One of the most striking discoveries of modern scholarship on medieval European documentary traditions has been just how widespread forgery was. Almost every major religious house was involved in falsifying documents at some point; and many witnessed multiple waves of forgery. Those responsible were not backstreet rogues, but leading members of the ecclesiastical establishment – abbots and bishops, scholars and schoolmasters.
A case in point is Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg between 1009 and 1018. Thietmar is best known to modern students as the author of a chatty chronicle, which furnishes our most detailed narrative of socio-political developments within Germany in these years. Yet Thietmar was not simply a historian; he was also a forger. To modern eyes, these may seem like very different activities: the historian seeks to illuminate the past, the forger to obscure it. In the European Middle Ages, however, they went hand-in-hand. One of the main purposes of narrative history was to secure the rights and reputation of the family or (more often) religious house in question; and so it was with Thietmar. His bishopric had been dissolved in 981 and refounded in 1004, only five years before his own appointment. In writing his Chronicle, Thietmar sought to justify the act of refoundation and lay claim to episcopal rights lost in the intervening years.
It’s here that forgery came in handy. A chronicle might set out a programmatic case for restoring rights, but such arguments were unlikely to gain traction without documentary proof. And so it was that Thietmar came to produce a diploma in the name of Otto II (r. 973-82), claiming to grant the forest of Zweckau to Merseburg. A real document to this effect may once have existed. But this is not it – it’s clearly a fake, modelled on an authentic diploma of 974 (also in favour of Merseburg).
That this document is a forgery has long been known, as has Thietmar’s involvement in its production (he writes about the diploma at length in his Chronicle). What has escaped notice is one of the more subtle signs of falsification. When recounting the grant of Zweckau, Thietmar lays great store the fact that Emperor Otto II confirmed the diploma ‘with his own hand’ (manu propria: see image below).
This is an allusion to the process by which the royal/imperial monogram at the bottom of the diploma came into being. Alongside the seal, the monogram was the main means of authenticating a document. And particular importance was accorded to the so-called completion stroke (German: Vollziehungsstrich) here, the final cross-stroke, which would only be drawn once the grant had been approved by the ruler. Some kings took on the duty of drawing this final stroke themselves, as Thietmar’s account suggests. But this was not a universal practice, as modern scholarship has noted. Within the Ottonian period, Otto III (r. 983-1002) seems to have been the first to do so regularly, starting in the mid-990s; thereafter Henry II (r. 1002-24) also periodically did so. Earlier, there are few if any signs of such autograph completion; then the norm was for the scribe responsible for the closing elements of the diploma (the eschatocol) to produce the entire monogram.
Why does this matter? Because Thietmar’s forgery creates the impression of autograph completion (as mentioed in his Chronicle): the cross-stroke on the monogram is notably thinner than the other vertical and horizontal strokes, suggesting that it has been added in a separate stage. Yet here Thietmar has been too clever by half. In aiming for verisimilitude, he has fallen into subtle anachronism, presuming that the documentary practices of his own day were prevalent in the 970s. His contemporaries may have been fooled, but Otto II wouldn’t have been.
Dr Levi Roach, Associate Professor of Medieval History
As part of my ongoing project on medieval forgery, I am pleased to anounce the following Call for Papers on ‘Forging Memory: False Documents and Historical Consciousness in the Middle Ages’ for both the Kalamazoo and Leeds medieval congresses next year (May 9-12; July 1-4), organised under the auspices of the Centre for Medieval Studies here at Exeter:
Over the last two decades, scholars have shown great interest in how group and institutional identities were constructed and contested within (and beyond) the Middle Ages. Much attention has been given to the role of narrative histories of peoples, regions and religious houses in this context. Only relatively recently, however, has the contribution of more ‘documentary’ sources come to be appreciated. In recent years, we have learned that cartularies and cartulary-chronicles are not merely repositories of texts, but powerful statements about local and institutional identity. These sessions seek to develop these lines of investigation further by examining the contribution of forgery to these processes. They aim to bridge the gap between the study of historical memory (which until recently has taken written narratives as its starting point) and documentary forgery (which tends to focus on the legal implications of such texts), offering new vantage points on old problems regarding uses of the past in the Middle Ages.
Papers on any of these themes considering on any region or period within the Middle Ages are welcome. Proposals of up to 300 words should be sent by email to me () by 15 September, with an indication as to whether you wish to be considered for the Kalamazoo or Leeds sessions. Two sessions are already confirmed at the former, while I am looking to organise anywhere between one and three at the latter (depending upon demand).
Levi Roach, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History
As a part of my AHRC-funded project on forgery, I had the singular pleasure of visiting the Hessisches Staatsarchiv in leafy Darmstadt last term. There are many reasons why archival visits are important. Some manuscripts have yet to be transcribed or digitised, while important features of those that have – ink colour, dry-point glosses, lineation – can only properly be identified and appreciated in person.
In my case, I was in search of an erasure. A key text for the Worms forgeries, the subject of one of my case studies (and book chapters), is a diploma now housed in the Hessisches Staatsarchiv (D O I 392). Issued from Ravenna in northern Italy in early April 970, it decides a dispute between the bishopric of Worms and the nearby monastery of Lorsch over forest rights in the Odenwald. The diploma comes down firmly in favour of Bishop Anno of Worms, and in doing so, it quotes a number of forgeries in the names of earlier Carolingian rulers (which also survive independently).
The traditional view is that it is an authentic text of 970, which happens to cite earlier counterfeits (the latter probably commissioned by Bishop Anno himself). In 1901, however, Johann Lechner argued that the main text of the diploma was written on erasure. Someone had, in other words, taken an authentic charter of 970, methodically scraped off its contents (minus the opening line) – as is perfectly possible with parchment – and overwritten these with a new text justifying Worms’ disputed rights. This makes the diploma an outright forgery; and Lechner argued that both it and the texts it cites were produced as part of a single forgery action in the mid-980s. At this time, Anno’s successor Hildibald was simultaneously bishop of Worms and imperial chancellor (the latter role involving oversight of official diploma production) and thus well placed to commission such a text.
As rapidly became clear upon my visit, there are no signs of erasure on the single sheet of the diploma. The parchment is quite rough and raw, but this roughness does not coincide with areas of writing. More importantly, the opening line of elongated script (litterae elongatae) is clearly in the same ink as the main text. Since medieval ink was produced manually, with each batch being subtly different from the last, this indicates that these details were written at the same time (or in very quick succession). The importance of this lies in the fact that the first line is in a different hand from the rest of the text (dubbed ‘X’ by its editors). This same hand furnished the opening line of a diploma for Magdeburg (D O I 388b). The latter text was issued from Pavia in late January 970, less than four months before our charter, so we know this scribe was in Italy at the time. And since it is scarcely conceivable that this same – otherwise unattested – individual should have been on hand at Worms over a decade later, both diplomas are best treated as authentic products of early 970.
A great deal can, therefore, hang on the presence – or absence – of an erasure. And unless we are willing to follow the medievalist’s clarion call ad fontes (‘to the sources’), we risk repeating and compounding old errors – as has happened for over a century at Worms.
Levi Roach, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History
It brings me great pleasure to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has seen fit to fund my new project, ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c. 970–1020’. This aims to place forgeries at the heart of our understanding of the growth and development of historical consciousness at a key period in European history. Starting from the the deceptively simple observation that the later tenth century is the first time when the forging of documents can be attested across the Latin-speaking West, it seeks to investigate what this meant on the ground.
Medievalists have, of course, long known that falsified documents can be just as interesting as the real thing. Nevertheless, forgeries continue to receive less attention than their authentic counterparts. In part, this is a matter of inertia. Particularly when using older editions, it is all too easy to slip into the tendency of ignoring those marked up as ‘forged’ (conveniently relegated at the back of the volume, in the case of the older Monumenta Germaniae Historica editions). More to the point, perhaps, forgeries often lack context. Whereas we know a fair bit about where and when most authentic documents were produced, it is difficult to ascertain the same for forgeries – documents which by their nature seek to hide their true origins. Studying them therefore requires a great deal of contextual knowledge about the forger and his (or her) aims, a fact which has discouraged synthesis and generalization.
Still, when we can date and localize forgeries, they offer a wealth of information. Precisely because forgers were not constrained by the realities of their day, these documents tell us much about their hopes, dreams and ambitions; they were the blank canvases onto which the monks and clerics of the Middle Ages projected their ‘ought world’ (to use Karl Leyser’s memorable turn of phrase). In this respect, we are lucky to have a number of closely datable forgery complexes from the later tenth century. Five of these will form the basis of my investigation, which will result in a book-length study: the counterfeit diplomas and papal bulls of Pilgrim of Passau (970s); the Worms forgeries, associated with Bishop Hildibald (980s); the purported papal privileges of Abbo of Fleury (990s); the Orthodoxorum charters, concocted under the auspices of Abbot Wulfgar (mid- to later 990s); and the forged and authentic diplomas associated with Leo of Vercelli (late 990s).
The intention is to use these case studies as a springboard to consider broader themes of memory and institutional identity in these years. They have been selected in order to give maximum geographical range within a tightly defined period; they have also been selected to give a balance of monastic houses (Fleury, Abingdon) and cathedral chapters (Passau, Worms, Vercelli). Each forgery complex is unique; and I hope to give due weight to the specific as well as the general. By examining a range of cases, however, I also hope to avoid getting lost in the detail. The interest of these documents lies in the fact that each act of forgery was not simply one of wishful thinking (though it was often this too); it involved a creative engagement with the past, the formulation of an alternative history of the religious house in question. By examining this phenomenon at the turn of the first millennium – a period identified by Patrick Geary as a decisive one where attitudes to the past are concerned – the study will add depth to our understanding of these developments.
In pragmatic terms, the project will run 21 months (effectively two years), with the first nine of these spent on archival research. Thereafter, the focus will be on writing up and disseminating findings, with a strong public outreach element. During this time, I will organize panels on the subject at a number of international conferences. The project will be then capped off with a public exhibition at the local cathedral in Exeter, which boasts its own fascinating collection of forgeries of the mid-eleventh century. This will be complemented by an end-of-project conference here at Exeter on ‘Forgery and Memory between the Middle Ages and Modernity’. Anyone interested in getting involved is strongly encouraged to !
Dr. Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History
What happens after empire? In an age in which Europe continues to grapple with its colonial past, there could scarcely be a more timely question. Yet while the Fall of Rome is frequently invoked within political debates (for better or for worse), the same can scarcely be said of the Carolingian Empire, which spanned much of northern and western Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, fundamentally transforming the continent’s political landscape.
The decision of the HERA partnership to fund a major project investigating the aftermath of the Carolingian Empire – the ‘transformation of the Carolingian world’, to use the favoured terminology – is therefore to be warmly welcomed. Sarah Hamilton has already written about the project’s aims and her contribution, so I would like to take the opportunity to reflect more generally on the post-Carolingian period, in the light of the project’s inaugural conference in Berlin last month.
As Stefan Esders, our host, explained in his introductory remarks, the core idea behind the project is to view the tenth century not simply as a prelude to the central Middle Ages, but as a development out of the Carolingian age. The focus is therefore on change as well as continuity, on seeing how similar texts and ideas came to take on new meanings in the post-Carolingian world. These themes came through strongly in almost all of the papers (helpful summaries of which can be found by searching #UNUP on Twitter). A common refrain was that texts and ideas developed in the Carolingian period continued to be used and applied within the tenth century, whether in the form of local institutional histories (Koziol), notions of identity (Diesenberger), legal materials (Esders), liturgical laudes (Welton) or normative ordinances (West). Yet such apparent continuity can be misleading, as these (and other) speakers noted: even when copying or imitating Carolingian texts or genres, tenth-century writers repackaged these for the present; this was not a case of stagnation or idle nostalgia, but of strikingly new variations on existing themes. Then as now, invoking the past was a powerful rhetorical tool, but not one which should be mistaken for straightforward continuity.
Nor it was not all about continuity either. The focus of Sarah Hamilton’s paper was rites of excommunication, which are first recorded in the tenth century. This raises important questions about the impetus behind such acts of codification. Similarly my own paper touched on some of the earliest examples of imitative script – that is, self-consciously archaic writing – from Europe, whilst Sarah Greer provided a thoughtful consideration of the foundation of Quedlinburg, one of the most important new convents of the tenth century. There was, therefore, plenty new going on in these years. But just as change can often be detected within continuity, so one must be careful not to exaggerate the novelty of these developments: new texts, rites and convents certainly came to the fore, but these often owed much to the past.
The cardinal lesson of the conference – if it might be distilled into one – was therefore that we must be wary of overstated claims about both continuity and change: the same texts and artefacts can mean very different things within different contexts, while different texts and artefacts may fulfil very similar functions. Perhaps most importantly, the papers all underscored the vitality of the ‘long tenth century’ as a period of transition between the early and central Middle Ages. It has long been my belief that historians of the period could learn a great deal from scholars of Late Antiquity – who have transcended the ancient/medieval divide so well – and it is promising to see steps in this direction. Indeed, as Patrick Geary noted in the concluding discussion, it would be nice to see more experts on the eleventh and twelfth century integrated as the project continues. It is only when we start to shed our identities as ‘early’ and ‘central’ medievalists that we will truly start to understand these fascinating and dynamic years.
Whether there are any lessons to be learned here for a nation facing the prospect of Brexit and dreaming of ‘Empire 2.0’, is perhaps a question best left to a different day. For the time being, it looks as if the future of tenth-century studies is bright; this ‘Age of Iron’ (as Cardinal Baronio once called it) may yet come to be appreciated in its full diversity and complexity.
Dr Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History
I’m very much looking forward to joining the community at Exeter this coming autumn, and I would like to take the opportunity to introduce myself and my work.
Currently I’m finishing up a project: a study of saints from abroad in early medieval Rome. The city of Rome guided me to this project. Wandering through Rome—one of my favorite pastimes—led me to puzzle about the city’s many saintly presences. On the Tiber Bend, for example, we find, in close vicinity, churches for the marvelous wonder-worker St. George, the soldier-saint Theodore and, conveniently close to the Tiber, for St. Nicholas, a bishop with a reputation for assisting travelers in distress.[i] All three of these saints are ‘saints from abroad’, that is, saints who, according to their hagiographical legends, lived and died in locations outside of Rome. What are these saints doing in Rome?
The rise of ‘Christian’ Rome tends to conjure up images of Peter and Paul and the catacombs with their many martyrs. In the words of Ferdinand Gregorovius’ magisterial (1869-1872) History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, a new Rome ‘rose again from out of the catacombs, her subterranean arsenal’, her Empire ‘transformed into an ecclesiastical system, with the pope as its center.’[ii] But when we look within the city walls we find that the new spiritual topography was shaped, as much, if not more, by saints from abroad.
The period I’ve considered is from roughly the 6th to 9th centuries. This isn’t because saints from abroad weren’t present in the city beforehand. Already the earliest list of saints venerated in Rome, the mid-5th-century Depositio Martyrum, includes North African saints: St. Cyprian and Sts. Perpetua and Felicita.[iii] Nor, of course, does the introduction of saints from abroad come to a halt in the 9th century. However, the reason to focus on the period from shortly before the ‘reconquest’ of Italy by Justinian’s armies in the mid-6th centuries through the 8th century is that this was a period in which Rome was still very much part of the ‘Byzantine’ world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Correspondingly, saints who belonged to the ‘cultural koine’ of the late antique/early medieval Mediterranean world readily settled in Rome.
The story I’ve tried to piece together is how and why these saints were settled in Rome and what impact they had on the city. It is a story of Byzantine administrators and Roman ecclesiastics, but also of communities of immigrants and Romans, their names long forgotten, who patronized saints from abroad for the protection and support these saints offered. Fragmentary as the evidence is, it helps wrench us away from an image of a monolithic papal Rome that grew out of its own ‘native’ sanctity.
The presence of these saints in Rome reflect their patrons’ Mediterranean horizons. Once in Rome their legends maintained the memory of the far-flung locations from which they were purported to originate, adding particular inflexion to the city. Moreover, these saints, just like their Roman counterparts, were in dialogue with the monumental Roman past into which they entered, imbuing it with new Christian meaning.
Take St. Hadrian. According to his passio, St. Hadrian was an administrator who converted to Christianity and was martyred in Nicomedia. His relics were said to have been brought to Constantinople soon after his death. What better location in Rome for a Constantinopolitan administrator-saint than the Senate House!
When Pope Honorius (r. 625-638) dedicated the senate house to St. Hadrian the architectural changes were minimal. The marble revetment and benches where the senators had once sat remained in place. This was then a site that continued to hearken to its imperial legacy and yet, whose saint proposed a radically new vision of empire. A new Rome was taking shape, still grounded in its imperial, Mediterranean, past.
Dr Maya Maskarinec, Lecturer in Medieval Mediterranean History
[i] The earliest surviving written attestations of a church dedicated to Nicholas at the Tiber bend date from the time of Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099). However, circumstantial evidence (in particular a column inscription from within the church) suggests a significantly earlier date.
[ii] Ferdinand Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter: vom V. bis zum XVI. Jahrhundert (1859–1872), edited by W. Kampf, 4 vols. (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1978; first edition 1953-57); trans. A. Hamilton, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, 8 vols. (London: Bell, 1894–1902), here 1.1, pp. 10; 17-18.
[iii] Depositio Martyrum, ed. R. Valentini and G. Zucchetti, in Codice topografico della città di Roma II, Fonti per la storia d’Italia 88 (Roma: Tipografia del Senato, 1942): 17-28.
The following is a review of John Eldevik’s Episcopal Power and Ecclesiastical Reform in the German Empire (CUP, 2012). It was originally produced for an online review platform; but, since it never appeared, it is now ‘published’ here in lightly revised format.
One of the most fraught issues in the study of the Middle Ages is the timing, nature and causes of the changes which encompassed western Europe between the early and central Middle Ages. These irrevocably altered the face of European society, with effects that are felt to the present day. Robert Bartlett speaks in this connection of the ‘making of Europe’ and R. I. Moore writes of a ‘first European revolution’, the greatest socio-economic transformation between the Fall of Rome and Industrial Revolution. Yet despite the obvious significance of these developments, there is little agreement as to their timing, scale or causes.
John Eldevik’s book is therefore to be welcomed. It engages intelligently with old debates from a new angle: that of the humble church tithe. The tithe derives from Near Eastern traditions of dedicating a tenth (or similar portion) of produce and income to religious activities. It figures prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures and came to influence Graeco-Roman traditions of religious charity; it was also a Christian custom from earliest times, though it only became a formal requirement over the course of the early Middle Ages. As part of this process, tithes were placed under the oversight of bishops, and it is this which makes them such a useful way into debates about social and religious change: since tithes were an essential source of wealth and authority for prelates, they can tell us much about their practices of lordship and patronage.
The bulk of the book is made up of three case studies of episcopal tithe rights between 950 and 1150. The bishoprics chosen span the Empire: Lucca in Tuscany, with its rich private charter material; Mainz in Franconia, with its detailed narrative accounts; and Salzburg in Bavaria (as it was then), with its own well-preserved documentary records. The picture that emerges is one of substantial but subtle change in the mid- to late eleventh century. Before this time, tithes were prized for their socio-economic and symbolic value, which derived in no small part from the bonds created by their lease and exchange. Yet as we move into the second half of the eleventh century, such transactions are increasingly frowned upon. This change played out differently in each region. In Lucca, Bishop Teudgrim granted away a large proportion of tithes in 983, in the sort of action which later reformers would roundly criticize. As Eldevik notes, however, this act stood in a long tradition, and probably represents a last-ditch attempt to secure the position of the bishop in the face of local challenges from the cathedral chapter and city. That such actions were no so ill-advised as one might imagine is suggested by later developments; though attitudes towards the granting of tithes as livelli – a kind of temporary lease popular in Italy – changed, they did so gradually, and little effort was made to regain earlier rights. In Salzburg, on the other hand, tithes were regularly exchanged, but as time wore on bishops sought to assert greater control over these transactions. A key moment came in the episcopate of Gebhard (1060–88), who as an outsider to the local political scene needed to rely more heavily upon traditional episcopal prerogatives than his forbears. Still, as at Lucca, change was gradual and earlier grants were seldom overturned. At Mainz, on the other hand, developments more neatly fit the traditional narrative of church reform. Here Archbishop Siegfried’s attempts to reclaim tithes in Thuringia look like a textbook imposition of reformist demands for the restoration of lost rights; yet, as Eldevik notes, the bishop’s efforts were as informed by immediate territorial and political considerations as by religious ideals.
It is thus clear that something changed between 950 and 1150, but this cannot be explained in terms of reform alone (at least as traditionally conceptualized). Indeed, Eldevik is acutely aware of the danger of taking reforming rhetoric at face value; as he points out, reformers not only misrepresented previous tithe arrangements, but frequently concealed their own motives for doing so. Yet this is not to say that reform has nothing to do with developments. Local practices of holding, granting and leasing tithes were influenced by prevailing conceptions of episcopal office; and as these developed, this inevitably had a knock-on effect. Still, since tithes were deeply embedded in local networks of patronage, the manner in which reforming ideals were implemented (if at all) was shaped by local considerations. In a sense, therefore, the key lesson of Eldevik’s study – as indeed much recent literature on the subject – is that similar changes can be traced in multiple regions without resorting to external ‘reform’ as the sole explanation. In fact, in none of these cases were developments spearheaded by the pope, and they largely pre-date the heyday of ‘Gregorian’ reform. More important than reform may have been attitudes towards lordship. Here Eldevik draws parallels here between his findings and those of Thomas Bisson, who sees the eleventh century as a period of sudden and abrupt change in patterns and practices of lordship.
Eldevik’s refusal to present a simple model of change is both refreshing and frustrating; it avoids reducing the complexity of the phenomena he examines, but risks leaving the reader (or at least this reader!) wondering what it was that actually drove such developments. By asserting that changes in episcopal tithes should be understood as part of broader shifts in patterns of lordship, Eldevik may well be on the right track – but he also in a sense dodges the question. If the eleventh century does indeed see the development of a new kind of territorial lordship à la Bisson (suggested tentatively at p. 259), then why was this so? Are we seeing the long arm of monastic reform (a possibility mooted at pp. 266–7), or are we witnessing longer-term developments out of the Carolingian era, as Charles West might argue? There is clearly much work to be done here! Though Eldevik may not have explained these changes, he elegantly demonstrates that any attempt to do so will need to take tithes seriously – and that alone is no mean accomplishment!
Dr Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History
This past month the Museum of Somerset in Taunton has enjoyed a particular honour: it has been host to the Alfred Jewel. Found in North Petherton (Somerset) by Sir Thomas Wroth in 1693, the Jewel was bequeathed the Ashmolean Museum in 1718 and has remained there ever since. Its homecoming (if the term may be used) has naturally been accompanied by much local interest and fanfare, including a feature to which I contributed on BBC Radio Somerset: the object was unveiled in a private viewing on the evening of January 30 in the presence of various notables and went on public display the following morning.
The Jewel itself is a small but intricately worked artefact about the size of a large necklace pendant. It consists of an enamelled plague set beneath rock-crystal and framed in gold-work which it ends in a small socket, suggesting that something once protruded out from it. The main figure in the middle of the jewel is thought to be Christ, though it is also possible that this represents ‘sight’. The quality of the craftsmanship alone would make the Jewel an object worthy of admiration, but the particular interest of this artetfact lies in the context of its production – it was apparently commissioned by no less a figure than Alfred the Great, that most famous of Anglo-Saxon rulers. On art-historical grounds alone the object can be dated to the second-half of the ninth century (i.e. Alfred’s time), but the key evidence comes from the inscription running along the edge, which reads AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, that is, ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. Given the quality of workmanship, there can be little doubt that this ‘Alfred’ is none other than the ruling king of Wessex at the time (871–99).
Alfred’s biographer, the Welsh monk Asser, described his lord as a patron of arts and crafts and the Alfred Jewel can be placed alongside a number of other objects which have been associated with his court, including the Fuller Brooch and a series of similar jewels, including the
Minster Lovell Jewel, Warminster Jewel, Bowleaze Jewel and possibly three further items discovered in more recent years. However, though it may be in good company, there can be no doubt that the Alfred Jewel is the most sumptuous and significant of these artefacts. The precise function of the jewels is uncertain, but there is reason to believe that they may represent examples of what Alfred the Great referred to as æstels. Thus in the preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Alfred states that ‘I intend to send a copy [of this translation] to each bishopric in my kingdom; and in each copy there will be an æstel worth fifty mancuses’. The term æstel is otherwise unattested in Old English (it is a so-called hapax legomenon), but it clearly must have been something relating to reading (or books) and of substantial value (we know that estates could be sold for a mancus or two in this period). Given the small size and valuable nature of these objects, it has been proposed – plausibly, though not definitively, it must be emphasised – that they are versions of the enigmatic æstel mentioned in Alfred’s preface. If so, they would seem to have been not pendants, but pointers, intended as reading aids, and one imagines that they would have had impressive tips (perhaps of ivory) when first presented to their recipients.
With the rising number of such objects found in recent years, it may be that this traditional interpretation is ripe for revision, but no matter what historians, archaeologists and art-historians decide, one thing is certain: the Alfred Jewel will remain the prime example for an impressive type of ornament, produced and patronised by the court of one of England’s most famous and successful rulers, a king who made his last stand against the vikings at Edington with ‘all the men of Somerset’ (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it). It is therefore only fitting that the Alfred Jewel should have been found in Somerset and has now found its way back ‘home’, however briefly.
Dr Levi Roach