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.

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9 responses to “Feudal Transformations V: el ‘Hipòtesi’ del Professor Riu

  1. This is fascinating. I wasn’t aware there are theories around different from the standard stuff I learned. Not that I know particularly much about Spain, but it might come into my writing more when I’ll deal with the Visigoths (so far I concentrate on the Romans in Britain, Germany and to some extent, Gaul), and it plays a marginal role in my PhD research about French epics (it’s all Roland’s fault :) ). Looks like I better learn some more Spanish – both versions of it. :)

  2. Thanks a lot for this.

    When you are talking about ownership and tenancy, what kind of time span are you talking about? Could one have a certain snob appeal after a while, but with little practical difference otherwise?

    I’m thinking about nobles vs ministeriales in Germany. As a non-expert it looks very little different which you were, but if you were there (13th c?) at the time, I’m sure it would make all the diff in the world.

  3. Gabriele, Spain is an odd case in as much as, in Catalonia it seems fairly clear that a dramatic transformation of society happened that left it restructured around what can fairly be called feudal ties, not long after 1000, but that the immediate context is a political collapse and that until then the local rulers had things under some kind of control. There are all kinds of theories about this, and I’ve written about them in the four precedingFeudal Transformationposts, as well as telling the story of the collapse in a separate post. But for the areas you’re looking at, there’s a useful debate in a British journal called Past and Present, large parts of which seem to be online. Timothy Reuter’s contribution covers Germany in fine style.

    Not that you were actually asking for a reading list, but if you ever do want one, er, I seem to have generated it.

    Prof. Muhlberger, that’s an excellent and subtle point. That kind of variation of status over the life-cycle is really hard to pin down even though we know full well that age and time-in-place brought reputation. I think that the situation between nobles and ministeriales is one that is only clearly distinguished when someone feels under threat, though. The classic case is always going to be Flanders in 1127 but that’s just too odd to be much help elsewhere. Henry IV, to pick on Gabriele’s recent posting interest, made heavy use of ministeriales and that doesn’t seem to have caused anything like as much trouble. But then Henry caused enough trouble to drown anything like that out all by himself. I think the suggestion I’m making is that maybe it only made a difference when one’s neighbour wanted it to, to paraphrase Newton.

    To apply that to what I’m saying is easy enough because of course a lot of contests over land tenure turn on just this, whether someone has been able to get away with not paying his dues for long enough to be recognised as a full owner. The Visigothic Law that was used in Spain and Southern France in the early Middle Ages has a thirty-year limit in it beyond which property can’t be challenged, and this is cited a lot, though some monasteries manage to get round it.

    Similar factors to your ‘snob factor’ have also been used to suggest how `housed’ slavery might slowly merge into dependent tenure, and again, only be an issue when someone tried to claim things on the old basis. The trouble with these theories, which do make some sense, is that they all come preloaded with an assumption about what the default state is to which situations will gravitate in given conditions, whereas I suspect that people all tried to gravitate in their own directions as far as they could…

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