Monthly Archives: June 2008

Marx for effort

This is just a rapid reflection on the concepts we carry around with us, brought on by what I suppose I can call some recent interdisciplinary conversation with an anthropologist friend.1 When I was teaching in KCL last year, the first thing my students saw me put on a screen was this image:

Karl Marx

It was a lecture about the economy, and I threw him up there because fundamentally the economy in the Middle Ages is best approached from the bottom, with the basis of production. I was claiming that this is one thing that brother Karl got right. (See, I avoid with great difficulty a lame Marx bros. gag. Just.) But I don’t identify as a Marxist, I’ve never read Capital or any other Marx, my main reference to him is the old and revered “proper tea is theft” gag. Even though my erstwhile supervisor has been known to call himself a neo-Marxist, even though my Ph.D. marker and one of my greater influences does identify as a Marxist (only not like those other idiots who have it all wrong), I’m much too interested in micro-history and the capacity of human agency to change things, largely for the worse, to be uplifted by a grand dialectic like the Marxist class-war story.

On the other hand, I do quite happily talk about class, and although I have a badly-formed definition of it that I need to work on, I have at least thought about it; it seems obvious to me that one can explain some social phenomena in terms of a clash of class interests, though I tend to try and reformulate class membership into group membership at that level; and, as I say, analysing the economy in terms of the means of production, and who controls it, makes a lot of sense to me. I’m probably also with Chris Wickham and John Haldon that we need a new mode, that Marx didn’t have, to describe the economy of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the ‘tributary mode’, but it doesn’t seem useless to me to try and describe it so even though I know full well that the medieval economy was immensely varied. This is the great use of the Marxist view of political economy, is that it can accommodate so many different forms of produce growth under this single analytical umbrella of cui bono. It helps you think.

Now, I recognise that this stuff I use is Marxist, because I have had teachers who consider that an important thing to mark; but I just like it because it seems to work, and I’m not therefore agitating for socialism or trying to breed radical students. It seems to me that some people using these concepts are less self-aware, and don’t realise quite how far we’ve all internalised the useful bits of what brother Karl had to say, while binning the bits that now look like over-cooked preaching of historical inevitability or, worse, Communism… To an extent, I think most of us are part-Marxist by now, and I wonder how many people are happy acknowledging this…

1. That should make one or two people laugh…

AFK future and far future, also more Alcockiana

This coming fortnight is looking rather packed. I now have enough data together to write my Leeds paper, and as you can probably tell from comments made on it elsewhere, am beginning to think it might even be important. However, I do still have to write the thing this week, and I’m also supposed to be working on a chunk of book, so I have to warn you now that the blog may fall by the wayside temporarily, especially since as once it’s written I’ll be, you know, going to Leeds for several days.

Also, and more signally, it seems that I will be also be absent from the blogosphere for a short while in November, as, for the first time since I was five, I shall be in the USA, presenting at the Haskins Society Conference at Georgetown University: I got mail today saying that the relevant session proposal has been accepted. I owe Matt Gabriele a big thankyou for starting this particular wheel a-turning. It should be fun, and a very interesting change of academic environment.

Cover of Leslie Alcock\'s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

I’ll wrap up for now with another couple of notes on that same Leslie Alcock book, which as I go on into it is looking more and more like a thoroughly commendable attempt to say only what is known or reasonable to suppose, and no more. It is still quite a large book. Today, though, one particular authorial decision struck me: in the preamble to the chapter on religion, he says:

These chapters are written (regardless of the author’s own views) in the context of a post- or sub-Christian society. In consequence they do not take it for granted that conversion to Christianity was, to use a grossly simplified term, a ‘good thing': the confusion and distress which conversion might bring is not ignored.

Finally, until the end of the 20th century, a general but unstated assumption survived that the theology, beliefs and rituals of Christianity were sufficiently well-known to readers as to need no explanation. For a post-Christian 21st-century readership, however, it seems necessary to provide simple definitions and explanations of various elements of Christian belief and liturgy which practising Christians would take for granted.

We have been told not to assume that students can manage Latin for quite a while now, and that’s inarguably realistic; but he’s right, we’ve taken a long time to wake up to this particular lacuna in their education. All the same, a lot of my students have been religious, and sufficiently so that it was clear to me, and some of the ones who were more vocally otherwise were so partly out of reaction to being brought up in a faith they’d then lost. I haven’t had to explain very much Christianity at all in my teaching. Medieval studies seems to me to draw the thoughtful Christians. Have I just been fortunate? Do other people’s experiences match mine?

Also, I think I like the terms ‘post- or sub-Christian’, by nice analogy with ‘sub-Roman’ or so it seems to me, but I haven’t seen them before. Are these current in other parts of academia, or are they Alcock’s own? Also, I wonder how true it is. How many people in the UK could now recite the Lord’s Prayer? Is it that we’re post-Christian, or increasingly non-Christian? If you’re post-Christian, doesn’t that as a term imply considerable knowledge of, and reaction to, Christianity? I might think of my noisy atheist ex-believer students as post-Christians in that case. And meanwhile, doesn’t sub-Christian imply a continuation of decayed practice within a legacy framework of Christianity? Really, I think non-Christian is the only one that works here, but you still couldn’t describe the UK as non-Christian. All the same, his point is not mere ‘political correctness gone mad’. I do wonder, though, if it wasn’t in itself something of an idealistic statement even as he points out the increasing loss of another ideology.

Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph (Edinburgh 2003), quote from p. 60.

Call my Bluff, Northern British history style

In my 2006 tour of Scotland, sadly concluded before I began this blog, one of the places my then-partner and I flitted briefly through was the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, where I’d insisted we go when the name came up on a roadsign because of a dim conviction that there were Pictish symbol stones there. This wasn’t quite correct, but the tiny Museum was a definite recompense. Also, and here we reach the point, they had a bookshop. And since then, sitting in my to-read pile behind all the stuff that’s right-now-urgent-I’m-teaching-on-this-tomorrow important, has been Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 by the late Leslie Alcock. You see, for a while I’ve had an itching feeling that really, although early Scottish history is very obscure and there isn’t a great deal that one can safely say happened, all the same one could, with suitable caveats at every stage, write at least a short book that tried to tell you what we think happened. You know: formation of a Pictish overkingdom, arrival of the Gaels, successions, a few battles; it wouldn’t be a complete story and half of it would have to be explaining why this can only ever be guesswork, but it’d be much less frustrating than the currently fashionable trend of refusing to do any such thing and talking in terms of immutable culture groups, one of which (the Picts) suddenly disappears for no adequately explored reason. Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots (Edinburgh 1996), I’m looking at you.

The Great Glen, central Scotland, from the air

So, because what most people know Leslie Alcock for is his 1971 book Arthur’s Britain, in which he did pretty much that for the allegedly Arthurian period, to the permanent staining of his reputation among historians it must be said, when I saw Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests it somehow leapt into my hands, because I thought there was a good chance that Alcock had written the book I thought needed to be written. If anyone was going to… But it seems not. In fact, what he seems to have done is write Picts, Gaels and Scots only properly.1 I will perhaps write a proper review of it when I get closer to finishing it, but it’s not on-topic for my current work, and it’s quite long, so I’m just sneaking sections of it while the computer (still not replaced) boots and so on. However, what I’ve read so far has mainly had me going “yes, fair enough” and not seeing much to argue about or celebrate, until today. There follow three quotes, two of which had me emphatically nodding in agreement, and one of which had me spitting metaphorical feathers. I shall give you a moment to decide which was which…

As for Ecgfrith’s treatment of Wilfrid, much of Stephen’s account may be discounted because of the large element of the miraculous. Moreover, even his adulatory biographer cannot conceal that Wilfrid was a quarrelsome and contumacious power-seeker. (4.1.2, p. 36)


In various written sources we find that kings were related to peoples rather than to territories, so we read of a named rex Pictorum, ‘of Picts’, or rex Ultrahumbrensium, ‘of the dwellers north of the Humber’. Consequently, the definition of a particular people was not wholly linguistic [pace Bede, whose 'five gentes he began by discussing]. More realistically, it was political, so that the Picts were those who, at any one time, paid tribute, and especially military service, to a rex Pictorum (4.2.1, p. 37)


Above all these were the seven successive outstanding overlords for whom Bede uses the term ‘Bretwalda’. (4.2.1, p. 38)


Come on Professor! You knew better than that! I am quite disappointed. Look, let’s get this sorted out. Bede did not call anyone bretwalda. He doesn’t use the word. Yes, he gives a list of seven overlords (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II cap. 5), but he describes their power as follows: they “had the sovereignty of all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber”. The word ‘bretwalda’ only turns up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 827 when the chronicler, in describing the position of King Ecgberht of Wessex at that time, says:

And the same year king Ecgberht conquered the kingdom of Mercia and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be bretwalda; and the first who had so great a rule was Ælle king of the South Saxons; the one after was Caewlin king of West Saxons; the third was Æthelberht, king of the inhabitants of Kent; the fourth was Rædwald king of East Anglia; fifth was Edwin king of Northumbria; sixth was Oswald who ruled after him; seventh was Oswiu, Oswald’s brother; eighth was Ecgberht king of West Saxons.

Now this is Bede’s list, but with Ecgberht added on, fine. But where the word came from is a whole big range of debate.2 I’m not going to have that debate here, I don’t really have a view, but I do know this: it wasn’t from Bede. And I would have expected Leslie Alcock to know better.

1. He seems to have gone back rather on Arthur’s Britain, in fact; as well as saying that he now believes that no history worth the name can be written of Britain before at least 550, and really before 600 except that one has to explain the starting positions of the book at least a bit, he also cites Arthur’s Britain, in two different editions, as an example of work that attempts this and fails!

2. If you feel like pursuing the debate, though, I guess I should point you at Patrick Wormald’s “Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the Gens Anglorum“, in idem, Donald Bullough & Roger Collins (eds), Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford 1983), pp. 99-129, and Steven Fanning, “Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge MA 1991), pp. 1-26.

Ancilla-swapping in Burgundy

I ran into Magistra in the Institute of Historical Research yesterday, just after she’d made her latest discovery—I swear, neither she nor I go looking for this stuff, and neither do we come across, in real life, like a pair of leering perverts I hope—and it has been one of three things that have set me again thinking about medieval slavery. The second was an article by Josep María Salrach I was reading the same day, which covered social groups and stressed that really, there probably were more slaves in my period of Catalonia than we see in the evidence.1

This is germane, you see, because there really is very little sign of slavery in the Catalan stuff. A few rich men give away slaves in their wills, a few rich women too, and Bishop Sal·la of whom I have spoken before bequeathed four Sarraceni to his cathedral, and there is an assumption, which seems fair, that captives taken in border warfare were enslaved which is presumably where those Sarraceni had come from.2 And if you read up about this stuff, you’ll find that Barcelona really ought to have been a heaving slave market, because the Slavs from whom our word for a living chattel comes were supposedly being ferried overland from, for example, Verdun, down to the south along the old via augusta and eventually to Zaragoza and other Muslim markets, which does very much involve travelling through Catalonia. But written evidence for trade of any kind is notoriously late, and laws that might help are ambiguous because Catalonia’s legal text of resort is the Visigothic Forum Iudicum and thus somewhat anachronistic three centuries after its compilation.3

Modern painting of a Rus\' slave market in the early Middle Ages, by Sergei Ivanov

This has meant that the third thing has been something of a culture shock to your humble blogger: slaves are all through the material from Cluny. Most of the big land-grants also transfer mancipia, that oh-so-usefully neuter term that makes the human being concerned even more of an object; and while some might argue that these are serfs, not slaves—I see the difference as whether he or she can be sold without land, a serf is tied to land and changes ownership with it and a slave can be disposed of at market as genuinely movable property—and that here we’re seeing sitting tenants staying with the estates, they’re not listed with the land, but separately afterwards.4 And sometimes, there is no land, so it’s pretty inarguable. Burgundy seems to have either been much less chary of mentioning slave sales, or, what is vastly more likely, however many slaves Catalonia did have, the Mâconnais had a lot more. And I will confess, being confronted with what I, as modern moralist, think is an inhuman practice this much is making it harder for me to think my way into this society, though arguably for what I’m actually doing here I don’t need to go beyond document use anyway.

There are two cases which have caught my imagination, though, and they are two of those where there’s no land at issue.5 The two documents are both exchanges, and they are exchanges where the price on both sides is a slave. That is, both parties give away a manicipium to get one. Firstly I like these because the idea that slaves are not of fixed value, but have qualities that presumably differentiate them, seems more humane again: someone had to look at this person someone else owned and like them for something. But secondly, I wonder what they were actually trading for? The only scenario I’ve thought of so far, for the swap that involved female slaves (ancillae) that isn’t as trivial as ‘blonde for brunette’ is one where, perhaps one was a really good cook, but the other was young enough to wet-nurse, so the family with young children to look after swapped cuisine for lactation. But there must be other possible explanations. Any suggestions, anyone?

1. Josep María Salrach i Marés, “Los grupos sociales” in Jose Maria Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal II: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, 2: los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Manuel Riu i Riu, pp. 393-425 at pp. 414-416. This is not the only place he argues this, and in fact I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this article compared to others; it’s uncharacteristically lazy, and resorts to regula magistri an awful lot. This—arguing that because Venerable Predecessor said something, and he knew everything, it must be true, without resorting to evidence—is very unusual for Catalan scholarship, in part because the magistri are few as yet, but rather more common in mainline Spanish stuff, as Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil rant in the beginning of their La Formación del Feudalismo en el Penísula Ibérica (Barcelona 1978). Given that the article was written for the Historia Menéndez Pidal, which is a crazy monster of a project half of whose authors are already dead and that is basically the world’s biggest Festschrift, sunk tomes deep in that Spanish tradition, that may be why Salrach seems to be writing more like Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (who wrote the entire preceding volume in the series) than Pierre Bonnassie here. Salrach is usually a lot more like Bonnassie, and if you wanted him at his best on social structure, I’d suggest “Entre l’estat antic i feudal. Mutacions socials i dinàmica político-militar a l’occident carolingi i als comtats catalans” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 191-251. That’s got to be close to the acceptable maximum length for a blog footnote, really, and quite possibly not from the safe side…

2. For example, the act by which dear Emma, future abbess of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, was given to the nunnery, sees her accompanied with three slaves, one of whom may later work for her as an estate manager, in as much as no-one else of the same name (Gualter) occurs in the abbey’s documents; the endowment is Federico Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. 3; someone called Gualter also crops up in docs 21 & 87. See for the argument Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, p. 134 n. 246. Sal·la’s will, meanwhile, is Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 78-143, doc. 287, eventually actually carried out in doc. 314; see Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 290-308.

3. The historiography on slavery is huge, and it’s not much use citing Catalan stuff for it because as I say here, Catalonia is a bit unusual; instead, one can get the general picture of the field from Wendy Davies, “Servile Status in the Early Middle Ages” in M. Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: studies in legal bondage (Harlow 1996), pp. 225-246, and the latest news from Alice Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom in Early Medieval Francia: the evidence of the legal formulae” in Past and Present no. 193 (Oxford 2006), pp. 7-40. For specific stuff about the Catalan trade, however, see Josep María Salrach, “Servi i mancipia” in B. de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998), pp. 78-79.

4. Auguste Bernard & Alexandre Bruel (edd.), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de Cluny (Paris 1876-1903), Vol. I, doc. nos 18, 44 or 75. For someone else using this serf/slave distinction, see Davies, “Servile Status”, pp. 245-246, cited by Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom”, p. 9 & n. 6. There are some sitting tenants on some of the other transfers, so we can see that that is referred to differently (“manentes“): Bernard & Bruel, Cluny, I doc. 55.

5. Ibid. doc. 30 is the first with no land involved. Doc. 74 is one of the exchanges, this one a man for a man, the other being doc. 108.

Let me tell you a tale… of intrigue, incense and assassination!

I have no fresh content for you today, I’m afraid, I’m still busy normalising Cluny’s charters’ names and writing bits of book, though not right now obviously because of being at work (and on lunch). But seeing an unexpected commentator on the previous post has put me in mind of popes—you know who you are—and so I draw on my stock of fabulous medieval tales from charters for you.

The three Bulls of John XIII to Vic of 970

The charter in question is now displayed, just to the right of that image (dammit), and you may be able to tell from that that it is not yer usual parchment, but a Bull, awarded to the Bishop of Osona in Catalonia by Pope Gregory V in 998. This would ordinarily have been simple enough, except for the bishop and his entourage actually making the journey halfway across the Mediterranean for it. But on this occasion Gregory had a bit of a problem: two bishops of Osona turned up. Gregory’s reaction is depicted below:

Gregory V rolling his eyes (not contemporary, or even related)

For some time, you see, in fact ever since the last time but one a Bishop of Osona had come out to Rome for approval, the succession to that see had been disputed. Ató, who may have been made an archbishop, even (he wasn’t—but I haven’t managed to get that published yet), in 970, was murdered almost as soon as he arrived home, and after a long and troubled rule so was his successor Fruià, at the behest of one Guadall, a member of the Viscounts of Osona’s family, who then took the episcopal throne for himself. He had the backing of Count Ermengol I of Urgell (whose business it was precisely none of) but not of the Count of Osona, and also of Barcelona and Girona, Ermengol’s brother Ramon Borrell. (You see, this is what happens when a father isn’t around to keep an eye on his kids…) Ramon Borrell favoured one Arnulf, also a member of that same family, but previously Abbot of Sant Feliu de Girona and generally in Ramon Borrell’s following. So, cousin versus cousin backed by brother versus brother: with unusual maturity, they all sailed to Rome in 998 and made it Gregory’s job to decide. Arnulf called Guadall a murderer; Guadall denied it and called Arnulf a usurper. One count on each side. No immediately obvious solution…

How we know Gregory V was a wise man: he didn’t even try to find out who was right and who was wrong by going into the tangled and messy history of the case. Instead, he organised a near-solid day of prayer in the Lateran palace (the popes not yet being in the Vatican), at the end of which, with everyone giddy with incense and overwhelming ceremony, he then declared the whole embassy excommunicate till they could decide who was bishop. Thus cut off from food and their beds (because if there’s one place where you can expect a papal excommunication to be enforced, it’s the pope’s palace, right?) it wasn’t long before the gathering all pointed the fingers of accusation at Guadall, who was duly degraded, his robes being ceremonially torn off him by papal attendants, leaving Arnulf bishop in a way that no-one was going to be able to deny later.

I have always been quite impressed with Gregory V for this.

The Bull from which I fairly freely derive this, though the essentials are there, is edited in E. Junyent (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic, segles IX-X, ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), no 624, and Harald Zimmermann (ed.), Papsturkunden 896-1046, Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission 3-5, Denkschriften (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse) 174, 177 & 198 (Wien 1984-1989), no. 357; an older edition with facsimiles is P. Kehr, Die ältesten Papsturkunden Spaniens, erläutert und reproduziert, Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jahrgang 1926, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Nr. 2 (Berlin 1926), doc. VII. The Bull was taken to Rome for restoration in 1927, which made it a good deal more legible, as can be told from the resultant facsimile edition, Pontificum Romanorum Diplomata Papyracea quae Supersunt in Tabulariis Hispaniae Italiae Germaniae phototypice expressa iussu Pii PP. XI (Roma 1929), where this one is no. X. On Ató, until I manage to get my paper out, you would have to see Ramon Martí, “Delà, Cesari i Ató, primers arquebisbes dels comptes-prínceps de Barcelona (951-953/981)” in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia Vol. 67 (Tarragona 1994), pp. 369-386, and on the murderous Guadall and family, Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els primers vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, online here, last modified 20the November 2001 as of 30th December 2007, at pp. 151-3 & 155.

Is this success?

It’s not very significant; there’s no salary involved, only a fairly straight swap of dining rights and access to facilities, plus an affiliation if I need one, in exchange for readiness to teach a few supervisions, but all the same Clare College in Cambridge have agreed to make me a College Research Associate. This is mainly good news for the teaching, though it may have its social benefits too and Clare is a very lovely college. But also, I think it may be the only job I’ve ever got purely through written application with no degree of who-you-know operating at all. My only contacts at Clare are either very busy being an MP or tragically dead.1 So, if I can, by my CV alone, convince people to take me on because of my research and expertise when there’s only a bit of money and a few students involved, it’s only a matter of scaling up from here…

1. Yup, that still hurts. Be peaceful, Chris, if you can.

Confused over Cluny: a pre-Leeds charters rant

Bits of my Leeds paper are crowding in my head wanting to be written, and I don’t yet have anything like all the data assembled to do it (though if forced I could probably assemble a text tonight). What better tactic, then, but to offload some of the brain-twisting here?

The Leeds sessions that I and my collaborators run hit their third year this year; they’re called ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic’. The idea is to show firstly that charter evidence is subtle and complicated to interpret, and secondly what you can learn when you do interpret it carefully: the first bit is problems, and the second possibilities. Everyone else’s papers seem to be about the possibilities, and mine much more about the problems. It’s not that I don’t have stuff to say on the basis of my charters, as you know, but for Leeds, when I have a charter-savvy group to work in, I get much more interested in the basic questions we often forget to ask, of why we have the evidence, why it looks the way it does, whether what they were recording was real or just formulae, and so on, the basic text criticism and the methodology of it. And this leads me this year, heavens help me, to be messing with the charters of Cluny.

A twelfth-century bifolium of a cartulary recording an 842 act of Charles the Bald for Burgundy

You see, last year when I was putting together this proposal, there obviously seemed to be all the time in the world, and so I cast about for diplomatic ideas, and came up with this. We know, and if we didn’t the work from the Lay Archives project would make it clear,1 that many charters exist in archives that appear to have had no interest in preserving them. By and large, of course, a Church archive preserves documents that relate to that church’s lands and donors, and this is most of what we have, but wherever the sample opens up a bit, things leak into preservation that don’t easily fit that scheme. Traditionally, these have been explained as background for donations that occurred later but whose documents have been lost, and that obviously has problems: why did they lose the important one and not the legacy one, why didn’t anyone throw out the useless one? Recently a couple of the people in the Lay Archives group, Warren Brown from his work on Bavaria and Adam Kosto from the Catalan stuff, have been suggesting that actually churches were functioning as kind of depositories, substituting in this way for the old Roman gesta municipalia but also just because the charters in question would often have been written by the local clerics anyway and might as well stay where they could be read. Adam also argues that whole lay dossiers of parchments were sometimes given into the care of the church in difficult times, and that does seem to be what’s necessary to explain the wealth of Church-irrelevant documents in Catalonia, where we know (because some of them still exist) that lay archives were kept.2

For some time this has seemed problematic to me. As with a lot that Adam writes, it’s so close to what I think that I find it hard to articulate my difference, but it seems to me that when a body of charters reaches a Church archive, it often does so because someone who has inherited or acquired the land to which they relate is now giving it to the Church. That is, both explanations were sometimes true at once: there are lay dossiers, and they’re given to the Church with land. But sometimes these dossiers include documents that are nothing to do with the land. So, for example, the first case of this I came across: there are in the Arxiu Capitular d’Urgell six charters from the late ninth century that feature a judge called Goltred. Five of them are purchases of land that eventually come to the cathedral, classic transmission if you will. The sixth however is a trial over which he presided, in which one man was set to pay compensation for breaking into another man’s house, beating him with a cudgel (the document makes it clear that part of why this was so bad is that it was the victim’s own cudgel) and then kidnapping and keeping him prisoner in a neighbour’s house for a week. Frustratingly, why the perpetrator did this is never explained, though the document does say he claimed it was done in self-defence! But anyway: the compensation is monetary, though paid in produce; no land is involved, and neither does the cathedral of Urgell feature.3 So I think the only reason that we have this is that one of the documents that came out of this trial went to the judge, by way of record, and when he finally gave his lands to the cathedral, they shunted all his parchments into the cathedral archive and no-one looked at them for about 1,800 years. Preservation by neglect, I call this, and I think there’s a lot of it.

The abbey of Cluny as it appears today, from Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, we have paradigms, they need testing, and this is where Cluny comes in. There are certain places where the charters preserved predate the actual archive institution’s existence. In Catalonia most places have one or two from ‘before’, and pinning the reason they’re there down is very hard because the string is so short. Four charters at Vic feature an extraordinarily long-lived Viscount called Franco, who seems to have ruled the mini-county of Berguedà in apparent independence. All of the charters are purchases, he doesn’t appear anywhere else, two of them predate Vic’s refoundation in about 885, two of them don’t.4 The lands didn’t identifiably come to Vic, and the only explanation that I can think of is that they were stored at some church in Berguedà of which the cathedral of Vic later acquired control. There’s no proof though. So I wanted to look elsewhere and see what the trends of this preservation are where we’ve got more of it. And there’s nowhere with more than Cluny.

Cluny is a desperately important abbey for most of the High Middle Ages, but in early medieval terms it’s a latecomer, being founded only in 910. Its charter corpus, however, starts in 813, almost a century before, which obviously needs some explanation. I don’t have one, except that so much exists from Cluny, many thousands of charters (almost all of which now exist only in scholarly copies, but that’s the Franco-Prussian war for you), that it seems unlikely they ever really went through weeding the archive: once something came there it stayed. There is a classic edition of Cluny’s charters, but it never reached the index volume, so up till now really working with them has been difficult.5 Now, however, the various projects on Cluny being run from the University of Münster have resulted in a digital transcription of that edition, if you know where to look. So I have been steadily databasing this early stuff, and searching through the files trying to find out why they wind up with Cluny. (“Stand back! I know regular expressions!”)

It’s extremely frustrating. Sometimes they’re just singletons, neither place nor recipient ever seem to turn up again. They may well do, of course, because places change names and landholders bequeath stuff without writing it down but a broken trail is little better than no trail in this particular inquiry. As one advances towards foundation date, the trails get easier to follow, but even so one is often left going: “there’s the land in 880; here’s land in the same villa in 910 that seems to be bounded by the same geography in a couple of edges, but it’s bigger, and if it contains the same estate, if, how it got from Adalramn to this Ardeo geezer is just impossible to say”. They don’t name their parents, they don’t say how they got the land, you’re just stuck with this magic lantern now-you-see-and-now-you-don’t situation when you can see it at all. I’ve got some good cases where it does work out, and especially the royal ones are almost always really simple; this precept is here because the relevant estate is in the hands of the monastery via this person one generation later, sorted. But I’ve also got quite a lot just marked “no clues!”

All the same, I’ve got enough to work with; and I also have the monastery of Beaulieu, whose early preservation is basically one neat example piece of an aristocratic personal archive – but if you want to know more about that you should come and hear the paper.6 I have to leave something in the bag :-)

P. S. Here we see an instance of the phenomenon I realised while leaving a comment at The Rebel Letter; I never seem to doubt that someone will be interested in this stuff. After all, I’m interested; I can hardly be alone in this in a net population of however many numbers-with-many-zeroes…

1. I live in hope that some day the Lay Archives Project will actually publish something, but at the time of writing there is nothing that I can announce. For the opposite case, stressing the way institutions profile memory and record according to its use to them, see Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985).

2. Warren Brown, “When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366; Adam 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. Professor Brown’s work makes the more careful case that actually this only happened with big families storing their documents at their own foundations, but in areas that were more ‘document-minded’, as Julia Smith would have it (Europe After Rome: a new cultural history, 400-1000 (Oxford 2005), pp. 13-50, concept introduced pp. 45-46) it’s much lower-level than that, as I think this paper will partly show.

3. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 78-143, doc. nos 19, 22, 24, 25, 26 & 27; the hearing is doc. no. 24.

4. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (Segles IX-X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. nos 1, 5, 7 & 138.

5. This difficulty has not prevented some genuinely important work being done from them, most obviously Georges Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le region mâconnaise, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hauts Études, VIe section (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971), repr. in Qu’est-ce que c’est la Féodalisme (Paris 2001) (of which pp. 155, 170-172, 185-195, 230-245 transl. Frederick L. Cheyette as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais” in idem (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (New York 1968), pp. 137-155) and Barbara H. Rosenwein, To Be The Neighbor of Saint Peter: the social meaning of Cluny’s property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989). The charters are edited in Auguste Bernard & Alexandre Bruel (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Cluny (Paris 1876-1900), 6 vols, of which all the material I’m using is in vol. I.

6. Or just have at the charters yourself I suppose: the relevant edition is Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1859) and it’s free to download on Google Books.

Edit: it has been suggested to me that the questions here are hard to understand for non-specialists. Therefore, I have created this summary for the neophytes of diplomatic criticism: