural areas and wics or burghs, but former Roman towns also had distinctive profiles including the early period of Wroxter. There is so much data here it will take a while to digest.

This is an interesting book for practically any topic involving animals in early England. The data presented there is likely to be the foundation for many studies to come and the PDF is at a price that can’t be beat. I couldn’t help but think of the novelists who read here and how useful this would be for them. I hope you all check it out.

Aberth’s An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: Crucible of Nature

John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. Routledge, 2013. 326 pages.

9780415779463

Although the title of John Aberth’s book An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature is almost identical to Richard Hoffman’s book recently reviewed here, they couldn’t be more different. Aberth’s book is a cultural history of human thought and use of the environment, an entirely emic perspective. The focus is on humans, not the environment itself. 

He divides the material into three sections: air, water and earth; forest; and beasts. While this may make some sense for descriptive organizational purposes, it is really antithetical to an environmental history. An environment is the inseparable combination of the three. It reads like a series of anecdotes on topics that are of interest to Aberth, with some nod toward being wide-ranging. It is restricted almost exclusively to Europe and then primarily to the later Middle Ages. The main problem is that there are no research questions posed or arguments made. I come away from the book without a clear sense of something new that I can apply elsewhere. 

This is not to say that a cultural history of human interaction and thought on nature isn’t important. In Gregg Mitman’s 2005 paper on the history of environmental thinking in America,  he shows how these concepts have shaped how we think about human health, our place in nature, and the health of nature itself (and therefore our ability to exploit it for economic gain). These same concepts were present in the Middle Ages and could have been analyzed in a way that contributed to ongoing research topics especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. 

If you are looking for a survey of thought and use of nature without a particular research topic, you may enjoy this book. I prefer at least some data and scientific or medical information in environmental histories. 

 

Reference:

Mitman, G. (2005). In search of health: Landscape and disease in American environmental history. Environmental History, 184–210.

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014

Sept. 7, 2014

CFP: Medieval Landscapes of Disease

Call for Papers
Medieval Landscapes of Disease
50th International Congress of Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI   — May 14-17, 2015
 In recognition that diseases are manifestations of their environment, this session seeks papers that place medieval diseases within their environmental context. Just as a seed must be placed in good soil to grow, infectious disease requires a permissive environment to develop into an epidemic (or epizootic) and an ideal environment to bloom into a pandemic or panzootic.  I am open to all manner of studies and disciplines that address these issues.
Examples of acceptable topics:
  • Historic impacts of  epidemics and/or epizootics
  • Endemic disease in medieval environments
  • Environmental causes of disease such as malnutrition or industrial pollution related disease
  • Health effects of human-animal interactions
  • Archaeological assessments of human health and disease
  • Landscape alterations intended to improve human or animal health
  • Ecology of the built environment

Abstracts of no more than 300 words and the Participant Information Form should be sent to Michelle Ziegler at ZieglerM@slu.edu by September 15. Pre-submission queries are welcome.

The Participant Information Form and additional information be found at http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html.

King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.

Reference:

Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe

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Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014. $25 paperback, $12.50 e-book.

History roots in time and place — establishing situations, telling stories, comparing stories, linking stories. Environmental history brings the natural world into the story as an agent and object of history. This is medieval history as if nature mattered. (p. 3)

As a biologist, it is almost unimaginable to me for the natural world not to be a factor in history – not in a deterministic way – but as an integral component. This is a reminder to me, and now to you, that I read medieval history through a different lens. This book is very consciously a textbook  intended for historians and history students. As the very first  medieval environmental history textbook, Hoffmann is very carefully laying the theoretical foundation for a new sub-discipline. For non-historians, it provides insight into historians methods, concerns, and in some cases anxieties.

To study history as if nature mattered requires coming to an understanding of how culture and nature interact and the types of evidence available. In the introduction Hoffmann discusses a hybrid model of culture and nature that provides a more complete understanding of the medieval world. An important point here is that unintentional and unconscious human activities have real impacts on the environment, other species, and eventually feeding back on human culture in sometimes unexpected ways. This is especially true of anthropogenic remodeling of the landscape that affects species contemporaries were either completely unconscious of or at least are absent from medieval documents. Hoffmann gives the introduction of malaria to the Rhine delta  by Roman soldiers as an example (p. 9).  He also discusses the human mediated introduction of invasive species, the common carp and rabbit, that altered the biodiversity of Europe. Thus making humans both indirectly and directly responsible for local extinctions of native European fauna. As a biologist, the hybrid culture-nature model feels very instinctive and reminds me of Edmund Russell’s evolutionary history work.

Shifting through the evidence for environmental history is the tricky part. Hoffmann establishes the distinction between emic and etic evidence but doesn’t dwell on the terms. Yet, his framework is basically a division of emic (‘cultural’) and etic (‘culturally neutral’) types of evidence, where culture is largely traditional historical emic evidence and nature is primarily (but not exclusively) etic. Hoffmann wrestles with how to justify and integrate these two types of evidence throughout the book. At times it felt to me like he was being too apologetic for the scientific evidence, but this may reflect my own comfort zone. There are two chapters on cultural topics – attitudes toward God’s creation and on ownership of land, which are out of my comfort zone so I will leave those to others. The remainder are a mixture of etic and emic types of evidence.

Hoffmann opens the historical discussion with a valuable chapter demolishing all ideas of an European wilderness at the dawn of the medieval period.  Europe had been inhabited and sculpted by humans over thousands of years before 500 AD. For example, the great Beech forests of Europe only took hold because of human induced livestock and agricultural practices during the Iron Age.  Literary references to wilderness are at best secondary growth (and therefore anthropomorphic regrowth), and often pure rhetoric.

From here he moves into my period of greatest  interest, the early medieval or late antique period. All across Europe this was a period of unrelated political and ecological instability. Hoffmann rightly warns us against ecological determinism. Rome imploded for its own political reasons; ecological instability was a complication for the recovery. Moreover, Hoffman notes that the three ecological zones of Europe — the Atlantic or maritime zone, the continental zone and the Mediterranean – did not experience the same ecological change during the Roman period or the early medieval period that followed. Overall, it became much more difficult to sustain the Roman favored Mediterranean “agroecosystem” north of the Alps. The climate of the Roman Optimum not only allowed grapes to be grown in Britain, but more importantly allowed extensive expansion of wheat growing areas northward. As the climate cooled cereal production fell to be replaced by a mixed agriculture system that looked much more like pre-Roman northern Europe. All across Europe Roman settlements and building styles were abandoned as people spread out over the land. For the first time nucleated villages with new field systems developed replacing the Roman estate system. Case studies of Frisia and the founding community of Venice serve as examples of cultures that flourished in the cooler, wetter climate. Under the Carolingians, an amalgamation of Roman and barbarian agricultural systems emerges as the bipartite manor system with the family farm as the base unit that will last through the rest of the medieval period. The long 8th century (roughly 680s to 830s) is a turning point in the maturation of new medieval agricultural systems not only within Carolingian lands, but also in frontier areas like Ireland and Scandinavia.

The core of the book are the three chapters on medieval land use and management of living and non-living ecosystems. Although all of these chapters are rooted in the early medieval period, they really focus on 900-1500. I will not try to summarize the material in these intricate chapters. I particularly liked the material on land use, and milling technology. Focus is clearly on ‘agroecosystems’ and on rural life. The urban environment is restricted to a short section of the non-living ecosystem management chapter. Its placement in this chapter strikes me as odd.  As he just explained in the previous chapters on land use and agriculture, these are all man made environments.  I would have liked to see an entire chapter on urban environments, and some discussion of the built environment and its ecosystem.

I am thrilled that Hoffmann included chapters on infectious disease and natural disasters. The infectious disease chapter begins with a basic introduction to infectious disease in pre-industrial Europe and then examines ‘five’ diseases in particular – malaria, leprosy, Justinian plague, the Black Death and English sweating sickness. There are some substantial problems with the plague case studies. First, he leaves the etiology still open when there is now scientific consensus that the Yersinia pestis aDNA from both the plague of Justinian and the Black Death are both ancient, accurate, and the cause of death of these individuals. He uses a plague wave map which is no longer considered representative of the spread of disease (see Mengal 2011). It is also well known now that the black rat is only one of many hosts of the plague and that historical accounts can no longer rise or fall based on rat demographics. Yersinia pestis has not attenuated for any host: rodent, flea or mammalian host; it doesn’t need to. The old paradigm that successful infectious agents eventually attenuate to their hosts quietly fell some time ago. Human ectoparasites including the human flea and (experimentally) human louse can transmit Y. pestis to humans.  The genetics is muddled – for example, Y. pestis doesn’t have mitochondrial DNA!  Like many histories of the plague there are some significant misunderstandings of how immunity works and how long it lasts in a population. Acquired immunity (gained by surviving an infection) is not hereditary. Therefore there is no reason to believe that communities would have immunity stretching between the first and second plague pandemic.  Much of the modern thinking on the Black Death will be summarized and further developed in the upcoming inaugural issue of the Medieval Globe, edited by Monica Green and entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death due to be released in November 2014. Past plague discoveries have been discussed on my other blog Contagions. I also suggest Barrett and Armelagos’ The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013) for a general discussion of infectious disease in anthropomorphic environments.

Moving on to the ‘inconstant planet’, I really enjoyed this chapter. Earthquakes, floods, climate change, and volcanoes all impacted medieval Europe. A little more on flooding and river systems would have been appreciated. Despite not having an active volcano, analysis of ice cores indicates that some of Europe’s most significant climate crises were fallout from volcanic activity outside of Europe. These volcanic induced climate crises highlight how difficult it is to use climate data for historical purposes. Extreme weather had a sharper impact on historical accounts than slow climate change trends. I won’t say that one was more important than the other because it depends on the question being asked. Hoffmann offers some important perspectives on wrestling with climate and extreme weather events, that do increase during times of climate change (warming and cooling).

Hoffmann has crafted a fine text to lay the foundation for the hopefully growing sub-discipline of environmental history in the Middle Ages. With the exception of the plague material, he has done a remarkable job covering such a vast amount of material. With books of this type, there can always be more material to wish for and other options for organizing the material. This does not distract from the value of this book. I expect that this book will be reprinted and perhaps updated for many years to come. I would be remiss if I did not point out to the publisher, that this book really needs a new index before it is reprinted. Why they chose to index only one specific organism (the beaver?!) is beyond me. This book is rightly full of material on all types of livestock, wildlife, plants and even microbes, but this index is of little help to find them! The trend toward e-books with search features does not replace the need for a good index.

It really is critical to understand the medieval environment to provide context to modern environmental history, as well as medieval history in general.  I look forward to more historians becoming involved in interdisciplinary work with archaeologist, climatologists, and others working with past environments.

See also:

Edmund Russell. Evolutionary History: Uniting history and biology to understand life on Earth. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mengel, D C. “A Plague on Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death.” Past & Present 211, no. 1 (May 27, 2011): 3–34. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq069.

Ron Barrett and George Armelagos, The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death , edited by Monica Green, due to be released in November 2014

What do you really want to know about the past?

When you think about the past, what do you really want to know? Do you want to know what people thought and felt, their philosophy or understand their spin? Or, do you really want to know what really happened? What was their world really like, not what they said it was like? Sure we are all a little curious about both, but when push comes to shove, what do you want to know the most? Where will you invest your time?  These are really two very different approaches. I’ll soon be reviewing two books here that both look at nature in the Middle Ages and take opposite approaches.

The best example I have found of these diametrically opposed approaches is on medieval epidemics. Some historians will argue that it doesn’t matter what the disease was, all that matters is its demographic effect. Scientists will argue that you can’t really know anything about the epidemic without trying to characterize it medically/biologically, if not identify it. For many classically trained historians of medicine, retrospective diagnosis is not only a fool’s errand and waste of time, but bad practice. It is taking a lot of coaxing for them to accept scientific evidence that can identify the disease, and alas, some will look for any little uncertainty to cling to to reenforce their training. Scientists don’t help themselves by writing awful historical introductions to their papers relying on secondary sources that are themselves vintage to say the least.

Anthropology has been dealing with both approaches for a long time. In 1967, linguist Kenneth Pike first proposed the terms emic and etic to describe the two approaches. Etic, from phonetic, refers to measurable and observable traits. For Pike this meant the body structures and environments that effect human sound production, and today speech and language pathologies. Emic, from phonemic, refers to human interpretations of sounds that vary by culture to produce different languages and interpretations of sounds.   Pike’s book, published in 1967, was met with mixed success but his concept of emic and etic approaches has stuck. Moving beyond linguistics, the terms can be applied much more broadly.

An emic approach is interested in how people conceptualized and understood their world. If you want to know what they were thinking or what they believed, then you are asking an emic question. This is a humanist oriented approach used to study literature and language, cultural history and anthropology, religion and philosophy, art, etc. To study the past, this approach relies over-whelmingly on manuscripts, inscriptions and art (or interviews).

An etic approach is interested in what the world was really like using observable and ideally measurable data. If you want to know what caused a famine, not just what contemporary people attributed it to, then you are asking an etic question. This is science-oriented approach used by climatologists, biologists, archaeologists, ecologists and environmental historians, economists and some historians, (for example those who study military science or technology). The etic approach may also use manuscripts, some narratives but more likely technical drawings, tax rolls, manoral accounts, and other records. The etic approach is values physical data like climate proxies (ice cores, tree rings, etc), osteological analysis, pollen analysis, and analysis of physical remains.

Many fields use both approaches to  a greater or lesser degree. Anthropology is a prime example, but even here subdivisions develop with some competition. For example, (from what I have seen) cultural anthropology and medical anthropology primarily use emic approaches while archaeology and biological anthropology use etic approaches.  Likewise, academically linguistics is split into departments of language and literature, vs. departments of speech pathology and therapy. On the other hand, there are historians who use a lot of archaeology in their work along with manuscripts. I’m thinking of early medievalists in particular. One of the advantages of fields like Anglo-Saxon studies is that it can unite both approaches in a single field.

So what is your approach to history? Emic or etic? I am curious what approach my readers favor, so please leave a comment.

Sources

Emic and Etic, Wikipedia.

Harris, Marvin. “History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1976, 329–50.

Green, Monica. “Taking ‘Pandemic’ Seriously: Making the Black Death Global” The Medieval Globe, issue 1 (forthcoming)

Addendum:  I admit that I used poor judgement in regards to using disease as an example of the emic/etic distinction. I failed to understand the importance of Monica Green’s priority in applying the concept to medieval disease, plague in particular, as previously discussed on the discussion list MedMed-L and in the forthcoming issue of The Medieval Globe (which I am also a contributor to). My intention was for this post to be a preamble to a review of Richard Hoffmann’s book An Environmental History of Medieval Europe and his independent use and discussion of emic/etic evidence, which is planned as the next post for this blog. I apologize to Dr Green and recommend her forthcoming article to you.

 

Trading in butter?

You just never really know when you are going to find something unexpected. I’ve known for a long time that early medieval Ireland had a heavily cattle based economy, really a dairy based economy. Most of this product would be used for local consumption,  as a primary source of both calories and protein. During my research for Kalamazoo this past spring, there were many things I learned that were along the lines of what I expected.

The Irish recognized several forms of milk and milk products. Law codes and other sources mention whole milk, skim milk, buttermilk, cream, curds and whey, and nine different kinds of cheese (graded based on their chewiness!). Butter was a special food for the elite and eaten both fresh and salted. Out of these products, I would have expected cheese to be a primary foodstuff and a trading product. Afterall, cheese is the most durable dairy product. Yet, I really couldn’t find evidence for trade in Irish cheese.

Butter! Butter is the only dairy trading product mentioned. Why butter? Well, real butter doesn’t need refrigeration so it could be transported. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan found a letter between Waldebert and Bobolenus found within the prologue of Jonas’ Life of Columbanus, written in the 640s, that life at Bobbio in northern Italy was so austere that  the monks barely have enough Irish butter (‘ex Hibernia…butyrum’) to get by compared to the luxury Mediterranean goods at other monasteries. They view this as indicating that Irish butter was cheap and plentiful as far away as Italy. They note that in the 19th century, Irish butter was traded across the Atlantic without refrigeration so that it would have been possible. Ok, so we have Irish butter kings… (sounds odd) but never the less, still why butter rather than cheese? Perhaps since cheese is more durable, making butter was something only done where there really is a lot of excess milk, not often done in most areas with fewer cattle. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan calculate that an average productive medieval cow could produce about one pound of butter per day easily producing enough for trade and local consumption. That being said, Irish cattle management was not very advanced; many of their cattle would not have been productive. Cattle in Ireland at the time didn’t calf until age 4 and a calf had to be kept with them to keep them milking. There is little evidence of butchering calves or yearlings.

So for all the novelists out there, feel free to spread the butter around. Only put it on bread for elites though, because the poor didn’t have much bread at all. They ate mostly gruel or porridge made from barley or oats (essentially oatmeal). I imagine they cooked with a lot of milk, cream or butter for added nutrition and flavored with salt and honey. They could also add some meat (mostly pork) and vegetables including peas or  beans. I imagine ham and beans could have been on the menu occasionally.

(Another cattle based trade product was leather. Not just as raw leather hides but shoes are specifically mentioned in trade accounts. Irish ships arrived on the continent with clothing and shoes for trade.)

 

References:

McCormick, F. (2008). The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland. Peritia, 20(-1), 209–224.

Kerr, T., McCormick, F., & O’Sullivan, A. (2013). The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland. (pp. 1–103). Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research (INSTAR) program 2013. (open access)

McCormick, F., Kerr, T. R., McClatchie, M., & O’Sullivan, A. (2011). The Archaeology of Livestock and Cereal Production in Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100 (pp. 1–813). Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP2). (open access)