“Of course you realise this means war”

The blogging world seems to be on vacation or in work panic, so I guess I have to contribute some content of my own :-) And I actually do have a fair bit of stuff queued up, so here is the largest to chew on.

I try and draw a line in the sand with my work that stops me going beyond 1030, because after that the evidence I use changes shape and also multiplies in volume to an unmanageable size. How modernists ever manage to generalise I don’t understand. Anyway, this should also mean, according to the accepted chronology (which is too compressed) that I miss the particularly thorough-going case of feudal revolution that Catalonia has from 1041 onwards. But a few days ago I was, because of chapters that start before and end after, reading that stuff again and got a fresh sense of what an incredible story it is, one of those that makes you wonder if the real point of this discipline isn’t to provide us with a lifetime of material for film scripts. But I’m not going to write the script, so I thought I’d try and briefly tell the story.

The fortress of Olèrdola from below

From before Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona succeeded in 993, the nobles of Catalonia had been being established by the counts in an ever-increasing number of castles. Some were new and some, like Olèrdola just above there, had been on-and-off going concerns since the Bronze Age. The idea was both to keep the nobles’ support and use their efforts in the counts’ wider endeavours of establishing authority networks in frontier areas (and thus making themselves much richer), and also to provide a defence against occasional raids from the Muslim South for which the counts didn’t have to provide entirely by themselves. Ramon Borrell however, along with his young and spirited wife Ermessenda with whom he seems to have made a formidable team, raised the game, firstly just by acting more royally and concentrating affairs on the palace, but secondly and mostly by renewing war on the now-disintegrating Caliphate of al-Andalus and beginning to haul huge tributes in Muslim gold into his prinicipality, which is how he could afford to increase his personal splendour and build masses of castles to hand out to the leaders of his armies, and so on. He and his father had built a juggernaut, because everywhere else in ex-Frankish Europe as the peasant economy slowly begins to boom and the gain from being able to exploit it goes up, such nobles were throwing off trappings of subjection to higher authority and making themselves princes in their lands beyond whom there was no recourse. But as long as Ramon Borrell, and his brother Count Ermengol of more northerly Urgell (and after his death on campaign in 1010, his son of the same name) could keep the wars happening and the gold coming in to their advantage, it was a juggernaut they could ride. Ramon Borrell seems to have been playing an Ottonian kind of game whereby he used status play to open up the gap between him and the steadily-richer nobility to justify his ex-royal authority (he does appear phrasing it like that). Anyway, this is not the story, this is just what you need to know to understand how the story unrolls.

The other thing you need to know is that traditionally, this was a society built around public structures of authority. I don’t know how far I believe that they were important still, but the counts protected a system of courts and judicial recourse that operated instead of a feud system of private wars. The peasantry were still armed and dangerous and, like the rich, worldly and administratively-active Church, looked to the counts to keep them independent. Most castles were held from the counts, whose job defence was and who were obeyed because of that necessity. But elsewhere society was more and more becoming a tissue of oaths and promises, regulating the links between persons where older structures were failing. How much of that is to blame for what happens next is a whole big debate and I’m bored with preamble now.

So in 1018 Ramon Borrell, who raided Córdoba itself in 1010 while putting a candidate for the caliphal throne onto it in rivalry with a Castilian-backed one (says Salrach, this isn’t how the León-centric Lomax writes it up at all1), and has since then extracted gold in bulk from Lleida and Tortosa repeatedly, even if a second coup in 1017 went the other way, though the Catalans still got paid to leave—in 1018, as I say, he dies. He leaves behind him a frequently-ill son, Berenguer Ramon, to take over under the rather enveloping care of Countess Ermessenda, that afore-mentioned spirited wife, who is left the county of Girona as her own dowager portion. For whatever reasons, Berenguer does not undertake war on the same level and the few campaigns he does try fail embarassingly. This means that the money that is holding him and his mother above the pack stops coming in, leaving only ideology. And on the border where the castles are in the hands of people on whom no-one checks, that doesn’t count for as much as what you can get by, for example taking over the counts’ revenues and estates yourself and maybe giving them back if and when he makes you. With enough money, after all, you can keep a judicial process going on for a long time during which time you’re taking all the taxes. So the edges start to get nibbled off Berenguer Ramon’s authority, despite Mum’s increasingly grand (and ecclesiastical) court, which is itself decreasing his power by hiving one of the main counties off out of his control. And even if this could be stopped by close and active supervision, and also active campaigning, that isn’t happening. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” and all that.

In 1035 Berenguer Ramon shuffles off his unhappy mortal coil, and his sons inherit a partitioned authority which further reduces their combined clout. All are children still, and until they come of age Grandma Ermessenda is left in charge some more, a charge that she, an old woman by now, exercises from the cites of Girona and Barcelona, leaving the frontier to her trusted men and their trusted men without necessarily being able or willing to provide the support they need. The sons are, in ascending order, little Guillem who gets the county of Osona (have a map), slightly bigger Sanç who gets the new formation of Penedès in western Barcelona, and Ramon Berenguer who gets the rest, except of course Girona which is still Ermessenda’s, so actually he gets about half of Barcelona and no more.

Watch this boy though: in film script terms, he is the Anakin Skywalker.2 Most of all, he grows up with nobles who live the new way, oaths not offices, territories not benefices, subjects not catchment, and thinks like them. Grandmother Ermessenda does not think like this, sees such thinking as the erosion of the status and rank that not only she but her tearaway grandson are holding onto. She is thus stuck between protecting him and trying to stop him getting out of hand and undermining everything she’s trying to keep in trust for when he grows some sense.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

In 1039, in the last years of his minority, Ramon Berenguer blows his teenage top and bands up with the castle-holding nobles of the frontier, not least a man called Mir Geribert, who is based at Olèrdola, who is son of a Viscount of Barcelona and daughter of Ramon Berenguer’s great-aunt, Ramon Borrell’s sister (and thus a fair bit older than Ramon Berenguer, but younger than Ermessenda). Ramon Berenguer wants Girona back, but the nobles are hoping for more, and so Ermessenda is able to strip her grandson of his support mainly by agreeing to negotiate. She hands over some fortresses, Ramon Berenguer simmers down, the nobles give up on him disgusted.

The result is increasing discontent until in 1041, in which year Ramon Berenguer is 21 and officially inherits his counties, Mir Geribert and his allies effectively secede: he calls himself Prince of Olèrdola, takes over Ramon Berenguer’s and Sanç’s properties wherever he can and invades the franchises, areas of judicial self-government awarded and until now protected by the counts. Ramon Berenguer’s response is hampered by the fact that really, this is brother Sanç’s territory, but Sanç is about fourteen at this point and not reacting in full lordly outrage. Also, the men who bring Ramon Berenguer his troops when he goes to war are partly involved, and on two campaigns, one against the count of neighbouring Cerdanya and one more dangerously against al-Andalus—he may only be in his twenties but he knows where the answer lies—his forces suffer serious desertions. In Barcelona itself, though the citizens arm themselves in his support and pledge him vast sums of money, it still isn’t enough to stop the actual bishop and the viscount (Mir Geribert’s cousins both) besieging him in the comital palace, although he does at least manage to turn the battle round and capture them. He can’t however get consensus enough together to punish them, he just doesn’t have the whole-hearted support.

The count of Urgell can’t help because he is under attack from Muslim Saragossa and has a set of peasant communes in Andorra taking the joint opportunity to secede. Cerdanya is ranged against Barcelona too; in fact the only help for the counts available is from the Church and, inevitably, grandmother Ermessenda, which comes with a price-tag Ramon Berenguer doesn’t like, and only goes far enough to save him, not to let him advance his own plans. So 1041 to 1046 are difficult years for the young hero/anti-hero. By the end of that, because he has been wise enough despite everything to keep up raiding against al-Andalus, he is able to buy support enough to establish relative peace. In 1046 he forces the nearest Muslim cities, Lleida and Tortosa, both to agree a yearly payment of tribute, which more or less guarantees him this kind of revenue for the future, though Mir Geribert remains an independent prince in Penedès and will for eight more years yet.

Perhaps because there is little of his county left, Sanç gives it up to his brother in 1049 for a fairly meagre pension, and that is more or less the last we hear of him, retirement age circa 22. In 1051 Ramon Berenguer I manages to force a tribute out of the very rich city of Saragossa. Meanwhile in 1052 everything at home explodes at once, and it’s Ramon Berenguer’s fault.

Ermessenda is by now very old, and losing not so much grip as her helping hands. The oldest churchmen, on whose respected status and pacific principles she had relied (including her brother Pere, Bishop of Girona, and the famous Bishop Oliba of Vic, son of a count, once a count himself, and also Abbot of quite a lot of places and thus a very major magnate in his own right) have died, and she is finding it hard to command the respect she once had against her grandson’s increasing control both of men and resources. In a clear symptom of this escape from her control, in 1052 Ramon Berenguer repudiates his wife Countess Blanca, whom Ermessenda found him in 1030 when he was still a child, and does no less a thing than abduct and marry Almodis de la Marche, already married to the ageing Count of Toulouse! Pope Victor II is called on to excommunicate the young count and does so. Meanwhile the uncaring Ramon Berenguer launches a judicial suit against Mir Geribert. Mir of course laughs at this, but all that Ramon wants is the cause to start the enforcement, so the war begins again, with Mir taking over whatever he may have been made to give back and more, and Ramon Berenguer keeping up war against both his grandmother and al-Andalus so as to be able to meet Mir with an overwhelming force.

Mir’s desperate tactics must in part be down to the fact that he can see how this will end if Ramon Berenguer can stay in power long enough, but he is unable to stave off the inevitable, despite a second and local excommunication of the count in 1056. Already in 1054 brother Guillem is bought out of Osona in the same way as Sanç had been; with Bishop Oliba gone he is probably finding it hard to hold onto what’s his given the war his brother has started! (The ambiguity Oliba must have felt in his last years about the comital family is hard to get one’s head around.) In 1057 Ermessenda admits defeat: she allows Ramon Berenguer and Almodis (who seems happily to have become to Ramon Berenguer what Ermessenda had been to his grandfather, the vital and enlivening right hand on whom he could utterly rely) to buy Girona from her for a vast sum of money, a sum that she hardly gets to use because she dies in venerable retirement the same year. I can’t help wondering how having her gone must have felt to Ramon Berenguer, who had spent most of his life being held up by her, in several senses. An ever-present and considerable force always part of his thinking now removed; heavy to contemplate.

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

It is by now pretty much all over, anyway. In 1058 Ramon Berenguer amasses his largest army yet to march on Saragossa—because the men will march for Muslim gold where civil war might be less profitable—but leads it first through the Penedès. Mir knows when he’s beaten at last, and runs to Tortosa whence he sues for peace. Saragossa submits to tribute for the next four years, too, making Ramon Berenguer richer than ever, and Mir is admitted back to his fidelity in a much-reduced state in 1059. And now Ramon Berenguer is in a position to start making demands for compensation and new-style homage, from one ex-rebel at a time…

And so closes the film as I care about it, but already imagine the scenes you could get out of that, the confrontations! Ermessenda spitting scorn Katherine Hepburn-style at her idiot grandson, and her final collapse; the brothers arguing; the abduction of Almodis (and the face-off between her and Ermessenda in 1057); Mir having to bend his knee to the young upstart; Mir’s court in the old hillfort with its Roman walls and fortified church; and all over the film the gold, the blood and the buildings. And this stuff actually happened. Can you imagine what it was like to be part of all this? I can’t, but it’s fun to try.

Josep María Salrach, in whose work I was reading all this again, would of course want to emphasise, and does so repeatedly indeed along with his pupils, that in all this the peasants are getting it in the neck, having their surplus expropriated to feed ever-large retinues of soldiers, their protectors first powerless and then uncaring, and that it’s all very well to imagine being one of the winners but that overall most people from whom he and the modern population descend were the losers. And fair enough, as historians we need to keep track of that and not get seduced by heroic narrative. We can leave that to the film-makers.3 But sometimes, all the same, you want a film that does it well even by our standards, and this would make such a good one…


1. Contrasting here Josep María Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització (segles III-XII), Historia de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), pp. 296-297, with Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), pp. 49-51; the best narrative otherwise is S. Sobrequés i Vidal, Els Grans Comtes de Barcelona, Biografies Catalanes: serie historica 2 (Barcelona 1961), pp. 16-26.

2. Though I anticipate this script having rather better dialogue than that…

3. Seriously, who would you cast for the final confrontation between Charles the Bald and Bernard of Septimania in 844? “At last I shall avenge my father on you, Bernard.” – “Ha. For all you know, boy, I am your father!” I’d love to see that done well…

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13 responses to ““Of course you realise this means war”

  1. Well, Bernard Hill for Bernard of Septimania, I think. Possibly Gerard Butler as C the B? Although they’re all a bit old, I think. I just can’t think of any decent actors under 30.

    If the script has anybody screaming “Feeeeee-dom!” I’m so coming after you with a club!

  2. It may not surprise you to learn that the cast for the film of the Carolingians (which should probably be called “Fields of Lies”, yeah? :-) ) is something I’ve discussed before. The big problem is that I see it as running 814 to 844, so pretty much everyone involved bar Charlemagne himself needs to age thirty years or so in the course of the film, especially Charles the Bald of course (less in his case, but you know what I mean). So Bernard Hill for the final sneering defiant Bernard, but not for the altogether-too-good-looking snide courtier who may or may not be in the Queen’s, er, favour…

    But I have no intention of writing this script ever, so you don’t need to find a club just yet. (A club of what? Film critics?…)

  3. Actually, I meant “Freeee-dooommmm” as in the Mel Gibson version of Wrong History. So a big club to hit you with if there’s a hint of Gibson!

    Actually, Bernard Hill might make a good Charlemagne. Jeremy Irons might be a good Louis the Pious during the wars. If Alan Rickman were younger, he’d be a good Bernard. Actually, he’d be a good plotting bishop…

    And yes, it makes little sense to cast all Brits, but why not?

  4. It has to be Brits because in the story of the Carolingians there are no good guys :-)

  5. Alan Rickman would make a great scheming bishop – or how about Hilduin of St Denis? Scheming abbots are just as useful!

    Me, I see it all as told in a series of misty voice overs by Dhuoda…

  6. There’s a lot of time to get through where not much is helpful action. I was figuring those—why yes I am thinking about this too much now, well observed— might be doable as mock-extracts from the Annals of St-Bertin, voiced over various action scenes in a kind of “At this time, the Northmen rode throughout Aquitaine…” kind of way.

    But if we’re going to centre on Bernard, and his death is clearly a natural climax, then yes, of course, we must have Dhuoda too. So maybe that works better…

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  8. I think I agree with Michael Alan Rickman would make an excellent scheeming bishop – memories of Robin Hood with Kevin Costner!

  9. If for some crazy reason anyone ever decided it would be a good idea to do a biopic of Hincmar of Reims, Alan Rickman might be the only person who could save it :-)

    I have a post about a scheming bishop of my own (in terms of academic field) under work, but he I think should be played by, well, the late Ian Richardson would have done it marvellously but I’m too far out of touch with the world of visual media these days to really know who could replace him. It (the post) shall forthcome, anyway.

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