Winner’s preservation

There is a particular problem with doing medieval history that is well-known to people generally: the Church are how we have almost all the written evidence. We all know this, especially those of us working on charters, and spend a lot of our time trying to work out what that means for our evidence and what we can do with it despite that, or whether we just have to work with its strengths. Yes?

Now that I’ve done so much work for the Lay Archives Project I know, better than many I suppose, that there are occasionally documents in Church archives that are apparently nothing to do with the Church, but in most, almost all cases (Cluny apparently being an exception, along with most of Catalonia but not, apparently, the Midi) these are explicable either as parts of dossiers relating to property that later came to the relevant Church, possibly via a smaller one, or (very rarely—we know of two cases, maybe three) secular administrative dossiers of properties later granted to the Church, which is not quite the same thing and far more exciting to historians of government. But, basically, the Church has it all, and when we get charters like the Anglo-Saxon Fonthill Letter that were at some point in their history marked “inutile” on the dorse, we know we’re lucky to have them at all, because usually what’s kept is only what’s apparently useful.1

Illuminated initial from a St Petersburg Anglo-Saxon manuscript

This means that by now I’m surprised when I come across arguments that the Church clearly ruled the law-courts, because all the records we have show them winning. Of course they do! Why would a loser in a court case keep the document that did him out of the lands? Why would he even be given it to keep? The winner wants that. We know what happened to inconvenient documents like this…2 So it bothers me to find arguments like that, even supported with others (law is a process involving writing and the Church are writing specialists, etc., another idea that won’t die—on the other hand I don’t think even Catalonia had a surviving lay notariate so where exactly I stand on this is unclear), in the work of someone whose stuff is otherwise rich and thought-provoking. At least partly because it involves the idea that I know more in one tiny field than they do, and it seems unlikely given how much they’ve done in it themselves.

Anyway. I can bring something positive out of the rant. We do actually get to see, in Catalonia, what it looks like when the Church loses. (The counts too, but that’s easier.3) In this area hearings can generate a lot of documents, but canonically there are three each, the record of the actual hearing in which the arguments are set out, the oath of whatever witnesses are called, and finally the evacuation or quitclaim of the defeated party, a loser’s document that goes to the winner (as do the rest). Quite often the scribes don’t adhere to this and we get these lumped together in one or two documents.4 Now one of these is our special guest.

Ruins of the castle of Pinyana, once property of Vicar Sendred de Gurb

In 1002, Bishop Sal·la of Urgell, in the north-west of Catalonia, brought to court a plea against the castellan Sendred, head of the powerful Gurb family, who had for some years held the castle of Queralt.5 Sal·la, a wily fellow, was claiming that the castle rightly belonged to the cathedral of Urgell and sought Sendred’s homage for it. Sendred produced a charter in which the castle had been granted to his father, and Sal·la, uncharacteristically at a loss, obtained an adjournment to a more southerly court where he brought two ecclesiastics of good repute to swear to the truth of his claims.6

This is all we have, the set-up and the oath. But the Gurb family still had the castle years later. Baraut edits this document as if the cathdral had won the case, and Benet (see n. 5 below) says that Sal·la clearly couldn’t make his victory stick against so powerful a character, but to me it seems more likely that it didn’t stick because he lost. Sendred had a charter, Sal·la didn’t and there is thus no evacuation or quitclaim, even though that would be more use to keep than this, and I bet that’s because there wasn’t one. What we have is the oath by which Urgell’s case for the prosecution was put, and someone presumably thought that might be useful to produce again. Or maybe they just filed it disheartenedly when they returned home, who knows. Urgell’s archive seems to have been filed by neglect more than anything sometimes, I could tell you stories. Maybe another time, if you’re good :-)

But yes: that’s what it looks like when the Church loses, I reckon. It looks almost as if they won, or it doesn’t get seen.

1. S. Keynes, “The Fonthill Letter”, in M. Korhammer (ed.), Words, Texts and Manuscripts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture presented to Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge 1992), pp. 53-97.

2. I’m thinking of the Lombard case where it was shown that the defendant had burnt a charter he was claiming never to have seen, and so the judge then asked him what it had said, and he replied something like, “if it had been advantageous to us, I would hardly have burnt it!” Discussion in C. Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900″ in W. Davies & P. Fouracre, (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 105-124; rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 229-256.

3. F. Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 177.

4. R. Collins, “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Davies & Fouracre, The Settlement of Disputes, pp. 85-104. More generally see J. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004).

5. On Sendred and his family see either A. Benet i Clarà, “Sendred de Gurb” in Ausa: patronato de estudios ausonencs Vol. 8 (1977), pp. 238-254, or idem, La Família Gurb-Queralt (956-1276). Senyors de Sallent, Olò, Avinyó, Manlleu, Voltregà, Queralt i Santa Coloma de Queralt (Sallent 1993).

6. C. Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 287.

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3 responses to “Winner’s preservation

  1. “At least partly because it involves the idea that I know more in one tiny field than they do, and it seems unlikely given how much they’ve done in it themselves.”

    Why is it unlikely that you ‘know more’ in a certain field than some old authority? You can’t advance science if you don’t sometimes ignore the anxieties about your own capabilities. Don’t forget that the main purpose of old authorities is to be challenged by younger researchers!

    But lemme see… If you go to the ecclesiastical archives you’ll find the church’s papers, which means the cases won by the church. Yes?

    If you were able to access the lay/private/noble/secular/whatever archives, you would possibly find the cases won by the record keeper, that is cases lost by the church or another lay party.

    Survival of (any?) lay archives seems to be the question here. Is the material just skewed because all the documents come from church archives?

    It makes sense to keep only the documents which will or which could just maybe support your future legal claims, I’d say.

  2. You have the preservation question pretty much exactly as I see it, yes. We do get a few comital archives in the eleventh century and onwards, before the town records really start—in Catalonia the Barcelona counts’ archive actually goes back to the 900s, but it’s extremely patchy and we’re not sure why most of it’s there.

    The Lay Archives group has been variously finding ways in which laymen stored their documents, depositing family acta at their family monasteries and so on, and there were public records offices in ex-Roman territories until, well, there’s a question—sixth century? Maybe later in places? But not much of this stuff survives. One of the things that drew me to Catalonia as a field of study is that there we actually get some of the survival, laymen apparently depositing their whole parchment archives with cathedrals to whom they’re making bequests, country houses whose own archives turn to go back to the tenth century (not many, but some) and there’s a will somewhere in which a reasonably middling layman bequeathes, among other things, his cartarium”, apparently a charter box. So we see this stuff. But even when you crank the `gain’ up that high, the Church is still most of it. And the reason it’s so high in Catalonia is that mostly the documents there are originals. Where stuff has been compiled or copied up, people have gone through selecting and weeding and that—this may be the Lay Archives Group’s only ever solid conclusion, and we weren’t the first to see it—wrecks the chances of this stuff making it through almost totally.

    But the main reason it surprises me to find failure to take this on board in one of the books I’m reading is that otherwise I’m learning so much from it and being forced to rethink so much stuff that it actually being obviously faulty in this aspect seems very inconsistent.

  3. Pingback: Antapodosis in Catalonia (scheming bishops) « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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