CeSMA ANNUAL LECTURE: Julia Smith (University of Oxford) on ‘Relics and the Insular World, c.600-800’

4-6pm, Wednesday 22nd March
Lecture Room 2, Arts Building, University of Birmingham B15 2TT

St Gallus with his relics slung on his staff-- Stiftsarchiv St.Gallen Urk. C1 A3 letter of indulgence 20 May 1333 (2).png

This paper re-evaluates the interest of insular Christian communities in the cult of relics in the pre-Viking age.  It has two main purposes, first to re-read familiar hagiographic texts in the light of the material culture of relic practices in the Mediterranean world and, second, to exploit newly discovered evidence to map insular relic activity all the way from the Holy Land to the Hebrides.  There emerges a nuanced picture of distinctive British, Irish and Anglo-Saxon relic habits together with new insights into the behaviour of early insular pilgrims.

Julia Smith is Chichele Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford. Her current research addresses the materiality of Christian experience in the Middle Ages, through the emergence and development of the cult of relics from the 4th to the 11th centuries. She has published extensively on the history of women and gender in the early Middle Ages, and is committed to the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of medieval history.


CeSMA Seminars this term

Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages – Research Seminars

All Seminars are held on at 17:15, Arts Lecture Room 8 

Tuesday 24th January 2017

Diane Antille (Neuchâtel)

‘Women and Goldsmiths’ Works in the Fifteenth Century: The Case of Charlotte of Savoy’

Tuesday 7th February 2017

Sam Van Shaik (British Library) ‘Bilingual Manuscripts from the Silk Road’ 

21st February 2017

Robert Swanson (Birmingham)

‘Strategies of Parochial Management in Late Medieval England: Three Cambridgeshire Contrasts’ 

7th March 2017

Francesca Dell’Acqua (Birmingham)

‘The Normans in Southern Italy: What the Salerno Ivories Tell Us’

21st March 2017

Holly James-Maddocks (Birmingham)

‘The Illuminators of the Middle English Poetic Tradition’

“Classes in Persian: The Account of a Masters Student”

سلام حال شما چطور؟

(Hello, how are you?)

persian This semester has been an exciting one for those of us students interested in the rich history of Iran and the Persianate world. Following on from student interest, Drs Arezou Azad and Narges Mahpeykar began work to create a Persian language enrichment module and I was fortunate enough to be privy to the fruits of their labour. As someone who has only relatively recently developed an interest in Iran, this new module has offered insights, both linguistic and cultural, that really help to bring the historical study of the region to life.
The teaching for the module has been interactive, insightful and – dare I say it – genuinely a lot of fun. When learning a new language, especially one making use of an alternate alphabet to one’s mother tongue, you really need a teacher with a deft take on making things memorable. We are indeed fortunate to have found one. Lessons often take a practical approach, activities and language games make this module into an encouraging environment to learn, where the whiteboard is not the be-all and end-all. It is also the first time in my life where being left-handed is a genuine advantage!
Dr. Mahpeykar is also knowledgeable on different iterations on the language, which is especially helpful for someone like me who is predominantly interested in medieval Iran. However, the course has attracted students from many different historical backgrounds, and you can just as easily find modern and ancient history students amongst the medieval mix. Many of us are looking to simply broaden our historical horizons, but there is a sense of practical application within the lessons; some are looking to use the support provided by Dr Mahpeykar to potentially inform their postgraduate decisions. I hope to eventually complete a PhD myself, and I cannot deny the allure of medieval and early modern Iran which this module has come to foster in me.
This opportunity has been made available to us due to the generous contributions of CeSMA and the University of Birmingham. I cannot stress enough how profoundly reassuring it is to not only be able to pursue these interests in a political climate which denigrates expenditures in the Arts and Humanities, but also to have such interests taken into consideration and acted upon by the staff of my department. I speak for all the students of the module when I say متشکرم! (Thank you!)


Dr Narges Mahpeykar, Instructor of Persian level 1:


This spring I had the pleasure to teach Persian at University of Birmingham. I had a wonderful experience teaching students from different language backgrounds and with profound interests in Persian history and culture. The students’ enthusiasm and desire to learn the language despite having other academic commitments was very rewarding. I am truly glad to have been part of this experience!

This module will run as a for-credit option in History from the next academic year. Last semester, it was non-credit option while running as a pilot. The positive reviews and active participation by the students certainly proves that the pilot has succeeded and we look forward to expanding this further.

CeSMA News, March 15th

The Global Middle Ages network (http://globalmiddleages.history.ox.ac.uk/) had a productive writing workshop, 5-6 February, to discuss initial drafts of papers for a future Past and Present annual supplement. Network members at Birmingham are Professor Naomi Standen and Dr Simon Yarrow.

Professor Standen also has an upcoming conference appearance as a panel discussant :‘After the Tang, before the Tanguts: diplomacy, trade, travel, culture, and identity along the Gansu corridor in 800-1000 CE’, Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference, Seattle

Souvenirs of the Sepulchre: Devotion to an Empty Tomb at the Time of the First Crusade

Lecture 1.jpgOn 23 March 2016 the Museum of the Order of St John will host the first public event associated with the University of Birmingham’s AHRC-funded research project ‘Bearers of the Cross: Material Religion in the Crusading World, 1095–c.1300’. The event will begin from 5.30pm onwards with a handling session of the museum’s 17th-century models of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, followed at 7pm by a lecture on ‘Souvenirs of the Sepulchre: Devotion to an Empty Tomb at the Time of the First Crusade’ by Dr William Purkis.
All are welcome to attend. For further information about this event, and to book your free ticket, please visit www.crusades.eventbrite.co.uk.

Annual Lecture Report: Hugh Kennedy on “ISIS and the use and Abuse of Early Islamic History”

Wednesday 27th January 2016 

Dabiq, the IS magazine, which circulates in both English and Arabic.


This year, for our annual paper, we were extremely lucky to have Hugh Kennedy speak to us about ISIS and early Islamic history. This fascinating topic had the lecture room completely packed, with many listeners bringing in chairs from other rooms – quite a testament to the relevance and usefulness of medieval studies!

Hugh’s lecture interrogated the rise of ISIS, breaking down the often-quoted notion that Western intervention in the Middle East was the sole cause of the rise and popularity of IS. Instead, he linked this as one contributing factor with the failure of Middle Eastern nationalism and socialism. IS seeks to break both of these down; national borders won’t matter in the Caliphate, and neither will the will of the people – only the will of Allah.

Hugh’s lecture was especially focussed on Dabiq, the glossy magazine produced by IS as a recruitment and propaganda tool, and how it continually places IS on the ‘intellectual high ground’, representing them as the ‘true’ Muslims based on their (supposedly) superior understanding of the Hadith, and early Muslim History.

Even the name of the magazine itself is a reference to a small village in Syria, and a village which is the site of apocalyptic speculation – the place where the final battle will take place between the forces of Islam, and its enemies. The magazine is only dated by the lunar month and the Muslim calendar, and within it’s densely packed with coded language, constructed out of references to the Hadith. For example, those Muslims who reject the ‘true’ Islam preached by Islamic State, are referred to as murtadds – an early Muslim word for apostates that referred to those who rejected the early caliphs.

dabiq-5-front-back-pgsThe pictures in the magazine also recall early Islamic imagery and culture. The fighters are often pictured on horses, holding thin, curved swords, represented like early Muslim knights – with all of the same connations that a western knight might have. Pictures of beautiful young boys holding weapons also fill the pages (see right), recalling the topos of the beautiful but deadly young boy in Medieval Arabic and Persian poetry. These pictures are carefully composed shots, not candid snaps of people on the streets of Raqqa.

IS have carefully constructed an image for their ideology as one based in medieval history, and founded on a greater knowledge of the Hadith. Though they use modern technology, they use medieval imagery, and even plan to introduce their own currency with coins of real gold (despite using predominantly USD for their own transactions). Their platform is one of intellectual superiority and better knowledge of the medieval past, and this is how they position themselves as the ‘true’ Muslims, and argue for their Caliphate.

Many thanks to Hugh for a fascinating and illuminating lecture!



Death and the Afterlife in the Middle Ages – A CeSMA Day School

“Pale Death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.” – Horace (65–8 BCE)

It is the universality of death – the great leveller – that makes it fascinating to the living. As an inescapable human experience, it also represents a compelling theme through which to explore diverse cultures across time and space. This is no less true for the study of the medieval world. On 31 October 2015, the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at the University of Birmingham hosted a day school entitled, ‘Death and the Afterlife in the Middle Ages.’ Around fifty members of the public attended to hear four of the Centre’s academics, and one postgraduate, speak on themes relating to medieval European understandings of mortality and immortality.

Given the theme for the day, and the not entirely unintentional date chosen for it, the lectures spanned a suitably ghoulish range of topics. Dr Philippa Semper, lecturer in the Department of English Literature, opened proceedings with a dicussion of the language of immortality in Old English texts in which, we learnt, death was commonly expressed as departure. Philippa’s talk, entitled ‘Not Like the Living: The Language of Anglo-Saxon Immortality’, explored the significance of the term undeadlic (i.e. not in the form of the dead), which was chosen over liflic (i.e. in the form of the living) in the corpus to identify those who – like the walking dead – had departed from mortality yet retained an analogous state. Philippa linked this to a need for terminology distinct to these folkloric forms of life after death and distinguishable from the Catholic vocabulary of immortality.

CeSMA Day School 1.jpg Dr Chris Callow, lecturer in Medieval History, then introduced some of the most famous of the grisly revenants which stalk the pages of the Icelandic sagas in his talk, ‘Zombies versus Historians: The Case of Medieval Iceland’. Chris explained how medieval historians have sought to understand these stories of the undead, and the sorts of challenges that they might pose. Tales of heroes like Grettir the Strong, or the villainous Thorolf Lame-foot, test modern historians’ assumptions about whether the seemingly remote population of medieval Iceland shared ideas about the supernatural which were prevalent in parts of western Europe. Certainly, both Chris’s Icelandic and Philippa’s Anglo-Saxon sources contain versions of a walking dead (though it is perhaps safe to conclude that the Icelandic sources have the monopoly on ghostly seal heads emerging out of fireplaces).

The focus then moved from the hearth of a medieval Icelandic home to the walls of Antioch during the First Crusade, where – according to one contemporary source – a deserter saw a vision of his deceased brother mysteriously floating before him as he shinned down a rope. The deserting crusader was chastised, and returned to the besieged city. My talk, ‘Spectres in the Sources: Ghosts on the First Crusade’, introduced the audience to instances taken from the Latin narratives of the First Crusade which discuss the dead as appearing to the living. Encounters between the living and the dead in these texts show that the dead – as privileged witnesses to the hereafter – might continue to have a vested interest in the spiritual wellbeing of the living. These were not ghosts as we might understand them now; instead of haunting and tormenting, they advised and chastised the living. Looking at ‘ghosts’ in these particular sources also provide an – albeit frosted – window onto western European concepts of martyrdom and the development of the concept of Purgatory.

CeSMA Day School 2.jpg From considering textual portrayals of the afterlife to reassessing the reality of the most devastating epidemic in European history; the fourth talk of the day was ‘“That Great Mortality”: The Black Death in England’. Dr Miriam Müller, lecturer in Medieval History, argued that the current estimates for the percentage mortality rate for the Black Death are in fact conservative, and that we should look towards the higher estimates for an accurate understanding of that plague’s impact upon mid-fourteenth-century England. Miriam’s introduction to the topic included a consideration of how the plague reached English shores. More than one south-western port town claims the dubious honour of being the landing point of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis, the bacterium which causes bubonic plague, is thought to have been carried by flea-infected rats on board ships), and indeed it is entirely possible that the lethal bacterium was carried ashore at several locations during the summer of 1348. Miriam’s talk brought home the devastating impact that the Black Death would have had at all levels of society. You can stay up to date with Miriam’s research into English rural daily life in the Late Middle Ages by reading her blog, Medieval Rural Communities.

Fittingly, the final theme of the day was the material commemoration of the dead; the ‘cult of memory’ and the ‘cult of family’ in the parish churches of medieval England. The fifth speaker was Dr John Hunt, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History, whose talk was entitled ‘Family and Soul: Memorial, Commemoration and the English Parish Church’. John introduced us to the various ways that a knightly family might choose to memorialise their dead, or the provisions that an individual might put in place for their own body (and soul) after death. The argument was made that memorialisation within parish churches played an important role in the relationship between these churches and the local lords who chose to be buried inside them. Through several case studies, John also traced the various forms of memorial design and architecture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, from knightly recumbent effigies – such as those of Henry de Hanbury in St Werburgh’s Church at Hanbury (Staffordshire) and the Marmion tombs at West Tanfield in Yorkshire – to intricately designed brasses and slabs.

CeSMA’s ‘Death and the Afterlife’ Day School was a thoroughly enjoyable entrée into how certain medieval cultures commemorated life, understood death, and percieved the hereafter (and, equally important, how we might go about studying these). On behalf of all the speakers, I would like to thank the organisers at CeSMA for putting the event together, and for all those who attended, contributed to discussion, and made the day so enjoyable.

Beth Spacey, PhD Candidate in the Department of History, University of Birmingham

Stay up to date with the details of upcoming CeSMA events, including a second day school later in 2016, via the CeSMA Blog.