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Frans Theuws’ new book – why Maastricht is special

Leiden University’s Frans Theuws is one of Europe’s most cerebral archaeologists. What makes him interesting is that he is fascinated by developing new ideas about the origins of Europe from a combination of his own historical reflections, his excavations and archival research. His new book is a major archival study of the 1969-70 excavations at the Vrijthhof square close to Saint-Servatius in Maastricht. Now Maastricht, famous for its role in the making of the European Union, has a great history in Roman and Medieval times. This book, as a result, discretely takes its lead from the seed planted in 1889. In that year a 27-year old Henri Pirenne published his first book on the origins of the (nearby) Meuse town of Dinant, thereafter embarking upon a legendary career that shaped 20th-century understanding of the European Middle Ages.

Frans’s huge and heavy book elegantly pursues Pirenne’s legendary course, and in time will undoubtedly garner some reputation. But this is not really one book, it is two. Ostensibly Frans, ably assisted by Mirjam Kars as well as other collaborators, offers a remarkably important study of the context and early evolution of cemeteries close to the great church of Saint-Servatius, associated, with amongst others, Charlemagne’s biographer, Bishop Einhard. Situated close to the heartlands of the early Carolingians, this report and the ample, well-illustrated analyses, provide a fundamental window on a critical locality of early Medieval Europe.

Why will this big book make a difference? Essentially it spotlights a renowned place in the Carolingian age and, by force of the archaeological evidence, concludes that it had an institutional character entirely different to that of its Roman or Central Medieval counterparts. This was a polyfocal centre, serving a rural community, lent special status in terms of its history and its cult associated with Saint-Servatius, that in turn caused the creation of open spaces nearby to be designated for meetings. Maastricht is not alone. So many contemporary Mid-Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian and Lombard places share this characteristic where the archaeology is almost invisible, leaving us to question the veracity of the sources. Not all possessed saints with powerful reputations, but many of these early ‘urban’ places defined in the texts as market-places and archaeologically visible through stray finds such as coins were located at geographical thoroughfares. Even Rome itself in the later 8th and early 9th centuries is almost archaeologically invisible, yet its transactional importance as a pilgrimage destination is beyond doubt. This Maastricht model helps us to re-think how Rome functioned before the civic elements of streets and squares were re-introduced in the 11th century.

Frans proffers a solution to a question that since archaeology lost its innocence in the 1970s it has been reduced to binary debates such as continuity-discontinuity or archaeological sampling versus the trustworthiness of the texts. Working assiduously through the lens of the diachronic data from legacy excavations at Vrijthof Square, Frans makes the case for meeting places close to cult centres being a less permanent but important variant of urbanisation. The implications are far-reaching. I for one will be monitoring different reactions to Frans’ new hypothesis.

Frans Theuws and Mirjam Kars (eds.) The Saint-Servatius complex in Masstricht. The Vrijthof excavations (1969-1970). Roman infrastructure – Merovingian cemetery – Carolingian cemetery – early town development, Bonn; Habelt, Bonn, 607pp; ill. ISBN 978-3-7749-4024-6 € xxx.

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