The Nature of Landed Property in the Middle Ages

Portrait of Gaspar Feliu i Montfort from the Institut d’Estudis Catalans webpages

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?

Medieval peasants at work

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).

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5 responses to “The Nature of Landed Property in the Middle Ages

  1. One thing to consider is that the distinction between personal use and leasing to tenants is not normally a problem dealt with in land sales even today. If you buy a house, it makes no difference to the sale/conveyancing whether you’re planning to buy it to live in or to rent out. If you buy property that’s already being leased out, the sole concern is what rights the tenant still has to remain as tenant, which I think have been very limited until recently. Until you get to a situation where tenancies are done on a contractural rather than a customary basis, I think such matters are unlikely to get recorded in land sales.

  2. I don’t get why the rights held through public office are any different. Can’t there be different kinds of owners with different kinds of owners’ rights?

  3. Professor Muhlberger’s point first because I find it easier to start answering, although since he knows far more than I do I can’t help worrying that I may be being taught in some Socratic way. If so, here is a first attempt to find the flaws in….

    Firstly, well yes naturally there can be different kinds of owners, but if we just accept that `everyone was different’ in a New Age way we can’t talk about change or anything like that, because after change everyone is still different. We thus wind up fighting the tendency of the sources to try and simplify and schematise their own world while insisting that we know better, rather than exploring what it was that they could identify as similar and how. We need to classify and categorise to a certain extent, to generalise, in order to understand anything other than a formless variety.

    That said, your two sentences seem to fight with each other. If all owners are different, obviously public owners are `any different’. Perhaps it works better if instead of the troublesome word `public’ I use `royal’. You know, better than me, that William the Conqueror claimed certain rights—the minting of coin, final judicial appeal, the right to raise gelds—as exclusive to his title as king (or perhaps, given that he held them in Normandy too without the royal title, as princeps). The counts in Catalonia fifty years before him made similar claims about their control of waste land, saying that waste land pertained to the fisc, which they controlled because of the royal power that had been granted to them by the kings. Whether that was true or not doesn’t really matter, as long as they thought that was a worthwhile claim. Of course a big part of the feudal transformation is the disassociation of such rights from the kingship, and the Catalan counts aren’t the only ones who seem to hold that because a king gave them something a century ago, the current ruler has no rights over it. But I don’t think I’m being unusually old-fashioned if I suggest that there were some rights that, whoever it was actually held them, were thought to belong, properly and/or anciently, to the fisc, the ruler and therefore the public sphere. Would you not agree?

    Magistra‘s point I find harder to answer, firstly because it is evidently true, and secondly because I think it is in fact part of the same case that I was making, that the historiography that distinguishes the one kind of onwership from the other a priori is getting something wrong. It does seem to me, all the same, that in this day and age, the rights of a sitting tenant when freehold is sold are usually expected to form part of the contract, even if it’s just whether they go or stay, whereas with a medieval document, we can’t usually tell if there’s a tenant or not, which is why we can’t tell landlordship from owner-occupation. Matthew would say that medieval people don’t normally move when they sell up so even when an owner-occupier passes land to someone else he is only really assigning the revenues of his own labour. As I tried to make clear above I don’t believe that’s always the case, if only because some owner-occupiers were working more land than they necessarily needed to to support themselves. But mainly I think the documents aren’t covering that aspect of the use of the property, and there I think you and I are actually in agreement? Or have I misunderstood you?

  4. Pingback: The Nature of Landed Property in the Middle Ages II: Gaspar Feliu redux « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Building states on the Iberian frontier, I: putting the peasants up front | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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