From Student to Research Assistant

In the fifth and last of a series of guest blogs, recent Cardiff University graduate (and now MA student), Jacob Deacon, writes about the transition from student to research assistant.

Working as a Research Assistant isn’t how you’d expect it to be. Despite being called an ‘assistant’, nothing could be further from the truth. In this job you’re effectively your own boss. Admittedly, all the resources are provided for you, but when left to your own devices it can be a very daunting prospect. You have to decide when to work, how to structure your research (no module handbooks here for a quick answer!), and make up your mind whether or not something is relevant to your lecturer’s needs.

For the last month I have been researching Anglo-Saxon diplomacy, with the end goal being to produce a database of every diplomatic event mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. At first this may sound like a lot of time to carry out one task, but as with any other bit of university work it can soon spiral out of control. I quickly found myself wanting to make sure this research was perfect, and started comparing the accounts of diplomatic encounters from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to several other sources. Before I knew it my notes started to get out of hand…I’m fairly sure Jenny didn’t anticipate the final result comprising of a document nearly 20,000 words in length.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, detailing the genealogy of the kings of Wessex, who had several diplomatic encounters with Danish raiders. BL MS Additional 34652, f.2

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, detailing the genealogy of the kings of Wessex, who had several diplomatic encounters with Danish raiders.
BL MS Additional 34652, f.2

But don’t let the hard work put you off. Being a Research Assistant has proven to be incredibly rewarding. Whereas most work you carry out at university will perhaps stay between you and your professor, working as a research assistant gives you a confidence that the research you are carrying out will go on to help other students in their work. Having spent my third year studying the Anglo-Saxons I can say I wish I’d had access to this document to help keep track of the diplomatic situation in Britain…especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries. There are also times that you’ll come across something both exciting and mysterious in equal measure, leading to a new desire to start researching another fascinating topic. For example, whilst on my placement one thing which kept cropping up again and again was the exchange of hostages to ensure that both sides remained faithful to the terms of an agreement. I found myself wondering what sort of individuals would have been selected for this role, what sort of conditions would they have lived in as part of their new life, and what their fate would have been if their king broke the agreement (this sort of thing tended to happen a lot – being an Anglo-Saxon hostage can’t have been an easy life). As I continued to work on Anglo-Saxon and then later Norman diplomatic encounters another thing that struck me was the almost complete lack of evidence for written documents being part of the two sides making peace. Unfortunately this was an area I did not have time to go in to, but given how written documents were certainly being produced for other reasons at the time, it makes their omission from the historical record even more puzzling.

The genealogy of King Cnut, a man with a reputation for mutilating hostages once an agreement was broken. BL MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 4

The genealogy of King Cnut, a man with a reputation for mutilating hostages once an agreement was broken. BL MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 4

Ultimately, working as a Historical Research Assistant gave me a fascinating insight in to what it truly means to be a professional historian, and I’d like to thank Jenny for giving me this opportunity. For anyone interesting in pursuing a career in academia, I can fully recommend pursuing a similar summertime position. No, working as a Research Assistant isn’t how you’d expect it to be; its so much better.



Crime, Exiles and Ordeals

(Recent Cardiff graduate, Naomi Maher, writes about her placement researching crime, exiles and ordeals, and what it’s like to trawl through 600+ pages of primary source material!)

For five weeks I have researched Anglo-Saxon exiles and trial by ordeals. I examined sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne and A. O. Anderson’s Early Sources of Scottish History (all 604 pages of this latter work is simply a compilation of lots of other sources – making it a very long and repetitive account!). Despite some of the challenges these sources posed, this placement provided me with a great opportunity to read and attempt to get a better understanding of the contemporary accounts of Anglo-Saxon life.

Understanding the reasoning behind the ordeal trial and punishment by exile or outlawry was half the challenge. There were a number of different ordeals that could either convict or free an accused. For instance, the ordeal of fire required that the accused walk a certain distance, over red-hot ploughshares or holding a red-hot iron. In theory, if you were innocent you would come out of this completely without injury. However, more commonly the wound was bandaged and re-examined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, or that it was festering, in which case you were guilty and then exiled or executed. According to various law codes, exile could be ordered for an individual in cases such as repeat offences, wizardry and prostitution. My research, however, seemed to suggest that the most common reason was simply that the individual posed a threat to the king and it is not always clear if these underwent the ordeal. For example, Symeon of Durham records that in 944 Anlaf and Reignold were expelled from Northumbria by Edmund who later subdued it to his own authority- no further information is provided but it seems pretty clear that they were simply a threat that was dealt with. In regards to trial by ordeal, various law codes suggest that the practice was used in instances such as coining of false money, treachery and theft. In particular, it was this latter crime which seems to have been one of the most common for having to undergo a trial by ordeal. As theft was a crime that could affect the whole community it would stand to reason that the Anglo-Saxons would not only want to make an example of the accused in order to reassure the community but also to deter would-be thieves.

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Overall, whilst today we would see a painful trial and social ostracism as bizarre and extreme we have to remember that, in reality, these penalties were perhaps rarely enforced. Most crimes were compensated rather than punished. During my placement I looked at a range of sources and expected to find many instances of ordeals and exiles/outlaws but was surprised by the lack of evidence for this. Whether this was because they weren’t always recorded or whether they just didn’t happen that often we’ll never really know but, in my opinion, these harsh penalties were effective scare mongering tactics enforced throughout the centuries. These kingdoms were constantly changing and were regularly threatened by external forces, including neighbouring kingdoms and the Vikings, and these strong punishments seems to have been a way of limiting the internal threats that were posed to law and order.

A New Order? Westphalia and ‘Modern’ Diplomacy

Dan Jewson, who is just about to enter his third year as an undergraduate and who arrived at Cardiff University through the Exploring the Past pathway, writes about his three-week placement working on the ‘myth’ of the Peace of Westphalia.

I undertook a three week research placement supporting Jenny Benham in her research on international law. My specific tasks were to compile a bibliography on the subject of ‘The origins of International Law’ and to compile further research into a number of specific European Peace Treaties between 1485 and 1918.

At first, I was overwhelmed at what appeared to be an enormous task in an area of history I have very little experience in. I was not really too sure where to start! Very quickly these fears disappeared as I began to read and research the many primary & secondary sources available and quickly became fascinated by the subject. Whilst this was a subject area I had not looked at in any depth previously, the historical skills I have developed during my degree proved to be transferable.

In particular, it was exciting to have the opportunity look in detail at the 1648 Peace of Westphalia (a series of treaties concluded between May and October), which was the culmination of the peace process at the end of the European 30 years’ war. An historical paradigm has grown up around this Peace. Historians and lawyers believe the ‘Westphalian Order’ represents a turning point in international law, heralding ‘modern’ diplomatic and international relations between newly established nation states. However, by reading the text of the treaty in detail I was able to gather evidence which suggested that this historical narrative can be argued to be a myth. Far from being a ‘modern’ peace treaty or a new way of operating international relations, Westphalia drew inspiration from diplomatic practice stretching back into medieval times. It was genuinely exciting to read through a primary source and identify evidence that challenges established historical thought – a fitting reward for trawling through challenging and lengthy pages of 17th century legal text! Having taken a module last semester on the British Civil Wars, it was also very interesting to be looking at the same period but from a European perspective, broadening my understanding of the Early Modern period and also challenged some of the opinions I had developed on Britain during the Civil Wars.

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748

Other Treaties that I looked at in depth included The Treaty of Osnabrück (1648), The Treaty of Pyrenees (1659), The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), The Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle (1748) and the Congress of Vienna (1815). Each of these treaties have also established historical narratives attached to them so it was fascinating to unpick these and consider the evidence. One of the challenges I had with some of the primary sources was finding documents which had been translated into English. This took a long time with some documents and with others proved completely impossible. This was frustrating and slowed down my research at times.

Overall it has been a fantastic opportunity which I have really enjoyed. Looking at peace treaties across a broad timeframe enabled me to understand in more depth the development of international law in Europe and also to challenge some of my own historical preconceptions about the development of European nation states and the background to many European conflicts. It’s also broadened my horizons beyond the Early Modern and Modern Period which are the periods most of my studies have focussed on. Finally, working alongside Jenny and benefiting from her expertise, professionalism and obvious passion for her field has been a real pleasure which has enabled me to further develop my historical skills and knowledge. Thank you very much.

The sanctuary of Assange – a case of early medieval law

You would have had to have resided in the deepest darkest woods over the last five years not to have heard something about the ongoing saga of the attempts by Swedish prosecutors investigating sex crimes to question Julian Assange, the Australian journalist and founder of Wikileaks – an organisation that publishes secret and classified information from anonymous sources. Assange denies all charges and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden fearing he would be sent on to the US and put on trial for releasing American documents through Wikileaks (a quick recount of events and links to some of the coverage is available here: ; My interest in this story is not about the various legal ins and outs of this case, but rather in how a case such as this might have played out in the period c.800-c.1300.

Firstly, it is important to point out that despite the fact that scholars often regard international law as having its beginning in the early modern period, 1648 and Westphalia is the date and place usually quoted, it is evident that there were some ‘international’ legal principles that had been in use much earlier than this date. We know this because some of the most frequently occurring provisions in treaties of the early medieval period regard those for men (and presumably women?) who had been accused of, or found guilty of, committing crimes or wrongdoings in one kingdom, and who had fled into exile, or been outlawed or banished, and had then sought shelter in another ruler’s territory. There are numerous references in treaties and in narratives describing agreements between rulers to how neither contracting party was to be allowed to shelter such men and occasionally also to the fact that they were to be actively sought and if caught shipped back to the ruler whose laws they had breached. The Anglo-French truce of 1215, the Anglo-Scottish treaty of Falaise (1174), the Anglo-Flemish alliance of 1101, the treaty between King Æthelred and the Viking leaders (994), the Franco-German treaty of Bonn (921), the treaty between Emperor Lothar and the Venetians (840), and the treaty between the kings of Mercia and Wessex (704/5) are just a few examples containing such provisions. We, furthermore, know that there are other pieces of evidence indicating that these provisions were implemented. For instance, in England both the treaty of Falaise and the legal document known as the Assize of Clarendon indicate that it was the responsibility of the sheriff to keep lists of such men, and to hunt them down and hand them over to the other side, while on the continent such men often turned up as mercenaries: the tenth-century chronicler Widukind of Corvey is just one writer to mention an army made up of such ‘criminals’. It is also possible that the attack launched by the English king, Æthelred II, against Normandy in c. 1000 should be seen in this same light, as the treaty of 991 specifically stipulated that the Norman duke was not to harbour any men or enemies of the English king without his say so.

Detail of a miniature of king Ethelred II attacking the Normans at the Cotentin Peninsula. BL MS Royal 20 E II f. 258v

Detail of a miniature of king Ethelred II attacking the Normans at the Cotentin Peninsula. BL MS Royal 20 E II f. 258v

So how might a medieval person end up being chased across borders, as it were? Much like today, once a crime had been committed, someone had to announce it and the name of the accused at a local assembly and appoint a day for when the accused would come to answer the accusation. There were a myriad of offences that might land you in serious trouble. For instance, being accused or convicted of a so-called ‘unemendable’ crime; that is, a crime which could not be atoned for with compensation. These crimes varied across kingdoms and regions but often included arson, coining false money, theft or robbery, witchcraft, failure to pay compensation, and betrayal of one’s lord. The last of these, betrayal of one’s lord, usually has a very wide definition in the laws of the period. Betrayal was evidently what the ruler deemed to be betrayal, which means that there were a whole host of offences which, if committed against the king, could in fact be ‘unemendable’. Most of these ‘unemendable’ crimes did of course not result in the accused being chased throughout several kingdoms; if found guilty they were usually punished corporally or with their life. Hence, being found guilty of theft often resulted in hanging, coining false money in the loss of fingers or hands, witchcraft in drowning, and treachery in beheading.

Hanging of the baker. Detail from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, BL Cotton Claudius B. IV fo. 59

Hanging of the baker. Detail from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, BL Cotton Claudius B. IV fo. 59

On occasion, a person found guilty was sent into exile or was outlawed. The exact distinction between the two is not always clear in the primary sources but both sentences at their basic premise ensured that the guilty fell outside the protection of the king and society, with no one being able to aid him, and should they come across him within the king’s lands he would be killed instantly. Usually the sentenced person was allowed a day to reach a port and take himself overseas or into a neighbouring kingdom. Exile was more commonly pronounced as a sentence on someone found guilty of a crime than outlawry and across Europe the length of exile could vary. We know that in Iceland, for instance, you could be exiled for three years for minor wrongdoings or permanently for more serious crimes, but many early medieval laws did not specify how long the period of exile could or should be. Outlawry was occasionally meted out as a punishment for a serious crime, much like exile, but across Europe it was also commonly a sentence pronounced because the accused had fled without answering his accusers in court. Exile and outlawry were probably in many cases a permanent status that ceased only upon the death of the guilty or accused, though it is important to note that both could often be reversed upon the payment of a fine or compensation to the king or the victim’s family.

Exile and outlawry was not the only alternative to corporal punishment in the medieval period. One could seek sanctuary, not at an embassy but in a church. Many of the legislative traditions in Europe provided for a wrongdoer who had fled to a church the protection from forcible removal as well as immunity from capital or corporal punishment. The fugitive might be required to pay a fine, forfeit his goods, perform penance, or go into exile, but mostly his body and his life were to be preserved. For instance, the eighth code of King Æthelred II promulgated in 1014 stated that if a man reached sanctuary the king would grant him his life in return for full compensation ‘both to God and to men’.

Detail from the roll of Edward the Confessor, once an exile in Normandy, holding a crown. BL Royal 14 B VI Membrane 4

Detail from the roll of Edward the Confessor, once an exile in Normandy, holding a crown. BL Royal 14 B VI Membrane 4

The case of Julian Assange has attracted widespread media attention as well as capturing the public imagination over the last five years. The phenomenon is not new, even if the details differ from case to case, and indeed the medieval period is littered with examples of individuals who for one reason or another found themselves on the wrong side of a ruler’s laws: Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, Fouke Fitz Warin, Eustace the Monk. And, we should not forget the many European kings who had indeed been exiles before coming to the throne; Edward the Confessor of England (11c), Louis IV of West Frankia (10c), Harald Hardrada of Norway (11c), Æthelred I of Northumbria (8c) to name but a few. Hence, the principle of one ruler not sheltering enemies or wrongdoers of another king, found in many treaties, is not only a very old principle of international law but also one that has been hotly debated, today as much as in the Middle Ages.

The King’s Wife

This is the second instalment of guest posts from students who are undertaking research experience placements with me over the summer period. This one comes from recent Cardiff University graduate Laura Richards, whose research placement yielded some interesting gems from a surprisingly small pool of available evidence.

For two weeks I completed some research on Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances focussing on the primary source material. The main thing I learnt was what every person must grapple with when taking on historical research; you have to go through a lot to get a little. What I did find was often scattered across vast pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the main narrative source for the period c. 800-1066. Most evidence came in the form of the names of the couple involved in the marriage and a brief summary of their genealogy. Little was written in way of formal agreements, nevertheless some ideas about these powerful marriages can be drawn out.Books for research

The status of the wife within these alliances was intertwined and representative of her familial support. Eadburh, Queen of Wessex inspires infamy which extends into today as inspiration for the fictional character Princess Kwenthrith; a Mercian princess with a taste for power and poisoning in TV’s Vikings. This stems from the reputation Eadburh receives within the sources granting her an important role within Wessex history compared to other queens. Asser in his Life of King Alfred recounts how Beorhtric of Wessex married Offa of Mercia’s daughter, Eadburh. Once in power she began ‘to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father’, poisoning those she could not control or force the King to disown them. As part of her scheming she accidently poisons her husband. She flees to the court of Charlemagne who, after having his age insulted, places her in a nunnery where she is later caught in debauchery and dies in poverty. Asser casts Eadburh as an evil queen to give warning against granting the king’s wife an equal title.

Despite its aspects of legend, through this narrative it is possible to see how women within marriage alliances represented the power of their families and kingdoms. Eighth-century Mercia was the dominant kingdom. Offa was a powerful king and marrying his daughter to Beorhtric cemented Wessex as a lesser kingdom. With the power of her father behind her Eadburh influenced her husband and had the power to destroy those in her way.

However, if the eighth century belonged to Mercia than the ninth was one of Wessex dominance where equal status was no longer granted to the wives of their kings. This could have been more than just a lesson learnt from the evil Eadburh. It shows that Wessex was the dominant power in any alliance so did not need to give power within its court to the female representative of the alliance. The only Wessex queen within the ninth century is Judith, daughter of King Charles the Bald of Frankia who was crowned before her arrival in Wessex. As a Queen Judith was of equal standing to the King and showed the strength Frankia held as an individual kingdom and ally to Wessex. This is seen as a major contributing factor to the conflict between her husband Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald. Furthermore, Judith created her own scandalous reputation by marrying her step-son and later eloping without permission.

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Nevertheless, Wessex, once a dominant kingdom, was quite happy to use its women to extend its influence. Æthelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great married Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and within his lifetime witnessed many charters as Regina of Mercia and after his death ruled as Lady of the Mercians. However, Alfred’s own wife was unable to challenge the Wessex court’s refusal to name her Queen. As most of the sources for the later Anglo-Saxon period are written from a Wessex viewpoint, exercising power and familial backing was positive for Wessex women exported to other kingdoms but disastrously dangerous habits for women being brought into the Wessex royal family. Therefore Eadburh’s infamy must be viewed from this particular angle.

Overall my experience of research has at times been painstaking and although I have to accept that the evidence is lacking on marriage alliances, it was possible to see examples of power being wielded by married women through their familial alliances and for other related ideas when I allowed the evidence to lead my areas of exploration.

Justinian Diplomacy

In the first of five guest blogs on this site, Will Buck – who is graduating from Cardiff University this week (well done!) – writes about his two-week work placement researching the diplomacy of the sixth-century Emperor Justinian.

It has been a joy to work on an area of history which is so disputed due to one author, Procopius, and being able to side step this dispute completely to focus on the content of the text, and largely ignore the opinions of the said author. Procopius’ ‘Wars’ is a text which describes, largely first hand, the wars in Africa, Italy, and the East between Justinian and his contemporaries. It does this in remarkable detail, and you cannot but help believe you are among Belisarius’ household staff, watching the action.

Miniature of the Emperor Justinian with a sword, surrounded by several figures, at the beginning of Justinian's Digestum Vetus. BL MS Arundel 484, f.6

Miniature of the Emperor Justinian with a sword, surrounded by several figures, at the beginning of Justinian’s Digestum Vetus. BL MS Arundel 484, f.6

My task during my two-week work placement was to go through this collection of eight books, and record every instance of diplomacy which I came across. At first I found it daunting that I was going to have to read eight books of what I assumed would be very repetitive descriptions of the back and forth of war, but very quickly these worries were dispersed by both the Thucydidean style, and the remarkable times Procopius was recording.

Alongside this main task, I also found it of interest to make note of any mention of Britain in the text, as it is a shared interest of Dr Benham and I how they were perceived and interacted with other peoples, in the ‘international’ world, during the so called Dark Ages. In this respect we were both surprised by Procopius’ statement that “the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants” (III.II 32-39) as this is almost word for word what Gildas states; a British contemporary of Procopius, often thought to be cut off from the Roman world. This raised questions in both our minds that contact between the Romano-British and the Roman Empire was not as dead as scholars have often assumed, as it is unusual that Gildas decided to use the word ‘Tyrant’ when he was writing in Latin. For Procopius, writing in Greek, tyrant is exactly how we would expect him to refer to the kings in Britain; in Latin, this is unusual.

Returning to my primary task, it became immediately obvious to me that much of the diplomatic action was conducted through the written word. This did not come as a surprise in diplomatic relations between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, but when, for example, the Franks, and Goths interacted they too used letters primarily. This I can only assume was due to their pretence at being continuations of the Western Roman Empire and in assimilating the old Roman bureaucracy which still existed in the cities of the West.

Overall this has been a very enjoyable task, which I hope will prove useful to Dr Benham and any students who have to use my work. It has also allowed me to keep my eye in, so to say, over summer before I start my postgraduate work; an MA in Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies. Thankfully this topic covered the period exactly, and I look forward to being able to continue studying this area of history at Cardiff University.

Collaborating with student researchers

Starting your first permanent academic post can be a scary and stressful experience, even if, like me, you’re a late comer to the profession and have spent some years working in other demanding roles. Learning to time manage the different demands of admin, research and teaching has certainly proved a challenge for me, but I am lucky in that Cardiff University has well-established support for early career researchers, and one way in which I am making use of this support is by employing some student research assistants over the summer period.

Thanks to funding from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University I have been given the opportunity to create six research-based work experience placements for undergraduate students. Each placement will last between two and five weeks and each student will be working on his or her own unique research project. The research involved will range from compiling bibliographies or list of treaties, to mining specific primary sources for material relating to law and diplomacy. At the end of the projects, the material will be used as online resources for both my undergraduate and postgraduate courses – increasing the pool of available primary and secondary material for future students – but will also guide my own research for my forthcoming book on the origins of international law in the medieval period. Furthermore, two of the students will use the material in their own dissertations and I hope that some of the students will continue to collaborate with me at postgraduate level to co-write conference papers and articles.

These placements will clearly benefit my work as a teacher and researcher but I hope that the students will also benefit from honing their skills and over the coming weeks they will all guest blog here about their experiences (good and bad) and about the material that they have found. Topics will include treaties (modern and medieval); exiles, criminals and outlaws; Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances; early medieval peace conferences; and Byzantine diplomacy.

I am ridiculously excited to see and hear about what they will find and, moreover, to work with some great people. Roll on summer!


On the Origins of the Norman Conquest

Over the summer I have spent my time researching two treaties that I have had an interest in for a long time. The first is the treaty between King Æthelred II, the ‘Unready’, and three Viking leaders, supposedly concluded in 994. This treaty, often known as II Æthelred, has strong connections to English law and having written extensively about it in a couple of articles already, my research over the summer has focussed on producing a new edition, translation and historical commentary for the Early English Laws project. However, it is a second treaty – less known but equally important – that is my focus here, namely the first Anglo-Norman treaty.

The document in question is a letter in the name of Pope John XV detailing the reconciliation and peace agreement of 991 between King Æthelred II and Richard I, duke of Normandy, or the ‘marquis’ as he is referred to in the letter. The document outlines how, having heard of the hostilities between Æthelred and Richard, Pope John sent his legate, Bishop Leo of Trevi, to the two rulers with letters admonishing them to put aside their hostility. First he visited England, where he met the king on Christmas Day 990 and gave him the pope’s letters. After consulting with his witan, the king agreed to make peace with Richard and sent Bishop Æthelsige of Sherborne, Leofstan son of Ælfwold and Æthelnoth son of Wigstan to Normandy with the legate. After peacefully receiving the pope’s warning and hearing of the decision of Æthelred and his court, Richard confirmed the peace on the condition that if any of their people, or they themselves, were to commit any wrong against the other, it should be atoned for with fitting compensation. The peace should remain forever and was confirmed at Rouen on 1 March 991 by the oaths of both parties, that is, the three Anglo-Saxon envoys on behalf of Æthelred and Bishop Roger of Lisieux, Rodulf son of Hugh, and Tursten son Turgis on behalf of Richard. A postscript then adds that neither ruler was to receive the men or enemies of the other without the latter’s seal.

There are many extraordinary things about this treaty. For instance, not only would we not know anything about the relations between the English and Norman courts in the 990s but for this document, but it also, unlike English kings’ treaties with Viking leaders, survives in a very near contemporary, early eleventh-century copy. In fact, this document records the earliest surviving treaty between an English king and a ruler from outside the British Isles. It is thus rather surprising that this reconciliation has attracted so little attention from scholars. Partly this is due to the fact that it has been overshadowed by subsequent relations with the Norman court; the marriage of King Æthelred to Emma of Normandy, daughter of the Richard of the treaty, in 1002 and the later, ‘supposed’, promise of the English throne to William of Normandy by Æthelred and Emma’s son, Edward the Confessor, eventually resulting in the Norman conquest of England.

However, the Anglo-Norman treaty of 991 does in fact have something important to contribute to our knowledge of the origin and events leading to this conquest. In particular, it highlights diplomatic practices, of which we would otherwise know nothing, that have an impact on how we analyse the Norman sources’ accounts of the path to William’s victory at Hastings in 1066. This will be the subject of my talk ‘On the Origins of the Conquest: the First Anglo-Norman Treaty’ at Cardiff University for the autumn series of video seminars for the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies on Tuesday 21 October 2014. If you are a student at any of these Welsh universities Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and Trinity St. David, you will be able to attend at your own university and watch the seminar via the Welsh video network. (For further information, click here.)

Rowing boat diplomacy

Did you see that picture last week? Yes, the one where the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt rowed three of the most powerful leaders in Europe (Britain’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the Dutch premier Mark Rutte) to the summer residence in Harpsund outside Stockholm. The four leaders have been holding talks on the EU following the rise of the eurosceptic far right in the European Parliament and in particular trying to resolve their differences over the tricky issue of the appointment of the next European Commission President. In having the Swedish premier row the leaders across the lake, Cameron et al. were of course following a long tradition of Harpsundsekan (the rowing boat, that is) carrying world leaders to this particular country residence, with previous guests including Nikita Krushchev, Willy Brandt and Kofi Annan.

Harpsundsekan and four Euro leaders

Harpsundsekan and four Euro leaders

While this might seem quite unusual, in fact, in the medieval period diplomatic meetings involving boats were relatively common. Most famously, of course, we have an occasion that is perhaps the equivalent of Harpsundsekan. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 973 Edgar, king of the English, came to Chester with his naval force (sciphere) and six kings met him there and promised to be his ‘co-workers’ (efenwyrhtan) on land and on sea. In the twelfth century, the chronicler John of Worcester, who may or may not have had a now lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, added to this account that Edgar and the kings (now eight rather than six) got onboard a boat and the kings rowed down the river Dee with Edgar at the helm steering. A significant amount of ink has been spilt by historians trying to unravel the identity of the kings involved and the symbolism behind this particular arrangement, often focussing on the issue of Edgar’s superiority – as seen by him taking the helm. Regardless of any supposed symbolism of these meetings, we know that the incident at Chester in 973 was not the only occasion when medieval kings conducted diplomacy in boats. In November 921, Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, and Henry I, king of the East Franks, concluded a friendship (amicitia) at a meeting in a boat anchored in the middle of the Rhine near Bonn. The intention on this occasion seems to have been to meet at a neutral location and to recognise the rights of both kings. Similarly, in the late twelfth century, the English king Richard I met with his French counterpart Philip Augustus on the river Seine between Les Andelys and Vernon. Here, Richard was stood on a boat in the river because he did not want to land while Philip remained seated on his horse on the riverbank. At the time, Philip and Richard were engaged in particularly bitter warfare, perhaps explaining their arrangement for this meeting. Going a bit further back in time, the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells of a meeting between the Emperor Valens and Athanaric, leader of the Goths, in the late 370s, when boats were rowed mid-stream for the two leaders to conclude a treaty. We further know that conducting diplomacy in this way seems to have been common practice because there are several other descriptions of peace conferences where the two parties discussed using boats and meeting mid-stream. For instance, Ralph Glaber recorded that the Emperor Henry II and the French king, Robert the Pious, considered meeting mid-stream in boats in 1023, and in the late twelfth century Walter Map, supposedly recording a meeting between Edward the Confessor and a Welsh ruler in the 1050s, stated that the English king eventually got into a boat and crossed the river Severn.

Judging by the debate generated by these medieval meetings between rulers, it is rather intriguing that the modern-day press has seemingly refrained from making similar remarks about the arrangements of the Harpsundsekan. Nevertheless, what it does do is remind us that this is a diplomatic practice that has clearly stood the test of time.

To sell a medieval envoy

Lecturers are often asked to introduce or address the issue of enterprise and employability skills in our teaching to better prepare students for life beyond university. This is of course not always an easy task. Many academics have never been employed outside the higher education sector and some subjects perhaps lend themselves more easily to this task than others. So, as a researcher of (mostly) medieval diplomacy and legal practice, I thought that I should see if I and, more importantly, my students could rise to the challenge. The easiest way to do this, I figured, was to do something with marketing. After all, this is an exercise that all academics are engaged in to promote our research, books, articles, projects and so on.

Walter of Essex

Walter of Essex

Having hatched this plan, I then turned the last seminar of the term into an enterprise session and set all 23 students on my second-year undergraduate course ‘War, Peace and Diplomacy 900-1250’ the task of creating a marketing campaign to sell a medieval envoy to a king. In preparation for the seminar, the students, of course, had to apply transferable skills that involved doing some traditional academic work; researching and gathering information from primary sources and secondary literature, and analysing this information to assess which qualities would have been most valuable in a medieval envoy. Students had to think about issues such as whether their envoy should be a nuncius (message bearer) or a procurator (an envoy who could act on behalf of his master); whether he was an ecclesiastic or a secular person; and whether or not the envoy had specialist skills such as languages, legal, commercial, or military knowledge. Once they had done their research, students were allowed to work individually, in pairs, or as a trio, to create and design a poster (one side of A4) outlining their envoy (real or fictional) and his skills and qualities.

Absalon, abp. of Lund

Absalon, abp. of Lund

On the day of the seminar, we had three traditional five-minute seminar presentations setting the scene by discussing particular sources: an extract from William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs detailing the negotiations between the Danish and French king in 1193, a letter from Pope Innocent III to King John retelling the fate of one diplomatic mission to the curia, and an extract from Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s Conquest of Constantinople outlining the negotiations between the crusader envoys and the doge of Venice in 1201. The main part of the seminar, however, was a speed-dating session, where each student/group had two minutes to present their poster and envoy to another student, who could also ask questions or come up with objections as to why this envoy would be no good for a particular mission.

Hubert Walter

Examples of envoys that students tried to sell included William de Longchamps, chancellor and justiciar to Richard I; Walter Map, clerk and itinerant justice of Henry II; Ahmad ibn Fadlan (famously depicted by Antonio Banderas in the film The Thirteenth Warrior), legal and theological expert of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir in the tenth century; and Hubert Walter, all round super administrator of Richard I and John.

Walter Map

Walter Map

Thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of my students, the speed-dating session was very successful and laughter-filled as they tried to perfect their presentation and selling skills, arguing backwards and forwards about their envoys desirable and not so desirable qualities in two minutes flat – no mean feat! At the end of the seminar, each student chose, in a secret vote, the envoy they would hire. No surprises. The clear winner was the fictional envoy Benjamin the Balanced, who, despite having the somewhat inconvenient quality of a limp after tripping over on the famous elm tree chopped down by King Philip Augustus of France at a conference in 1188 (yes, you read it here first!) was at least very cheap, reliable, loyal, and able to take and receive oaths on holy relics (Well done, Matthew!).

Benjamin the Balanced

Benjamin the Balanced

On a slightly more rational note, I, as king of the seminar group, and my co-ruler (Hugo), hired as our envoys Absalon, warrior-archbishop of Lund and right-hand man of kings Valdemar I and Cnut VI of Denmark; Thomas Becket, chancellor to Henry II; Nicholas de Moels, seneschal of Gascony during the reign of Henry III; and the fictional envoy Walter of Essex, a chancellor with 29 years of experience in the English court (Well done Jacob, Helen, Stefan, James and Lucy). Finally, in true medieval style, the students were paid in gold rings (ok, maybe they were chocolate gold coins…).

Reflecting on this seminar, which was really just an experiment on my part, it was probably one of the more successful ones of the term. All of the students entered into the spirit of things and came extremely well prepared, having done their research and prepared posters, business cards, and presentations – and this for the last seminar of term. Most importantly, it enabled the students to use some of the skills they are honing in the classroom in a more commercial setting. Although they are unlikely to sell medieval envoys once they leave university, they are likely to market or sell other products for which they have to research, devise, prepare and deliver a pitch to potential buyers. There were lessons to be learned too, in particular for me, because with a bit more planning I could have added elements that would have seen the students working in groups to plan and budget for an actual embassy based on the available sources.

In all, however, this was an excellent way to end the term on a high and I was simply in awe of the fantastic work my students had done.