More royal charters (“I told you so”) and frontier settlement in Aragón

Donation by King Alfonso I 'the Battler' of Aragón to the cathedral of Tudela, 1123 (Tudela was conquered in 1119)

Donation by King Alfonso I 'the Battler' of Aragón to the cathedral of Tudela, 1123 (Tudela was conquered in 1119)

I’ve just zipped through a Kalamazoo paper from 1990-something by one William Stalls, and find further confirmation of this idea that needs to get through, that royal charters don’t show policy as much as demand.1 His example was Alfonso the Battler, King of Aragón (1104-34), who seems, contrary to what Stalls tells us is accepted wisdom, to have taken his own sweet time about settling the frontier that he recaptured on the River Ebro. In observing that areas that were freshly conquered seem to preserve charters only from a period of eight or nine years later and sometimes even later than that, Stalls points out:

This evidence suggests that the purpose of cartas pueblas and fueros, then, was to sanction settlers and their rights of settlement, even that not initiated by the crown. The carta puebla and fuero do not always demonstrate some overall royal policy of directing settlement…. More likely, the custom of the Aragonese was for the king to approve settlement, not to lead it. (p. 220)

The analogies of this with my own work are probably obvious, but mainly I’m firstly glad to see someone else saying this piece about royal documents, and secondly that it still apparently needed saying in his area too at that time. People: we give kings much too much work to have done. I don’t mean to suggest that their days were idle, Alfonso’s in particular clearly not, but it’s not as if no-one did anything in these areas without the royal say-so. Most of your life as a medieval settler you’d never have anything to do with the king. By ascribing all this initiative to the king we lift it off the shoulders of the people whose lives depended on these decisions, and to whom we should allow the credit of having taken them.

View of the Ebro Valley

View of the Ebro Valley

That said, Stalls does have one interpretation that rather sits at odds with what my work on frontiers has led me to expect. Looking at one part of the Ebro Valley, he notes a clutch of charters from 1124 when Alfonso was actually in the area that seem to be trying to sort out a local defence network pro confusionem et defensionem christianorum”.2 The area had been (re-)conquered between 1118 and 1124, and Stalls’s main point was that its defence and settlement clearly wasn’t Alfonso’s first concern. However, as he observes, “if Alfonso had already settled the Bajo Aragón, then why would he need to undertake the settlement of 1124? The most plausible explanation is that such efforts had been lacking” (p. 223). That’s weird, to me, because the prevailing historiography is that though they might be under-populated, these areas were not generally unpeopled, that’s supposed to be just a topos of the narrative sources. But if settlement really was necessary here, was there no-one here really? It was a war-zone after all…

I suspect that the answer to this emerges later on, when he finishes with a rhetorical flourish about the city of Saragossa, asking how we would judge when it could be counted as being ‘repopulated’. Its Muslim population, forced to leave within a year by the terms of surrender (p. 220), had been pretty large. Stalls therefore asks, “If Muslim Zaragoza had a population of 25,000 persons, as some shcolars have estimated, then what is the number of Christians constituting its successful settlement? 5,000, 10,000, or 25,000?” I might ask, also, once tenure had been broken by the exodus, how many of the locals might take city plots on what would probably be good terms? They’d be Muslims, of course, but we probably wouldn’t hear from them. The Muslim population is very much in the background in this story of resettlement, called on to confirm boundaries sometimes (an instance given p. 223 & n. 20) but otherwise very much out of sight, out of mind. They were there though: Stalls reports:

In various lesser villages of the Ebro Christians were truly an oddity, a minority in numbers, although ruling the Muslim majority. For example, in some villages the only Christians to be found were the priest, notary and tavern keeper, while the rest of the inhabitants were Muslim, or, later, Morisco. (Pp. 224-225.)

Makes me ask about that 1124 settlement, if there was a population there already, they’d largely be Muslim, wouldn’t they? So whom did the settler Christians need defending against, again? All kinds of stuff about interaction to be teased out here, but for the minute I very much suspect that the clash between the ‘populated frontier’ view of the historiography I know and Stalls’s necessity of settlement is to be explained by the ‘dark matter’ of the non-Christian population…


1. William C. Stalls, “The Relationship between Conquest and Settlement on the Aragonese Frontier of Alfonso I” in Larry J. Simon (ed.), Iberia and the Mediterranean World of the Middle Ages. Studies in Honor of Robert I. Burns S. J., volume I: proceedings from Kalamazoo (Leiden 1995), pp. 216-231.

2. Ibid., p. 222, the quote in n. 15 citing José Angel Lema Pueyo (ed.), Coleccioón diplomática de Alfonso I de Aragón y Pamplona (1104-34) (San Sebastián 1990), no. 134.

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2 responses to “More royal charters (“I told you so”) and frontier settlement in Aragón

  1. Pingback: The unbearable emptiness of being post-Roman: Aragonese depopulation and the rest of the field (Feudal Transformations XII) « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Building states on the Iberian frontier, II: clearing the land | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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