Rehabilitating Don Claudio

Don Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz as a young scholar

Don Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz as a young scholar

I have written here before about the particular difficulty presented to the non-Spaniard trying to get a grip on the historiography of early medieval Spain by the existence of the voluminous œuvre of Professor Don Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz. But I’m going to do so again. Let me just remind you: he was from early on a promising analyst of early medieval texts, especially charters which hardly anyone was using at that time; but that time was immediately before the Spanish Civil War, in which Dr Sánchez-Albornoz found himself on the wrong side. Emigrating therefore to Argentina, he worked for another forty-odd years without sight of the original texts and still managed to found a major journal (Cuadernos de Historia de España) and publish a huge number of articles and books, which more or less set a mould for the Spanish historiography of the Middle Ages by emphasising what it was that was special about Spain, and Spanish feudalism in particular.1 Unfortunately he did all this with an absolute poison pen for his opponents, a tame journal in which to publish his attacks, and a low tolerance for disagreement, as well as a strong tendency to migrate his theories from tentative suggestions well-hedged with qualifications through ‘accepted theories’ to ‘things that I have proven’ the longer they remained unopposed. Some time towards the end of this, he became President of the Republic in Exile, in which capacity he outlived his hated Franco (than whom, for many, he was no less nationalist or objectionable) and eventually returned to Spain in 1983, a few years before his eventual death. He received the first parts of a six-volume Festschrift on his ninetieth birthday and there have been several other commemorative volumes since then.2 His legacy looms large, and it is prickly.

However, his domination of the field more or less ended with the alternative gospel preached in the seventies by Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil, about which you have also heard much more here than you ever really wanted I suspect. Their ultra-socio-economical and deeply continuist version of Spain is slowly now disappearing from vogue in the shadow of a newly-developing ultra-European and acknowledgedly diverse Spain which will, I suspect, also be rebranded in the next generation. And of course different practitioners align themselves with different parts of this development and those in the new waves regard the old ones as superseded even though the arguments rumble on behind them, without necessarily having been settled. And obviously things can fall through that gap.

Don Claudio about to hold forth

Don Claudio about to hold forth

One of those things, argues an article by Juan José Larrea I read in the Bonnassie Festschrift, is that Sánchez-Albornoz was actually a really skilled historian.3 Granted, he had huge interpretative paradigms founded on very little except prejudice, which have made him very awkward to engage with for the last twenty years, but when he took a text apart, he saw what was in it and explained it clearly and with copious demonstration, and indeed due caution. (Although he would then refer to his interpretation as proven and definitive for the rest of his life, of course.) Larrea’s example is based on a small-scale peasant uprising at a Galician village called, in the text, villa Matanza, which appears to be in la Sequenda between Astorga and Braga. Here, in 1046, in apparent protest at being given into the lordship of the bishop of Astorga by the king, the community killed a royal judicial officer. Larrea points out that the king did not enforce anything like the full weight of the (Visigiothic) law, but merely ordered the leaders expropriated and imprisoned and (of course) enforced the transfer. Larrea notes that this is a sign of the times because two centuries before, the zone the place was in had actually been settled under a guarantee of liberty from King Ordoño I. And Sánchez-Albornoz was the first to really draw attention to this, and none of his opponents have been able to get round that:

Car, en fait, Sánchez Albornoz ne fut pas seulement le chantre de la liberté des pionniers castillans. Il s’intéressa presque autant à la perte de la liberté qu’à son éclosion. Le resultat en fut une monographie volumineuse, rigoureuse et documentée.14 Encore qu’écrit dans un style qui n’est plus, si l’on nous permet ce propos banal, à la mode chez les médiévistes, « Homines mandationis y iuniores » est un texte passionant qui put – et peut encore – ouvrir tout un champ de recherche. Mais « Homines mandationis… » eut la disgrâce de paraître à un mauvais moment pour son auteur, car les premiers jalons de renouveau historiographique des années 1970-1980 venaient d’être posés par J.A. García de Cortázar et par A. Barbero et M. Vigil. Non seulement les nouveaux courants frappèrent d’anathème des notions comme celles de pouvoir public et d’impôt15, mais Sánchez-Albornoz était censé représenter au plus haut degré le passé institutionaliste avec lequel le discours rénovateur voulait rompre radicalement. On ne trouvera ni la référence bibliographique, ni les thèses de « Homines mandationis… » dans les synthèses importantes des dernières travaux considérés décisifs dans l’historiographie récente qui, tout en adressant des critiques acérées à Sánchez Albornoz, se voient obligés de reprendre des idées forces de « Homines mandationis… » quelques pages plus tard16. Pareil paradoxe trahit à nos yeux les limites des alternatives qui on été proposées.


14 C. Sánchez Albornoz, « Homines mandationis y iuniores », Cuadernos de Historia de España, t.53-54, 1971, p. 7-235. Aussi dans: Viejos y nuevos [estudios de las Instituciones medievales españolas, Madrid], t. 1, 21976, p. 365-577.
15 Seuls des médiévistes galiciens ont utilisé dans les dernières années de telles notions sans état d’âme.
16 Par exemple, J. M. Mínguez, « Ruptura social e implantación del feudalismo en el Noroeste peninsular (siglos VIII-X) », Studia Historica, t. 3, no 2, 1985, p. 8 et 29-31.

I guess that Larrea, of whose work I could easily become a fan at this rate, is basically saying “don’t throw the baby out with the revisionist bathwater”, though I admit that it does read more as if he’s saying that the revisionists are all charlatans who haven’t read the sources properly and that the old nationalist should be rehabilitated.4 But what I take away from it is that it might, despite the evil frame of mind in which some of it was written, still be all right to enjoy reading Don Claudio’s writing because of the skill with which he read his material, years before he wrote most of what he did about it. I shall never like him, and some of his current wave of defenders are not people with whom I want to be associated, but ignoring him is no good, as Larrea again says: both he and his supplanters were clever men (and in a few cases the supplanters clever women, though that has been much more a thing of the generation trained by his supplanters) and we can use it all.

Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz returning to Spain for the second and last time in 1983

Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz returning to Spain for the second and last time in 1983


1. Some English-language guidance to the development of this particular consensus is given in the opening pages of Richard Fletcher’s “Reconquest and Crusade in Spain c.1050-1150″ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 37 (London 1987), pp. 31-47, reprinted in Thomas Madden (ed.), The Crusades: essential readings (Oxford 2004), pp. 51-68. There are about twenty articles from elsewhere about how important Sánchez-Albornoz’s work was and you can hit up Regesta Imperii’s OPAC for them same as I did, they’re too many to list. Sánchez-Albornoz’s key works in this stream (among many others which are documented here) would, I guess, be En torno a los orígenes del feudalismo (Mendoza 1942, repr. Buenos Aires 1974-1979), 3 vols; España, un enigma histórico (Buenos Aires 1957, 10th edn. Barcelona 1985), 2 vols; Despoblación y repoblación en el Valle del Duero (Buenos Aires 1966); Orígenes de la nación española. Estudios críticos sobre la Historia del reino de Asturias (Oviedo 1972-1975, repr. Madrid 1975), 3 vols, abridged most recently (Gijon 1989); and Viejos y nuevos estudios sobre las instituciones medievales españolas (Madrid 1976-1980, repr. 1983), 3 vols. I should make clear straight away that I’ve read far far less of his stuff than all this, though. He also got to make a final statement in the name of his old master in as much as he wrote one of the volumes of the Historia de España Menéndez Pidal, El reino asturleonés (722-1037). Sociedad, Economía, Gobierno, Cultura y Vida, Historia de España Menéndez Pidal VII: la España Cristiana 1 (Madrid 1980). Say what you like about the man, he was never idle.

2. J. L. Romero (ed.), Homenaje al Profesor Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (Buenos Aires 1964); María del Carmen Carlé (ed.), Estudios en homenajes a Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz a sus noventa años, Anexos de Cuadernos de Historia de España (Buenos Aires 1983-1986, Avila 1990), 6 vols; Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada (ed.), Estudios en memoria del profesor D. Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, En la España medieval Vol. 5 (Madrid 1986), 2 vols; Reyna Pastor de Tognery (ed.), Sánchez Albornoz a debate: Homenaje de la Universidad de Valladolid con motivo de su centenario (Valladolid 1993); II Estudios de frontera. Actividad y vida en la frontera. En memoria de Don Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz. Alcalá la Real, 1997 (Jáen 1998); J. Pérez & M. Aduina (edd.), Les origines de la féodalité : hommage à Claudio Sánchez Albornoz. Actes du colloque international tenu à la Maison des Pays Ibériques les 22 et 23 octobre 1993 (Madrid 2000). Maybe we’ve now reached a stopping point but I wouldn’t like to bet on it.

3. J. J. Larrea, “Villa Matanza” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 223-228.

4. Ibid., pp. 227-228, quote p. 227.

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6 responses to “Rehabilitating Don Claudio

  1. Great post. I’m reminded tangentially of my unsurprise to see revisions of the Civil War start to appear in which it turns out that not everyone on the Republican side was a saint, and often enough quite the contrary.

    • Well, Don Claudio is a pretty good illustration of the complexity such characters could embody. But of course, because of the long aftermath of Francoism, it’s taken a very long time for the Spanish Civil War to stop being relevant. One could probably say similar things about the American South I guess, but I meet this less often, obviously.

    • Funny, when I wrote my comment I didn’t even think about the U.S. Civil War… nice catch. There are certainly strong parallels in the hagiography. The slavery thing made romanticized celebration of the losing side a little more dicey, but reframing the conflict in terms of States’ rights and resistance to government tyranny did the trick.

      • I’m afraid that once being called out by an earnest Bostonian for wearing a Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt—I loved the Dukes of Hazzard when I was a child—has left the indelible impression on me that that particular war isn’t quite over. And then I found this cartoon, which would appear to say it all. Now it springs to mind quite readily.

  2. Sin duda uno de los grandes de España.
    Y aunque su teoria del desierto estratégico del Duero hoy en dia está muy en entredicho sus aportaciones siguen siendo formidables.

    Un cordial saludo sr Jarrett y resto de intervinientes.

  3. Pingback: Iberia: your genes are riding up on one side « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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