Seminar C: differing valleys in North-Western Iberia

View of Potes in Liébana

This view of Potes in Liébana, Cantábria, seems weirdly familiar

The big one hundred goes, by more or less complete coincidence, to a fellow Hispanist, Rob Portass, who lately finished his doctorate in the History Faculty here and was thus able to be coaxed out into daylight to address the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 6th June, which he did with the title, “Magnates and their monasteries in the tenth-century kingdom of Leon”. Rob, who has since got a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship so that we get to keep him for a bit, is another person who has realised that the peculiar depth of Iberian charter evidence for the early Middle Ages lets one do serious microcosmic levels of study of society, but he differs from me firstly in that he’s gone to the opposite Northern corner of the peninsula, working on Galicia and Cantábria, and that he works on an even closer scale, individual valleys, which even I could only sustain for a chapter before breaking out to where the castles are. Rob’s two valleys, for this paper at least, were that around the monastery of Celanova (in Galicia) and that of Liébana, where there are two monasteries, Santo Toribio and Santa María de Piasca, to tell us what was going on in the areas.1

Map of early medieval Spanish archive preservation by Wendy Davies

Map of early medieval Spanish archive preservation by Wendy Davies

With this paper Rob was addressing an idea that when things went feudal in Northern Iberia as of course It Is Written that they did, the monasteries assisted in this process, being functionally equivalent to greedy landlords acquiring seigneurial rights over their local populations by subjecting their lands, and often becoming controlled by noble family interests anyway.2 To cut a long and careful story short, he finds this difficult to see in the charter evidence. Especially in Liébana, where one family did indeed get hold of the monastery of Santo Toribio, donation and sales to it came substantially from the wealthy and that not for very long. The peasantry just didn’t really interact with it at all (and consequently, of course, we can hardly see them). The local wealthy were only locally wealthy but all the same, Rob did not think they could be reckoned peasants by any stretch of interpretation (though we did try and stretch him on this). At richer Celanova the picture is a bit more conventional, but has its own peculiarities; here peasants did sell to the monastery, in some number, but they did not donate at all.3 Rob argued that this was too busy a land-market, and too various, to be explained as has been done in terms of poverty and bad harvests forcing people to sell up in order to obtain food, and that really this is business, and can’t be assumed to have been only to the monastery’s advantage.4 This also provoked questions, including one or two about how far we can assume that the charters give us a representative picture, even though Rob had cited me earlier on on such matters, which surely ought to have been enough! (I jest.5) But at the end of the paper and the discussion, all the same, I think Rob had successfully put across what my final paragraph of notes records: “One model here won’t do, but neither will the existing one. Our two noble abbots operate on a different scale, but local community must still be engaged and in Liébana that can’t be done.” If the model can fail, then, we need to know more about why, and for that I suppose we must now read Rob’s thesis!

The chapel of San Miguel de Celanova, with the baroque walls of San Salvador behind it

The chapel of San Miguel de Celanova, with the baroque walls of San Salvador, the Cistercian house that replaced the one Rob's subject population was dealing with, behind it; I include this because, if it is as the architectural historians think tenth-century, some of Rob's people probably went in this building. From Wikimedia Commons


1. The various documents are edited in J. M. Andrade Cernadas (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova: estudio introductorio, edición e índices (ss. IX-XII), Fontes Documentais para a Historia de Galicia (Santiago de Compostela 1995), L. Sánchez Belda (ed.), Cartulario de Santo Toribio de Liébana (Madrid 1948) and J. Montenegro Valentín (ed.), Colección diplomática de Santa María de Piasca, 857-1252 (1991).

2. There is of course an incredibly vast historiography here, but José Ángel García de Cortázar, “Estructuras sociales y relaciones de poder en León y Castilla en los siglos VIII a XII: la formación de una sociedad feudal”, in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 497-563 with discussion pp. 565-568, charts a reasonable path through it.

3. And just as well for Rob, otherwise they’d likely have been fully discussed already in Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007).

4. This scenario is most vigorously envisaged in good old Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la península ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1979).

5. Although, seriously, it is perplexing to me that numerous people find that part of my thesis (J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005), online here, pp. 27-71) useful, and yet I could not for the love of Mike get it into print because it “says nothing new”. (I do now have a home for it but they want a very different kind of article that will take a lot of reading to produce.) The problem is that the diplomatists aren’t telling other people what they need to know, and this is how it’s not happening. This part was not included in the book, but if you happened to have the book and looked at J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 15-17, you’d see the thinking behind the questions about peasant visibility that Rob was getting.

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3 responses to “Seminar C: differing valleys in North-Western Iberia

  1. Pingback: 711 and All That (conference report) « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Building states on the Iberian frontier, I: putting the peasants up front | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in Exeter | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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