That Bonnassie story in full, or, psst! wanna buy a tower?

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

I said I would tell you Pierre Bonnassie’s story that I used, with caution, in the Oxford seminar paper just gone, and so I will. It’s about a man called Hisnabert and a tower scam. No, not a pyramid scam: read on. Here’s how Bonnassie put it, in my own rough translation.1 He was writing of the wild lands beyond the organised frontier, and said:

This extreme march was really a terra incognita, except to a few specialists. How can one not, in dealing with this, cite the enormous mistake committed in 1012 by the monks of Sant Cugat concerning their territory of Calders? At that date, a certain Hisnabert, pretending to be descended from a very noble line, presented himself to them and claimed that he had, with great effort and at great expense, installed his household, his peasants and livestock there, cleared the territory there and built a tower fifteen cubits in height. The monks, taking him at his word, saw in him ‘an envoy of God and of Saint Cucuphat’ and conceded the domain to him under very advantageous conditions. It would only be five years later, in 1017, that they discovered the imposture (nothing had been done and Calders was in the same state ‘of desert and of solitude’ as in the past!) and they delayed no longer in getting the donation anulled by the judges of the count, Ramon Borrell.

Zing! How could this come about, you may ask, and there the answer is a bit more complex. Sant Cugat is one of the older monasteries in Catalonia: it later claimed to have been founded by Charlemagne (of course) but at the very least it was operational by the 850s, and in 878 it obtained a precept from King Louis II, the Stammerer as he is known to us, confirming all its properties.2 This was, shall we say, aimed at the future, in as much as it included a huge swathe of frontier land at that point well beyond any organised control.3 But, by the approach of the year 1000 that had changed; continuous creeping frontier clearance had advanced the line of organised settlement well into these “extreme furthest ultimate marches” and Sant Cugat was now facing the possibility of being able to claim its rights in these lands, for which reason in 982 it had had them freshly royally confirmed so as to deal with any possibility of people claiming reversion under the Visigothic thirty-year rule and so on.4 The territory was still far from them and difficult to control, of course, so this was why someone like Hisnabert would have seemed so heaven-sent to them; a powerful man who could perhaps reduce some of it to order and get them something out of it. (And if he couldn’t, of course, well, nothing much lost, something that Bonnassie’s version chooses not to consider.)

A tower in Calders, Barcelona

A tower in Calders (probably not the right one but not far off the right height)

But is this really what was happening? If so, it seems very odd that we get to hear about it. That the story was written down once in the grant to Hisnabert is probably explicable: this was an unusual situation and probably demurring voices were raised at the monastery, so the story functions here as a kind of insurance, saying why this odd thing made sense to do. But why do we have it? Once the old grant had been proved worthless, would you keep the original? and would you then, as Sant Cugat did, copy it up later into your cartulary? Okay, maybe their copying endeavour was that attention-less and their archiving that shoddy, but it’s a problem, enough of one to make the original text worth hunting down, and happily for us all, Josep Rius Serra’s edition of Sant Cugat’s cartulary is online. So, what does that say? Well, this is a long document, by the should-be-legendary super-scribe, Bonhom.5 It begins with an account of the capture of Barcelona by Louis the Pious that brought these lands into royal control, the fact that they then remained unused,

because of the incursion and persistent siege by a multitude of the depraved and most savage Ishmaelite race with their troops which raised battles and raids without intermission against the fortifications and castles of the Christians which were founded in the marches of the aforesaid Barcelona

all of which made it a bit unsafe, if you see what he means, and so for more than thirty years, do you see what he did there (and Bonhom is a judge, his own copy of the Visigothic law survives, we know he knew what that implied) it was left for pasturing beasts and nothing more.6 He then sets out the bounds of the property, and there’s quite a lot. But, he adds, after many years of this ceaseless plunder and demolition by the Muslims, Ramon Borrell and his brother Count Ermengol (the First of Urgell) raided through to Córdoba itself, guided by the Hand of God, and:

they put all the Saracens and Berbers to flight, with the help of God, and the king of the Muslims [Mucelemiticum], who had fled to them, they placed in the royal seat at Córdoba. Then God gave tranquillity unto the Christians, and they went out and walked everywhere around the aforesaid Marches [presumably thereby setting boundaries...] and they built many fortifications and castles which had once been destroyed by the aforesaid power of the pagans.

And, you see, this is why I don’t mind so much that there are no chronicles from this area so early, because that’s most of one for 1010 right there. There’s even truth behind the Biblical triumphalism: it seems that a number of frontier fortresses were demolished as part of the peace terms between Borrell II (because he had to come into this somewhere) and his brother Miró III and the Caliph al-Hakam II after he came to power in 961, so these places would have been vacant for most people’s memory by this time.7 And this is the context into which Hisnabert arrives, after a full page of the printed edition gone on historical preamble. Bonhom goes on:

Meanwhile there came forth a certain noble man, Hisnabert, of the nobler sort of origin, who predestined by God and Saint Cucuphat had taken over much of the aforesaid place and sought it from us to live in, he having come there with all his household… [and the rest as in Bonnassie]. For this place, heavy experience tells, was placed in great terror and trembling, so that anyone who should live there from day to day would not escape being himself often subject to danger on account of his or others’ possessions or money. On account of which it pleased us [Abbot Guitard of Sant Cugat, in whose voice the document is phrased] and all the congregation of monks subject to the aforesaid martyr, with the consent of the lord Count Ramon, his wife Countess Ermessenda acquiescing, Borrell Bishop of Osona assenting, Pere Bishop of Girona and Ermengol Bishop of Urgell agreeing, we unanimously with good heart and prompt will give and concede the aforesaid town and its church of Santa Oliva with the money or offerings of first fruits or other gifts of the faithful, and of these tithes we dedicate two whole parts [presumably of three]… to you the aforesaid Hisnabert.

There then follows a long precision of the terms under which he holds, which are basically that his family may inherit it but that neither he nor they may bestow this property or its proceeds anywhere other than Sant Cugat, that Sant Cugat will still be able to pasture their animals there and they retain rights of access and can remove him if necessary. And the abbot and fifteen monks sign along with six untitled laymen and the count and countess. So okay, let me just pull out some things there:

  1. If Hisnabert is actually a fraudster, it’s not just the monks and abbot he’s fooling here; he’s also fooled the count and countess and every bishop in Catalonia, some of whom know this area as only frontier landgrabbers could (that’s Saint Ermengol to you);8
  2. the specification of the property’s bounds calls it Santa Oliva, “as it was called in antiquity”; I don’t quite know if they’re anticipating him restoring the church, they don’t say so explicitly, but they do appear to anticipate it rendering tithe (or rather money: denaria not decima), which in turn implies a reasonable population base and it’s hard not to imagine the church is already up and running;
  3. it seems to be implied that Sant Cugat’s contact with this area has been, and will remain, running herds of animals through it; at that rate, they ought to be passing through the area probably twice a year if not more, and should also have known there was no tower if tower there wasn’t, not just far quicker than five years later but even before this was being granted, which is also implied by the gravis experientia of its vulnerability that they report; it all reads as if this was familiar territory to them, even if still wild.

All of which then makes me want to look at the five-years-later charter, also available online.9 And, lo, it is a bit complicated, but basically what happens here is that a woman called Adelaide comes to court at Barcelona, on behalf of her infant son by her late husband Guillem del Castell Sant Martí, whose father Galí had cleared some frontier territory at Calders, and she says Sant Cugat are moving in on her land and what’s the count going to do about it? So the abbot rocks up with his papal privilege and royal precepts and so forth and sets them all down, but the array of judges present, including Ponç Bonfill Marc, Son of Ervigi Marc the Wonder Judge, look them over and find there’s nothing in them covering this property. Red faces for Sant Cugat’s men! But it’s no better for Adelaide, who also can’t prove any right to the land. “On which account,” intones young Ponç, “it was judged in the same court to be better and more true that this land should be princely land just like the other spaces of waste land,” or to put it another way, the count gets to swipe it. It seems to be at this point that the abbot produced the grant to Hisnabert, or Isimbert as Ponç prefers to spell it, which is the first point at which it becomes clear we’re talking about the same property or properties, but the judges decided that since Sant Cugat had held no right to the land, they could not rightfully have granted it to Hisnabert. The count, however, so careless about his property, decided that probably Sant Cugat should have it after all, now, and granted it there anyway, aww, whereafter,

since it is necessary to build castles and fortifications in the waste marches and in solitary places against the attacks of the pagans, and since Isimbert himself did not develop this land, which instead remains a waste and solitude, the above-noted Guitard, abbot, and his monastic brothers were advised and ordered, on the instruction of Countess Ermessenda and by her son Count Berengar, and by the men written below, that they should seek out such a man as would build and develop this waste land in the service of God and Sant Cugat, just as they should require, and they give it to that man by this precarial charter of donation for management together.

By this stage I’ve already lost track of just whom Hisnabert even would have ripped off: Galí and son, the monks, the count? But what is clear is that no-one is here saying he wasn’t a nobleman or had lied or whatever, or that there was no tower. That would have been at Santa Oliva, presumably; the land here is at Calders, and the problem seems to be that he hadn’t developed that, in other words, that his tenure had resulted in insufficient value added. The count, or rather the countess—this case, despite its date of 1017, seems to have dragged on past Roman Borrell’s death in 1018, take note—weren’t happy with that, but the implication seems pretty strong that if the monastery had not been told to do otherwise, they’d have given the lands straight back into Hisnabert’s hands. Instead, the document as we have it has the whole hearing copied out merely as a precursor to the new grant to one Bonet Bernat. And then, right at the end, in a fit of afterthought worthy of his learned father, Ponç adds, along with his own signature and that of the other judges, this codocil:

we the judges who edited this, and by the ordination of our competence gave a term to the waste land at Torre, the tower that Isimbert made in the lands of Sant Cugat by the ordination of the above-noted donation that Abbot Guitard made to that Isimbert, and we reserved all the lands brought under cultivation, and all the buildings and workings that are in the circuit of the already-said tower to that term. The rest however, we ordain just as is written here. Signed Ponç, also known as Bonfill, cleric and judge, who have written these things….

And that, I think, changes everything. Because look, a tower! It was there all along! And cleared lands and buildings and stuff! Hisnabert had done his stuff! Instead, what seems to have happened is that Adelaide’s suit, far from the only one that Sant Cugat’s efforts to make its privileges and precepts count in these lands kicked off, had started an enquiry no-one wanted, not even her at the end, leading to Ramon Borrell being able to assert fiscal control of the area and thus retaining the ability to direct it, via Sant Cugat. That this is so, even though the terms on which it was given back to the monastery grant them full right, is clear from Ermessenda’s later order to change its manager; Bonet Bernat was presumably one of her people she wanted in instead. Or, indeed, maybe Hisnabert just hadn’t done enough. But either way, Sant Cugat weren’t, to their credit, about to turf him and his familia out on their collective ear; his tower was quietly secured as its own term by the judges, quite possibly once the countess (not a woman it was wise to cross) had left, and left “the rest… just as is written here”. So for once, a happy ending, except for Adelaide and her little son Bernat (wait, Bernat? but no, there are probably a dozen Bernats here, it probably isn’t the son being put in charge alas) at least.

Charter of Sant Cugat del Vallès

A charter of Sant Cugat (not the right one, but probably about the right height...)

Those of you who were at the paper will maybe notice that this isn’t quite how I told the story there: instead, I suggested that the monastery had dispossessed Hisnabert for some reason, and had kept the charter to be able to prove their own title to it and the terms under which they could do that, whereas actually it seems that they probably kept it because they still had him there on the land. I would have to confess that I seem to have relied too heavily on notes and didn’t myself then notice the codocil in the second document, which does rather alter the picture. Still, I take some small solace in the fact that apparently Bonnassie didn’t either and he had it in print for thirty-five years before anyone spotted a problem…


1. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975, 1976), I p. 127.

2. R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolíngis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica II & III (Barcelona 1926-1952), Sant Cugat del Vallès I.

3. Not that this area was completely anarchic! I have got so fed up of waiting for my paper on this to come out that it is very tempting just to stick the proof PDF on the web somewhere, but for now, I still hope that you will one day be able to see: J. 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), pp. 83-109, now heading for its fourth third anniversary in process.

4. On the thirty-year rule you can at least see my work, in this case, Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342 at pp. 325-327.

5. The document is edited as J. Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés (Barcelona 1946), doc. no. 449.

6. On Bonhom, meanwhile, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92, where his copy of the Forum Iudicum is briefly described and where references to it are given.

7. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona. False metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming), pp. 1-42 at pp. 14-15 with references to the Catalan scholarship.

8. On whom see Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16.

9. Rius, Cartulario II, doc. no. 464. This one’s brilliant.

About these ads

3 responses to “That Bonnassie story in full, or, psst! wanna buy a tower?

  1. Pingback: Seminary LXIX: me telling stories « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: From the sources VII: to demilitarise and populate « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Managing without an archive in c. 1000 Barcelona | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s