Cunning observations in recent reading, and a reconnection to the subject

It is being hard to find time or will to put much up here, partly because of imminent Leeds (a day after circulating the paper is no time to discover 23 extra charters of which you’ve taken no account, though thankfully they nuance and deepen my argument rather than wrecking it, I know now) and partly because of other attacks on my self-confidence that I won’t burden you all with. However, it seems that whatever I feel about my own writing just now, that of others remains interesting, and I wanted to just mention a couple of things I recently read that reflect and sharpen my own historical enquiry, one new and one old.

Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in <a href="http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/illuman/12_07.html">the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos</a>; from Wikimedia Commons

Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos; from Wikimedia Commons

First up, an excellent article by Cristina Jular Pérez-Alfonso, given a classy Englishing by Simon Doubleday that makes readable and intelligent what could so easily have been jargon-laden and impenetrable, in an equally excellent volume I should have finished reading long ago.1 Approaches to medieval power so often concentrate on only one side of it, the ruler and his or her government, or his opposition, or the down-trodden pheasants peasants. Sometimes the opposition is the government of course, and very occasionally it’s the peasants, but what we don’t often get is all three treated distinctly. Jular tries to provide this balance, king and his ideology and how it was propagated, officials and their practice, their reinforcement or lack of it from the king and their own local standing, and the communities they ruled and their voice in how they were governed, often substantial. She is looking at thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Castile specifically but she references the legends of William Tell and Robin Hood and generally you can use this stuff. And the article gives me a moment of unsettlement when she asks whether the officials represented a class and whether they recognised each other as peers.2 I really ought to have paid a bit more attention to that. I will in future.

(My initial sense is that actually, the people who call themselves vicars in my area come from a variety of initial backgrounds and don’t even necessarily engage with the counts to get their titles even though the titles imply delegation. I think I say this quite well, but whether the different groups of vicars, those born to wide-ranging property and influence, those raised up by the count for service and those who had used local status and mixed patronage to climb a level (could I even separate those two, except in terms of character? Would I want to? Character is powerful…) saw each other as equals or rivals or both, I don’t really touch.3 This would be worth doing to revive a paper I once started researching but gave up as something that had already been done. Next time someone asks me for a paper on high-status men this is what I should offer. Anyway.)

The church of Santa Coloma de Queralt, from a local postcard

The church of Santa Coloma de Queralt, from a local postcard

Then a tiny little volume in a Catalan series of tiny little volumes called Episodis de la Història, which like a lot of Catalan probably doesn’t need translating for the English reader. These little books (24mo, about 60 pp, card covers) take one theme and give a in-depth narrative account of it, and they’re very neat. There’s one about the abbesses of Sant Joan de Ripoll, and there’s one, which I mean here, about the Catalan reconquest of the no-man’s land between them and the Muslim city states of Lleida and Tortosa.4 At times it’s a fairly dry list of mentions of castles which the author, Josep Iglesies, was using to map the slow creep forward of the frontier, but the first few chapters where he tries to characterise the frontier areas before the conquest rolled over them is exactly the sort of writing that got me into this field and has inspired some of my own work.5 Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that it matches my own picture well: work based on this work formed my picture, after all. But what I mainly like is the acerbic cynicism with which he greets the romantic picture of the frontier pioneers and their supposed throwing back of Saracen dominion. A quick burst of my notes will give you the idea:

La frontera incial a Garbí

[3] For Guifré I Manresa, Terrassa (maybe) and Barça face off against Tortosa and Lleida [4]; Tortosa protected by monastery at Segarra and Pallars/Urgell, Barça by the Penedès, Òdena and Calaf; before that however, Barça more genuinely a frontier city. Leading out, the Via Augusta [5] to Tarragona and Tortosa and the ancient road via Òdena and Segarra to Lleida. Roads imply a trade that we don’t see, but the castles and defences also provide the first seeds of repop. Valleys and ridges good ground for both [6], surely exploited. Prob. populations there already of course, fleeing settlers of C8th or even older; it is, as said, good ground. [7] Is also however the main zone of military contact: Sunyer, notably, fortifies it with e. g. Olèrdola [†SANT CUGAT] where is clearly still some pop., [8] and Queralt, conquered by Guifré I according to Borrell. Space between these bastions undocumented but actual settlement goes beyond [9] (CC2 SANT CUGAT II), though concessions here left unexploited b/of war and banditry. Line is insecure, [10] and Queralt area least safe of all. Settlement presumably fills in behind but slowly. Land clearance [11] and buildings by pioneers must go on, fugitives safe till become profitable [cynic!], or bandits part-time; equivalents on other side of no-man’s land too, enslavement t/fore a constant threat, but otherwise unusually free. Lords do establish people, however, B. of Barça most clearly at Montnell and Santa Coloma [12] [*BARCA], whose franchise terms may be typical (also in being second try!)

Hopefully my apparatus there isn’t too impenetrable. I’ve linked up where I’ve talked about people or places there mentioned on the blog before. Mainly I love the sense of realism with which he speculates; settlement must go on but it could easily go wrong, the grand concessions of frontier franchises fail to hide the danger of the place, and you’re freer than almost anywhere here, but that freedom includes freedom from protection against violent military enslavement by your peers across the terra de ningú. Partly I love this perspective because it doesn’t forget the ‘nasty brutish and short’ side of medieval frontier life; but also leaves room for the achievement, and the space for initiative, the hope of building something of one’s own and making a life for oneself, that for some people at least explains why on earth people came to these dangerous places at all, as well as remembering that some people’s families never left.6 It’s pretty rich for ten pages.

This post may seem a bit more like therapy than would be ideal, but it does help me to remember why I’m interested in this stuff. Hopefully you are too.


1. C. Jular Pérez-Alfonso, “The King’s Face on the Territory: Royal Officers, Discourse and Legitimating Practices in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Castile” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: Political Discourses and Forms of Legitimation in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 107-137.

2. Ibid., p. 121: “Let us focus the discussion for a moment on the higher officers. Do they generate their own discourse, or are they permanently dependent of [sic] that of the monarchy?”

3. When I say I don’t, I mean in the forthcoming book. The title is again under debate so I won’t cite it just yet. Instead I shall put this token in: “before 1000″, so that I can easily find it to retrospectively update again.

4. Josep Iglesies, La Reconquesta a les Valls d’Anoia i Gaià, Episodis de la Història 67 (Barcelona 1963). The other is Esteve Albert, Les Abadesses de Sant Joan, Episodis de la Història 69 (Barcelona 1968).

5. The work that specifically inspired me was Pierre Bonnassie’s La Catalogne du milieu du IXe siècle à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une sociètè (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 106-110, and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96, and the work that it has inspired is Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming), which, yes, I have been promising for eighteen months already but which is, honestly, forthcoming, but no longer in my hands to affect.

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One response to “Cunning observations in recent reading, and a reconnection to the subject

  1. That first work sounds very interesting. Good question about how officials perceive *themselves* – whether as a homogenous group (class) or not.

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