Leeds update # 3: the one with the elephant

Trufax: every session is better with elephants in it! This was about the sum total of my decision-making process for the 11.15 slot on the Monday of Leeds, and so I turned up to “Gift-Giving I: Gift-giving and the Early Middle Ages”, organised by Jinty Nelson and starring Danuta Shanzer, Paul M. Cobb, and Alice Rio.

Things in this session:

A: Gift Revenge, Legacies and Hand-Me Downs: Danuta Shanzer

I’m afraid I couldn’t do this paper justice if I tried to summarise it. I turned up a squeak late, I had a cold and kept sneezing, and my sudafed hadn’t kicked in yet. My notes didn’t make much sense to me a few hours later, let alone now. Danuta Shanzer’s work was dense, wide-ranging and entirely on things I knew nothing about, which is no discredit to her but didn’t help my fogged-up brain at all.

She began by looking at gift exchange practices in ancient and late antique society, where we have better metadata for what a gift meant. She talked about ‘pathologies’ of gifts, such as the tactless gift and the passive-aggressive gift, drawing evidence from descriptions of certain gift practices from the likes of Seneca and Martial; and compared late antique and early medieval gift dedications such as those between Martial and Furturatus (sp?) and Ruricius and Sedatus. The Ruricius-Sedatus exchange was particularly entertaining: we have a series of letters about the gift of a horse by  one of them to the other, but the descriptions of the horse itself vary wildly – to one, it’s a good horse; to the other, a bad one – and the whole exchange seems to be revising existing formulae/intertexts from other gift letters.

A huge slew of this paper went right over my sneezy little head, which is a pity, since what I have in the way of notes suggests it was very well researched. Probably of more interest to early medievalists than it is to me, though.

ED – this paper and indeed the entire session has been eloquently recapped by Magistra.

B: The Gift of the Elephant: On the Meanings of Abulabas – Paul M. Cobb

This was a fascinating paper. (And my sudafed had kicked in.) Firstly, it had an elephant. Secondly, Paul M. Cobb is an islamicist by trade, rather than a western-oriented medievalist. He took on the story of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abulabas, sent to him by Harun al-Rashid (no Arabic sources corroborate the story, but we have enough reliable Frankish evidence to suggest an elephant was in fact exchanged). Apparently, most scholarship on this episode looks at the exchange on a diplomatic or economic level: it’s usually scholars of Europe, and they’re usually interested in whether the gift represented recognition of Charlemagne’s position as Emperor, and what the exchange says about Europe-Middle East trade at the time.

In this paper, Paul set out to talk about why an elephant? What did elephants mean to Harun al-Rashid and his court, and what did they mean to Charlemagne? According to the sources we have, Charlemagne specifically requested an elephant: why?

Paul thinks the elephant was almost certainly an African elephant (not, as the Wiki page I just linked to would have it, an Asian elephant), but that Sassanian attitudes to elephants as a symbol of royalty and power would have dominated the cultural ideas about elephants at Harun’s court. Both Persians and Byzantines used elephants as gifts; there seem to have been rules about elephant gifts. Specifically, they are sent to kings: sent by subordinates to kings, or by kings to one another. Rarely does one ask for an elephant, and, when an elephant is requested – we have one example other than Charlemagne’s request – it seems to be regarded as rude. Display seems to be the primary purpose of elephants in the Islamic caliphate – we have no evidence of their use in battle after the fall of the Persian empire (accordingly, Paul feels that Abulabas was probably not used in combat by Charlemagne, although he seems to have been taken  on campaign), but they were kept by kings and used in parades.

Paul also talked about the use of elephants in Roman and Byzantine gifts, and concluded that Charlemagne probably had access to some of that tradition – evidently, he knew that gifts of elephants were a symbol of power and even royalty. However, he notes an additional feature of the gift of this elephant: his name, Abulabas, clearly derived from the frequently-occurring kunya Abu Abbas (father of Abbas). Paul notes that it’s quite uncommon for animals to be referred to by a kunya, but one other notable elephant was called Abu Abbas. Mahmud, the elephant in surah 105.

Now, the ‘companions of the elephant’ referred to in surah 105 are the Christian king of Yemen and his army. In the birth year of the prophet, 570 AD, also, incidentally, the Year of the Elephant, said king decided he was going to attack Mecca and destroy the Ka’ba. And he took his elephant with him – an elephant he had requested from his overlord in Abyssinia. But his plans went awry! Mahmud, also called Abu Abbas, the elephant, flatly refused to attack Mecca and instead prostrated himself before the walls.

Given that Charlemagne’s elephant appears to have been sent to him with a name, and that name is the quite-rare name associated with an elephant who was known for recognising the sanctity of the Ka’ba and also involved in the defeat of Christian forces… Paul suggested that, while Harun’s gift of Abulabas to Charlemagne clearly signifies recognition of a fellow king, it also carries a sly joke with it. An acknowledgement of a far-off peer, but also a reminder – for those in the know – that there are things worth acknowledging aside from Christian kings.


C: Voluntary Enslavement: From self-sale to self-gift – Alice Rio

Alice specifically analysed Charles the Bald’s Edict of Pitsres concerning the fate of those who sell themselves into slavery. Now, I haven’t read and don’t even particularly want to read this edict. But Alice made it sound quite interesting! Apparently Charles – or his edict-writers, whoever they were – goes to great lengths, extrapolating weird precedents out of all sorts of places, to paint a remarkably positive picture of not only those who sell themselves into slavery, but also those who buy self-sold slaves. The edict manages to construct such a transaction as a sort of charity, for the protection of the poor.

This flies in the face of the Theodosian code, which flat out forbids self-sale, and, somewhat ironically, punishes the self-vendor with lifetime slavery. Under the Visigothic law (lex. Visi V.4.1o, according to my notes), ‘he who submitted to slavery willingly does not deserve to be free’. Alice noted, however, that the institution of weregild sort of did away with the idea that free men have no price.

popehippo - violence inherant in the systemShe also raised the possibility that Christianity, with its theology of service to God, might improve ideas about slavery; however, she noted that late antique Christian writers saw slavery as an impediment to salvation and were hostile to the sale and purchase of the free. Late antique attitudes, legal and otherwise, did tend to see self-sale as a sign of oppression and place the blame squarely on the buyer. Charles, on the other hand, seems to see the transaction as a favour.

Alice raised some interesting questions here: who’s doing the favour to whom? Is the purchaser making a sort of gift to the purchasee? Not to mention, if the enslaved cannot own property, how is the self-sold slave supposed to benefit from the money? Clearly there was a more complex economy than regular slavery going on here.

She then talked about documents from the Abbey of Farto, in which a chap (possibly named Waldinus, or Uvaldinus, apparently my palaegraphical skills are not up to reading my own handwriting) gave himself, as a slave, to the Abbey of Farto. He expected clothes and shoes, but would have to buy his way out if he wanted to leave. His donation deliberately uses the language of religious service; Alice found, in the Farto documents, a sort of feedback loop between entering the monastery and constructing that as a state of servitude, and entering service to a monastery as an act of devotion.

Alice then cited the Leges Langobardorum (Aistulf 22, p. 204 in the Bluhme edition), which specifies that a man who gives himself to someone else is legally allowed to go free after thirty years. However, it also specifies that the giver must not give himself into slavery out of necessity. She noted a shift in the Italian evidence, both the Lomard law and the Farto documents, in the language used to frame voluntary enslavement: there’s less emphasis on oppression and poverty, and more agency assigned to the voluntary slave.

Finally, Alice noted that the reciprocity underlying all of these documents – ideas of protection for service – far predate the 11th century. These exchanges create new relationships, and reframe the old language of sale into a more malleable sort of agreement between individuals and either other individuals or entities such as an abbey.

NOTE: It has been suggested that what I wrote down as ‘Farto’ might actually be ‘Farfa’. Why yes, I type so much that my handwriting is nigh illegible!


5 Responses to “Leeds update # 3: the one with the elephant”

  1. Katrin Says:

    Oh thanks so much for the Elephant summary – that is a delicious joke, and totally medieval in its slyness, and I totally love it! (Must have sent scores of muslims into giggling fits…)
    Sometimes I think that medieval folks must have loved geek jokes that only a small part of the population would get. Or someone learned. Or so. (Or maybe I’m totally wrong and they would all have gone “oh, dude, that was so clear it wasn’t even funny!” and it’s only me with my limited knowledge that feels totally geeky and special by getting it.)
    Incindentally, there’s an advertisement in Bamberg plastered onto the buses for local beer from a brewery called “Recken” (Warrior/Knight), which says “Laß dir Recken schmecken.” Which can be read as “Do enjoy a few knights.” if you are so inclined. Which I am, and I have to grin each time I see it.

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:


    Recte Farfa perhaps?

    The self-slave stuff is really interesting and I was sorry not to make this session. (What did I do instead? Oh yeah, this one, which may have been more relevant but contained fewer elephants.) Mind you, everything Alice does is interesting as far as I can see, I don’t think she would herself be interested otherwise.

    As to Professor Shanzer, both she and Ralph Mathisen always make me feel very ignorant, because they seem to have so much evidence of people being clever that they understand better than anyone. All I can really do is say, “well, I work later”. But I just mean that I doubt you were the only person there feeling baffled and slightly awestruck as that’s the reaction I usually have in her sessions too.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Could be! My notes clearly say Farto, but I don’t trust me…

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      As for the other session, I was considering going to that, but then I reminded myself that I’m not actually doing ecclesiastical history anymore, and the elephant sounded more fun. How was the priests-as-powerbrokers paper, though?

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