Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

Sometimes the best way to realise what you think is to hear or read a view from someone that presents you with difficulties. Once you’ve worked out what the difficulties are, you know more about what you think. (This is like the internal monologue version of the way to get an answer out of Usenet.1) This is another thing that has happened to me as a result of continuing on with Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages.

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Put shortly, ideas of agency are very strong in my work. I’ve worked on authority and power pretty much as long as I’ve been researching but one of the things that comes along with that is the idea that the people who have this property can act in ways that change things. (There are probably good and obvious Freudian reasons for why I have a fascination with the ability to change things, but let’s not go there on this blog. Suffice to say that this is a political fascination now, even if it wasn’t to start with; the state of UK politics has made it incredibly appealing as an idea.) This kind of historical agency is actually not as much of a given as it seems: a deterministic enough view of historical events might make it seem as if it’s hard for even those in power to change the direction of societies sometimes, and various social theories that involve large-scale dialectical processes, most obviously Marxism I suppose, would seem to give humans little choice in their affairs.

My work tends to argue against this. Two books into my hypothetical future career is a proper study of Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, a man who lived at a time when big social forces seem to have been burgeoning.2 He wasn’t going to change the fact that the economy was booming, that the frontier was being settled, that al-Mansur had turned the Caliphal armies of al-Andalus onto all the principalities of Northern Spain (not with Borrell’s war record, anyway) or a great number of other things, but the ways he chose to meet the demands of his time meant that the lives of the people he ruled worked out slightly differently than they might otherwise have done so (with better-educated judges, for example, and a more trustworthy coinage, or if you prefer a negative emphasis, with far more of their relatives captive in Córdoba and a much greater likelihood of an independently-minded castellan ruling their local roost).3 He was not a typical aristocrat.

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400, ironically therefore as a typical aristocrat (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now Chris is quite big on the historical importance of aristocrats (“I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognize their importance”, he has written4) but they do tend to appear in his work as a homogenous class, all interested similarly in being and staying wealthy and powerful by whatever means necessary. This is hard to argue with, because people who weren’t so interested didn’t stay in that position versus people who did. Nice, considerate, light-handed aristocrats are hard to evidence. There was Gerald of Aurillac, of course, but if even half of what Odo of Cluny records about this lay saint is true to life, he was so very odd that he represents nothing except the possibilities of acting abnormally (though that is a real iceberg of a point, with huge hidden depths, to which I continually gravitate). I think, however, that Borrell II shows that there is more to aristocratic action than simply a single class ambition; some aristocrats worked to their ends differently from others, and indeed against each other.5

The fact that the third book I’d like to write next would make this point more fully probably has probably arisen in part from the increasing amount of debate I’ve had with Chris over the years. As a result of it, I would like to stress more that people’s differences had historically significant results. Chris knows this, too, of course, as his comparisons of different sorts of landowner in Framing, especially the Apions in the Oxyrynchos region of Egypt versus the slightly later Dioskoros of Aphroditō, makes clear, but to him, it seems to me from reading, they are important because they represent examples of a wider phenomenon, and therefore their differences exemplify disparity in scale of wealth and in their political times, whereas I am much more interested in the ways in which aristocrats deviated from pattern by choice.6 (This of course makes Chris much more able to write 820-page-long syntheses of the development of the entire Western world for four hundred years than I will ever be; he may be more able to do this than anyone, after all. But I persist in the belief that individual agency needs its part in historical explanation too, however much it may vie with generalisation.)

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

All this, albeit less worked out, is an argument I have actually had with Chris, and as you may have noticed from the above I’ve more or less agreed to differ. But what about peasants? This is what has brought it freshly to mind. You would think, initially, that with peasants such generalisations are much more justifiable. Firstly, there were vastly more early medieval peasants than early medieval aristocrats, so the individual dissenter from a phenomenon stands out much less and is statistically less significant. Also, the peasant just has less agency than the aristocrat. How many people’s lives can a peasant affect, without (or even with) going on a homebrew-induced billhook killing spree? Not as many as even the most minor person with power, one might argue, and this is probably true. And yet it seems to me that – perhaps precisely because it matters less to grand arguments? – Chris gives a lot more space to peasant choices than he does to aristocratic ones. In the section of the book where he constructs a fictional Anglo-Saxon village society (‘Malling’), to make up for the lack of adequate records from a single place that can balance his case studies from elsewhere, the rise of one patron family and the fall of another, more established one, are explained solely in terms of their political choices and ability.7 Of course these are not real instances, but that doesn’t make their theoretical importance the less striking. And of course, behind them are a raft of choices about which patron family to associate with on the part of their followers.

You can see, I’m sure, how that scales up easily to aristocrats, and quite a lot of the explanations of the way politics worked in the Carolingian Empire with which I’m most comfortable rely on the aristocrats themselves needing help in getting potential followers to make such choices.8 But there are other ways in which peasant decisions make political differences, even short of revolt, and this is especially clear with Catalonia, or any other society with an open frontier. Now is not the time to get into a massive debate with the ghost of Pierre Bonnassie and the thankfully very-much-alive Gaspar Feliu i Montfort about exactly how true the former’s picture of Catalonia as a zone of mainly-independent free peasants, presumably governing their own labour in much the way that Chris suggests was more possible in his period than later,9 but it is important to note that the reason for that contention, however true it may be, is usually that there was an open frontier, where authority was thin, settlement encouraged (as we shall see in two posts’ time) and opportunity available to make a fresh start. While that remained true, it has been argued (and not just by Bonnassie10), the Catalan peasant could never be entirely oppressed, because he or she might always escape. Such settlement, after all, clearly did happen, even if Gaspar Feliu thinks that it was mainly driven by lords even so.11 It is of course a large-scale social phenomenon, sure, but it is made of a whole patchwork of individual decisions. This is not just because I’m sure (and have written) that not every settler had upped sticks far away, bought all the livestock they could afford and moved on out hoping to make a new life far away—I think many of them were much more local, often ‘field-next-door’ local12—but because whatever was going on here and whatever choices were being made, they obviously weren’t made by the peasantry as a class. If the whole peasantry had wanted to move to the frontier the interior would have become denuded of labour. This didn’t happen, so some people obviously chose to stay put and take it. We could argue about different economic circumstances, but again it would be hard to show that local societies lost a whole socio-economic layer of themselves, and I think I’ve shown that such choices could vary widely even within families out here.13 (I doubt that’s exclusive to ‘out here’ but ‘out here’ is where I can show it.) Such choices, furthermore, varied a lot in methods: save up, sell up, or get support? If so from whom? Does making a new independent start preclude doing so under new lordship? and so on.

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

So this is the edge case, where a class fragments and a general answer has to take into account a lot of individuals making very difficult choices (and some rich proprietors making rather easier ones, of course). But from this edge I can see the space for more such people. I don’t want to accuse myself of being specially ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘individualist’ here. (After all, what can be more individualist than arguing that almost every other Marxist is wrong?) But I am made freshly conscious by Chris’s magisterial treatment of whole societies in their entire layers, however varied the layers may have been and however much societies differed between each other, that my historiography does not build from class down but from individuals up, and does so because I still want the individuals to be the ones who make the differences.


1. I realise that those old enough to even know what Usenet is/was won’t need the explanation, but the method probably has a more Hellenistic name given how Socratic it almost seems: it is, of course, to ask a question that presupposes something wrong or gets its facts wrong, on the basis that you are more likely to provoke a reaction from someone who can put you right if they can also tell you you’re wrong. On Usenet, classically, this worked far better than simply asking for help.

2. There weirdly isn’t one yet, beyond the standard nineteenth-century reference, Prosper de Bofarull y de Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), I pp. 139-196, though there is also Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “Dos comtes de Barcelona germans, Miró i Borrell” in Marie Grau & Olivier Poisson (edd.), Études roussillonnaises offertes à Pierre Ponsich. Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’histoire de l’art du Roussillon et de la Cerdagne (Perpignan 1987), pp. 145-162, but that isn’t very much. There is also a certain amount of stuff by Michel Zimmermann, which is as ever very clever and, I think, also wrong in detail. Till I get the book together, thus, I can best refer you to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 141-166.

3. On all this the best guide remains Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, though cf. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115. Specifically, on al-Mansur you could now see Philippe Sénac, Al-Mansûr : le fleau de l’an mil (Paris 2006), on the judges Jeffrey 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. 81-99 and on the coinage J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243; on the 985 sack of Barcelona you should now see G. Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here in PDF, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008. On feudalism, well, give me time

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 19-31, quote at p. 30.

5. I’ve already essayed something along these lines in what I hope will be my next-but-one paper, J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming), pp. 000-00, but it could obviously be done more broadly than that.

6. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 242-250 & 411-419.

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

8. That comfort comes most obviously from 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).

9. Bonnassie: esp. his Catalogne, II pp. 781-829, handily translated by Jean Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242; Feliu in his “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41 (no, seriously, do, this is a really important article); Chris, classically in “Problems of comparing rural societies in early medieval western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (London 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in his Land and power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

10. E. g. also by Josep María Salrach i Marés in El procés de feudalització (segles III–XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987) and Paul Freedman in The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

11. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” & “Pagesia”, and the various works (which include the latter at pp. 93-110) in his first collected papers, La llarga nit feudal: Mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2010).

12. J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 57-66.

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22 responses to “Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

  1. This being somewhat distant from my own specialism – ‘though not from my general interest – I don’t feel I can comment on the specifics. I just wanted to applaud your general impulse to interrogate the issues at the level of individuals. I do think we need both: the big picture is necessary somehow – otherwise how would we understand how the ‘little people’ are making their differences, fighting, or chosing to work within systems? And how, for that matter, would we – as we seem to need to do – make sense of the chaos of all the individual choices going on all of the time without a sense of a ‘system’ anyway!? That said, I don’t think I’m particularly good at ‘big picture’. And equally, the big picture risks being a bit sterile on its own. We’re not all automatons, thank the ‘deity of your choice’; and neither were ‘they’, ‘then’.
    The same issue is always surfacing for me in the course of examining later administrative correspondence. There were (there *are*) ‘rules’ (hello Leeds 2012!), written and unwritten, about how to ‘do’ letters. But _people_ are sending them, and to me that makes them infinitely varied, even while they may all look depressingly, even slavishly, similar at first glance (or even after having read several hundred letters asking for similar things). They _always_ arose from the circumstances of individual relationships, educations, understandings of the task, and the need, etc. So in the end, saying, ‘look, all of these letters are written in this basic style’ is only the most obvious thing you can say about them. It’s much more interesting (and difficult) to say how and why all of these people came to write (or ought we rather to say ‘send’?) in such similar ways… not to mention how each of them *individually* did so… and finally what the implications of that might be for the formation of what Chris and others might call a ‘class’ consciousness or identity.
    Anyhoo, enough of my musings. Thanks for another great post!
    :-)

    • A pleasure as ever :-) I get the variation from a template thing entirely, of course, from charters where a template is clearly in use (an upcoming post) but every scribe wants to riff with it a bit differently. One of the constraints is fitness for purpose, presumably, which official notarisation constrains still further, but another is solemnity or impressiveness, or perhaps informativeness—there are some thing that need to be mentioned not in the formula—and so on. One of the ways I hope to tackle that, or more realistically watch others tackle it, is by trying to find out more about the local priests who do so much of the scribal work in rural (or even proto-urban!) communities.

  2. highlyeccentric

    But haven’t you heard, there’s no such thing as an individual until the 12th century! Or possibly the 16th! Or the 20th!

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  8. At the moment I’m looking for a cover-image for my master thesis and so I landed on your page. If I recall right the image of the catalan peasants are Adam and Eve before the expulsion from paradise (?). I also wanted to congratulate you on your Blog, I really love the openess you show presenting your thoughts and concerns as an medievalist. It is really motivating reading your Blog! Thank you.

    • Sorry “after the expulsion” of course …

      • Well, thankyou for the kind words! I’m afraid I probably have some demotivating posts coming though. As to the peasants, you may well be right: I haven’t seen the actual manuscript, so all I can say is that they weren’t captioned as such in the book from which I scanned the picture.

  9. Now I’m curious I’ll have a look at the Mundó facsimile and let you know. I hope you can blend in some positive posts too not make it toooo depressive!

    • Well, I hope so too but the events that might cause positivity are not entirely at my command, you understand. Worryingly related, I sometimes feel I really shouldn’t be allowed to count as any kind of authority in my field: I did not know about the Mundó facsimile, which looks marvellous. I can’t tell from here, however, as the libraries in the UK that have any part of the work all only have the monograph published in Studi e Testi, not the actual facsimile. I don’t know where you are but it’s better for my subject than the UK…

  10. I didn’t find my post anymore. So I just write a short message here. It’s definitely Adam and Eve after being thrown out of the Garden of Eden- I had a little bit of time and also decided to take the picture as the cover of my master thesis so I finally checked the facsimile. The picture is on Lamina 7 and fits perfect in the picture cicle of the genesis. Greetings from Barcelona.

    • I’ve moved your comment here from the post where you left it, though I too had to do some fairly creative searching to find it. Thankyou for the reference, and also the context for the image: I shall have to use it more carefully in future!

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  12. I’ll probably be in Barcelona for a longer time. At the moment I write my Master Thesis about the “Mutació feudal” in german though. I’d like to meet you if you come to Barcelona some time in the future. Your Blog was a great help and inspiration to me and I’m definetly going to cite it. Thank you!

    • Well, I do need to make a trip to Barcelona this summer, conditional on getting permission to use the documents at Montserrat, so this may even happen! Your thesis sounds interesting, given how little uptake of the ‘mutation’ model there has been in Germany. I look forward to hearing about it, and thankyou for the kind words!

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