Feudal Transformations XV: proving a negative with power relations in Catalonia

Will you permit me one another post dancing round the supposed feudal transformation? You will? So kind, I’ll try and make it interesting by including, as well as the duelling historians, good old Unifred Amat, the much-beloved castellan of previous posts, as well as the inevitable Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. Let’s first set up some background. As Chris Wickham teaches us, there are several ways one can read the word `feudal’ when you’re actually doing scholarship on this period: there’s the grand-scale Marc Bloch whole-society sense, in which feudalism is the defining ethic that pervades social conduct and organisation, as espoused these days by Poly and Bournazel; there’s the Marxist sense, in which it is an economic organisation in which production is controlled by the producers but a ruling class extracts surplus from the producing class in order to maintain their social and economic dominance, as opposed to various other forms I won’t discuss here, as espoused, well, mainly by Chris really; and there is a more restricted sense about the organisation of power, in which the resources for military power are farmed out to lesser lords by greater ones in exchange for the lesser lords doing various services to the greater. This can also be called `feudo-vassalitic’, which is a horrible word but avoids confusion with the other two senses, something that has otherwise happened a great deal leading for several scholars to argue for an end to the use of the term `feudal’ at all, since what happens is that people use evidence for one sense about another and so on and so on.1 (Like matriliny and matriarchy.) So here I am talking solely about the third, feudo-vassalitic, sense. Obviously there is some cross-over: a society where power is organised solely via military bonds of service is probably not going to have a capitalist economic set-up, because that would allow other means of power organisation to operate and would make a paid army far more effective and less dangerous to those in power. (There are probably exceptions, but stay with me.) Likewise such a society is likely to preach ethics of loyal service and heroism that get into the literature and help pass those ethics out more generally, and so on. This is kind of the Bloch argument by the back door, however, and I don’t want to go there with this post (not least because it took him a two-volume book). I just want to talk about organising military service in frontier Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

By, say, 1040, it was very simple how this was done here: a great lord, like the count, bestowed a certain property, usually a castle but potentially, at the very bottom of the scale, just a salary, on a lesser character, and that lesser character swore to return it on demand, not to deny the count use of or access to the castle, and generally not to prejudice his interests in any way. The obligations were almost always negative here, not to do things, rather than to actually do things, though the obligation to turn up with troops on demand is usually there. This comes out in undated oath documents that read like this:

I, Amat son of the woman Ermengarda, swear that from this hour in future I will be faithful to you, Elisabeth, countess, without fraud or evil intent and without any deception and without your trickery, just as a faithful man ought to be to his lord, as I know myself, by direct faith. And I the above-written Amat will not do you, the already-said Elisabeth, out of the New Castle of Barcelona that I hold, not I, [any] men or man, women or woman, by my counsel nor by my cunning, and through whatever means you shall ask it of me, by your yourself or by your messengers or messenger, I will put you in power over it without your trickery. And if there should be man or men, woman or women, who take from you, Elisabeth, the already-said castle or do you out of it, I Amat already-said will have neither [common] end nor truce nor society with them or with him or with them or her until you shall have the already-said castle returned; and just as much will I be your helper in this cause until it be returned, I will not do you any harm over it, but just as it is written above, thus I will carry it out in correct faith. Just as it is written above, so I will hold it and attend to it. By God and these relics of the saints.2

I freely admit that I give that in full solely because I need it for the Feudal Transformation course next year, but you get the idea. The bits I’ve thrown into bold were in the vernacular in the original, these documents containing the earliest written Catalan there is.3 So okay, there’s that. Now there’s an argument against the whole idea that Western European society goes through terrible spasms around the year 1000 (or, ya know, whenever) that runs that instead the documentary record does so, and starts recording things that have been going on for a long time already that we previously didn’t see because the documents were formulaic, and recorded Roman-derived ideals not actual practice.4 Leaving aside the obvious issue that if the documents are changing the demand for them must also be changing, implying changes in the constitution of society that are probably quite substantial, it is also possible to attack this idea in more direct ways by proving that the documents do respond to change.5 And then it’s possible just to haul up counter-examples where what seem to be contemporary details over the organisation of power are thrashed out in a completely different way, and that’s where I’m going here. So, Unifred Amat, right?

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Unifred was son of a major frontier nobleman called Sal·la, the kind of independent who doesn’t need a title and who owned all over the counties of Osona and Manresa, putting up castles, clearing lands, funding settlers and founding a monastery, which is just as well as otherwise I doubt we’d have any of the documents that tell us about this stuff. He is, in any case, the sort of person whom a scribe can have called “egregious prince” and it not immediately be assumed by scholars that the document was a forgery.6 Because he divided this importance between his sons, none of them are as irrepressible, but Sal·la also appears to have got them to take service with or hold lands from Count Borrell II, something that he himself did not do. I’ve never understood why he did this; times had presumably changed. In any case, one result was that in 951 Borrell was prevailed upon to give Unifred a substantial whack of land at Buc, on the Riu d’Or in Manresa. The document of this was unusually sonorous in phrasing, cursing any infringers with the recipient’s sins and a portion in Hell with Judas, which is unusual for non-ecclesiastical properties.7 I can’t explain that either, but I can tell you what happened next, or what is recorded anyway, which is that on the same day with most of the same people watching Unifred sold that same property straight on to one Guifré for 200 solidi.8 Obviously that put Guifré in his debt, but the only expression of a relation of subjection here is between Unifred and Borrell: Unifred was Borrell’s fidelis, whereas there’s no link specified between Guifré and anyone. So what was going on here? I see four possibilities:

  1. Unifred is hard up for cash and effectively mortgages a gift from the count to provide it. Guifré gets the land, Unifred the money, Borrell gets to push his old chief magnate’s family just a little bit further into subjection. Obvious problem: why doesn’t Unifred just ask for the money himself? Borrell may have more land than cash, but this is not a big amount for Borrell.9
  2. Guifré is a frontier settler, wanting a new project, and Unifred is his local lord; Unifred doesn’t have spare land so gets some from the count. Problem: why does Unifred do this? Guifré must be subject to him in some way that is not stated for this to work.
  3. the classic feudal answer: Unifred wishes to repay Guifré for various services or to enrol him for future ones (effectively enfeoffing him with land) and thus prevails upon his own lord to grant the land and then sells it. Guifré gets the land under terms of service that we don’t have, possibly entirely oral given the vernacular’s use in such oaths later, Unifred thus gets a client and the money, Borrell gets, well, nothing. Obvious problems: Borrell gets nothing while Unifred becomes more important, and then there is the money: Guifré pays through the nose for this land, can he really also be a feudal dependant? With that kind of spare money, why be dependent at all, or at least, why not get better terms than that?
  4. even more complex: Guifré is Unifred’s follower in some way or other and they wish, or Unifred wishes, to arrange a relationship of subjection for land in a quasi-feudo-vassalitic style for which as yet the documents do not exist; Unifred gets the land from Borrell and gives the money to Guifré so that Guifré has a counter-gift to make which expresses his obligation in some way; that is, the money is a token for the service that Unifred was really receiving. Advantage: pacifies Barthélemy. Problems: involves assuming that almost all the documents are misrepresenting things and that we know better. In particular, why use a sale formula that explicitly says that Guifré has paid all his dues for the land (“nichil de isto precio ad me comparatore remansit et est manifestum“)? A donation formula would have been more suitable; there are plenty of documents out there that do contain donations with conditions, using phrases like “in tale racione videlicet ut…” and then setting a rent or whatever.10 So the documents could have done this better, if this is what’s going on, and the money is still very hard to explain.

At the end of this, I at least am clear in my mind that this is not a feudal agreement. A fifth way of reading it is that a client of Borrell’s is here being set up with a local lord, or that Borrell is increasing his trusted castellan’s personal army to help him hold the frontier zone down; Borrell was keen on ensuring that sort of thing, ideally without paying for it himself.11 In that case, the initiative might have been the count’s, which would have its echoes in genuinely feudo-vassalitic documents but which is not here being arranged feudally. If the initiative was Guifré’s, however, then his terms were presumably advantageous to him; he wanted the land and was willing to pay. Why he approached Unifred is harder to say, but Unifred’s family was certainly important. If the initiative was Unifred’s, it makes slightly more sense, but one would expect the terms of subjection to be more explicit. It must be said that Borrell often did this, selling land to his men for large sums, but they were usually holding from him on other terms elsewhere beforehand.12 Maybe that’s the case here too and Unifred had already set up Guifré in this area and now wanted to let him do more; it’s odd that we don’t have the document but arguments from silence never hold much water round here. But it’s the money, the money that messes up any simple feudal equivalence here; Guifré obviously had means, he could have just bought land from someone else.

Buc is now known as Castellnou de Bages

On the other hand, it’s the gift from Borrell that messes up a simple sale hypothesis. Unifred was demonstrating a connection to the count here, and that implies patronage. But if it was straight feudalism, he’d have no need to do that; the need to demonstrate patronage implies competition with other possible patrons. And that gives agency to Guifré; presumably, he could choose from whom to get his land. (I mean, presumably he could have approached the count himself!) So in fine, I think what we have here is Borrell choosing to reinforce Unifred’s status as local domnus (not that that term is used), which might also explain the solemn curse and so on, and Unifred apparently needing comital help to hold on to that status when a wealthy local chooses to test this. I don’t see anything here to indicate that that local need have wound up as Unifred’s vassal, or that Unifred wound up with anything more than 200 solidi. If that was the aim of the game, this was a very strange way to organise it and, although much better ones would be available later, rather better ones were also available now.
Because of the implied competition for clients, however, it seems more likely to me that the local climate of lordship itself was not fully formed here, rather than that the means of record for it hadn’t yet been invented. I see here Carolingian, Matthew-Innes-style patronage, where the centre chooses to endorse one of a number of possible local interests who need that endorsement to achieve local dominance.13 We seem to be a long way here from the world of the convenientiae, and that’s in political as well as documentary terms. So there is still, for me, a transformation to explain here, and probably will be for a while.


1. It’s probably as well to give these references again I suppose: Chris sets out the three ideal types in “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51; opposition to the whole idea mounted classically by Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and more thoroughly and crossly by Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994). Bloch: M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1949), transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (New York City 1961); Poly & Bournazel, Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, La mutation féodale, Xe-XIIe siècles (Paris 1981), transl. Caroline Higgit as The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (New York City 1983), 2nd edn. in French 1991.

2. Here I’ve used F. Miquel Rosell (ed.), Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva en la Archivo de la Corona de Aragón (Madrid 1945), 2 vols, I. doc. no. 418 of between 1039 and 1049; this must be reprinted in Gaspar Feliu & Josep María Salrach (eds), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 19-21 (Barcelona 1998), but I didn’t have time to order that up as well. If you want the Latin/Catalan, I can provide. For more on this kind of document you can see the very excellent Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001), though it doesn’t entirely supplant Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona Nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557.

3. J. Bastardas, “El català vers l’any 1000″ in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 495-513 with French & Provencal résumés & English abstract p. 514.

4. This argument is of course forever associated with the name Dominique Barthélemy, who propounded it in “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, later expanded into La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Paris 1997) with the addition of other reprinted articles, the whole question reprised again in his L’An mil et la Paix de Dieu : la France chrétienne et féodale, 980-1060 (Paris 1999); in English, his thinking can be accessed in idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; Barthélemy, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein & rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein, Debating the Middle Ages, pp. 134-147 and now Barthélemy, The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Ithaca 2009).

5. The best counter-attacks so far mounted (of course) by Pierre Bonnassie, firstly in “Sur la genèse de la féodalité catalane : nouvelles approches” in Feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, pp. 569-606, and idem, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

6. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 144-151.

7. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 678. Like most of the documents relating to Sal·la and sons, this one only survives as a typescript copy of an original that someone took away for `safe-keeping’ during the Spanish Civil War. I live in hope that this cache will some day turn up. There is also ibid. no. 679, which does survive in the original and appears to be a variant copy of 678 by a different scribe allotting slightly different terms to the grant. I can't work out any way to make this part of solving the puzzle I deal with here, rather than just another complication, so I leave it aside in the argument.

8. Ibid., doc. no. 680.

9. Michel Zimmermann would have us believe that Borrell and his father were extremely short of money, which is why they kept selling castles (“La rôle de la frontière dans la formation de Catalogne (IX-XIIème siècle)” in 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 at pp.17-18), but for me at least the way that Borrell managed his resources doesn’t fit thus; he frequently gave stuff away, as here, which you might think he could have demanded payment for, and it’s not clear to me why his expenses should have been much higher than his forebears, who certainly went to war more often than he did. I don’t mean to say he didn’t want to keep those expenses down (see n. 11 below!) but that isn’t the same thing, necessarily.

10. If you’ve already got Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, out and in front of you by this point (as I’m sure you all have) you can find such a donation there as doc. no. 700, where a priest called Esperandéu gives a church to the cathedral at Sant Pere de Vic, “in tale racione, videlicet, ut” he gets the revenues from the estate for his life and he also gets to choose the next priest, who will be similarly funded by those revenues, and that priest the next one and so on, though all these priests will at least have to come from the cathedral chapter. Is this simony? I actually can’t work it out…

11. So, witness Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Diplomatari del monestir de Tavèrnoles (segles IX-XIII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 12 (Montserrat 1995), pp. 7-414, doc. no. 23 where Borrell gladly passes on to the eponymous monastery a frontier civitas and fortress that he has apparently been garrisoning with standing troops at his own expense, turning it into into a monastic development zone. This is, I think, the only clue we have that he did this and it also contains a fabulous lengthy description of what he expects that development to look like, so it’s well worth a look. In fact I should make it into a ‘From the Sources’ post.

12. The most obvious example is the family of the previous post, the castellans of Gurb, where Ansulf was Vicar of Sant Llorenç already when Borrell gave him a whack of land in Gurb but who then bought a church nearby from the count for a swingeing amount of gold (discussion and references Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 116-117) but he is far from the only example (more and general discussion ibid. pp. 151-154).

13. Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), more or less passim really.

12 responses to “Feudal Transformations XV: proving a negative with power relations in Catalonia

  1. When you described the case of Borell, Unifred and Guifre, the immediate parallel that sprang to my mind was Carolingian gifts to monasteries, where X (often a ruler) gives land to Y who then donates it onto Monastery Z, rather than X donating directly to Z. The aim being that Y, the intermediary, gets to share in the spiritual benefit of a gift without actually having to give anything himself.

    Start by assuming (and I presume it’s a reasonable assumption to make, but I think it should be made explicit) that the value of the land is 200 solidi (because if the land is worth more or less, that immediately alters the power dynamic involved). Then this looks like a gift by Borell to Unifred that also makes Guifre feel grateful both to Borell and Unifred, and thus gets more gratitude for the same amount of comital largesse, which is always handy.

    As for this dealing a blow to the idea of feudo-vassalic relations, I think it deals a blow only to a particular form of ‘classic’ feudalism, in which every man has one lord and one lord only, AND this lord-man relationship is a lifetime commitment, AND the ‘man of my man is my man’, that is that a man is bound not only to his lord, but also to his lord’s superior (so that Borell already effectively controls Guifre, and doesn’t need his goodwill). If you relax any of those ‘feudal pyramid’ conditions, then such competition for clients becomes a sensible strategy.

    And just to go back to the castle oath document and be pernickety: do any of these oaths specifically say that the property/castle etc is revocable if the man doesn’t keep faith? That seems to me the key theoretical aspect of feudalism – the giving of conditional gifts, which are rescindable for poor performance – as opposed to an earlier tradition of a man swearing obedience to a lord, who may at some point reward him with movables or a permanent grant of land.

    • All good points! In reverse order, yes, some of these oaths do specify reversion; I picked one that was unusually short, partly because of that and partly because it was to the countess alone, which is unusual though not unparalleled.

      Secondly, Catalan feudalism can get very very complicated and plurifocal, with lords at several levels, and one of the ways that it comes out of the civil war mess of the 1040s-50s is by the count managing to reimpose himself above all the others, albeit still by oaths and agreements rather than the old-style public jurisdiction. Eventually something called `solid’ homage emerges which behaves more like the ideal you describe, but we can’t agree how much more. However, if you were right about this pair of documents here fitting into a feudo-vassalitic model (apart from there being no recorded oath or conditions of service! which I think is the point) then it’s rather strange, don’t you think, to have the two patrons who are supposedly competing actually arranging things between them? And, furthermore, Guifré only being put into a relationship in any obvious way with one of them? Though I grant you that that is an argument from silence since if there were also a document to the count it would probably have gone up in flames in 985.

      Be all that as it may, the problem for me still remains the money. If this is a feudal agreement, what is that money doing? The point with your monastic examples and revised scenario, which I can entirely see the similarity with certainly, is that everything involved is donated. That makes gratitude and service much easier to imagine, but the money, the money involves, surely, a paying-off of such obligations. Even if the land was worth more—and we don’t know, it doesn’t obviously recur as a unit in the documents I know about and even if it did the area was beginning to undergo inflation at this time—it still seems to me that, unless Unifred was very short of cash he would rather have had the debt and service than someone escaping from under his seigneurial shadow almost as soon as he loomed. So, how do you fit in the money? I warn you though that even if you can do this, I still think the previous points make the difference between the two ways of doing things in these snapshots require a transformative explanation. At least for now…

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  3. highlyeccentric

    I do enjoy these posts, Jon. :) Thanks.

    [*makes note to tell students to read you if they wish to avoid being Historically Daft]

    • I’ve seen it done, but I’m still always at a loss when people claim to enjoy arguing about feudalism. There is at least plenty of argument. Point the students at the famous diagram and they should be right :-)

      • highlyeccentric

        I don’t enjoy arguing about feudalism or even properly understand it, but I enjoy watching *other* people get themselves in knots over the concept. (I had fun the other day telling a Late Antique scholar that proto-feudalism couldn’t possibly exist because feudalism doesn’t exist anymore…)

        That is a fantastic diagram. *saves forever*

        • Nice one with the LA scholar; Chris talks of a similar problem with the early Middle Ages in his Framing of Early Medieval Europe in which the early medievalists use the Roman slave system as a starting point for the history of slavery in their (our) period, not realising that the Romanists now think agricultural slavery (as opposed to domestic slavery) pretty much died out in the second century. The lesson from this: select your friends and fellow-drinkers from a wide range of periods and disciplines :-)

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