Building states on the Iberian frontier, IV: what’s going on

[As with the previous one of these posts, this was first written in February 2013 as part of a single piece of thinking-in-text that has since resulted in an article that should be online for all to see within a few weeks.* That article will represent a more fully-thought-out (and also shorter and better-founded) version of some of the below, but the first thrash-out still seems worth posting.]

In what ought to be the last of these posts, originally inspired by that crucial sense on reading someone else’s work that this is not how you see it, but without the initial ability to articulate what your difference is, I need to try and come to some kind of conclusion about what I think is special about frontier settlement, perhaps in Catalonia and perhaps (I hope) more widely.1 It is a strong feeling of mine that this is not thought about enough, that we have a tendency to pile up case studies about frontier societies without working out what of these cases is common or distinct and in general to talk about these things without theorising from them in a way that might inform others, so, I must put my money where my mouth is mustn’t I? So, OK, let’s start with why anyone opens up a chunk of frontier waste-land at all.

Peasants undertaking land clearance in the Sachsenspiegel

Peasants undertaking land clearance in the Sachsenspiegel

The first and obvious thing that seems safe to infer from this happening is that the people in question want more land. There could of course be a lot of reasons for that; the obvious ones are to do with agricultural or other natural resources, but it also seems to me that if we are talking about a genuine frontier situation, these must essentially be gambles; if you have good information about what a piece of land will bear, be it “this seems the sort of place where olives might grow well” or “there’s gold in them thar hills!” then it’s not really a frontier, or not a classical one; if information is available to you it’s not the unknown.2 So, OK, it’s presumably a general desire for more resource, which would need to be provoked either by a problem with the existing situation at home, food shortage or labour surplus, or by a wish to better one’s situation relative to those at `home’ with whom you continue to interact, i. e. a project to obtain wealth and/or status. That might cause some people conceptual problems unless there be a lord pressuring those people to hand over surplus, of course; I probably don’t need to remind readers here about Chris Wickham’s famous opinion that without oppressive lordship peasants would, “work less and eat more”.3 Nonetheless, we have here seen some time ago that, at least on the frontier of tenth-century Catalonia, people of a fairly ordinary if affluent sort were prepared to spend a lot of money in order to get resources that would make them money, sometimes just a share of those resources rather than any kind of monopoly, in the form of mills, and I think that we don’t have to turn the whole central medieval peasantry into proto-capitalists in order for there to be enough would-be nouveaux riches to staff a slow move out into new territories just over the edge of current jurisdictions.4

That said, these are the reasons of the producers, and one main message of the Escalona and Reyes chapter from my reaction to which I span all of this is that the initiative for such expansion could instead be that of the élite, be those élites `local’ or more seriously-ranged contendors.5 One obvious reason for them might be security. One of the first requirements of some of the big frontier concessions by the Catalan counts is the building of fortifications, as we’ve seen here while I was wrestling with whether such concessions could meaningfully be called feudal or not. This might be seen as just a power-grab, ensuring that whoever lives in these zones be properly dominated by people under obligation to a wider authority, but one ought not to forget that it also and genuinely constituted a means of defence for populations `behind the lines’. This kind of concern was a live one in late-tenth-century Catalonia. We have also seen here how people from all over the principality could be rallied to fight in `public expeditions’ when danger threatened from the Muslim south.6 It is also possible to cite a castellan who had been given one of these concessions by the counts, Amat de Gurb who held a tower called Atonell in the area of the current Santa Perpetua de Gaià (and maybe even that tower, since it is held to be tenth-century and is also triangular), paying the ultimate price in defending it against the raid of al-Mansur in 978; sometimes, the obligations of such a position of dominance had to be fulfilled, whatever the cost.7 This, surely, must also have been the case in Castile, famously described as `a society organised for war’ and subject to attacks from the same Muslim power at this same time.8 The enemy need not, of course, be so foreign; the recipients of the Cardona franchise charter of 986 were encouraged to get themselves land from ‘Christians or pagans’, as long as they could defend it themselves, and going rather farther back, this is one of the things I think Cullen Chandler has right about Charlemagne’s and Lous the Pious’s concessions to immigrants from the south on this same frontier; it created a band of serious yeoman soldiery with ties direct to the king who could be used as some kind of counterweight to an otherwise-dominant autochtonous or gone-native counts at the top levels of delegated power.9

The castle complex of Santa Perpetua de Gaià

I’ll wager that it was a lonelier place to die in 978 than it is now… The castle complex of Santa Perpetua de Gaià, from the website of an architects’ firm who are apparently now restoring it. If that tower could speak, the first thing I’d ask it is just how many rebuilds it remembers…

Those concessions did also create dependents, of course, and that can’t be ignored even if the master rapidly became unable to reach or protect his followers.10 Each time Count Borrell II handed over a castle to one of his men, or to a monastery, the securing of surplus from agricultural workers in its vicinity must have been assumed to come with; several (perhaps all) of these castles had nearby units of land called beneficia which probably had this function, and it is not so close to the end of the tenth century when we start to find these being called fiefs, or at least feva, though cases where this word is equated with fiscum do mean that so early we should probably see this as the portion of notionally-public land attached to the castle from which its upkeep and support were to be provided.11 The progress of these allotments and the dues they could command towards becoming wider accumulations of seigneurial rights and abuses that we could lump under the general heading of ‘the ban’ if we loved Marc Bloch enough to brave Susan Reynolds’s unhappiness with our terms, is something that doesn’t need to be covered here; I will say only that Gaspar Feliu’s twenty-five-year-old plaint that Pierre Bonnassie’s work on this needed replacement after standing for more than a decade still wants an answer, which may even be because Bonnassie’s picture was basically right.12 Something probably must be, after all, pace Paul Edward Dutton’s gloomy prognosis that as medieval historians, “the best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways.”13

In any case, that frontier settlement by élites must have involved the obligation of people there to support those élites with food or service is pretty basically evident, and while we can see it with the Hispani‘s passage to subjection in the ninth century or tenth- and eleventh-century complanters putting in their work for two on the agricultural margins, we must suppose it in all cases, in varying and changing degrees of formality and structure. We might see this as a simple equation of subjects with power, or we might see a more sophisticated and, I have to grudgingly admit, Foucauldian, attempt to turn activity in these regions into a general recognition of a right to act in the name of power here. This would be the “notion of popular collective subjection” that Escalona and Reyes invoke in their picture of these processes, but while it certainly must have been one of the results of such activity I’m not sure that their study gives us much insight into how it had been created, whereas I hope that the one I’m developing here may.14 With that said, I’m not sure that my élites were conscious of this result of their activities in these areas, because it seems to me that if your aim is to create a recognised space for ‘state’ power by intervening in otherwise ungoverned territories, you don’t hand it out to a dependent as soon as you’ve met with any success. So I might wonder whether this isn’t more cause than effect, at least this early and here. Anyway, this would be an issue for another study and perhaps even another student.

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), a castle donated to the Church pretty much as soon as Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell had got it up and running

So, we have a range of conceptual possibilities for how frontier settlement might be going on, and who might be getting something from it and what, but the question then becomes the more complex, how can we recognise these possibilities in the surviving record on any more than a one-off basis provided by the occasional super-informative document? Can we build anything from this box of possibilities that will survive the shaking of ‘not invented here’? To my mind the best way to do this kind of work is not to try and provide a universal answer or even a universal list of answers, but instead to provide a deeper set of questions, the sort of structure of inquiry that might eventually become material for a flow-chart with possible solutions and formulations at the bottom. Such questions might be: what are the points around which each area is organised? Does it in fact have a castle, as did my case study at Gurb, or an old fort no longer used except by the Church as at l’Esquerda not so far away and about which you’ve read so much here, or indeed a church and nothing more as at one of my favourite, because documented only in archæology, cases, Santa Margarida de Martorell?15 Sometimes, and perhaps more often in other areas, and of them especially Castile where the ‘aldea’ operated in this kind of way if I understand it right, the organising point would actually be a settlement, the village proper and the rights it collectively claimed, and some places would have had none of these things and only the vaguest of unities.16 My favourite case here is the villa of Montells, near Vic and spread out enough to have an upper and a lower portion as well as places that could be described as between those halves, but no apparent church or fortification due to a plethora of others nearby or because the whole place really only counted fourteen people or whatever; I could do more with the documents from here than I have.17 Again, here there is some clarity for Catalonia about what the situation would become—the name of the principality does after all derive from the word for `castellan’—but less about how things were before, when the move into the frontier zones was nevertheless happening.18 Even later, of course, the places that were being brought into control did not arrive under control in this definitive form; that was the result, not the cause.19

That is one important thing that we could attempt to distinguish cases by, not least because unlike many of the things we might look for, this could be archæologically detectable in settlement patterns, assuming a useful ceramic sequence ever comes within reach.20 Questions that we can probably only hope to resolve by even finer interpretation of the documents would be about the processes that were going on that might be controlled and who controlled them. There are a lot of these, once one starts to break it down: any of land clearance, grouping and linking of settlement, defence, worship, the settlement of disputes and representation to other groups or higher authority could be in different hands, some or all of the same hands or under no control at all. There are probably more categories I haven’t yet thought of. But when we have so many variables in play, a clear narrative in which some group, be it bold pioneer peasants, comitally-organised aristocracies or ‘local élites’, was actually creating territory, may well be over-simplistic. Probably each group only controlled some of these aspects and a truly domineering élite would need to have appreciated and been able to interfere conclusively in each of them; this will not always have been the case, and perhaps not even often, all of which would have left some recourses open to the communities control of whom was at issue.21

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop; which of these was dominating whom, eh?

Once again we seem to be up against the plausible word limit and to have reached a temporary conclusion. That might even have been the big point I have that others can take away to their own frontiers. These are, however, conclusions about lordship and settlement generally, and I’d actually promised them for locally. Reasoning down from a model rather than up from practice is unusual for me, but I do still have some stuff I want to say to reattach this question to what lordship could actually do in these frontier situations where institutions are in formation, specifically in Catalonia, and briefly glance at Castile again with those things in mind, but this looks like far enough for a post and I feel as if I have got over the hump with struggling to express my point of view on the still-excellent chapter that rattled my personal cage on this question. Hopefully it’s not been too dull for you! But if so or if not, one more yet a-coming.


* J. Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2.2 (Leeds forthcoming).

1. Julio Escalona & Francisco Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border: the county of Castile in the tenth century” in Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 153-183, DOI:10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4772.

2. E. g. Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (1999), pp. 55–72, DOI:10.1177/097194589900200104 or David Abulafia, “Introduction: seven kinds of ambiguity” in idem & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 1-34.

3. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalona 880-1010: pathways of power, pp. 92-93, though don’t use what I say there to try and get across the Riu Ter….

5. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, pp. 164-173; cf. my review of that volume in Historia Agraria: revista de agricultura e historia rural Vol. 59 (Valencia 2013), pp. 193-197 at p. 194.

6. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològico LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1771; Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 524.

7. Emilio Morera Llauradó, Tarragona Cristiana: historia del arzobispado de Tarragona y de territoria de su província (Cataluña Nueva) (Tarragona 1897-1899), 2 vols, repr. as Publicaciones del Instituto de Estudios Tarraconenses «Ramón Berenguer IV» 9, 13 & 31 (Tarragona 1954-1959), 3 vols, reprinted again (Tarragona 1981-2001), 5 vols, ap. IV.

8. Elena Lourie, “A Society Organized for War: Medieval Spain” in Past and Present 35 (1966), pp. 54-76, DOI:10.1093/past/35.1.54, repr. in eadem, Crusade and Colonisation: Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Aragon, Variorum Collected Studies 317 (Aldershot 1990), I, and in John France (ed.), Medieval warfare: 1000-1300 (Aldershot 2006), pp. 339-362; James F. Powers, A Society Organized for War: the Iberian municipal militias in the Central Middle Ages (Berkeley 1988), online here; for al-Mansur’s campaigns see Miquel d’Epalza, “Descabdellament polític i militar dels musulmans a terres catalanes (segles VIII-IX)” in F. Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 49-80, online here.

9. Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la vila de Cardona, anys 966–1276: Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Históric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les masies Garriga de Bergus, Pala de Coma i Pinell, Col·leció Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7; Victor Farias, “Guerra, llibertat i igualitarisme a la frontera” in Borja de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.) Història política, societat i cultura dels Països Catalans 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. Josep María Salrach i Marés (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 112-113; Cullen Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 19-44, DOI:10.1111/1468-0254.00099. Of course, I do disagree with him that Charles the Bald continued with this tactic (and I am not the first), or that this has anything significant to do with the justification of landholding by claim of its clearance known as aprisio, but you can read about that elsewhere (J. Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol.18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342, DOI:10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x).

10. Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands”, pp. 328-330, cf. P. Imbart de la Tour, “Les colonies agricoles et l’occupation des terres désertes à l’époque
carolingienne” in A. Picard (ed.), Mélanges Paul Fabre : Études d’histoire du moyen âge (Paris, 1902), pp. 146–171 at pp. 162-169; cf. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts”.

11. Beneficia in e. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 63, 241, 245, 277, 343, 405, 417 & 767; see Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, or indeed Marc Bloch, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

12. S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); G. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” in Udina, Symposium internacional, I pp. 81-115, online here, at p. 115, referring of course to Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.

13. Paul Edward Dutton in discussion of idem “Voice over Writing in Eriugena”, paper presented in session ‘The Boundaries of Free Speech, II: silencing the voice, restraining the pen’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 15th July 2009.

14. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 171.

15. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 100-128, 81-99 & 44 respectively, and refs there.

16. E. g. Ignacio Álvarez Borge, “El proceso de transformación de las comunidades de aldea: una aproximación al estudio de la formación del feudalismo en Castilla (siglos X y XI)” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 5 (Salamanca 1987), pp. 145–160, online here; cf. Julio Escalona, “De ‘señores y campesinos’ a ‘poderes feudales y comunidades’. Elementos para definir la articulación entre territorio y clases sociales en la alta Edad Media castellana” in Álvarez (ed.), Comunidades locales y poderes feudales en la Edad Media, Biblioteca de Investigación 27 ([Logroño] 2001), pp. 117–155 or Jordi Bolòs, “La formación del hábitat medieval en Cataluña: Aldeas, espacios aldeanos y vías de comunicación’ in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (2013), pp. 151–180, online here.

17. And so could you! They are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 350, 509, 559, 653, 661, 784, 968, 1075, 1130, 1136, 1144, 1258, 1264, 1303, 1315, 1324, 1341, 1347, 1367, 1460, 1462, 1588, 1715, 1724, 1730, 1788 & 1792.

18. Bonnassie, Catalogne.

19. 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: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127.

20. E. g. Philippe Araguas, “Muro, castro, roca… Peuplement rural et fortifications aux confins de la Catalogne et de l’Aragon pré-romans” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 211-222, and Benoît Cursente, “Conclusion”, ibid. pp. 231-235 vs Eduard Riu-Barrera, “La cerámica del Mediterraneo noroccidental en los siglos VIII-IX: Cataluña, el país valenciano y las Baleares entre el imperio carolingio y al-Andalus” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 259-263.

22. Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1999), is the go-to for solidarities in medieval communities; cf. however for this area Thomas N. Bisson, Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis, and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge 1998).

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4 responses to “Building states on the Iberian frontier, IV: what’s going on

  1. Allan McKinley

    The definition of a frontier in these posts is interesting in terms of understanding the conception of frontiers and boundaries. You always address the frontier as a zone lacking in something, be it population, exploitation or authority. That is to say it appears that frontiers have a vacancy that can be filled by incomers. As no historically recorded frontier has been with an unpopulated area (humanity gets everywhere and Antarctica has no frontiers) is this in fact a definition of frontiers?

    If so it differentiates them from boundaries, which can be between two areas which are not lacking in the same way (and will tend therefore towards being linear rather than zonal). It also would suggest frontiers can be modelled rather than simply observed as developing in relation to centres of power, authority, trade or whatever, and that therefore frontiers have to be understood in relation to networks around them.

    Does that seem a viable definition?

  2. Well, several things spring to mind by way of response there, of which the most obvious is that this is the frontier I think about when I think about frontiers, and what goes here may not apply elsewhere. Or even elsewhen: I get much less interested in this zone when it doesn’t have a hundred to two hundred miles of space between major opposing centres of control…

    That said, reactions. Last first: I think it is probably semantically essential to any definition of frontier that it relates to a differentiable space of which it forms the edge. Somewhere that’s simply uncontacted isn’t a frontier; it becomes one when someone moves into it from outside, in that someone’s terms. That’s the other thing: frontier is an external definition, not an autochtonous one: to think one’s living on a frontier is to recognise a centre to which your area relates. It’s how people in my frontier zone became convinced of that that is, I think, the most interesting process at work here.

    As for occupation and vacancy, there I think I disagree with you. Somewhere doesn’t have to be empty to have immigration into it, and I’m not sure that somewhere has to be uncontrolled to fit my general definition, although it is characteristic of this frontier here. I suspect, for example, that one would wish to include the various Slav kingdoms who faced the German migrations east as frontier zones in any general-case definition, and they were not without control. I suppose that pagan Lithuania is in several ways an edge case: having ensured that it was more or less able to resist pressure from the west for a while, it then faced Mongols from the east. Is it the frontier, or does its consolidation put the frontier beyond it? If the latter, then the significant process it had gone through in our terms of above would be to become its own centre of reference… Hmm. Well, we knew there was more to think about here I suppose!

    (One of those things would also be whether ‘boundary’ is distinct from ‘frontier’ in the way that you say, or merely a subset of it. Certainly your definition of ‘boundary’ can exist in a frontier space, but as the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem teaches us, it may not define much when it does!)

  3. Pingback: For whom does ‘theory’ work, and for how long? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Building states on the Iberian frontier, V: what lords and peasants did in Catalonia | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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