In Marca Hispanica XVI: the actual research target

There was a conference, as you may have heard, and since then things have been unusually sociable in my life, so I’ve had less time to write blog for all the right reasons. That said, I am now really quite far behind with posts, so I’m going to try and squeeze things out faster for the summer. The first target obviously has to be my April trip to Catalonia, which we left on the way back from l’Esquerda with me demanding you all sing the praises of Imma Ollich. This must now continue, as you may remember that I’d met la Professora Ollich solely because of not having been able to get where I actually wanted to go. I explained this to her in the course of the next day’s conversation, and before I’d got much further it had been settled, to my grateful surprise, that she would take me, or rather get her research assistant, a quite wonderfully practical student of Iberian Celts, to drive us all out there. And so we did, early start so that as we approached the target area there was still mist over the Panta de Sau…

Mist over the Panta de Sau, Osona

It looks incredible, but it’s only looked that way for a short time, which was a continual problem to me with this trip. What you have there is a reservoir that was created in 1962 by damming further down the river, and there are two or three villages that Sant Pere de Casserres owned under that water, in drowned ruins. Mind you, the need for the reservoir is demonstrated by the fact that only a few years ago things got so dry in the area that one could go on foot into one of the drowned churches… (A fantastically graphic slideshow here.) It’s just that this looks timeless but actually the landscape my subject people had to work in was rather different. Anyway. We had two distinct aims in this trip, one for me to see the monastery, and one for Professora Ollich to look at some ruins that await proper study on the way, and this means lots of pictures—there are ninety in the directory from this trip, most of which I’ll spare you—so I will put the rest of the post behind a cut, with this taster to give you an idea of the kind of thing that lies beneath…

Sant Pere de Casserres viewed from the visitor centre

Sant Pere de Casserres viewed from the visitor centre

I was hoping to have a decent map of the layout of things here, but permissions have proved too expensive to obtain, so instead I will resort to Google – we are here:

Now, the monastery is that white spot at the very tip of this isthmus, and you can see the reservoir at the east. About halfway up the approach road to the monastery, however, things get suddenly interesting…

Western base of the western tower of the Muralla de Casserres

To the left...

Eastern base of the western tower of the Muralla de Casserres

... and to the right

So, what have we here? We have, it seems, two sides of the base of a tower built in opus spicatum and mortared stone, and this tower seems to be the end of a fairly substantial wall that runs on up the hill.

Muralla de Casserres

As far as the eye can see for trees

And, trust me, it would be hard to get past on the other side, not least because of the flying predators but mainly because of the slope.

Eagle over the Riu de Ter, seen from the Muralla de Casserres

Yes, that black cross over the Riu de Ter is another eagle. We were quite high up.

So, what have we here? Well, there was once a Castell de Casserres, in fact there may have been two.1 The thing is that we’re not quite sure where it was. It’s easy to say seeing these remains, “well, come on, duh, fortification, how many do you need?” but the problem is that there exist (or once existed) certain records that seem to suggest that the castle was on a site near the monastery, that is at the end of the peninsula. This is actually something that I deal with in the paper I’m writing about this place, and it’s complicated, so I’ll just say here that I think that is disputable, and also that that makes no sense as a place to put a castle; it’s lower than this position, which more or less chokes off the whole peninsula and is much more defensible as well as offering better visibility. There is also the issue that a castle on this peninsula was sacked in 1479 in the local equivalent of the Peasants’ Revolt, the Remences, and by then the monastery was on the site of the monastery, so that at least must have been a different structure, and probably this one here. Occam’s Razor suggests… But, obviously, we would like further evidence, and thus it’s frustrating that this structure has never been dug, or even surveyed. In 1905, when the tree coverage was apparently less dense, a chap called Josep Pericas did walk the full length of the wall, and according to him there is the ruins of another tower at its other end, at the equivalent height on the opposite side of the peninsula, and although his sketch shows no structure, he marked the apex as “Castell de Casserres”. He also noted that the locals called this apex “Torre dels Moros”, ‘tower of the Moors’ (and still do, allegedly), which occurs a lot here and usually turns out to mean ‘disused medieval structure’.2 So I really really want a LIDAR survey of this little area, but I’m not going to get it, money for archæology is very tight round here. This is despite the fact that ceramic evidence of early medieval settlement is quite literally falling out of the walls!

Ceramic remains of the Carolingian and medieval periods from the Muralla de Casserres

It's OK: she's an archæologist (large version linked beneath for those similar)

This was the fruit of about ten minutes just peering at the soil in the hillside by the road. Now, it is less obvious in the photo than it was where one could handle them but there are two fabrics here, a coarse thick grey ware that is most of what Professora Ollich is holding, and typified by those on her fingers and the central piece exactly edge-on to camera, and a thinner finer ware with more red in the mix shown in the two sherds at the top of the picture and that edge-on tucked under her thumb. These are earlier, eighth to ninth centuries, that is, potentially Carolingian, or so Professor Ollich said and no-one knows this stuff better than her (now).3 She has a big project planned about the Carolingian period in this area, this would interest me immensely and it may even be that a foreign scholar’s involvement, just as with the last weird Brit Prof. Ollich worked with, would help the funding bid, so, who knows what we may learn here? I will report anything that can be reported here. Oddly, none of this stuff was coming out of the soil close to the walls, but a few metres further down, just below a newer structure that is, I later read, associated with the castle destroyed in 1479, but the ceramics are obviously older than that. Professora Ollich suggested that they had probably washed down the hill from a structure higher up. Oh yeah, I want that LIDAR. But, enthralling though it was to handle new-found Carolingian-period artefacts and incredibly useful though it was to have all this to add to the jigsaw of the castle, this wasn’t actually what I was here for.

Sant Pere de Casserres and ruins of an outbuilding to its south

Sant Pere de Casserres and ruins of an outbuilding to its south

This is what I was here for, or at least, it’s what’s left of it. Sant Pere de Casserres is actually, and justly, famous, for being one the earliest, least altered, purely Romanesque structures in Catalonia, and while this is at least partly because the various twentieth-century restorations of the place took all the subsequent additions off, with a few tasteful exceptions by way of admitting that the place wasn’t quite mothballed immediately it was built, it is also still true. There’s nowhere quite like this in Catalonia and it’s been marvellously restored; but it was clearly always fantastic. Its long and tangled history you can get at, in English as well as Castilian or Catalan, via its excellent website (needs Flash), and I’ll just show you some pictures before talking about its place in the area and my exact angle on it.4

Visitor's entrance to Sant Pere de Casserres

Visitor's entrance and our driver

Light in the main nave of the abbey church of Sant Pere de Casserres

Light in the main nave of the abbey church

As I say, one or two bits remain from the later modifications. The cloister is the most obvious, as this half fell down in an earthquake of 1428. The Jesuit College of Bethlehem, who acquired the by-then-defunct priory in 1511, found it still down and therefore did a rough and ready restoration of the parts they needed most, two much less elegant but stronger brick-built wings of the cloister being the result. The whole thing was pretty much collapsed again when the twentieth-century restoration campaigns began but it was decided, partly because of the shortage of Romanesque material left in the ruins, and partly to reflect the long occupation of the Jesuits here, to leave this part of their work reflected in the restored structure. So now the cloister is in two halves, one Romanesque and one early modern. This works better than you might think.
Cloister of Sant Pere de Casserres

Cloister of Sant Pere de Casserres, Romanesque at left and sixteenth-century to the right

Of course, one of the reasons there was so little Romanesque ruination to work with was not just Jesuit clearing-up but the fact that, here as many other places, most of the good stuff was hoovered up in the 1920s and 1930s into the collections of the Museu Episcopal de Vic. This undoubtedly, again here as elsewhere, saved a lot of stuff that might otherwise have been looted or sold off, but once stuff has gone into the Museu it does not come out. So, there are five Romanesque capitals from that very cloister on display in the MEV and even though their original location was being restored, they were not available to go back there.5 So most of the capitals you see in the cloister were new build, recreated from the models of the ones in the Museu, although three more did come out of the cloister ruins in the restoration work. Also coming up were occasional fragments of painted fresco that show that the place was probably not as plain as it now appears, some of which have become almost iconic of the site.

Romanesque capitals from Sant Pere de Casserres in the Museu Episcopal de Vic

Romanesque capitals from Sant Pere de Casserres in the Museu Episcopal de Vic

Fragmentary eagle from the frescos of Sant Pere de Casserres

It's back to the eagles again, you see

The monastery spent quite a lot of its existence in horrible debt and under-staffed, but I’ve never been quite sure how as at its peak it owned really quite a lot of the surrounding area.

Map of the properties of Sant Pere de Casserres, in the abbey museum

Map of the properties of Sant Pere de Casserres, in the abbey museum

Aperture in the main apse of Sant Pere de Casserres onto the erstwhile sacristy where the Cos Sant was once kept

Aperture in the main apse of Sant Pere de Casserres onto the erstwhile sacristy where the Cos Sant was once kept

This seems to have led to a fairly serious impact in the area’s folklore. Firstly, and as we would expect, it was a cult centre, though with a rather dodgy cult, the Cos Sant or Holy Child. The legend behind this is that the place was founded because the viscountess who set it up gave birth to a child that spoke on his third day of existence, but only to say that he would soon die and when this happened they should place his body on the back of an ass and set it free to wander, and wherever it fell they should build a monastery. This is, as the early documents show, quite unfounded except in as much as a viscountess was involved, but for a long time the monks had the supposed body of the child on display, and it was still on location and venerable long after the place had ceased to be occupied by any more than shepherds. Photos exist and it is a very odd and extremely wrong-looking set of infant remains. Then, someone stole it in 1970; weirdly, it was returned anonymously to Antoni Pladevall, the house’s best-known historian, in 1991, and though it is now safe it is kept well away from the site, and is not available for viewing.6 The Cos Sant is however far from the most arcane thing in the abbey’s history. Witches were burnt here in the seventeenth century, and perhaps because of that, in the 1980s it was being used for black masses. There are also, however, or at least were, a whole shedload of folk stories about the monks, collected in an oral history project by the Grup de Recerca Folklòrica d’Osona in the 1990s, and they are not complimentary. For a start, they become in the popular version `Frares’, friars, and we all know from Chaucer what they’re like. A typically nasty story involves that window through which, before the body was stolen and the old sacristy that housed it knocked down in the restoration, one could view the Cos Sant. (Warning: if you are of a delicate or indeed tasteful disposition, you should skip the following paragraph Instead, here is some soothing scenery. Tune back in after the picture of the apse…)

The Riu de Ter towards Roda de Ter viewed from Sant Pere de Casserres

The Riu de Ter towards Roda de Ter viewed from Sant Pere de Casserres

So, the story tells that one prior, who was fonder of the local women than they of him, used to get betrothed girls to come up to see the Cos Sant to get its blessing for their marriage. He had a kind of snare arrangement behind the window that caught them round the necks when they put their head through, after which they were more or less at his mercy. The story goes on, however, for those that like awful come-uppances dealt out to their folkloric rapists, when a woman who’d been through this got engaged again and decided to do something. She brought up a young goat to the priory with her, and then when the prior invited her to look on the holy child, pretended not to understand. So he showed her where her head should go, whereupon she sprang the snare on him, cut one of the legs off the goat and stuffed it up his rear, and then got out of there. The prior’s cries eventually brought another friar, who found the trapped and ornamented prior and the mutilated animal and immediately got his fellows to come with the cry, “Come quick, come quick, the prior’s lambing! There’s one out and another on the way!” I guess this passes for humour in whatever era this story was first come up with, but it does show you how ugly the popular feeling towards the monastery must have been by then that it was preserved. It’s not the only one either, by a long chalk.7

South apse and altar of the abbey church of Sant Pere de Casserres

South apse and altar of the abbey church

All this said, though, and even though the monastery is so splendid, it’s also rather late for my work. The place was founded in 1006, probably, but the church wasn’t consecrated till 1053, and I usually stop paying attention after 1030.8 So, what I’m principally interested in is the church and community that were here when the monastery was founded, because there was a church of Sant Pere here prior (no pun intended) to the monastery. It has been wondered whether any of this is still detectable, and one suggestion has been that the southern nave of the abbey church, which isn’t quite on the same alignment as the rest of the building (although it’s very hard to find two parts of it that are, regular though it looks), and which as you can see from here seems to have some different stages of building and repair displayed in its stonework, might be it, that the apse especially and some of the south wall might be parts of the old church that was presumably left up as a place of worship until the last possible moment in the building of the new one.9 I think the arguments from the fabric are a bit hopeful: the north apse seems just as messy to me and the problems of repair after the earthquake of 1428, as well as anything else that might have needed fixing, seem to me to make it hard to say what happened here. I’d love it to be true, though, and one point in its favour is that the apse here does appear to be respected by the numerous burials that were found outside it.

Cemetery, outside and partly under the abbey church of Sant Pere de Casserres

Cemetery, outside and partly under the abbey church

These have been dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries, but as at Sant Pere de Roda, that’s only because that’s when we know there was a church here, and it’s worth remembering that radio-carbon on the very similar burials at l’Esquerda revealed that at least some were seventh- or eighth-century.10 I would compare this to Sant Andreu de Tona and other local burial stuff and suggest that we actually have a church here that was put up in a pre-existent burial ground, but I don’t really mind, as long as it’s clear—which it is, from the fact that the main apse overwrites the burials—that they belong to the community before the monastery. And you may remember that this is not the only thing that belongs to the community before the monastery that we still have cut in stone: we have some of their names

Altar stone from Sant Pere de Casserres, on display in the Museu Episcopal de Vic, MEV 4353

Altar stone from Sant Pere de Casserres, on display in the Museu Episcopal de Vic, MEV 4353

But as to how that fits with the current structure and the surviving charters, well, for that, you’ll have to wait for the paper…11 Meanwhile, I was driven back to Vic in good time and comfort and very pleased by the day’s learning, and also very grateful to María Àngel for the driving and Professora Ollich for the erudition and generosity, and so of course I remain; I’d have nothing new to tell you, or anywhere else, about this place without her.

1. Literature on the castle is scant: the only focused study is Jordi Vigué i Viñas, Antoni Pladevall i Font & Albert Benet i Clarà, “Castell de Casserres” in Jordi Vigué (ed.) Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 353-354, but there is also some consideration in Teresa Soldevila i García, Sant Pere de Casserres: història i llegenda, L’Entorn 35 (Vic 1998), pp. 19-31 and Antoni Pladevall i Font, Sant Pere de Casserres o la Presència de Cluny a Catalunya (Manlleu 2004), pp. 51-58, of which the last is perhaps the most useful. The following paragraph basically comes out of Pladevall and Soldevila, with my obvious divergences.

2. Pericas’s assertions were made in a manuscript note accompanied by a sketch, both reproduced together in Pladevall, Sant Pere de Casserres, p. 53. For the Torre dels Moros, see Xavier Rovira i Alemany, “Llegendes i narracions populars sobre Sant Pere de Casserres” in Soldevila, Sant Pere de Casserres, pp. 137-150 at pp. 148-150.

3. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda (Vic 1995), p. 117, has some pictures of the kind of vessels this stuff comes from.

4. Full details of its history you could obviously get from Soldevila, Sant Pere de Casserres, or Pladevall, Sant Pere de Casserres, the latter of which is lavishly illustrated and more deeply experienced with the architecture and archæology of the area but the former of which uses the charters and puts the monastery on a social context rather better. The Catalunya Romànica also has coverage, of course, but you need both Antoni Pladevall i Font, Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Xavier Barral i Altet, E. Bracons i Clapes, M. Gustà i Martorell, M. Hoja Cejudo, M. Gracià Salvà i Picó, A. Roig i Delofeu, Eduard Carbonell i Esteller, Jordi Vigué i Viñas & R. Rosell i Gibert, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Vigué, Catalunya Romànica II, pp. 354-391, and the update of Jeroni Pujades i Cavalleria, Carme Subiranas i Fàbregas, Pladevall & Adell, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XXVII: visió de sintesí, restauracions i noves troballes, bibliografía, índexs generals, ed. M. L. Ramos Martínez (Barcelona 1998), pp. 201-206.

5. This is covered best by Pujades, Subiranas, Pladevall & Adell, “Sant Pere de Casserres”, not least because all of them but Pladevall organised the restoration.

6. Pladevall naturally covers this in his Sant Pere de Casserres, but I don’t have access to those notes just now and so I refer to Soldevila, Sant Pere de Casserres, pp. 36-40. The relevant early documents are edited in Irene Llop (ed.), Col·lecció Diplomàtica de Sant Pere de Casserres, Diplomataris 44 (Barcelona 2009), online at as of 24 April 2011, doc nos 61-63 & 65-67.

7. Rovira, “Llegendes”, pp. 144-145.

8. The 1006 foundation date comes from a gift of the monastery site (as it would become) to Viscountess Ermetruit in 1006 by Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell (Llop, Diplomatari, doc. no. 61), but that doesn’t mean they started building then—in fact there are good reasons to suppose no community existed here for a good while, as I will show in my paper on the place. The consecration is mentioned as imminent ibid., doc. no. 189, but no act of it is actually preserved as far as I know.

9. Pladevall, Sant Pere de Casserres, p. 36.

10. There has been no radio-carbon dating done on the 77 bodies from Casserres. On them see either Pujades, Subiranas, Pladevall & Adell, “Sant Pere de Casserres”, pp. 202-204 or J. Pujades & C. Subiranas, “La intervenció arqueològica” in Soldevila, Sant Pere de Casserres, pp. 131-135 at pp. 133-134.

11. An earlier version of the paper was given under the title, “How to Take Over an Archive: Sant Pere de Casserres and its Community” in the session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic: Pushing the Boundaries’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 14th July 2009, that is, prior to Llop’s edition of the documents.

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19 responses to “In Marca Hispanica XVI: the actual research target

  1. highlyeccentric

    Huh. That was really interesting! The prior-bride-goat story is… really quite spectacular. Why a GOAT, of all things? I wonder if it’s a collision of a pre-existing joke about priors and goats, and a particularly nasty reputation at that abbey. (I’m disinclined to believe there was that specific custom, with prospective brides and traps and all. But something screwy probably was going on, it almost always is.)

    • Hey! Someone read it! I was beginning to wonder.

      I think that the fact that there really was (still is) a window through which people put their head to see the Cos Sant may well have been all the local scandal-mongers, inspired perchance by the posterior aspect of some young devotee while she did so, needed, but something else that hangs round it is an echo of the Lord’s First Night, don’t you think? Local lord takes advantage of brides-to-be on systematic but illegitimate basis… I’d be inclined to put it down to archetypes plus architecture up as far as the goat. The goat, however, I sincerely hope is pure malicious creativity.

  2. highlyeccentric

    The power of procrastination…

    I was under the impression that the Lord’s First Night thing was a furphy. I noticed the similarity in the story, but I’d be inclined to think that tells us more about *what kind of rape people find most threatening to social stability* (ie, of virgins, and especially of virgins who ought to belong to someone else) than about actual practices here or elsewhere. Do we know of anywhere where a lord can be reliably said to have enforced this (never legit, frequently cited) First Night practice?* I’m thinking it sounds to me like an accusation you level against people you don’t like – possibly even people who do have a nasty rape culture problem – because it sounds roooolly bad.

    The goat sounds like an existing joke that’s been tacked on. But WHERE FROM?


    • (I had to look furphy up, and now I’m not sure I believe its supposed derivation, which would at least be beautifully self-referential.)

      No, there is no good evidence for the Lord’s First Night, it is at best a threatened evil custom from which brides had to be redeemed, at which rate it’s hard to separate from any other marriage payment. But the cliché itself is out there, in numerous stories (The Marriage of Figaro to name but the best), and so might have got used. It would make the story’s genesis more early modern than medieval, but I think that most of the tales here probably are; I should have said that, in fact. One of them at least involves the departure of the `friars’, and the fact that it’s `frares’ and not `monges’ itself shows that the place was defunct by the time the stories were fully-formed. The Cos Sant, however, remained on site till it was stolen and people would still go all the way to see it (by boat across the then-smaller river) so that archetype was always around.

      • highlyeccentric

        That is beautifully recursive! Sorry for going idiomatic on you. Allow me to look that up…

        The OED backs up Wiki’s etymology and provides a citation from the ANZAC Book, 1916, which gives the same etymology. As far as I can tell, the ANZAC Book was written and illustrated by soldiers, which means it’s highly likely to be a false etymology.

        There’s also a CJ Dennis citation from 1916, so i think the association with WWI, probably the Gallipoli campaign, is solid – it’s just a matter of whether the term sprang up from the water carts, or sprang up on its own and was promptly associated with water carts.

        The Macquarie gives the same etymology but no citations, which is annoying. What kind of national dictionary doesn’t give quotations of words in use, I ask you?

  3. Could not find anything specific about this legend, but do found something a little bit more historical. It seems that maybe the son of the founding viscountess got something back from Jerusalem: The Holy Land Ampulla of Sant Pere de Casserres – a Liturgical and Art-Historical interpretation. Surely Ms. Ollich will have something more focused to say about-it.

    • I don’t know if Prof. Ollich will but Sr. Pladevall already has, the artefact is covered in his 2004 book, albeit briefly, and also gets some lines in the Catalunya Romànica. It’s an interesting little thing! But it doesn’t, as far as I know, feature in any of the stories nor do the stories give it context. I think it was found in a context that suggests it was placed within the altar at consecration, so it could hardly have been a well-known piece of the church treasure…

  4. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XVII: hidden temples and empty palaces « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. So beautiful. I’d like to spend more time with these posts than I do.

  6. Pingback: Revenge served stone cold? The Santa Maria de Roses inscription « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: “No. There is… another.” « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Just a comment , that I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you were looking for Sant Pere de Casserres and perhaps you don’t know that this abbey located in Osona is not the own place with this name. There are a lot of references about Castle of Casserres in the carolingian period , one of the most known sources was thr chronicles of Ludovicus Pius and there are also some references of Sant Pere de Casserres in a trip of Cluniac’s Peter the Venerable. In both cases you must consider that the full texte indicate clearly the location of Casserres in the Berguedà.
    You can find some references here , in Spanish.

  9. Thankyou for the comment and the link! Indeed, I am aware of the possibility of confusion. When you say that there are `a lot of references’ from the Carolingian period, to the best of my knowledge there is only one, in the Gesta Hludowici by the writer we call Astronomer. Of the works I cite in the first note, Vigué et al. and Pladevall think this to be Casserres de Berguedà, because it fits better onto a line between the other sites mentioned there, Cardona and Vic. Soldevila, however, backed by Ollich elsewhere, think it to be Casserres d’Osona because of the quite visible remains of fortifications. I think it’s fairly certain that whether or not Casserres de Berguedà was meant in the text, which is possible, Casserres d’Osona was also part of the same program of works.

    The Cluniac reference, however, must be the abbey in Osona; it was head of Cluny’s Spanish province. This is well-documented, and well discussed especially by Pladevall (as his book’s title suggests), and I don’t think it can be doubted. I didn’t realise that the churches at Casserres de Berguedà also included a Sant Pere though, and that and the pictures to which you link are very useful, thankyou. Even though the two references you mention cannot, I think, have been unknowingly confused, this obviously makes it possible that others have. Thankyou for the warning! I shall have to check these places out in the Catalunya Romànica also.

  10. Thanks to consider this possibility.
    I mistake the word , there’s only one , that your mentioned , reference of Astronomus.
    Just remember that Casserres of Bergada is located in an intermediate point of strategic Strata Cardonensis. Also comment that you could find only reviews of Castle and Sant Pere de Casserres . The reason is because this last place was found after Catalunya Romanica was edited , I think no later than 10 years ago. Under the same circumstances also other older archeological remains were found (iberian , roman and visigothics).

    I hope that my data has been useful.

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