Monthly Archives: January 2008

The amoral compass

At the beginning of the year the cartoon strip Shortpacked had this instalment, which has set me musing.

I’m not going to see the film in question, but I’m not going to see it principally because a colleague of mine has assured me that as entertainment it’s not worth spending two hours of your life on it, and I have plenty to do with two hours of evening. (Book to write, for a start…)

But I do find myself niggling about the reaction to it in the Christian media. Do I understand it correctly that the problem is that the film involves the killing of a worn-out ‘god’ by the child protagonists? And that this is being construed as a threat to organised religion? Even though the god that is killed is not the Christian god…

Being a medievalist, I can’t help but wonder how this would have been seen from a medieval perspective. Think of Saint Boniface felling the oak of Eismar, or Charlemagne ordering the destruction of the Saxon Irminsul, both presumably living respresentations of divinity to their worshippers; or else, more subtly, of the monks of Armagh reworking the Celtic legends to gently but inevitably end them with the death of magic and its pagan archetypes, leaving the field free for the true revelation of God. Mind you it’s produced some fabulous spin-offs: how many fantasy authors can you think of who end their cycles with the magical beings leaving the world for men to mess up? Tolkien, Moorcock (dozens of times), the list goes on. And yes, it’s all terribly Celtic I’m sure, but it’s not how the stories originally went, is it, however powerful it is as a motif.

Christianity’s been killing gods for centuries, as far as that’s possible; in fact possibly only Zoroastrianism has been anything like as hostile to rival faiths. And that didn’t use to be a problem (for Christianity) because way back then, the enemy of Christianity was other faiths, but now of course it’s not; now the kinds of Christian who want to make a fuss about things seem to think that the main enemy is disinterest, which they read as atheism. Boniface or the redactors of the Táin would have thought Mr Pullman’s work to be serving their agenda, even if that wasn’t his intention. They wouldn’t have approved of course, but i don’t think they would have found it theologically objectionable, because it’s about a different, ultimately mortal and therefore not truly divine, deity.

But for the modern and protesting (small `p’) Christian, believing in anything is better than not to believe, apparently. So is ‘godless’ now worse than ‘infidel’ to the religious right, or just rarer? Or, perhaps more importantly, closer to home?

(It is necessary to mention the other side of the coin, of course, because in the time this post has been in draft, Matthew Gabriele has reminded us that medieval religion at the blunt end was often as pragmatically tolerant as we might wish for. The danger, again, comes from the theorists :-) They may be locked up in ivory towers with only quill pens as weapons; but apparently when it comes to deicide (no, not Deicide), the pen is mightier than the sword.)

Creative anachronism II

In recent days at work I have been very busy occupied with scanning Alexandrine tetradrachms, the heavy silver coins issued in the states that Alexander the Great left behind him. We are cataloguing these, but the scanning is being done fast and ahead of time because of the need of another, very exciting but also secretive, project that we’re involved in for images of a large number of similar coins. Since they all carry Alex’s head right on the obverse and Zeus seated left on the reverse, they were the best candidate, and we do have an awful lot.

Alexander’s successes, despite his youth and junior status in his family, have caused a lot of people to wonder just what it was that he had going for him, and I’m honoured to be able to say that I think, having scanned all these coins, I begin to understand. Check this out:

CM.G.16-R, tetradrachm of Alexander the Great from Macedonia, obverse, copyright Fitzwilliam Museum

Now come on. That’s not just an Emperor; that’s the King! Look at that and tell me you don’t see Elvis. That lip-curl tells us all we need to know: Alexander the Great was in fact clearly the being known as Elvis Aaron Presley, masquerading.

Now you might think me mad, but I’m not the first person to suggest that Elvis became a time-travelling agent of historical meddlement. No indeed. Robert Rankin’s been suggesting this for years. I’m just finally providing the evidence here…

P. S. Note the piercing at the left. Note how it is, relative to the head, about the size of a sprout. Makes you think, doesn’t it…

Edit: subsequently cataloguing these things (this is Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.G.12-R, since you ask) has made it clear that despite what I originally assumed, the head is not supposed to be Alexander, or at least it didn’t start that way; it’s supposed to be Heracles, but people have argued that variations in the design are intended to make a Heracles out of Alexander’s genuine features. I think this one doesn’t look so unlike the famous mosaic of him fighting Darius, but the problem is that since that’s first-century B. C., it was probably modelled on the coins… I don’t really mind if it’s not Alexander, anyway. So Elvis was actually Hercules: how does that weaken my case exactly, you know?

Marca Hispanica (a tale of two scholars)

With a certain amount of annoyance and a certain amount of pleasure, I am facing the necessity to go and renew my acquaintance with one of the oldest books I’ve ever cited, the Marca Hispanica of Bishop Pierre de Marca. It is most likely that you’ve heard of neither the man nor the book, and the last person I tried to explain it to said, “you could do a thesis on that by itself!” So I don’t know, maybe someone would want to, maybe it’s just interesting, I think it is anyway. (Edit: if by chance someone actually is interested in this as a topic, please note the comments by Charles de Vries below which contend strongly, and justly, for the idea that this is properly a tale of three scholars, the third being Jeroni Pujades, on whose earlier work de Marca seems to have extensively (and silently) rested and whose manuscripts he may have appropriated, delaying publication of Pujades’s work by two hundred years…)

Bishop Pierre de Marca

Pierre de Marca was a latecomer to the priesthood, having until the age of 47 been a Béarn lawyer and political climber, but in 1641 this political climbing, along with a reasonable amount of theological learning which made seen him writing pro-government Catholic propaganda in the local battles against the Protestants in his area, saw him offered a bishopric (Couserans, in Gascony) by Louis XIII on the advice of Cardinal Richelieu, so he took orders fairly rapidly thereafter. Until the papacy had received confirmation of his abjuration of some earlier things that he’d written, however, which happened in 1648, he wasn’t allowed to take up the see, and he therefore spent the years from 1641 to 1651 as governor of recently-captured Catalonia, which is, as far as I’m concerned, where the story really starts.

Although he went on to greater things in the service of the French crown, his learning, which was not small, and his readiness to turn his pen to state propaganda, made him a recourse when the French crown needed its position in Catalonia, which was heavily disputed in this era, affirmed in text. From this stemmed the book I’m actually writing about here, the Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniae, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum.1

The MH, as I usually have to abbreviate it, is a very complicated book. It is big; it is also a genuine and serious piece of scholarship, and gathers a great deal of material and information that we might not otherwise have about how Catalonia’s history was remembered in the seventeeth century. On the other hand, it also makes a very strong thesis to the effect that the line of the Counts of Barcelona, and therefore the Kings of Aragón right up to the point at which he was writing (because of the marriage of Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona to Petronilla the heiress of Aragón in 1137 and subsequent dual succession of their son Alfons(o)), were usurpers who had displaced the rightful heir from a higher branch of the family in the early tenth century. He didn’t actually say “and therefore the French should be allowed to kick them out because it’s no more than they deserve” but it could certainly have been put into the service of such an argument. That factoid is actually false, but it’s been very durable, a minor-league Catalan equivalent of the blood libel that wasn’t corrected in print until the work of Prosper de Bofarull in 1836,2 and still lurks around for many years thereafter. For this reason, if you FWSE for Sunifred of Barcelona, you find a lot of confused genealogists unable to settle whether this person should be identified as Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona or Count Sunifred of Besalú, the correct answer being ‘neither: he was Count of Cerdanya and you are all one hundred and seventy years out of date’. The argument was sufficiently influential that even now, the archive of the counts of Barcelona in the Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó (in Barcelona, and of which Bofarull was archivist when he wrote), which has for centuries indexed its documents by count, still has a whole swathe filed under the name of this Sunifred who never ruled there. This is, as much as anyone’s, de Marca’s fault (and it was sufficiently established practice in Bofarull’s day that he felt unable to change it). It is however impossible to discern whether de Marca really thought it was the case, for the documents are genuinely confusing, or had come up with it as a spin for his king. This is one thing any thesis about his work would have to aim to disentangle.

Étienne Baluze

The problems don’t end there, though, and nor does the utility of the book, because it was not published in de Marca’s lifetime. The work was in fact finished twenty-four years after de Marca’s death, by his erstwhile secretary Étienne Baluze, a name that many medievalists who study France will recognise as a prolific editor and copyist of medieval documents and legislation. In fact, about half of the book as it stands is Baluze’s work, as not only did he go through the text cleaning it up and correcting it from his own considerable knowledge and collection of documents, but he also supplied a vast number of appendices and interesting related texts, so that the book as it stands contains the oldest edition of the Gesta Comitum Barcinonensium, the Barcelona house’s dynastic history, several other narrative texts, and about six hundred charters. Now bad things have happened to Catalan archives since Baluze got his copies of these documents made, most of all the Spanish Civil War but not just that by a long chalk. In particular, de Marca and Baluze made great focuses on the monasteries of Santa Maria de Ripoll and Sant Pere de Rodes; the former lost its entire archive in a fire in 1835, and the latter lost its cartulary, which was all that remained of the medieval archive by then, in the Civil War, so everything in the MH from these houses is known from nothing earlier. There are plenty of other lost documents here preserved too, including a goodly chunk of the Frankish legislation covering the area, which as it showed a ‘French’ king making law for the province, fitted de Marca’s purposes very well.3

So it’s an invaluable resource, and so rich that whenever I hunt through my notes on it I find myself being distracted by something that would have been really useful to remember, but which I didn’t realise was important at the time, and this is why I have to go back to it this time. On the other hand its editorial agendas make it very difficult to use unchecked and may well mean that a lot of stuff we would have liked to have was discarded, and it left the history of the area badly bent for two centuries. It’s been reprinted in Barcelona twice in the last fifty years and also translated entirely into Catalan, yet it gets a big part of their history screwed up in a pro-French direction, something which the northern Catalans don’t really want to hear. A proper research project on it would follow citation patterns, see who’d found it useful, who refuted it and who listened. I myself just use it for the unique documents, and also the general bibliophiliac experience of messing with quarto hard parchment bindings held together with canvas tape half an inch broad, or tooled brown leather (the Cambridge University Library has two copies of the book), but the wish to try and clarify it from its two authors’ different aims and do some quite necessary criticism on it is never completely absent.


1. P. de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniae, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. É. Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), transl. J. Icart as Marca Hispànica, o País de la Frontera Hispanica: versió catalana (Barcelona 1965).

2. P. de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los Condes de Barcelona Vindicados, y Cronología y Genealogía de los Reyes de España considerados como Soberianos Independientes de su Marca (Barcelona 1836; repr. 1990), 2 vols.

3. On the other hand, once Spain itself became the enemy of Catalonia under Franco, these ties were once more locally celebrated, and it is probably for this reason that the Frankish royal documents were the first things published in Ramon d’Abadal’s monumental Catalunya Carolíngia series: R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolíngis a Catalunya, Institut d’Estudis Catalans: Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica II & III (Barcelona 1926-1950, 1952), 2 vols.

The power of the feedline compels thee

Honey, and by honey I mean Livejournal, which is a bit worrying—but anyway: honey, I broke the feed. I didn’t mean to: for some reason it was choking on the alt tag of one of the images in a post from early last month. Livejournal thus hasn’t seen anything from this feed for about four weeks, and now that I hope I’ve unclogged it I don’t know how it will deal with those backdated entries. So this is a heads-up to warn those reading this through the feed that you may have missed some stuff:

So that should bring you back up to date. I’d promise not to break it again but I don’t know how it broke. So, er, good luck with that.

(WordPress just introduced a new way to track readership through feeds, you see, and I suddenly found I had none. That seemed odd, so I investigated. Ah, tech. I do wish I got to make my living at what I’m good at instead.)

Added in passing V: new seminar schedule

I see today while looking various things up for a report here that, firstly, this term’s schedule for the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is on the web now. From it I also note that Nicholas Brooks is repeating the paper he did for our Leeds session last year, pah etc., but this does at least mean I can ask him about his plans for it.

And, speaking of the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, and its ilk, their programme for 2008 is now also on the web, so, those whom I have been urging to go, browse away and see what’s on offer (including my own humble submission), as well as also, what’s missing. I remember I was advising Jennifer Lynn Jordan to swing her Prester John work at a Leeds session, well, it looks as if my acquaintance and fellow-drinker Alaric Hall might be glad of it for his highly-international session

There doesn’t seem to be more than three clauses there which I haven’t hyperlinked, so I think that must be a finished post. Good day to you all!

Antapodosis in Catalonia (scheming bishops)

I haven’t told any stories for a while, and for some reason it does seem to be part of my mission to pull these anecdotes out of my material for people’s entertainment. So let me reintroduce to you a character from whom we’ve heard before, Bishop Sal·la of Urgell (981-1010). I’ve tried to put something out about Sal·la before, but I’ve not so far had any luck convincing anyone else to be interested enough.1

Part of the reason for this may be that Jeffrey Bowman has written an article already about Sal·la’s son Saint Ermengol, who not only had a wilder name but died in a wilder way and started more fights, and everyone likes warrior bishops.2 Sal·la was wilier than that and stayed out of fights, by and large, preferring to do his work by negotiation. This was more or less what my paper was about, in fact. But the main reason for its lack of success, I suspect, is that it’s one of the first real papers I ever wrote and I mainly used it as an excuse to tell stories about Sal·la, when I should perhaps have been doing analysis. Subsequent versions of the paper have never entirely escaped this, simply because Sal·la left so many stories behind him in his charters. So if I put two of the best ones here, maybe I can finally put them down and make something better of the paper. Failing that, I shall at least have entertained you for a short while and put something more about him on the web.

The Cathedral of Urgell

Sal·la was reasonable-level nobility, being son of a Viscount of Conflent and Urgell, brother to the succeeding Viscount of Conflent, and first cousin once removed of another Sal·la, a very powerful frontier magnate who founded the abbey of Sant Benet de Bages. The previous bishop had been another member of this kindred, though exactly how he was connected has never been fully worked out.3 They were not however top-rank, unlike some of the bishops who came from the comital family. Possibly because of this, one of the repeated motives of Sal·la’s career is disputes with or returns to co-operation with good old Count-Marquis Borrell II.

Sal·la and Borrell must have had quite a lot of dealings. Borrell made good use of his unexpected succession to the county of Urgell (the bishopric is rather larger than the county), and when he died in 993 he was not only touring the farflung reaches of the county, but he was doing so with Sal·la in tow, which we know because Sal·la witnessed the will he arranged shortly before his death, which is preserved in the Urgell cathedral archive. Sal·la was also named as one of the almsmen (like executors, but more concerned with the state of your soul) for Urgell; Borrell appointed three or four of his trusted contacts or family in each county to oversee the carrying-out of his will there. He also made provision for what should happen if any of them died before the will was needed, so he clearly thought he was going to get better, and I can picture him having to be badgered into making the will at all, but in fact he was wrong, and died within the week, whereupon Sal·la and the rest of the entourage saw him buried and then started on the lengthy process of sorting out the bequests.4 So, although necessity may have pressed Borrell here, it’s not that he and Sal·la couldn’t cooperate and respect each other.

Urgell 12, charter of sale of 839 on parchment

All the same, there seem to have been times when they didn’t, and these only start to come out after Borrell’s death. The first one of these I found was a sale by Bishop Sal·la from 995, in which he disposed of a castle at Carcolzes (I’d show you the ruins but sadly ‘Carcolzes’ is a Googlewhack) to his sacristan, who was called Bonhom and paid 500 solidi for it. The interesting bit is not that, nor even that Bonhom seems to have overstretched himself, because he immediately sold it to Viscount Guillem of Urgell, who next year sold it back to Sal·la, always for the same 500 solidi sum. Sal·la resignedly gave it to the cathedral, although in such a way that his nephew, the future bishop Ermengol about whom Bowman was writing, acquired the management of it. The interesting bit is actually how Sal·la got hold of this castle that no-one wanted. The scribe, one Lleopard, wrote it down in what must however surely be Sal·la’s own words:

In the name of God. Sal·la, Bishop by the grace of God am seller to you Bonhom priest and sacristan. By this scripture of sale do I sell to you my castle of Carcolzes with its rock and its building and its villages which are within its bounds and with its bounds…. And all these things are in the county of Urgell, and it came to me Bishop Sal·la by charter of compensation from my lord Count Borrell for that half of the castle of Clarà or other amends which might have satisfied me, which he ought to have made to me from the seventh Ides of October up to the first following Feast of Pentecost. In such a way did my lord Count Borrell hand over all the above things thus with this charter of compensation from his right into the power of me Bishop Sal·la for my own: so that if at that same above-said first following Feast of Pentecost in the 5th year of the rule of King Hugh the Great he should not have returned to me that selfsame half of the above-said castle Clarà in stewardship [baiulia] or if by then he had not made other amends which might have been satisfactory to me, I Bishop Sal·la in the name of God might have full and most firm power over the above-said castle of Carcolzes with all the above things to do with as I might wish. And I waited for him up until the aforesaid assembly of Pentecost and I reminded him in sight of good men that he should have returned to me all the above said things or should have made other amends to me, and he did not do this. And I again gave him another placitum from the Nativity of the Lord up till the next Pentecost and ever I reminded him, both in person and through my messengers, that he should have returned to me all the above-said things or have made other amends to me, but he did not do this. Again and again I gave to him other placita and others so that he might keep this agreement about the above-said things or make other amends, but he did not do this and he abandoned all the above-said things to me Bishop Sal·la and allowed it to befall. On this account I Sal·la, by the will of God Bishop, by this scripture of sale sell to you Bonhom priest and sacristan the above-said castle of Carcolzes with its rock with whatever I have there, excepting those tithes which are Holy Mary’s, for the agreed price of five hundred solidi in gold, in silver, in cloths or in other agreed payment which you have given to me and I at the present time have received in my hands, and none of this price remains with you the buyer, and it is clear.

Just in case you got lost in the legalese there, I’ll précis: Sal·la has a half share of a desirable castle residence in far frontier Osona, which is real development land but also part of an essential defence network.5 Borrell, for these reasons most likely, and by the power vested in him as count and marquis and therefore military supremo for the area, takes it over, and promises Sal·la that he will either return it before Pentecost or else make over compensation to Sal·la in the form of this castle at Carcolzes, much further from the frontier and a place that no-one wants, though it seems to take them time to realise this for some reason. Sal·la doesn’t want to lose this family property (we know from his brother’s will that he, Viscount Bernat, retained the other half), and so repeatedly extends the loan term in the hope that Borrell will give back Clarà, but Borrell doesn’t want Carcolzes either and manages thus to force Sal·la to take it. Eventually all Sal·la can do is pass it on to his nephew as a kind of training castle, and he records his disgust and sense of grievance with the whole process for us in the charter.6

Now because we only know when Sal·la sold it, in 995, we don’t know when this tortuous process took place, only that it must have been before Borrell died in 993. The same is true of the story I’m about to pair it with; it must have happened before Borrell died, but we don’t know when.7 It matters only in as much as it would be nice to know who started the swindling contest, but since the final scores seem to have been one all, it doesn’t matter too much. Here then is the antapodosis, the tit-for-tat, with which the Carcolzes case was either paid or brought.8

Aerial view of the village of Os de Civis, Andorra

One of the areas that the bishopric of Urgell covers that the county doesn’t is the valley, now independent region, of Andorra. Now it’s independent, but in the late tenth century the counts of Urgell considered it their territory, and the locals begged to differ, or sometimes, differed quite loudly, with weapons and so on. So there were castles here with which the count pinned down his rule, and thus there were stewards of the castles whom he appointed. An unfortunate one of these, Sendred of Somont, took up the tale in 1003:

Let it be known to all men present and future that I Sendred, Archdeacon, however unworthy, of the Holy Mother of the See of Urgell and bailiff of the Andorra valley, sadly for my sins or some reason, was placed in command of a castle that my lord Count Borrell built against the men of the Andorra valley, which is called Bragafols. However those men raised siege-works against the castle and took it, and the aforesaid Count flung me in chains and leg-irons and held me for a long time over that castle. And he examined me in his name through his magnates and nobles so that I would agree to give to him that alod of mine which I had in Somont, which I held from the franchise of the men of Andorra and from my parents. I however responded to him: ‘I am not going to give away the alod of my parents before my death at the very earliest!’ And I sent a message to my lord, to Bishop Sal·la and he himself sought the Count and said to him: ‘For what reason, my lord, are you holding a cleric and Archdeacon of Holy Mary in chains?’ The Count answered: ‘If he will not give me that alod of his which he has in Somont I shall not release him’. The Bishop responded: ‘That alod which you seek is already the above-named Mother’s’. As soon as he heard the words of the Bishop and he proved that all this was true, the Count was exceedingly angry and released me from my chains and leg-irons. And on account of this service which Holy Mary the Mother of God and my lord Bishop Sal·la have done me, we, I Sendred son of Centoll and my wife Ermeriga give to My Lady the aforesaid Virgin Mary Mother of God the already-said alod which we have in Somont, with its entrances and exits and with all the things pertaining to it, in this way, namely, so that we or our kinsman may hold the aforesaid alod as long as we may live, in the service of Holy Mary [... ] by donation to Bishop Sal·la and his successors…

So that was nicely done, because as you may have realised this document, that actually transfers the property, is from more than ten years later.9 The land may have been promised, but Sendred actually explains the transfer in terms of this episode, so it would seem that if there was a back-history it became irrelevant. It seems a lot more likely, given the situation Sendred got himself into—and his position is not unambiguous, given that he seems not only to have had family connections to the area he was guarding but also accepted land from his eventual opponents—and the fact that he and his wife made every possible reservation when the gift finally had to be made (Sal·la was ill in 1003, and this may have been the stimulus to make good the promise), that Sal·la brazenly appropriated the land by his assertion, the only one that might have forestalled Borrell perhaps, but still, and then ten years or more later Sendred finally accepted it. But you have to admit: it’s one in the eye for Borrell, and he may never have found out how he’d been twitted. Perhaps Sal·la was still quietly grinning to himself until, out at Castellciutat in 993, he suddenly realised his old enemy and counterpart really wasn’t well. But I doubt he would have mentioned it, even then…

Castle of Llirt, near Somont

There’s loads of ways I could take these documents further, to look at bishops’ rôle as support for lay rulers, the use of churchmen as castellans in Catalonia (about which there is other work), clerical marriage, church dynasts, many things. If anyone would like any of these expanded do say and I’ll muster a few words. But for now, meet a cunning man with a mitre: ladies and gentlemen, Bishop Sal·la of Urgell.


1. I did however present it at Leeds, or a version of it, as “Sales, Swindles and Sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the Counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in the session “Telling Laymen What To Do”, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 11 July 2005, and a text of that paper is available as an appendix to my doctoral thesis, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005, pp. 289-302.

2. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic History Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16.

3. Most recent attempt known to me is Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, online here.

4. On Borrell’s death and its location, see Cebria Baraut, “La data i el lloc de la mort del comte Borrell II de Barcelona-Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 10 (Montserrat 1990), pp. 469-472. The will and the Urgell portion of its publication are printed by Baraut in idem (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell”, ibid. Vol. 3 (1980), pp. 7-166, nos 232 & 233; documents from this edition cited below as Urgell + no.

5. On the defence network, see Albert Benet i Clarà, “Castells, guàrdies i torres de defensa” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-2), 2 vols also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 393-407.

6. The sale to Bonhom which is quoted here, Viscount Guillem’s sale to Sal·la (which mentions the sale from Bonhom) and Sal·la’s gift of the castle to the cathedral are Urgell 239, 243 & 244 respectively.

7. Roland Viader appears to know that it was in 988, which may be true but I don’t know how he knows and haven’t yet read his book where he apparently says this, which is R. Viader, L’Andorre du IXe au XIVe siècle. Montagnes, féodalité et communautés (Toulouse 2003).

8. Antapodosis is of course Greek, and was the title of a scurrilous revenge memoir written by Bishop Liutprand of Cremona in the late tenth century (transl. F. A. Wright in idem (transl.), The Works of Liutprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Translated for the first time into English with an Introduction, Broadway Medieval Library 8 (London 1930)). He and Sal·la would have missed each other by a generation and he won’t have been at Rome when Sal·la went there (which he did, in 1001), and I don’t suppose they’d have got on, because Sal·la seems more proper than Liutprand, but I expect they might have found themselves on the same sides in a lot of arguments if they’d ever shared a synod.

9. Urgell 286. I’ve added the punctuation but the direct speech is in the actual document.

The cursed book of Francesc Monsalvatje

Cover of a Monsalvatje family history
In 1889 a Catalan historian by the name of Francesc Monsalvatje y Fossas (if you’re spelling in Castilian, as was then still de rigueur) published a two-volume work about his local county of Besalú in Old Catalonia, in a tiny town there called Olot where his family is still important, subtitled Noticias Históricas. He was a keen medievalist, and this was an era when such enthusiasts more or less built their own fields. The works met with sufficient success in subscriptions that he turned to such things full-time and by its end, with four volumes published after his death in 1917 by his son Xavier, the series had run to twenty-eight volumes.

These are very hard books to get details on, at least in the UK. No library here has the full set; even the British Library only has twenty-three and nowhere else more than one or two. Citation tends not to help, as only the first few volumes actually name the series in which they’re numbered, so although historians using it tend to cite them as “NH [no.]” as if they were a single set, after the first two they don’t actually carry the words “Noticias Históricas” on them anywhere except sometimes the endpapers, so that tends not to be in their catalogue entries. The B. L., meanwhile, catalogues them all as a periodical under a title that none of them bear (have checked etc.) They’re really a credibly wide-ranging set of separate works. Most of them centre on Besalú, but not all, and for several monasteries and a large body of charters Monsalvatje’s volumes were all that existed until the twin projects Catalunya Romànica and Catalunya Carolíngia slowly supplanted them with new local studies and better editions of the charters. Monsalvatje’s editions, done in haste and with a habit of ellipsing out tedious details (like the names of witnesses – that’s me scuppered then), are often not exactly what one would wish but until the last three years, and beyond the year 1000 still, they have been all that there is and often include stuff whose location is now at best obscure. So it’s not a bad effort, even if it’s not quite the Pat. Lat.

For this reason I went through what the B. L. has quite carefully while I was working on Borrell II, and this means that as far as I know the only even-partway complete bibliography of the series online is buried in my notes files pages, where I mainly put it so as not to have to look them up again… But to err is human (though, as a friend of mine once put it, to really mess things up you need a computer). So it has been that I’ve been trying once more to get hold of Vol. XX, El Monasterio de San Pedro de Casseras, to check some stuff about that Catalan monastery, in which I’ve recently become quite interested, and also confirm one of Monsalvatje’s readings of a document that really says something quite different. It was easy enough to get the first time, when I didn’t take enough notes…

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, Catalunya

The volume is technically in the B. L., and that’s where I first found it in 2005. But the first time I tried to order it up last month, the catalogue system threw a fit and ordered up the first six volumes of the series instead, and my corrected order didn’t come up before I had to leave. It does seem that the book was there then, though, because when I next went in a fortnight later and ordered it again I was told I couldn’t have it because it was still on its way back to the shelf from then. And the same four days later, despite my brandishing a piece of card that I’d been told meant they would check the shelf for me if it still wasn’t back. The day after next I went in again with time to spare to chase it down, and found that in the intervening time I’d lost my library pass. I’d ordered the book up by phone, but couldn’t get in to see if it was actually there, it was maddening. It was at this point that I became certain that the dratted volume was cursed, and toying with me. It’d been all right the first time I’d used it, because it had concealed from me the extra bits I needed to check, but now that I knew that, it was working extra time to keep me away, including causing awful wallet-handling errors that lost me two library passes.

When I subsequently got my pass replaced and went in, however, it was still on its way back to the shelf from the first time. Four tries over a month ought to be enough, didn’t it. I don’t suppose they have actually lost it, but wherever it is I feel that it’s laughing at me. Well, I’m now going into town to find out whether I can see it this time, or whether I have to start writing them notes in green biro and frothing until they go and look so as to quiet down the crazy man at the counter. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Critical theorists please English your English!

I mentioned a little while back that I’d been reading various pieces of John van Engen’s edited volume, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies. This is partly because there’s a seminal article about diplomatic by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak in it I’ve been supposed to read for years but never have (mea maxima culpa),1 but also because exposure to environments like In the Middle leaves me aware that very often, aside from using bits of Matthew Innes‘s and Chris Wickham‘s bases of argument as my own, I don’t think clearly enough about how I do history. I thought therefore that exposing myself, via this convenient medium, to some more theoretical writing might do my approach some good. But in this lofty goal, I’d forgotten just how much critical theory can irritate me.

This is not, I should say, because I don’t think it’s useful. I might question the validity of some approaches with my material; I might, in my more jaundiced moments, wonder how on earth some particular enquiry got funding when there’s so much actual evidence still to go through; and quite often, I wonder whether the categories of analysis that a given theorist is using aren’t anachronistic. (Because, as magistra said in a comment to one of my posts, one of the nice things about the Middle Ages as a study topic is that they frequently illustrate how mutable and environmental our assumptions about people can be.) But even amid all this I am looking for what I know will be there, tools to think with about my evidence and how I read it.

No, the irritation is almost entirely in the presentation. Let me exemplify. Take the word ‘alterity’ (please). A quick prod at JSTOR just now gives 3,456 hits for a search on « (alterity) OR (alterities) ». But what is this damn word? Is it not in fact just a new word for ‘otherness’, which was bad enough in itself but had its function? Another example: ‘legitimate’, not the good old adjective but a verb, from which indeed ‘legitimation’. How did that get birthed? And not only that, how did it supplant ‘legitimise’ and ‘legitimisation’ which were around quite happily meaning the same thing before?

This and other pointless neologisms remind me of nothing so much as Douglas Adams parodying a scientific press interview in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, which I have happily found online here in the lecture text of someone blessedly self-aware:

“I’m afraid I can’t comment on the name Rain God at this present time, and we are calling him an example of a Spontaneous Para-Causal Meteorological Phenomenon.”

“Can you tell us what that means?”

“I’m not altogether sure. Let’s be straight here. If we find something we can’t understand we like to call it something you can’t understand, or indeed pronounce…

“…And if it turns out that you’re right, you’ll still be wrong, because we will simply call him a … er, ‘Supernormal’ – not paranormal or supernatural because you think you know what those mean now, no, a ‘Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer.’ We’ll probably want to shove a ‘Quasi’ in there somewhere to protect ourselves. Rain God! Huh, never heard such nonsense in my life.”

Now, let’s be brutal here: alterity, and legitimation, are examples of just this, someone making it look as if they have thoughts more original than they do by coining a new term rather than the perfectly acceptable old one. And perhaps that can even have a useful function by breaking associations on the part of the reader with work using the old terms. But it’s still verging on mountebankery and I wish people wouldn’t. We are as discussed here before supposed to be involving ourselves in outreach, in communicating what we know to the general public. Now, the general public’s intelligence may be less, in our fields at least, than our own, but the ones who are interested can usually handle some difficult words. All the same there’s no excuse for making the words more difficult than accuracy dictates. If you use this sort of language a lot, consider whether your audience is your own cadre of like-minded peers, or whether you actually want to change the way people at large think. I sometimes suspect that really this kind of criticism thrives on people doing it ‘old-school’ still so as to ensure a supply of targets for the new and radical thinking. In that, I’m reminded of remarks made in this blog a while ago about the Carolingian court élite trying simultaneously to mysticize their special knowledge and recruit people to share it. This is the same bait and switch, and so very medieval but really only an exercise you want to pursue when the emperor is still certain to fund the new clothes you’re busy writing for him…

Direction of the reader, or, we’re all grown-ups here

But of course it’s more complicated than that. One article in the volume in particular left me very conflicted, because I could see the value in what the author was doing and enjoyed the ideas but really had issues with the presentation. The article in question was Kathleen Biddick’s “Bede’s Blush: postcards from Bali, Bombay and Palo Alto”.2 Now this is a very imaginative and entertaining article, but there is a certain kind of immersion you have to achieve to read it. Phrases like: “The double bind has divided medieval studies into camps of pastists and presentists who debate over the epoch in which to locate radical ‘past’ alterity instead of questioning desires for such a boundary as an effect of specific historiographical metanarratives” do not make it easy getting to the meat… If, for example, she had said, “Our pet habits of thinking about the medieval period mark our work without our necessarily questioning these effects. As such, we as medievalists are split over whether the Middle Ages should be seen as a self-contained interlude between ancient and modern, or as a new departure from Antiquity that led to our modern societies”, which is, from context, what she seems to mean, I wouldn’t be using phrases like ‘seems to mean’ as I attempt to explain it to you. And there’s lots more like that and I really don’t think that it helps, except possibly in writing grant proposals with the correct buzz-word ratio. On the other hand her deconstruction of ways of thinking about the past as shaped unconsciously by present-day fixations is a valuable corrective to the illusion of objectivity which we need to try and spot ourselves constructing.

So as I say conflict. You could just say it out loud, as I have, but when people are dealing with deep-seated convictions dear old Sigmund would rush to tell us that they don’t want to question themselves too hard. The third section of Biddick’s article therefore sets up an elaborate, and entirely fictitious, conversation in a university reading room between “the dean of Stanford University, where [as of 1992] the administration recently dropped the requirement of Old English; Bede… ; a professor of Old English; and the chair of the Humanities curriculum committee, a self-identified Chicana feminist theorist”.3 Over the next few pages the dean and professor get lost in administrative fencing while Bede and the Chicana theorist talk interestingly about working between languages and cultures as emissaries for one to another: for Bede, Latin Church to Anglian king, and for the Chicana theorist Spaniards to Aztecs and vice versa. It’s actually quite well done and leads one to think, I stress leads one to think of ways in which one’s own work reaches from the culture of one’s subject material to other disciplines and interests, although not, as I say above, the actual public…

But what is it legitimate to sacrifice to such rhetoric and verbal shepherding? I some time ago had a lengthy and heated debate with a proper scientist about a graph I wanted to use in a paper where the evidence was really very complicated, with which they were helping me. My argument was that because it was real, and dilution into trends or exaggeration into percentages would distort the actual state of it, a graph that was only a picture of the evidence, rather than an actual plotting of the data, was the best we could do. To the said scientist this was anathema and their solution was to break the data down into separate aspects, aspects which I felt meant nothing without their context. But what I wanted, they saw as nearly the same as lying about the data, because I was hiding it. All I wanted, though, was an impression with which I could set the reader’s mind up for my interpretation. So I am not on principle as hard as I could be about accuracy versus strategies of presentation. All the same I twitch at what Biddick goes on to do.

She wishes to stress the discomfort of the traditional medievalist with a rôle as ambassador rather than as ivory-tower guardian of a specialism. So she has the Chicana theorist mention to Bede that in the Aztec context such go-betweens were talked of as whores,4 and asks if he ever got that kind of feedback. “Bede blushes.” And fair enough. It’s a good device and may, Freud-like again, bring out the same kind of discomfort that she’s stressing in a way that maybe just saying that people think this way would not.

But she goes on: “I wish to pause here in my story and ask about the historicity of Bede’s blush. Have I made this blush up for you, my readers, as a presentist? I argue no. The blush marks the return of an affective moment in Old English, which generations of writers, and readers, have suppressed.” And this is, well, it’s rubbish isn’t it? Not because the suppression is illusory; if there is an agenda of embarrassment about using English in Bede’s work, which is possible I guess and she argues it plausibly in what follows, it has certainly not been called out as it could have been and maybe this is why. Maybe. But the blush is not real. It is a symbol, it is not historic, it did not happen, Bede was not in a reading room in present-day Stanford (though stranger things have allegedly happened there), the conversation never took place. But she actually says that she has not made it up, and that is not true. Yes, it is so untrue as to be perfectly clear that she means something else so it’s hardly intended to be believed. But this is to force the reader to do criticism on the criticism, to sift through her work for its own deeper agendas. And if that in itself is the point she wishes to make, that we need to treat history writing that way as well as our source material, I don’t care. This is a deliberate attempt to leave the reader uncertain what she actually means. I cannot endorse that as a strategy. Go round all the houses you like but make your point clearly or else what are you doing except generating hot air, reducing accessibility and building your own ivory tower one step higher? This is not out-reach, and in the end it’s only partly the internal examination of medievalist study that it purports to be; the other part is deliberate obfuscation of meaning. Now, Plato may have thought this was necessary given the sophistication of what he was trying to teach; and maybe we do need setting up to approach a topic in an unfamiliar way; but I would respect it a lot more if having so done, she uncloaked and finally said what she wants us to know.5


1. Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices: An Essay in Interpretive Methodology” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.
2. Ibid., pp. 16-44.
3. Ibid., p. 40.
4. Ibid., p. 41.
5. The post title is a reference that should be credited, but I can’t. A long time ago I read, I suspect on Livejournal (where I only visit, before you start searching), a post from a person who used the word “Englished” and footnoted it saying, “I’ve always loved the fact that there’s an Anglicized word for `Anglicize'”. They’re quite right, but I have no idea who they were any more, so I reference them as a kind of unknown soldier of verbal absurdity. Salute!

Added in Passing IV: New Year’s housekeeping

A few things crowd in need of a mention. Firstly, I return to the keyboard in the New Year refreshed and restored in a number of ways, but the ones most relevant to this blog are firstly that I appear to have a small cascade of new readers thanks to Gabriele Campbell at The Lost Fort participating voluntarily in that meme challenge with an excellent and lavishly illustrated post on Henry IV of Germany. So welcome to those readers, I have been enjoying discovering your blogs back and have blogrolled a few extras where the content seemed in tune with the others I have there.

Secondly, I came back to work to find a small parcel from Barcelona, which turns out to contain eleven more offprints and a full citation for the last one he sent me from Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, so I am once more very grateful to him and will have, when I get out there, to gift him considerably for all this trouble. Lots of good stuff here. And he also says that what I was saying should happen, is going to, in that a collection of his articles on feudalism should be emerging in the next couple of years, and this will be a valuable thing to have for those of us who would like to solve that particular aggravation.

Thirdly, over the holiday despite resting a good deal for once I still seem to have two papers and a book chapter only a few hours away from submission, and one of them has been provisionally accepted for publication already, so I hope for grand things from 2008, which, however unrealistic, is surely the way to start! Happy New Year to you all also!

Feudal Transformations V: el ‘Hipòtesi’ del Professor Riu

First entry in the Currently Reading… category for quite a while, but you see term wound up and I found books again. No more explanation is needed.

Professor Manuel Riu i Riu

Professor Manuel Riu i Riu is one of the grand names of Catalan medieval history and archaeology,1 so grand that unlike most Catalan academics he’s actually known to a wider field (albeit an Iberian one). This, as it appears to the outsider, is partly because of him being one of those rare people whose work is as important in archaeology as it is in history, which gives him a whole conceptual toolbox to bring to either discipline which they don’t normally use, and partly because of his being willing to communicate his findings clearly and simply in either direction. So there are a couple of archives whose charters he’s published, and on the other hand for about twenty years he was almost the only archaeologist working on the early Middle Ages whom his historian contemporaries could get to feed them information in terms they could understand.2 (This may be a little unfair, but it’s what the pattern of citation looks like sometimes.) I don’t mean to say that I fall in respectfully with every word, but he does have an immense amount of work to his credit (a selected bibliography can be found here and runs to 55 articles and 6 books). Sometimes, however, because of the ephemeral nature of some archaeology publications or just because I’m in the wrong country, it’s rather difficult to get hold of.

A while ago while reading that article of Professor Gaspar Feliu’s I subsequently wrote here about, I came across, and not for the first time, a reference to a paper that Professor Riu had not then published, but merely presented, called “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya”. (That is, ‘Hypothesis about the origins of feudalism in Catalonia’. Catalan’s not really a difficult language to read, only to spell.) It always comes up in really interesting contexts. Now as I mentioned before, Professor Feliu has been very good to me in terms of providing offprints, so I decided I’d take advantage of his goodwill some more and ask if he still had a copy of this.

Well, blessings be upon him for he has provided, not just a copy but evidence (in the form of that copy) that the paper was in fact published some years later.3 I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have got hold of it in the UK. (There is one really good portal for Catalan journals online, but as I write at least they haven’t yet added Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals, whose articles are by now almost a majority of my Inter-Library Loan requests.) Anyway, I got it, and I was right, I did need it, and it has made me think some things.4

Riu was writing in a tradition laid down by two Iberian historians called Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil, whose names hardcore Hispanists will know I guess, but who for others who don’t are important because in the sixties they quite literally risked their jobs and futures by calling into question the accepted history of Spain as a creation of the Christian Reconquista. In two books, Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista (Barcelona 1974) and La Formación del feudalismo en la península ibérica (Barcelona 1978) they set out an alternative case focussing on the long persistence of indigenous populations, the lack of impact of the Roman and Visigothic dominations and extremely local power formations of a very ancient, even ‘tribal’ kind, slowly being dragged into a form more in step with the rest of Europe by changes in production, demography and local power structures.5 There was no neo-Gothic revival, there was no heroic Crusade against the Muslims in the name of Christ, it was all a land-grab by people who’d got these local structures working for them. In saying things like this, they angered people like Ramón Menéndez Pidal and Don Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, who were not good enemies to have, but perhaps because their vision involved an even more eternal kind of ‘Spanishness’ than those two historians’ had, they managed to hang in and now people are writing stuff about them and their impact and half of the early medieval world in Castile seems to be their pupil.6

Obviously this work didn’t go unmissed in Catalonia, especially since it had had to be published there due to the unwillingness of Castilian publishers to touch it. Riu’s ‘Hipòtesi’ is in much the same frame, but more subtly so, and bases itself as much on his own dealings with the archaeology and historical anthropologists as on the two firebrands’ work. So he also stresses the insularity and ethnic consistency (he is happy to call it inbreeding, or at least endogamy) of valley communities in Catalonia up until very late, as skeletal and documentary evidence reveal, due to geography and difficulty of communication as much as xenophobia, and suggests from this that the Barbero-Vigil paradigm is worth trying out. From this he constructs a picture in which not all, perhaps not even many (though the implication is that he thinks this was perhaps the majority formation) but at least some of the local lords of the feudal era were in fact local community leaders who had bought, bullied or even loyally and effectively administered their way into the charge of a valley community where their family had been rooted for centuries, built a castle to keep out the outsiders and thus started looking and acting just like the hypothetical comitally-installed vicars down the river. That is, you could grow up to become a feudal lord; you didn’t need to be some Carolingian or Goth import who’d dug into their new land by means of oppression. You could be an ancestral chief with a family and a status going back hundreds of years. You’d look the same in a charter. It’s a good point, I think, and one that comes in very handy for my upcoming paper just mentioned.

Pope Urban II celebrating mass at his old monastery of Cluny

The other thing he says is something that perhaps I should already have had in my head, but, while I am in the habit of considering monastic lordships as being akin to lay ones as lordships, a man (or a woman) in charge of what a lot of people can and cannot do within various limits, Riu prefers here to see them as analogous to families. Now of course we do often think of the monastic familia in this period as meaning something that that word expresses well, but he draws analogies with marriage pacts, division and consolidation of lands, and so on, and generally puts things in such a way as that for once I actually see what people mean by the comparison. I guess I haven’t really got my head round the way in which a monastic, or even other ecclesiastical, community really is a community, perhaps because in the one I know the best, only one person ever really shows up.

So in general this has been good for my head. I must thank Professor Feliu some more. But first, since he found and commented in his letter upon this here blog, I should do two things in fairness to him; firstly, admit that he has a point when he points out that though my analysis of property is all very well it leaves no room for a difference between full property and tenancy, so I need to think about that,7 and secondly to remove what he calls “la pèssima fotografia meva que no hi feia cap falta” (‘the awful photograph of me for which there was no need’)… Had I been able to find a better, and so on…


1. ‘Riu’ is of course Catalan for ‘river’. This means that ever since I started composing this entry in my head, and thus colloquialising my usual academese slightly, I’ve been unable to shake the wish to refer to the venerable Professor as Ol’ Man. River. Occasionally genuine academics come across this, as word from Professor Feliu testified: if one of them should be el Professor Riu, I’m so sorry about my brain…

2. Some idea of his influence can be got from the size and spread of his Festschrift, Salvador Claramunt & Antoni Riera Melis (edd.), Homenatge al Dr. Manuel Riu i Riu (Acta Historica et Archæologica Mediævalia Vols 20-22 (Barcelona 2001-2002), 2 vols.

3. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorns dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208.

4. I’m always really pleased when something like this comes off, as it implies that my written Catalan, in which I’ve had no training at all, is intelligible. So pleased that I have to mention it, as you see. Sorry.

5. The first of those books has as its main portion an article they had previously published that may be easier to obtain for those interested, A. Barbero & M. Vigil, “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista: cantábros y vascones desde fines del impero romano hasta la invasión musulmana” in Boletín de le Real Academia de Historia Vol. 156 (Madrid 1965), pp. 271-339.

6. If all this infighting sounds exaggerated and crazy to you, you should probably have a look at Richard Fletcher’s marvellous article, “Reconquest and Crusade in Spain c. 1050-1150” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 37 (London 1987), pp. 31-47. For those who want more detail, and for whom puns and barbed irreverencies will sustain you through an awful lot of erudition, there is beyond that Peter Linehan’s History and the Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford 1993).

7. The obvious difference is that a tenant has a lord he’s paying, isn’t it? But a full owner obviously still pays dues to various people, so that’s not enough. It’s revocability, then, perhaps. A tenancy may not be renewed or may even be stopped. If an owner is so evicted, it would be thought wrongful. If a tenant, perhaps unfair but at least just and legal. I think that must be it. For now.