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England and Egypt in the early middle ages: the papal connection

When the Venerable Bede (d. 735) looked out from his Tyneside monastery across the North Sea, over the harbour at Jarrow Slake to which ships brought communications, wares, and human traffic from Europe and the Mediterranean—how then did he picture Rome and the papacy, the city and institution he thought so central to English and even world history? His grasp of its visual culture cannot have been great. We know that Bede never saw Rome (in fact, he never saw any city or town). Our usual reference points of its basilicas, shrines, walls and mosaics—indeed, its sheer urban and suburban mass—cannot have meant much to him.

He surely saw books from Rome, and perhaps church vestments and other textiles, although how distinctively ‘Roman’ these looked we do not know. He made a great deal of the relics of Roman saints brought to his island. But the kinds of relics of which he spoke were hardly spectacular: tiny wrappings of cloth, filled with dust, tagged with plain, fingernail-sized labels—to the modern eye, they resemble more covert bundles of narcotics than tokens of God’s elect on earth. Rather, the main visual medium through which Bede and many others in the early Middle Ages must have experienced Rome was through the physical format itself of the papal decrees which his monastery and wider political community received. Throughout the first millennium, these papal letters were not routine bureaucratic documents, and they would have not gone unnoticed. They took the form of enormous, metres-long scrolls of Egyptian papyrus.

So fragile is papyrus that no more than about two dozen of the original letters sent by early medieval popes survive anywhere in Europe (the others, in their thousands, have come down to us via later copies and citations). The few we retain, however, indicate that the visual message which opened up before the eyes of those who unrolled these documents firmly located Rome, the papacy, and the mainstream of the Christian world within a culture which was distinctively eastern Mediterranean. One such survival appears on the cover of my recent book, England and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages.

The artefact now sits in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where it was sliced into eight fragments by an overzealous librarian in the nineteenth century. It records the intervention of Pope John VIII into the legal privileges of the monastery of Tournus (eastern France) in the year 876. Textually, it is fairly mundane. Yet the external features of this papal manuscript are extraordinary when compared to what else we know of other European medieval documents. Like other papal survivals, it is huge—an amazing 3.2 metres in length (and specimens of up to 7 metres survive elsewhere). Like other surviving scrolls, it is written in a strange, seemingly deliberately baffling Roman script. And the use of papyrus, not parchment, as a format is by itself astonishing: this was a medium definitively phased out of use across most of Europe in the seventh century. By the ninth century, stocks must have been very difficult to obtain. The Tournus letter’s most remarkable feature, however, is its grand opening statement. This is not in Latin at all, nor by a papal notary. Instead, the letter begins with a half-metre-wide proclamation in Arabic, and its scribe was presumably Egyptian.

What this Arabic actually says is contested. The extant script is almost undecipherable; a traditional reading, that it refers to Sa’id ibn ’Abd al-Rahman, an early-to-mid-ninth-century finance director of Abbasid Egypt, may or may not be secure. In any case, its scribe probably added the text to the plain sheet of freshly manufactured papyrus in Egypt, the caliphal province which held a virtual monopoly on the papyrus industry. This was completely standard procedure, inherited from the Roman Empire. Such ‘protocols’ are found elsewhere on Byzantine and Arabic papyri. Essentially, they certified that rolls of new papyri, whose manufacture was state-supervised, had passed through the right authorities before distribution. A rough modern-day analogy might be the duty-stamps found on exported whiskey and cigarettes.

From Egypt, some stocks must have made it to Rome. But that is where things get weird. One would, I think, expect the papal notaries who prepared this magnificent, highly formalised document for Tournus to have at least trimmed off this half-metre block of Arabic text inserted by the Abbasid functionaries. On the contrary, the Arabic is retained in full, and is by some distance the single largest graphic element on the letter, where it stands out as pivotal to its visual power. It was surely kept on purpose. If those handling the letter could not read giant sweeps of official, Arabic chancery script, then they must have still recognised its connotations. At the head of the document, it signalled the claims of Rome and the papacy (and with them, the letter’s recipients) to a privileged hyperconnectivity with a universal Christian culture that stretched far beyond the bounds of the Latin west, and even touched upon the aesthetics, technologies, and trade networks of Islamic civilisation. This Arabic contribution to the document was something to be prized, not neglected.

There’s no reason to believe that this would have been the only instance where such an Arabic protocol became embedded into a papal letter or decree. Rates of survival are too poor for us to assert that this single case was exceptional. Nor does the fact that later copyists failed to note such features when transcribing the many papyri which we have lost mean anything: even modern editors of the Tournus document have not always bothered. Hence my—slightly provocative—choice of this letter for a French recipient for the cover of England and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages. I think we should take very seriously the possibility that a great many of the lost original papal letters for early medieval England would have looked just like this: that the archives of Canterbury, York, Wearmouth-Jarrow and Glastonbury could well have counted documents emblazoned with the Arabic calligraphy of Umayyad and Abbasid officials as their most prized possessions—that is, as both sacred texts issued by the pope, and as key witnesses to their legal title.

When the early medieval English imagined Rome and the papacy, then, they may have often done so through the prism of what remained, for many, their most immediate sensory experience of its distant allure. This was an experience which none of us would associate with Rome today. To experience the popes and their city from afar meant to gaze upon metres-long rolls of an unfamiliar, precious, Egyptian fabric, and to watch them being unfurled in a church, palace, or place of assembly, to reveal decrees penned in a strange southern Italian script, sometimes even an Arabic one that looked stranger still. Was this the Rome of Bede, Offa, Wulfstan, Æthelred? If we want to take a more radical approach to thinking about English religion and politics in the first millennium—one which expands our sense of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ worldview beyond the familiar Insular tropes and images and destabilises our weary modern assumptions about what its Christian identity involved—then this seems to me like a good place to start.

Feature image: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 8840.

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