Recording Cultures: Oxford, April 2014

SESSION ONE: Without Writing

*M.A. Butler and Sherry Mou in Battlefronts Real and Imagined, ed. Wyatt

*Kim, Y., Eternal Ritual in and Infinite Cosmos: The Chaoyang North Pagoda (1043-1044) (PhD Thesis: Harvard Univeristy 2010) , esp. Ch. 5 (esp. to p. 279).

* Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, third edition (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 255-80

* Colin Richmond, ‘Hand and Mouth: Information Gathering and Use in England in the Later Middle Ages’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 1 (1988), 233-52


Susan Cherniak, 'Book culture and textual transmission in Sung China', Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 54:1 (1994), 5-126: Stable URL:

Yang Lien-sheng, ‘The organization of Chinese official historiography: principles and methods of the standard histories from the T’ang through the Ming dynasty’, Historians of China and Japan, ed. W.G. Beasley and E.G. Pulleyblank (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 44-59.

Leidy, Denise Patry, The art of Buddhism: an introduction to its history and meaning (Boston: Shambala, 2008), Ch. 3.

Steinhardt, Nancy S., Chinese imperial city planning (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1990), Chs 6, 5, 7 (in that order, if people are choosing chapters).

Linda Johnson, Women of the Conquest Dynasties: Gender and Identity in Liao and Jin China, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011, chs. 2 and 5.

Angela Zito, Of body and brush, Chs 4-5.

David Anthony, The horse, the wheel and language, Ch. 17 (conclusion).

SESSION TWO: Graphic Environment

*Simon Franklin, Writing, society and culture in early Rus, c. 950-1300 (Cambridge, 2002), esp. 1-82 [esp. the introduction pp. 1-15; the section on secondary and tertiary writing, pp. 47-82; and the afterward, pp 275-9]

* Irene Bierman, Writing signs: the Fatimid public text (Berkeley, Univ. California Press, 1998), especially chapter 1 (Initial considerations) and ch. 2 (Signing the community) (pp 1-59)

* Walter D. Mignolo ‘On the Colonization of Amerindian Languages and Memories: Renaissance Theories of Writing and the Discontinuity of the Classical Tradition’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 34.2 (1992), 301–33 [e-journal]

* Elizabeth Hill Boone, ‘Pictorial Documents and Visual Thinking in Postconconquest Mexico’, in Elizabeth H. Boone and Tom Cummins, Native Traditions in the Postconquest World (Washington, 1998) [ [Plus other articles in this volume]

[As Jonathan Shepard points out the new project directed by Professor Igor Garipzanov appears relevant in this context, although as yet no publications:]

SESSION THREE: Archival Mentalities

*De Weerdt, Hilde. "Byways in the Imperial Chinese Information Order: The Dissemination and Commercial Publication of State Documents." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 66, no. 1 (2006): 145-88.

* Hansen, Valerie. Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

*Winkelman, John. "The Imperial Library in Southern Sung China, 1127-1279: A Study of the Organization and Operation of the Scholarly Agencies of the Central Government." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society n.s.64, no. 8 (1974)

*R. McKitterick, ed., The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (1990): esp. introduction and conclusion

*D. Bates ‘Charters and Historians of Britain and Ireland: Problems and Possibilities’, in M.T. Flanagan, and J.A. Green, eds., Charters and Charter Scholarship in Britain and Ireland (2005)

*W. C. Brown, M. Costambeys, M. Innes, A. J. Kosto, eds., Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (2013): esp. introduction and conclusion

* ‘The role of writing and record-keeping in the cultural evolution of human cooperation’, Daniel A. Mullins, Harvey Whitehouse and Quentin D. Atkinson, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 90S (2013)


Andrew Feldherr and Grant Hardy, ed. The Oxford History of Historical Writing. Volume 1: Beginnings to AD 60. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sarah Foot and Chase F. Robinson, ed. The Oxford History of Historical Writing. Volume 2: 400-1400. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Twitchett, Dennis. The Writing of Official History under the T'ang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

W. G. Beasley and Edwin G. Pulleyblank, ed. Historians of China and Japan. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Tamer el-Leithy, ‘Living Documents, Dying Archives: Towards a Historical Anthropology of Medieval Arabic Archives’, al-Qantara 32 (2011): 389-434

P. Geary, Phantoms of remembrance: memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium (1994)

B. Rosenwein, To be the neighbor of Saint Peter : the social meaning of Cluny's property, 909-1049 (Ithaca, 1989)

R. Southern, ‘The Sense of the Past’, Trans. Royal Hist Soc (1973): Stable URL:

PROJECT FURTHER READING – with relevance to previous workshops

Ken Pomeranz’s January 2014 address to the American Historical Association: ‘Histories for a Less National Age’

American Historical Review Conversation: ‘How Size Matters: The Question of Scale in History’ (December, 2013)

‘This is what happens when historians overuse the idea of the network’, D. Bell review from the New Republic (October 2013)

Stuart Alexander Rockefeller “Flow”, Current Anthropology, 52/4 (2011) – of relevance to the global/local interface
Stable URL:

John-Paul Ghobrial, The Secret Life of Elias of Babylon and the Uses of Global Microhistory’, Past and Present 222 (Feb, 2014)

Venue: History Faculty, Old Boys’ School, George Street, Oxford

Monday 7 April

2.00 Introduction

2.15 Session One – Without Writing

Presentations by Naomi Standen and Ian Forrest followed by discussion

3.45 Tea

4.15 Session Two – Graphic Environment

Presentations by Catherine Holmes and Caroline Dodds Pennock followed by discussion

Tuesday 8 March

9.30 Session Three: Professor Emily Umberger (Arizona State University): ‘Recording of Aztec history on stone monuments, 1450-1519’

10.30 Coffee

11.00 Session Four – Archival Mentalities

Presentations by Hilde de Weerdt, Mark Whittow and Arietta Papaconstantinou followed by discussion

1pm Lunch

2pm Session Five: Dr Matthew Davies (Cambridge): ‘Monuments, landscapes and memory in Africa’

3.00 Session Six – publication session – initial plenary session breaking up into small group discussion over and after tea

Wednesday 9 March

9.30- 12.00 Session Seven – Wrap-up of recording cultures and preparation for the final workshop (September 2014); further discussion about publication and network outreach activities, including brief presentation by John Watts about developing materials for schools and the webpage.

Background, preparation and introduction:

This workshop, on ‘Cultures of Recording’, was the fourth in our series designed to discuss the scope, limits and nature of the global Middle Ages between c. 500 and 1600. Twenty-two delegates representing Africa, the Americas, and eastern and western Eurasia gathered in Oxford for this event. The workshop was facilitated by the expertise and guidance of Claire Phillips (our project administrator) and three graduate assistants: Erin Maglaque, Duncan Hardy and Prerona Prasad.

Just as the ‘Networks’ event at Newcastle in September 2013 had started to move the group’s attention on from the general parameter-setting of our early meetings to something more focused and specific, so we hoped that in this workshop on ‘Cultures of Recording’ we would have an approach which was likely to work well for many of our different regions and for understanding the Middle Ages at a supra-regional level as well. There seemed to be several advantages to this theme. It would, apparently, allow us to explore areas which had surfaced regularly in our workshops but which we had yet to tackle head-on: for example, literacy and contemporary conceptions of the world. It would allow us to explore further some key tensions which had emerged regularly in discussion: e.g. comparison/connection and elite/non-elite, as well as themes such as intensification, specialisation and urbanisation, which appeared to be becoming increasingly important as our workshops unfolded. It seemed that it would allow us to examine themes which had been relatively under-represented in the network thus far: e.g. gender and family. It looked to be a promising way of probing what might be distinctive about a global middle ages, but equally to give us the opportunity to explore potential key differences between time periods and regions - e.g. why do some cultures, most notably those in medieval western Europe, engage in the production and preservation of copious amounts of archival documents of an order that seems unparalleled elsewhere?

In our preliminary plans for the workshop we indicated that we were keen that the parameters of 'recording' should be wide and should include consideration of material culture, artefacts, monumental structures, and epigraphy of all sorts. The identification of 'culture' was designed to make us think about people and practices (features which were highlighted in the Networks workshop too) as well as about materials. Initially we planned to approach the theme by organising our thoughts according to three sub-themes:

1. Ways of seeing the world (here we wanted to give network members the opportunity to reflect more directly than has been possible hitherto on how contemporaries conceived of their world/s)

2. Transmission and translation (including 'translation' in its most elastic and adaptable medieval sense, which allows for consideration of material as well as written culture, rather than being limited to the more restricted and principally linguistic sense of 'translation' in the modern world)

3. Methods of recording (this seemed fairly obvious!)

Strikingly although these approaches to the theme appeared to offer much by way of scope and direction, previously energetic presentation givers were apparently stumped by what to do with ‘Cultures of Recording’ both in terms of presentation ideas and bibliographical recommendations. This was interesting in that at face-value this theme appeared to be meat and drink to most of us who study this period whatever our regional specialism. Perhaps it was simply that this was a more familiar area than most that we have tackled so far and each of us immediately recognised the immensity of it for our own region even before we tried to globalise it. In short, it seemed that the theme of records and recorders was simply so huge no-one knew where to begin.....!

Whatever the reasons for early tentativeness, shortly before the workshop we structured the workshop into three connected strands which allowed us to approach our theme from a slightly more oblique angle. Each theme had at its foundation two essential questions: 'What is a record?'; 'What is recording?'

In strand one,'Without writing', we wanted the group to think about where one type of culture of recording stops (the written) and another starts (buildings and inaccessible objects). Of course we recognised that there might not be a sharp differentiation, but adopting this approach, we thought, might enable us to consider when and why people do (and do not) choose writing, and what kinds of things can be considered ‘recording’ which are not obviously about literacy.

In strand two, 'Graphic environment', we wanted to discuss the global potential of Simon Franklin's work on literacy, inscribed materials, and space in early medieval Russia, which has extended the study of literacy much wider than traditional written texts while not abandoning written texts altogether. ‘Graphic environment’ is a term taken from his book: Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c. 950-1300 (Cambridge, 2002)

In strand three, 'Archival mentalities', we wanted to ask how it is that archival cultures develop in some locations and not in others, and to ask how far the answers to this question change depending on our definition of ‘archive’ (and as it turned out ‘writing’ too).

In short, we envisaged a trajectory in which we moved, perhaps jerkily and not in a smooth linear progression, from non-written modes of recording to the written. As things turned out, one of the most intriguing dimensions to the workshop was the level of challenge that this topic presents, even when we try to keep our definition of ‘recording’ wide and inclusive of a broad spectrum of recording media. Approaching ‘Cultures of Recording’ without an essentially Eurocentric set of co-ordinates was less easy than we had perhaps at first blithely assumed.

In addition to our (now customary) presentation and plenary roundtable discussion sessions, Professor Emily Umberger (from the University of Arizona) offered a highly stimulating presentation of her research on how to distil Aztec history from Aztec material culture. Dr Matthew Davies (University of Cambridge), a social anthropologist, archaeologist and historian of east Africa gave an intriguing presentation on the relationship between recording, monumentality, and landscape. Both Emily and Matthew were invaluable sounding boards for our other discussion sessions too, as was John-Paul Ghobrial (Oxford) who joined us for several sessions to offer an early modernist’s perspective to our thinking. We also continued with the small-group discussion sessions which we began at Newcastle, using these conversations to establish some guidelines for the collective publication which network members are putting together. The fruits of these small-group discussions were brought together in our wrap-up session where both the intellectual desiderata and practical exigencies of publication were discussed together with the state of our outreach activities, including a forthcoming initiative by one network member, John Watts, to take the Global Middle Ages into the school classroom. We were also very pleased to welcome Professor Charles Forsdick to our workshop, the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ strand leader. We were interested to learn about parallels between our ruminations and discussions happening elsewhere in the strand.

Discussion 1: Without Writing

Naomi Standen opened this session with reflections on how far one can really talk of recording without written records at all. She ran through a series of built structures from east Asia, particularly tombs from Astana on the Silk Route and the recent work by Dr Y. Kim on the North Pagoda at Chaoyang, noting the relationship between built environment and written records in all cases: for instance, books, contracts, inscriptions and paintings are often found in such tombs. Are there then any records which exist without writing – could cities be considered such records, especially in the sense of the relationship between cities and power and perhaps identity as well? In China this is a question worth asking in the sense that cities, whether Tang, Uighur or Mongol, are used by everyone. She drew particular attention to a series of square cities including Chang’an (capital of the Tang), Karabalgasun (Uighur) and Shangjing (Liao). To what extent does one city copy from another, and to what extent should we stress differences between these cities? Naomi then looked at two Liao cities in relationship to their landscape context: the one, Zhongjing (the huge central capital), designed to dominate the marginal steppe landscape in which it sits; the other, the tomb city of the first Liao emperor, which included an administrative element, located in a much more enclosed and secluded site, not dominating the landscape at all. Yet such different kinds of cities were in use at the same time. She also pointed to Koguryo on the Korean border, a longstanding site occupied from 37 BC to the seventh century, a tomb city but here with tombs outside the city, which is itself surrounded by mountains with built walls to fill the gaps between peaks. Is there any mileage in reading cities in their wider landscapes as records? And is there any mileage for our global purposes in taking a wider lens to this question? For instance Sasanian and Abbasid cities were circular in contrast to their square counterparts to the east. Is there a detectable transition point geographically speaking?

In the second presentation Ian Forrest shifted the focus to the north of late medieval England arguing that the reason why people record things is to ensure a predictable future by creating knowledge which they can refer to with sanctions attached. Yet there can be eloquent unwritten records too: for instance, the unadorned boundary marker with nothing written on it, and yet its location makes it eloquent. In his presentation Ian went on to argue that in fact writing could often be the least efficient way to make records and was almost always an activity restricted to very specific groups comprising small numbers of people and for very specific purposes. Far more activity both in the north of England but also across Europe in this period was characterised by legally enforceable contracts that were made without written record. The unwritten record in the shape of a promise was often enough, actioned through a hand clasp to ‘give faith’; indeed this ‘good faith’ was often seen as stronger and preferable to written records. It is almost certain that even at a time of apparent high usage of documents, as in the late medieval Latin west, non-written recording vastly outweighed written. This leaves open the question of the extent to which our medium of written sources are a distraction from the ‘real world’. It also gives rise to a paradox that to access this ‘real world’ one needs find instances of it in written records: eg. those court records which refer to the giving of faith without writing. That said, that there are ways of retrieving practices of unwritten recording means we should pay much more attention to such worlds without writing; indeed a world where communal memory as a tablet on which facts could be registered and sanctionable knowledge recorded may have persisted deep into that era which historians of literacy (reading Michael Clanchy somewhat loosely) have usually seen as one of written record.

The discussion which followed these presentations was lively with some arguing for a need to think about a private/public dimension to these instances: does writing allow for private communication and thinking whereas Ian’s instances of recording are essentially public events and require external witness (John Watts)? This question was itself queried with the thought that surely the oral can also be private (Amanda Power). Mark Whittow wondered whether the unmarked built environment, particularly simple or single boundary markers, really could be eloquent without reference to the surrounding culture. If that is the case, is unwritten recording really standing so much outside the field of writing? That said, Mark thought more complex built environments such as cities could perhaps be considered records, particularly if characterised by constant performance. That said, Hilde de Weerdt was somewhat concerned about divorcing cities from writing, for surely a lot of text in cities (e.g. ephemera) just gets destroyed in a way that the built environment does not. But that does not mean it was not important or was not there. More generally it was suggested that even for contexts such as burial, where indeed as Naomi has shown writing does sometimes survive archaeologically in tombs, much greater quantities of writing still may have originally been involved but failed to survive.

In the course of discussion there were also calls for us to be less concerned about the ‘medieval’ dimension to this question of written, unwritten and memory, and more willing to be comparative: anthropologists point to the transformation of an agreed past within a generation in oral societies, something which seems much harder in a society characterised by writing (Alan Strathern). Equally there were calls, perhaps predictably, to consider the co-existence of oral and literate, or at least to see a more complex relationship between oral and literate – as with the frequent and ubiquitous case of the physical letter not containing the ‘real mesage’ but being something of a symbol borne by a messenger who himself conveys the ‘real message’ orally (Conrad Leyser). It was also pointed out that notions of credibility are important: visual evidence of individuals holding books suggests that belief in the written word could exist even in instances when individuals/groups could not read. Related to these issues was that of distance – is unwritten trust a more local practice whereas for the conduct of relationships over longer distances writing is preferable? Here we were uncertain – as Conrad asked, does the non-written always necessarily have to be local and low down the social scale? Monica White also wondered whether we should think more about whether there is a conscious rejection of certain technologies such as writing or whether writing (or not) is simply a matter of convenience. To that question Caroline Dodds Pennock argued that in the Americas writing was sometimes consciously rejected. Glen Dudbridge and Ian Forrest also opened up the relationship between religion and writing, with Glen noting that pagodas, for instance, did not have to contain written records but could contain other sacred objects. He also noted that ritual often only gets written down when a central authority is concerned about orthodoxy and demands a written record.

Discussion Two: Graphic Environment

A great deal of the presentation and discussion time in this theme was spent considering how ‘recording cultures’ might be a fruitful area for a specifically global or inter-regional inquiry.

Catherine Holmes opened the session by suggesting that this theme might be considered the polar opposite of the previous one. If that session was recording without writing, then this perhaps was writing without recording, or at least writing some distance away from conventional notions of an archive. Catherine came at this topic having found dealing with written culture in Byzantium problematic: there is far less evidence for writing, at least of a documentary sort, in Byzantium than one might imagine. That said, if one considers media other than parchment or paper and thinks about how contemporaries actually experienced writing as Simon Franklin does for early Rus’ then Byzantium suddenly doesn’t look so writing-poor. Instead a rainbow of evidence (e.g. seals, inscriptions etc.) make Byzantium a graphically rich landscape. Important for understanding how and why writing is used in Byzantium is a strong connection between writing and authority. If one wants to globalise this train of thought, then one could think more about writing and performance or at the means by which power is projected in writing: interesting here might be the huge monumental inscriptions which reinforced the authority of the Fatimid caliphs in the Cairo city-scape, or the use of script on ceremonial robes in Norman Sicily. Globalising writing in this sense could take on a comparative approach, particularly if one thought about how writing could convey authority even when the script used could not be read in a conventional alphabetic sense by the receiving audiences (as with Arabic script by Norman barons in Sicily). In terms of global method, one could think about mapping centres with which particularly authoritative scripts were associated, central nodes we might want to index to ideas of super-ordinate centres or charter polities developed in earlier workshops. Alternatively we might want to map practice in terms of the peoples and products which went into the making of authoritative script, especially the movement of key experts who generated or responded to demand for such script. In this context one might also begin to think in terms of the global/local tensions that we have considered in other workshops, particularly at the ways in which rulers for local purposes tapped into wider networks of script expertise and looked to more distant centres of script authority; but as in previous workshops, most notably at Newcastle on networks, we might also want to think about when the local trumps the global, when in this instance scripts are ignored or abandoned. To make sense of the decision to reject or abandon we may need to look at how subjects used (or did not use) authoritative scripts as much as at how rulers used them.

Caroline Dodds Pennock continued the session by using evidence from the Americas to reveal to the rest of the network just how Eurocentric were the conceptual contours around which we were building our apprehensions of recording. In her presentation the lexicon for this subject was undermined as the key terms which thus far we had thrown around with some abandon, ‘literacy’, ‘oral’, ‘archive’, ‘document’ and above all ‘writing’ were questioned. In the case of writing, for instance, Caroline pointed out just how fluid and expansive this term could/should be but instead how restricted was its usage by those with more Eurocentric moorings who tended to limit its use to alphabetic script. She also questioned the assumption (perhaps even implicit among these network participants) that the Americas had neither writing nor archives. Caroline used evidence from across the Americas to debunk both these suggestions and to show how wide and longstanding was the range of written culture (e.g. pictogram codices, wampum fabrics). Caroline suggested that instead of asking ‘how’ things were recorded (the question which seemed to be shaping most of the presentations and oral responses), we should instead be interested in thinking about ‘what information was being recorded, by whom and with what intention?’ More important still, as far as our wider project is concerned, she suggested that we were more likely to be able to talk about recording in a global sense if we thought about what people were interested in recording and how they constructed meaning rather than in slicing and dicing our discussion in relation to form. But even if we thought in these ‘what’ rather than ‘how’ terms, Caroline also suggested that writing was essentially an elite concern, one that often boiled down to a ‘possessive investment in writing’. That is to say, even in MesoAmerica literacy levels were probably always fairly low. Therefore, if we wanted to use writing as a global topic, at least from an Americas’ perspective it was probably better approached comparatively. It might also be worth thinking about different social layers of literacy and how groups in those different layers communicated between each other (perhaps here resonances with Ian’s contribution to the ‘Without writing’ session and the comments in the discussion afterwards?). In this context the interesting observation was made that the Aztecs and Incas were both archiving cultures; however, because the Aztecs’ use of archival material was rather more similar to that of the Spaniards they assimilated rather more quickly to Spanish legal culture than did the Inca

In discussion Alan Strathern wondered whether different technologies of communication have different levels or types of power, and whether certain avenues of communication might be closed off for certain people or groups as a result. This raised issues of the distinction between the written script used and materials by which it is transmitted, which may play into the issue of whether people can use documents without necessarily being literate themselves (Hilde de Weerdt). This led to reflections on what determines choice of media. For instance, why do some western medieval societies continue to opt for more durable and expensive parchment over paper even when that cheaper material was available (Catherine Holmes); the issue of quality is important here (Sue Whitfield). Emily Umberger also commented on the usefulness of flexibility and ambiguity in written materials, and noted how these are often under the control of particular people. Pictures, conversely, may make it harder for certain people to control the message, because words and pictures cannot always be disentangled from each other, and the use of an image implies accompanying words that cannot be shaped so easily because they are not written down. In India too, nationhood was expressed through pictures rather than writing, with Mughal albums using images such as the pacification of animals to explore kingship (Elizabeth Lambourn).

Discussion Three: Archival Mentalities

Hilde de Weerdt opened this session with the observation that making and using archives are not necessarily the same activity. She then developed two arguments about literacy and archival culture invoking two very different sorts of social milieus. Drawing on evidence from the Turfan database and invoking the research of Valerie Hansen, Hilde pointed out the very large number of documents which survive from western China which, particularly in the pre-tenth century period, reveal the widespread use of writing in private negotiations (ie civil law) in ways that did not involve the state (it was only from the tenth century onwards that the state became involved in civil law and enabled such documents to be presented in court); even more strikingly those using such documents were often functionally illiterate (they signed using finger prints). This seems to differ from the picture that Michael Clanchy developed for medieval England whereby the state was the driver for the proliferation of documents produced by others in society and for wider changes in attitudes to documentary culture. Hilde argued that because writing was so ubiquitous in east Asia, it was likely that even those who were otherwise functionally illiterate may have been able to recognise characters connected to their own occupation. In the second strand to her argument she noted an important change in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the use of documents by literary elites. Before that date those outside the imperial court did not have access to the production of certain types of official document; but this changed as imperial government ceased to be dominated by aristocrats and became increasingly peopled by members of the literary elite. Together with the increased involvement of this literary elite in government came changes in archival mentalities. In order to participate in government, members of that elite needed to be able to reference case studies, hence the need for compilations. Thus across the tenth to thirteenth centuries a compilation, digesting and indexing culture developed which by the twelfth century those outside the imperial court could access (via leaks and print). All of this was partly shaped by the examination process to enter imperial service, but also involved the social status of the literati who participated in this culture even those who did not hold office. This social performance dimension to an archiving culture is accessible through the notebooks produced by the literary elite.

Mark Whittow continued by shifting attention to the medieval west and developing what may seem at first sight to be an obvious observation that western Europe was characterised by a great deal of documentary evidence much of it included in large chronogically continuous archives. Perhaps this characteristic is less peculiar as far as the rest of the world is concerned after 1000; but before the eleventh century, western Europe can appear unusually and almost uniquely rich both in documents themselves and written culture more generally (with only deposits such as Dunhuang, the Geniza and some Egyptian papyri to compete). In some senses indeed Michael Clanchy’s arguments for England as a primarily oral place before 1000 are misleading for western Europe as a whole, where in the pre-1000 period thousands of documents and texts survive. Most of these are private documents which are almost certainly the tip of an iceberg given that they contain references to yet more now lost texts and given the existence of formularies which explain how to write such texts (e.g. the late 9th century Fonthill letter). Mark went on to make a distinction which echoed Hilde’s making/using polarity. In his case, he pointed out what made western Europe different from other parts of the world was not so much the ubiquitous use of documents (e.g. documentary culture was important in Byzantium as the lead seal evidence indicates) but in the retention and storage of such items. This is mainly explained by the relationship between the aristocrats and the church whereby assets were given to the church by social elites in return for the sacralisation of the power and status of those elites; but at least until the twelfth century those assets were liable to be transferred back to the aristocrats if need arose. Documents relevant to this process had to be kept; in contrast others, e.g. management records, not central to this relationship-perpetuating purpose tended to disappear. Perhaps most important are the distortions which this very peculiar form of archiving produces. Thus medieval history as a discipline has been fundamentally shaped by the survival of this record. This does not simply have important implications for how we study western medieval history but also for our approaches to the history of regions beyond. Why should we assume that the questions, models and approaches which this surviving seam of documents has generated are in any way appropriate or useful for cultures beyond western Europe?

In the final presentation Arietta Papaconstantinou continued to develop ideas about how we should approach key distinctions, especially those between recording and storage; hearing and seeing; public and private. Her thoughts were structured around observations drawn from a host of other disciplines as distilled in a thought-provoking article by Mullins, Whitehouse, and Atkinson (see bibliography) on the use of written records to create group cohesion over large distances and by a close reading of a body of evidence from tenth-century Egypt. Of particular interest to Arietta was the mediating role played by the specialist who created documents in Arabic for different parties involved in social transactions and who also explained those documents to them in their indigenous languages. In these senses archival documents were not merely seen but also heard as well as in other senses being hidden away.

Discussion of these presentations was very lively with a host of reflections on the scope and meaning of ‘document’ and ‘archive’. One strong theme initially developed by Jonathan Shepard was the way in which for the Monastery of the Caves in Rus’ the key archive the writing down of the lives of the abbots: in this sense narrative history was seen to be the best form of protection rather than documents recording asset transfers. This theme was developed by some thoughts on the relationship between historiography and documentary culture: history writing traditions often authenticate themselves by appealing to archival documents (Amanda Power); narrative history created using charters and continuous prose can be powerful defence in post-conquest contexts (Conrad Leyser developing a point made originally by Richard Southern). Also important were Mark Whittow’s suggestions that we need to keep other key tensions/polarities in mind: archives are not necessarily coterminous with literacy – often they perform a symbolic function as much as one of making written texts accessible.

For all the liveliness of this discussion, however, there was some feeling that our analysis of archives and the cultures which produce them, and perhaps more generally the whole theme of ‘recording cultures’ was somewhat miscellaneous; full of interesting instances and observations from different regions, rather than productive of a methodology that might allow us to tackle the specifically global more powerfully (John Watts). Perhaps, our over-familiarity with the themes and issues connected to literacy and communication, particularly among western medievalists, means that it is hard to lift our heads above those well-established parapets to consider the topic in more global terms? That said, in response to the criticism of the topic being too piecemeal, Alan Strathern argued that grand narratives were there to be constructed especially if we were willing to examine earlier and later periods too, and think mainly in comparative terms: e.g. the use of script in relation to the development of large scale polities; or script in relation to world religions. In that context John-Paul Ghobrial suggested that we think back to Harold Innis Empire and Communications (Oxford, 1950; reissued Toronto, 1972) for an early and seminal example of how to treat the relationship between communication, media and large scale polities.

International Expert Presentations

Professor Emily Umberger (Arizona State University): ‘Recording of Aztec history on stone monuments, 1450-1519’
Dr Matthew Davies (Cambridge): ‘Monuments, landscapes and memory in Africa’

It was a great pleasure to welcome Professor Emily Umberger and Dr Matthew Davies to our network discussions. From the outset of our endeavours as a network, we have been constantly aware of the need to include more material and interpretation from the Americas and Africa into our discussions. Emily and Matthew both gave wide-ranging presentations which provided a number of basic co-ordinates to those of us whose own regional specialisms mean that we spend little time thinking about either Meso-America or the inland regions of East Africa. Emily and Matthew also made powerful observations germane to our other ‘recording cultures’ sessions, while above all forcing us to think hard about the contribution that material culture can, and in their particular contexts must, play in decoding how and why particular cultures made records.

Having outlined the problems of using codex evidence to analyse pre-Spanish conquest Aztec history (so much of it composed after the arrival of the Europeans), Emily suggested an alternative approach to understanding the dynamics of Aztec political history in the fifteenth century, one which involves treating pre-conquest monuments as the primary source of evidence, above all those monuments as they were located in their original civic space. Emily’s argument rested on deconstructing the imagery, meaning and precise placement of the Coyolxauhqui Stone at the foot of the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, one of the rare instances of a sculpture found in its original archaeological context. For Emily the stone did not just depict the dismemberment of a mythical high status female but was instead a fundamental expression of and participant in the transformation of a pre-existing world of political alliances into an imperial Aztec polity in which neighbouring powers were defeated and cast into oblivion. Emily’s readings of how a city could itself constitute a primarily unwritten record threw up a number of potential points of comparison with other sessions at this workshop (for instance on cities as records in Discussion 1 ‘Without Writing’). Her arguments that political action was choreographed according to myth (rather than made to fit myth retrospectively, as is usually argued) were also very thought-provoking for other network members, especially the Byzantinists who were struck by the number of key political transformations that are associated with August 15th, the traditional date for the Assumption of the Virgin. Did politicians wait for that day to act rather than historians later assuming that action happened on that day?

Matthew contextualised his presentation on the monumental and landscape record of the Great Lakes region of Africa against an assertion that in recent decades archaeology has moved away from grand narratives about civilisations and towards understanding societies comprising multiple communities with complex forms of communication recoverable from the material record. Even if non-centralised and non-literary, those societies can still be characterised by considerable urban density and be organised on large scales. In the case of the Great Lakes area, Matthew argued that this was a region relatively little tied into a wider world, has very little written history and relatively few forms of figural art. Yet, it has a very rich record of landscape change shaped by human activity and artefacts; both can be seen as records as can oral history. He drew particular attention to enacted performances (some routine and some more occasional) at particular monuments or landscape sites; some of these locations and performances, related to household structures, field and irrigation systems, can be tied into lineage histories; these in turn blend into community histories with stones attached to particular locations often acting as mnenomics for particular stories. Landscape location and monuments in these contexts act in similar ways, as places where stories are acted out, reaffirmed or even changed. In teh course of his presentation Matthew pointed out just how difficult it was to define monument and wondered whether a better definition might be ‘public architecture’ in the sense of places where community cohesion and identity can be built, rebuilt and at times contested. That said, Matthew would shift the emphasis as far as monuments are concerned away from states, power and centralisation (although they can relate to those structures and processes) to other groups and communities. Thus we can focus on large scale sites with huge monuments such as the pyramids at Meroe in southern Sudan, the stelae at Axum in northern Ethiopia, or Great Zimbabwe. But Matthew is more interested in smaller scale sites such as the thousands of stone cairns of the Great Lakes area, which sometimes occur in clusters, and to which people returned regularly. Often these are burial sites; but they can be symbolic honouring a person or an event. Animal sacrifices and feasting are to be associated with such places. Dating such structures are difficult – practices such as these go back over two thousand years. While there is considerable regionalisation, there are some commonalities which need to be studied further, particularly with regard to the colour and orientation of the stones used in such cairns. In response to questions posed in discussion about how to use this evidence to analyse issues to do with agency and status, particularly where written records were lacking, Elizabeth Lambourn suggested that one could think more about the size, resonance qualities and rarity value/accessibility of (or lack of easy access to) of the stones used. In general terms Matthew’s presentation also echoed themes discussed earlier in the workshop, most notably those explored in the wake of Ian Forrest’s presentation in the Without Writing session. Can stones be eloquent?