One thing I was mulling over that I don’t want to lose was a reaction to an old article I should have read many years ago by Gaspar Feliu i Montfort.1 Now, Professor Feliu has been a great help to me in my research despite never having met me, sending me various useful offprints and expressing interest in my work that reassures me I have something to say even in my field’s homeland. There really should be a decent collection of his papers, and if he wasn’t working on somewhere so fringely or published in the occasional English journal he’d be a medievalist’s household name, because he sees things clearly and explains them likewise. So I guess I count myself as a fan.
All the same, only a few 35-year-old papers grow old without any wrinkles at all. In this case my attention was snagged by one thing that I had to stop and think about. Feliu said in that article that there is an obvious distinction in landed property in the Middle Ages, between land that people occupy and work themselves and from which they live, that they pass on as family concerns and so on, and between land that people do not occupy but from whose tenants they merely levy surplus. And so there is, of course, it’s the difference between peasant and aristocrat as Chris Wickham draws it for a start.2 Feliu however notes that land charters don’t distinguish between these two sorts of property, so it’s important to keep in mind what truths about power they may be concealing. This is what snagged me, because it seemed to me firstly that this was an obvious truism, and secondly that it’s one about which I am trained not to worry. Why not?
On reflection, I decided that it was because I work very much in the mould of Matthew Innes still on this sort of matter, and it is Matthew’s general contention that actually all that is concerned in land charters is the transfer of revenues, and that the people working the land don’t actually change.3 Now, this is certainly true at times, but there are cases where the owners are sufficiently small-scale that we really must be looking at land they work. A guy called Elies in a tiny hamlet called Ros, near Gurb de la Plana in Catalonia, is my pet example, because he owns a small piece of land but also appears (in 902) as the tenant of a local heiress, Sarra, for somewhere else in the area. Presumably he could work both plots without stretching himself. And as Feliu rightly said, these charters talk about the land just the same way as land that we know full well the owner wasn’t working, because for example he was a viscount or whatever.4
Well, okay, here comes that Hubert Mordek quote again already: “one must always allow for the possibility that the sources are in the right”. Charters were not written to deceive us modern types: if they hadn’t expressed what people wanted expressed, they’d have been varied, in the same way as they are when the property concerned has a winepress that the transactors want explicitly included, or when someone has a islet of property of their own that needs excluding, or even just when the scribe wants more style.5 So we have to consider the possibility that if medieval scribes didn’t draw a difference between the ownership of semi-dependent owner-occupiers and that of large-scale rentiers, that’s because they didn’t conceive of one in the way that we do.
To deal with this requires a methodological approach like the one I was attributing to Susan Reynolds in comments on that last-but-one post. If one can’t see two things which seem to be in the same line to your source in the same view, you need to mentally move around until you’re looking at it from where they were mentally standing. This is what we need to do before we can get through the understandable tendency of people to try and judge history by their own standards. So how do we do it here?
After some musing I at least came up with an answer that works for me, and predictably has a lot of Matthew’s thinking in it (there were reasons I worked with him, after all). I would say that medieval ownership is not of the actual land, as we might conceive of it, to do with it as you like. Neither however is it separate from the land as Matthew’s view might sometimes seem to imply. I think medieval landed property is the right to take revenue from an identified place.
Now this does not preclude in any way that the owner may be doing this by working it him- or herself. In Roman law land that fell out of use for long enough was forfeit; for the medieval usages, this would be highly irregular. If you owned the land you could not necessarily affect whether there was revenue coming off it; but if there was, it was yours to assign and claim. Now if you wanted someone else to work it so that there was revenue coming off it, you would need to leave the situation so that they were somehow able to support themselves, presumably on that revenue or, if they were slaves, some other surplus you controlled. That’s not ownership, though, that’s management. The ownership consists in the primary right to take the revenue, and the variation arises in the ways in which that revenue is ensured. From this angle the charters do not lie to us, and this suggests to me that that’s probably what they actually imply.
The big missing aspect here is of course that if you held what I shall carelessly call public office, you could also claim revenue from people’s lands although it wasn’t yours. Now, the extent and ways in which that’s true are the work of many many books and I don’t want to attempt it here. I don’t however think the 1066 and All That approach to the feudal system in which actually the king explicitly owns the whole country is the answer, because he can renounce the right to such claims by granting an immunity or whatever; that clearly doesn’t explain enough, especially centuries before we find it expressed.6 It’s complex. But as long as we’re staying within the private sphere, however you define it, I think you might find that idea of medieval land ownership works with the sources. It seems to with mine, at any rate; I’d be interested to know if it does or doesn’t with yours…
1. G. Feliu Montfort, “El condado de Barcelona en los siglos IX y X: organización territorial y económico-social” in Cuadernos de Historia Económica de Cataluña Vol. 7 (Barcelona 1972), pp. 9-31.
2. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 386-387.
3. M. Innes, “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in J. Davies & M. McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot forthcoming), pp. 000-000. I owe Matthew thanks for letting me see an early version of this paper in draft, and I may have over-simplified the approach of the final version.
4. Elies appears in E. Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX i X, ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. nos 19 & 33. For discussion see J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), pp. 167-172.
5. The last place I heard this point usefully supported was in A. Scott McKinley, “Personal Motivations for Giving Land to the Church in the Eighth Century? The Case of Wissembourg”, paper presented in session “Clods, Altars, Records, and Donors: Reading Narratives and Emotions in Early Medieval Charters“, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 11 July 2006, but it is also touched on in e. g. A. J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and indeed Jarrett, “Pathways of Power”, pp. 66-69.
6. Those interested in this section probably need to, or already have, read S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).