Rustici ad libertatem! or, things I’d like to discuss with Ramon Martí

I’m sorry it’s been so long. There was the Vienna trip, which will make for a couple of posts, and then there were just other things that needed doing before spending quality time with the Internet. On the upside, activity should now be fairly intense for a while, as I’ve been reading a range of stuff that’s caused me to bluster, think and start drafting posts. First of these, then, follows.

Ramon Martí i Castelló is Titular Professor of Medieval History at the Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, and is a name I come across quite frequently. I’ve corresponded with him once or twice and he’s always been drily helpful, but I’ve so far really only met him in print. This is always stimulating, but frequently makes me wonder if someone changed the consensus take on Catalan medieval history while I was out. Anglo-Saxonists might feel the same way about Eric John, and I’m sure there are others in everybody’s field; it’s all sustainable, but it’s very different from what most people argue… I’ve recently hit it again, in an article of his from 1999 called “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas”. There is a translation in the relevant volume later on, under the title “Peasant victories and defeats”, which just isn’t as snappy.1

Peasants at work, from the Bíblia de Ripoll

Peasants at work, from the Bíblia de Ripoll

I could go on at great length about this short article, because it leaves so much unexplained; this is why I’d like to talk to Prof. Martí about it, once my Catalan is better. But there’s value in trying to get out the reasons it gives me problems, in case they’re not much good. So, let me try and explain. His paper is a contribution to a lengthy debate about slavery and serfdom in Catalonia. The canonical view is probably Pierre Bonnassie’s, which as with most of his work makes better sense for Catalonia than anywhere else (like Marx with Russia).2 Bonnassie argued, firstly, that under the Visigothic kings of Spain slavery was still economically important, even if Roman-style fundi of dormitoried labourers working the owner’s fields (what Marx would have called the Ancient Mode of production) were probably rare compared to servi casati, ‘hutted’ slave families living on the plot of land they worked. (This refinement owes as much to Josep María Salrach as it does to Bonnassie really,3 and fits better into what the neo-Marxists now call the Tributary Mode of production.) Secondly he argued that due to slow but growing Christianization, which made it harder to pretend that these men and women who shared a church with you and got the same sacraments weren’t really human beings, due to the diminution of supply of slaves due to warfare as the kings slowly brought the whole peninsula under control, and due to political and economic collapse, that system was falling apart by the end of the Visigothic era, as the increasingly ridiculous legislation against fugitive slaves shows. Thirdly he argued that in the early independent Christian areas, the open frontier offered a zone of opportunity to which fugitives could go to make a new life and where the new power structures would support their rights, which as soon as that territory was opened up by the Carolingian take-over (in Catalonia—other processes along the northern coast obviously) meant that a slave system back in the mountains (where large-scale demesne farming didn’t really work anyway) was unmaintainable, so for a short period there is a society here in which peasant dependence is minimal, and almost all of them are free smallholders who can bear arms and owe neither rent nor labour to anyone, except what everyone owes to the public power by way of military service and tax. And (fifthly) as the economy booms in the late tenth and early eleventh century and the rich get richer, and then suddenly public power collapses, the increasingly oppressed peasantry is rapidly forced into subjection to the new lords and becomes the tied serfs that have to wait till the fifteenth century for its violent revolution. All this can be summed up as the “d’une servitude à un autre” argument.4

Martí’s version is much starker. As I first read it, I thought he was genuinely suggesting that the peasants took up arms to free themselves in the wake of the social disorder caused by the Carolingian takeover, which he sees as much more aggressive than, well, the sources do, albeit that they are all Frankish sources.5 In fact it’s not quite that amazing, but it’s not exactly canonical. In fact he suggests that the Visigothic kings’ measures were more effective in preserving slavery than Bonnassie thinks, mainly because they were in a powerful position and it seems hard to explain why they shouldn’t have been able to do this.5bis He argues that the Muslim takeover in any case arrested any decline, and froze Christian society’s development for some years, so where lords could hold their position they could continue to own slaves, even though slaves might find better lives working for the state on taken-over fiscal estates. And then he argues that because of resistance to the Carolingian takeover, and the Carolingian readiness to overturn social structures, converting the old fundi to benefices whose owners were often shuffled, and to support the establishment of immigrant and other armed yeoman households independently populating the frontier for its defence, this is the period in which it was possible for the slave system to break down, and that remaining slaves would have taken full advantage of the social breakdown to escape to new situations and become independents. By the time the charter evidence really gets going, in the late ninth or early tenth centuries, everyone can agree that slavery is so rarely seen that it seems basically to be domestic, and that there are an awful lot of free peasants. Martí is basically saying, this all happened in the century or so of effective Carolingian rule when our sources hardly exist and the Carolingians were prepared to endorse, establish and defend a new social order breaking out of the old one.

The Carolingian host on the march (though not on the March)

The Carolingian host on the march (though not on the March)

It’s difficult to argue with this, in as much as it’s possible in the absence of evidence to argue almost anything. And certainly others have argued that slavery persists much later than Bonnassie thought, Paul Freedman believing in the freedom effect of the frontier but thinking that there was probably always more dependence and slavery than the sources, which are obviously generated by landholders, would ever show, and Gaspar Feliu generally arguing that the lords never really lose that much control, and that it’s the way servitude is defined and exploited that changes, not its existence.6 All the same, the amount of peasant initiative and their ability to overcome a previously-rigid structure of oppression once the state behind it doesn’t want to hold it up, is very different in this account from Bonnassie’s, Freedman’s, Feliu’s or anyone’s really. It’s not fully explained here either, referring the reader to other works of his which are much harder to track down, though I’ll give it a go. How to get a grip on this and assess on what it is that my disinclination to accept it is based?

I don’t actually have a realised alternative argument, it must be said, except that on the whole I’m somewhere between Bonnassie and Feliu; I think that there probably was a lot of oppression of peasants by powerful people but on the whole, there was more smallholding liberty in the Carolingian period as documented (as opposed to the bit we can’t see) than before and after. I’ve explained why I think this elsewhere, but Martí’s argument isn’t on this continuum. I think that the differences in argument arise from differing accounts of two particular things, or at least my differences with this do. (This ignores our considerable difference over the extent to which the pre-Catalans were complicit in the Carolingian takeover; I think his version is militantly nationalist almost to the point of delusion, but it doesn’t actually alter his argument if it wasn’t like that.) The first of these is the definition of slavery, or servitude, and the second is the róle we give to the ‘public power’, the ‘state’ or whatever you want to call the government of the day.

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria d'Amer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Martí has taken a very stark definition of slavery, which could be nuanced a great deal. Me, I think there is a difference between free, serf and slave which must have been very hard to draw in individual cases, but which can be expressed (and is best seen) in land transfers: a free man sells the land, a serf is sold with it but not without it, and a slave can be sold with no land involved. What this doesn’t really cover is the tenant, whom Professor Feliu has rightly warned me was surely the most common person we never see. He could be free and still included in a land sale, though he might well consent or witness without being specified as such I suspect.7 But Martí again isn’t on that continuum, so I can leave that problem of mine aside, for the moment. Bonnassie argued that by the ninth century, there was really little visible difference between the slave, who lived with his family on a plot of land and was subject to various duties, renders and levies to his owner, and the poor peasant who technically owned some land but had had to commend himself to a lord, did labour for him, paid him various renders and so on. They worked in the same fields, worshipped in the same church, and generally lived the same lives. This distance was not unbridgeable, and even in the Visigothic period there are complicated laws about marriages that cross it.

The argument more or less ignores domestic slavery, which is obviously more oppressive, has various implications that still draw me a great deal of web-search interest, and which clearly continued, but since we are like good post-Marxists focussing on the means of production here, let those unfortunates step back into the shadows. Martí repeatedly argues for the Carolingian conversion of fundi, big-estate farms of the Ancient type, into benefices, which means that he is thinking in terms of concentrated agricultural slavery. It’s true that the Visigothic Law does seem to be trying to save that, and that the Muslim polity further south did take over big estates bodily and run them with only semi-free labour, and therefore might have done here too; that is, if fundi lasted till 718 the Muslims might have maintained them as fiscal estates and that slavery might therefore have continued there, though whether we’re really looking at barracks of men and women in chains fed from a communal kitchen like US plantations are sometimes imagined rather than outhoused families farming strips and notionally owned is more dubious; there really just isn’t evidence for the former after the Forum Iudicum, and that, being normative not documentary, is a world of interpretative difficulties. I would need to chase up the other papers of Martí’s before I knew why he thinks this is defensible, but at the moment it doesn’t seem right to me, and I prefer Bonnassie’s take on it.

King Sisebut of the Visigoths, as depicted on a gold tremiss of his reign (image from Wikimedia Commons)

King Sisebut of the Visigoths, as depicted on a gold tremiss of his reign (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Then there’s the fisc. Until the late-ninth century almost all the charters we have from Catalonia are either royal precepts or dispute settlements that royal missi or counts heard in Carolingian-style courts (albeit with Visigothic-style judges and saiones). One of these, from 832, is a case where a count tries (and fails) to claim a man as a servus fiscalis, which Martí claims as proof that the counts still held big estates of the fisc for which slave agriculture was appropriate. Wrapped up in this is the question: what happened to the lands which belonged to the Visigothic state? We know that it was separate from the land the kings themselves owned, because some chronicles of those kings criticise King Sisebut for mixing the two up.8 And my charters are full of land that is called fiscs, and occasional unspecified ‘benefices’ which seem to be held by officials.9 But are these two the same thing? Were the royal lands partly taken over by the Muslims, and then the walis of Barcelona, and then its counts for the Carolingian kings? Or is it just that all abandoned land is swallowed up into the fisc during the Carolingian takeover? Could the title to its supposed slave cultivators have been maintained through all that in either case? Martí says yes, until the Carolingians turn up at least; Bonnassie said it was gone before they arrived. (Feliu says it hardly matters what you call it, there are big landowners who have tied dependants at all points.) The problems are made worse because we can’t assume that everything the later counts hold or dispose of is fiscal land, even though at times Bonnassie did; like the earlier kings, they have lands of their own.10 Here I don’t have an answer; I know I don’t think there was slave agriculture of any kind really, and that serfdom was as yet unformalised even if, especially in Barcelona county rather than Osona, there were big estates farmed as demesne which must have looked like serfdom did later once definitions were clearer. But as to how much there was a survival of public landholding that the Carolingians might have messed up, I couldn’t tell you. Boundaries are remembered that are that old; but that’s not the same thing as what dues whatever’s in them is supposed to pay and to whom, which is essentially what the difference is and breaks down when there is, for example, no king any more.11

I don’t seem to think the same things about these important building blocks of the argument about what happened between late Antiquity and the medieval period, what Chris Wickham has called ‘the Other Transition”, in Catalonia, as does Martí.12 He certainly knows more about it than I do, though whether that explains how he thinks of it is another question. I do wonder for example whether, since the different ways Gaspar Feliu and I seem to see things is at least partly a factor of the fact that I know Osona best and he knows Barcelona, where estates are bigger and seigneurial power larger, better, it may not be the case that Professor Martí, who is best centered in Girona, is seeing a regional situation in this old area that was never frontier that genuinely did differ from the two frontier counties.13 And I think there is some pretty basic difficulty with what Martí is proposing at the level of continuity, because it requires a very great deal of continuity through all the disturbances of the seven and eighth centuries, rebellion, secession, invasion and resistance, take-over and foreign occupation, which is then able to just collapse into severe and violent discontinuity as soon as the magic Carolingians turn up and take a more hands-off approach. I think the obvious period for discontinuity is during the Muslim occupation myself, when the supervision of the area by the state is basically military garrisons in a few places and the isolated places can now remake things their own way. But what mainly intrigues me about this is that from such quite fine differences over some important basics we can pile up deductions, conditioned by those different views, until we are so far apart that almost all we can do is throw things at each other’s preconceptions, because our two takes on the same evidence essentially don’t meet at several points.


1. Ramon Martí, “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cutura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Madrid 1999), pp. 59-63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451.

2. Most easily accessible in Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

3. Josep Maria Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització, Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), pp. 93-109; Salrach has since written what is probably a very important book precisely on this question, La formación del campesinado en el oriente antiguo y medieval: anàlisis de los cambios en las condiciones de trabajo desde la Roma clásica al feudalismo (Barcelona 1997), which I haven’t yet read; clearly time to fix that.

4. The phrase is Bonnassie’s, translated by Jean Birrell as “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism, pp. 288-313; rev. from orig. French as “D’une servitude à l’autre: les paysans du royaume” in R. Delort (ed.), La France de l’An Mil, Points-Histoires H130 (Paris 1990), pp. 125-141.

5. In particular, though the Royal Frankish Annals are plainly hiding some complexity when they baldly say that Girona handed itself over to Charlemagne in 785, the whole area between there and Urgell seems to be in Carolingian hands very soon after, and this just isn’t something a single campaign that isn’t even mentioned in the annals could conceivably have done. I just find the Catalan-cooperation version far easier to understand. Cite for the Annals in the previous post but one. Meanwhile, one of the first things that made me baulk at this paper was his adduction of the Hispanus John as evidence that the Barcelona area was one of lawless warbands at this time. John (or Juan, or Jean—what language do you use for a man who came from who knows where in Spain, fought around Barcelona before the place really spoke Catalan and settled in what’s now France?) is discussed in José Enrique Ruiz Domenec, “Un «pauper» rico en la Cataluña carolingia a fines del siglo VIII” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vol. 36 (Barcelona 1975-1976), pp. 5-14, and Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994), pp. 106-110; he was no peasant, but trailed round a small force of armed men who later became his dependants when he scored two big estates from Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. They were probably his dependants before that, too. The fact that he was out there in no way shows that there were peasant warbands on the rampage as the Carolingians arrived.

5bis. There is this basic problem here for anyone studying Visigothic Spain: how, if it was so strong, did it collapse? Or, if it was so weak, how did it survive so long and act so powerful? Peter Linehan points out people struggling with this in his History and the Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford 1993), but doesn’t have a solution, and no-one really does.

6. Paul Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-68; Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, and “Feudalisme: llibertat i servitud” in Miguel Barceló, Gaspar Feliu, A. Furió, M. Miquel & J. Sobrequés, El Feudalisme Comptat i Debatut. Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català (Valencia 2003), pp. 45-70. Professor Feliu kindly sent me offprints of both these papers, for which I thank him.

7. Feliu, “Pagesia catalana”; I’d reached some of the way along this path before I received that article, as can be seen in my “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 160-167.

8. Questions of the Visigothic fisc most recently discussed (I think) in Santiago Castellanos, “The Political Nature of Taxation in Visigothic Spain” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2004), pp. 201-228.

9. Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 188 & 194, mentions two of these apparently fiscal allotments; it’s hard to say what will make the final cut just now but as it currently stands two more are added in idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming).

10. Bonnassie made a table of alienations of the fisc by the counts of Barcelona in his La Catalogne du Milieu du Xe à la Fin du XIe Siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976) 2 vols, I pp. 145-148, but one of them was a sale of lands that the counts had only bought a few years previously and which had passed to the seller there from a village founder who had developed it (Jarrett, “Pathways”, p. 195 n. 166). If that was fisc, so was anything the counts owned in any way at all, and there needn’t be anything ancient about it.

11. On continuity of boundaries see Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, “Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn de l’any 1000″ in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 254-283, with English abstract pp. 285-286.

12. Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36; rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 7-42.

13. Jarrett, “Pathways”, is essentially centered on Osona and the Ripollès immediately to the north, though it also touches Urgell and Rulers and Ruled will make more of the latter evidence even as it spreads the range in Osona. Feliu’s key article on Barcelona, derived in turn from his thesis, is “El condado de Barcelona en los siglos IX y X: organización territorial y económico-social” in Cuadernos de Historia Económica de Cataluña Vol. 7 (Barcelona 1972), pp. 9-31. Martí’s works meanwhile include the definitive collection of the charter material from the Cathedral of Girona, Col·lecció Diplomàtica de la Seu de Girona (817-1100), Diplomataris 18 (Barcelona 1997), although it was still not he who published that material for the Catalunya Carolíngia series, which oddly never cites his edition. I imagine some disagreement behind this.

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5 responses to “Rustici ad libertatem! or, things I’d like to discuss with Ramon Martí

  1. A good post to return to blogging with. Perhaps when I get back into the academic year I’ll begin to feel like I can offer relevant commentary beyond appreciation on the medieval Catalonia posts. I think as someone with little knowledge of medieval Catalonia and not very far along the road of medieval academia, I enjoy your posts for their methodology and from having a interest in the themes you explore, especially authority and figuring out the relationships that make up that authority.

    Anyway, I’d comment more if I felt I had more to offer than appreciation, so just assume a similar comment below each post. I hope to have relevant comments on the specifics of posts in the future.

  2. I hope that these posts have something to say to most people who study medieval society, at least around the year 1000 and for a while either side, or else I’m boxing myself into a corner! But one of the points of studying Catalonia (aside from the scenery) is that there’s a sufficient bulk of documents here, over a wide area, that you can do some useful sampling on questions that affect the whole of medieval Europe, such as, here, the end of slavery and the beginning of serfdom. The problem then becomes one of working out whether Catalonia is `just weird’ or whether this does in fact give people working on, for example, Saxony, some useful perspective…

    But, your kind comments are appreciated, even if they seem to have sent me into a self-justification pitch…

  3. I think the answers are complicated by the fact that (to put it in our terms, which might not be the terms the people you are studying would put it) the rights and obligations of free peasant owners, free tenants, and serf or slave peasants would be inconsistent not only from place to place but from time period to time period. A serf in place A at time X might have duties so light that if he lived in place B at time y he would have been considered a free tenant; and in complement to that, the duties imposed on a free tenant in place C at time w would be heavy enough to have made him a serf in place D at time z. (This happened in England over the course of time–apparently free tenants in the early medieval period might find themselves serfs in the high medieval period, and then, thanks to the recognition of copyhold ownership, transformed back into free tenants, without any substantive changes in what they did or did not do for the local lord.)
    Also, in Spain the matter might be more complicated by the fact that the changes involved moving from Christian to Moslem and then back to Christian overlordship. A Moslem lord would view the matters involved through the lens of Islamic culture and law, and therefore make changes from the Visigothic period that may or may not have survived into the post-Moslem period.

  4. Oh, certainly, to everything you say. This is why we keep coming back to laws and so on, in search for some framework to which society might have at least referred, the way we use dictionaries to check our usage of language (even though that’s not what they’re designed to do, which makes the parallel quite apt). Alas, it’s just not simple. But we keep figuring anyway.

  5. Pingback: The handwriting of an emperor – maybe | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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