The fisc: cheap at the price?

I hear tell there are some historians reading. Can I ask you all something? This is a question connected to something I suggested to the estimable Another Damned Medievalist I might do at a future Kalamazoo, concerning the succession of the Carolingians to the royal, or even state, lands, or fisc (whence `fiscal’ as in policy, you see), of the Visigothic kings in Catalonia. Fiscal land is a weird thing in early medieval historiography. (The question’s coming in a minute. Bear with me.) We see the kings dole it out, apparently, and we worry over people making fiscal rights private property (the Visigoths even worried about the king doing this), even though we also worry about `public’ and `private’ rights as categories, which ought to make rubbish of the argument.1 One of the reasons almost any royal family is supposed to fail is that they run out of fisc to give their followers, but we hardly ever check on how much fisc there was, or even read the work of those who have tried.2

This bothers me particularly because the word means something slightly different in my area, as I’ve mentioned before: when I see the term fiscus it usually means an allotment of fiscal land temporarily let out to an official in return for his service to the count. That’s why my lot mean by it till, ooh, 980 at least, and I can point you at a couple of castles whose fisc, that is their supporting allowance of land, is documentarily testified.3 Now this doesn’t stop the same arguments happening: Pierre Bonnassie, the late doyen of my field, reckoned that the counts of Barcelona were badly short of fiscal land after a while because of how much they gave away to buy followers. He saw the fisc as an ancient allotment, ultimately held over from the Visigoths, that the counts were squandering, and as I say this is quite an old model.4 The trouble is when you look at it that, as so often happens to use at our thousand-year distance, the word was not being used as Bonnassie expected it. One particular piece of what Bonnassie calls fiscal land (mainly I think because it has a castle in it) that the counts gave away, Bonnassie didn’t realise the priest to whom they’re selling it had given it to the count immediately beforehand, apparently so as to buy it back with a new tax-free status. He’d got it from someone else and it was named after a fourth person, so it’s not obviously ancient government land. And if that could be a fisc so could anything.5 Now the counts of Barcelona in the late tenth century were, almost certainly, rich men.6 They could avoid being short of land to give away merely by buying more of it, and in that example we see Borrell II doing just that.

So my question is, do we ever see the kings do this, buy land to replenish the fisc? I haven’t read a great many royal charters, compared to the private sort, and it’s hard to know why this sort of charter might be kept except that, if ordinary private sales are, things with kings in ought to stand a better chance, but I don’t recall coming across a king buying land. And yet surely they must have done. It would have been so much simpler than coming up with obscure and tangled power arguments about how it was theirs really, and continual dispossessions is no way to run a stable kingdom, as history tells us indeed. But I just can’t think of any cases. Anybody else got any? And may I borrow them, if so?

P. S. This has no connection to anything above but, I just discovered that there is Occitan Wikipedia and I am well struck with this idea and had to mention it.


1. If I try and properly reference this post the notes will be longer than the content and it’ll take eight days to write. If you’re actually interested, then let me point you at Santiago Castellanos, “The Political Nature of Taxation in Visigothic Spain” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2004), pp. 201-228, which is actually a welcome attempt to ask something new about how the fisc worked, and is a good place to start. People have been going to town on the old school for quite a while (see Jane Martindale, “The Kingdom of Aquitaine and the ‘Dissolution of the Carolingian Fisc’” in Francia Vol. 11 (Sigmaringen 1983), pp. 131-192) but it won’t quite die.

2. I admit that even I haven’t read the obvious starting point, Wolfgang Metz’s Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), but I will. My picture of work on the theme since then is that there have been a few local studies but nothing so all-encompassing: anybody feel like telling me differently? (Gosh, Regesta Imperii‘s OPAC is good for this sort of question!)

3. Gurb, so documented in Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1122, and Sant Esteve de Centelles, so documented in Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Biblioteca de Reserva, Pergamins C (Sant Pere de Casserres) 2.

4. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), I pp. 145-148, with a stern table of the counts’ fiscal alienations.

5. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic, segles IX i X, ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs, doc. nos 542, 551 & 552 (all these also in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV but I don’t have those numbers handy; these ones are referenced in it). Bonnassie noted Vic 552 (Catalogne, I p. 146), in which Count Ramon Borrell sold some fiscal land at Vilatorta to a priest Sunifred under a special tax exemption for 100 solidi, but did not note Vic 551, in which Sunifred gave the same land to the count. Sunifred bought the land the first time in Vic 539, when it was called alodes Cesarii, the alod of Cesari, but it wasn’t someone called Cesari selling it, so it had probably been a clearance effort a generation or two before. If you like this example you may want to cite Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London forthcoming) where I’m using it in what’s currently Chapter 3. Oh for page proofs…

6. I know that somewhere I have read the idea, which I think is wrong, that the counts of Barcelona sold so many of their castles because they were desperately short of cash. I just can’t find it. I can find a paper in which I don’t reference this claim which suggests that I couldn’t find it last time I looked, either. I think it must be Josep María Salrach but I don’t know where. I’ll find it, but not in the time this post is brewing. Sorry.

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9 responses to “The fisc: cheap at the price?

  1. Sorry, not that kind of historian. :-)

  2. I think there are cases in the Annales Fuldensis where lands are reclaimed (or at least offices are, and I think they are usually the sort that come with lands), and then handed out to more loyal followers…

    • There’s certainly a lot of recycling of honours (presumably plus land), often associated with rebels. From the St Bertin Annals (AB), there’s AB 834 when Louis the Pious (re)grants many of the rebels their benefices.

      But there’s also confiscation and regranting without specific mention of rebellion: by Charles the Bald in AB 867 and 868 (Gerald of Bourges and the sons of Robert the Strong and Ranulf), for example, and Charlemagne in DK 205 takes land away from Godebert ‘pro incestuosa vel alia inlicita opera’. So I suspect there’s enough legitimate reasons for taking land away from magnates that a crafty king doesn’t need actually to buy some. What he does need to ensure, of course, is that he chooses and picks off individual targets carefully, and doesn’t manage to alienate the whole of the magnate class.

      • But why should he risk the alienation at all? (We should have picked a different word…) There are obviously times when politics dictate that you need to dispossess an opponent or one of his allies, yes, but if all you need is more land, and you can, for example, raise vast numbers of silver pennies in toltes et raficae and minting and goodness knows what else, why not just buy it and leave nobody upset? That’s what I don’t get.

        • Because, to go back to one of Tim Reuter’s classic points, buying and selling land isn’t a purely economic transaction: it creates a social relationship between the buyer and the seller. So who can the king buy land from and who can sell to him? The church can’t sell land to him, because it suggests that church land is alienable, which is never a good thing to let kings know. I suspect that magnates are going to be reluctant to sell any of their land, because their prestige is so tied up with extensive landholding. So if the king buys land from anyone, it’s likely to be lesser nobles or even peasants, and that would make him connected to those kind of people, which would be deeply undesirable. Whereas presumably Borell II doesn’t have the same kind of standards (or the social gulf isn’t so wide between him and the vendor).

          • I suppose that this is the answer, the difference in the social gulf I mean. However, I question the idea that the king should avoid connections with `that sort of’ people. He grants them land, after all, and he uses them as vassi dominici. So that would imply that it’s the nature of the transaction, the king should give not grab, and so on. There’s something in here about why the Counts of Barcelona aren’t kings that I need to tease out. Thankyou for assistance…

  3. Pingback: Ihilo al seu fill Senderedo. | Cathalaunia. La Catalunya abans de Catalunya

  4. I come back to this ancient thread because of finally having read something asking more or less the same questions, that being Josiane Barbier’s, “Le fisc au royaume franc: quelques jalons pour une reflexion sur l’état au haut moyen âge” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 271-285. She notes, as does Magistra above, that the fisc is mainly gathered in different ways, and while she notes that there were sales to the kings, they were, “attestés incidemment, mais de telle manière que leur banalité doit être admise tout au long de la période considérée.” That’s us told! But any is enough to place in question the idea that this just couldn’t be done. More to assess here, I think. In order to get further references I suppose I would have to read her thesis, but I did already know I needed to do that…

    Oh, and, that reference I couldn’t find at the end there, five years ago? I subsequently did, and it is, who else, Michel Zimmermann, “La rôle de la frontière dans la formation de Catalogne (IX-XIIème siècle)” in J. A. Fernández Otal, E. Mainé Burguete, M L. Rodrigo Estevan (edd.), Las Sociedades de Frontera en la España Medieval. Aragón en la Edad Media: sesiones de trabajo, II seminario de historia medieval (Zaragoza 1993), pp. 7-29. So now you can see what you think, but I still think that Borrell was not financially impoverished, though he may have been overstretched in terms of followers… More to do there too, even now.

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