Building states on the Iberian frontier, V: what lords and peasants did in Catalonia

I hope that this again delayed conclusion to the series of posts in which I try and work out my position on the importance of different agencies in frontier settlement in the early Middle Ages needn’t be as long as the last one. I’m also planning to concentrate it much more deliberately on Catalonia than the previous four, and if it talks to the Escalona and Reyes case about Castile that started me off on this it will do so more by setting up an alternative and implicitly inviting consideration than by actual address.1 That all said, its first and most important question is one to which their answer is important, which is: whom do we consider a lord in these situations? My answer, however, as usual takes a lot of words, so here’s a picture and you may if you choose pursue the text below the cut.

Miniature of an oath of homage from the Liber feudorum maior of the counts of Barcelona

At least one of these people is a lord even though one’s a lady. “Maior8” by Anonymous – http://www.mcu.es/archivos/MC/ACA/Miniaturas/miniaturas/llibre02/007.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This is not actually a simple question, for all that it seems as if it should be. We could take a definition of aristocrat I’m sure I got from Chris Wickham, but which I now can’t find in his works, which is, anyone who doesn’t feed themselves by their labour, and that sort of works but is really very inclusive; some more granularity might be useful and it also runs into ambiguity when the ‘local élites’ who power the Escalona and Reyes narrative are considered.2 Did they or didn’t they? Whether in their instances or mine, I’ve no idea, and not only did we see in one of the previous posts that it might be hard to tell such people and bigger lords apart, this is where the pseudo-Wickham model really doesn’t provide enough granularity, even when modelled down to hypothetical village level.3 If a well-respected man about town in a village does well enough that he can more or less stop farming because now his children and the slaves do most of the work, and instead he hangs round the house or the church settling quarrels and holding forth and occasionally going forth to court somewhere with great to-do and so on—a kind of early medieval Amos Starkadder—but if one of his sons falls ill or moves away he’ll be back out with the hoe all the same, is he now an aristocrat? I think not because the familia with which he identifies is still subsistence-, not surplus-reliant. But he would surely be in the local élite. The trouble is of course that measuring potential power is basically impossible from any record of the past; we only have access to what actual power achieved and what alleged power claimed. The fact that sometimes that allegation took the form of titles borrowed from older structures of government, such as count or vicar, doesn’t really help, as I thnk I’ve shown; such words were often in the ink of the beholder and little more.4

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes

This was certainly lordly property, even if it’sa bit unclear which lord! The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes, image from Wikimedia Commons.

What we can get at with some comparability is what lords owned. Escalona and Reyes have an interesting way of looking at this, suggesting that in Castile of the tenth century aristocratic property was substantially dispersed, widely present but rarely consolidated, and that nucleation and transformation into an economic resource that we might dare to call demesne or manors or similar would come later. That works for me in as much as that kind of concentration (Fossier’s ‘encellulement’ rather than Toubert’s ‘incastellamento’) is one of the myriad parts of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’ and can thus safely be postponed till after 1000, when indeed one can find Pierre Bonnassie having tackled it quite thoroughly via the concentration of habitats around churches and so on (Salrach’s and Farias’s ‘ensagrerament’).5 But it also works for me because the count I know best, Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell, definitely held his land like that. He had quite a lot of it, including churches, castles, even things that were called civitates though I think we might prefer oppida north of the Pyrenees, and it was kind of everywhere; it’s a rare charter collection in which he doesn’t occur at least as neighbour and more often as transactor, though he was much less noticeable in Girona than elsewhere whhich may say something about how much of that land had been acquired lately by developing new claims on frontier wastelands. Certainly his son would more than once resort to more-or-less evident historical fiction to explain how certain lands came to be comital holdings, suggesting that the claims to them were newer than the logic used to claim them.6 On the other hand, an awful lot of it was small. It is surprising how often the count is a neighbour of really quite insignificant properties. There are areas where it looks as if this might be due to divisions within the comital family, most obviously Palau de Voltregà where Borrell’s father Sunyer was only one of four of the family holding land there, but much more often no other counts are present; somehow or other Borrell II had just got hold of a pair of homesteads in Montdó, a townhouse in Girona, both ends of the valley of Vallfogona, and so on.7 This could get up to whole castles and terms, whole villae and so on, even though other landholders continued to be independent within those, and we presume that he also held larger concentrations because these things are only those of which he disposed, and it seems unlikely that even his will really shows his full strength but it too adds to this picture of dispersal everywhere and concentration hardly anywhere.8 But there was probably no-one more powerful or wealthy than Borrell for a hundred miles in any direction and more in some.

The hill on which the Castell de Clarà in Moià still very slightly stands

Among the things Borrell II owned: half this hill. “Castell de Clarà 9” by Gustau Erill i Pinyot – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Another question that one then wants to ask is what rights such a man held in these various properties. Here I don’t mean the rights he notionally held everywhere as count, in so far as we know what they were: to demand military service, maybe toll on goods from abroad at point of entry but there’s no actual proof of that, a monopoly on coinage which was regularly farmed out to his bishops, some kind of judicial prerogative and since at least 950 the right to assume ownership of waste land.9 But in his actual property, what did he claim? The answer must, predictably, be, ‘it varied’, but there are some interesting outliers. In a series of documents we no longer have because they went up in smoke in the second dissolution of Santa Maria de Ripoll in 1835, there was recorded the slow passage of several settlements in the Vall de Ripoll from Borrell’s control to the monastery’s. We know about these because, since they featured Borrell II, the archivist Roc d’Olzinelles made abstracts of them which survive, and of one in particular from 957 he made two abstracts that differ in significant detail. Either this was a concession of the hamlets of Armàncies de Campdevànol, Balbs de Ripoll and Saltor, Mullol and Vidabona d’Ogassa to the monastery which their 200-odd inhabitants also signed, or it was a grant from Borrell to those 200 inhabitants of the right to grant their alods to the monastery. Slightly in favour of the latter interpretation is another abstract that records the same thing of the same settlements three months later, though it might obviously be a duplicate with the date read wrong.10 The difference is kind of crucial: either Borrell had to have these people’s consent to give away these properties, or they had to have his. In either case, though, this is a special sort of property. The idea of a special sort of property is also invoked in another document with difficult preservation, a thirteenth-century copy of a donation to Sant Sadurní de Tavèrnoles that is dated to forty-three years after Borrell’s death, presumably by copying the wrong king, of two properties in the term of the garrison ‘city’ of Isona with “censi, usatici, servicia, loca, traginos, opera, just as comital men have or ought to have”, which would be gold for our purposes if it could only be trusted: these would presumably respectively be some form of food-rent, unclear seigneurial prerogatives, perhaps guard or messenger duty, something to do with places, transport work and building, most of which could be subsumed under ‘maintenance of a defence network’ and thus look quite plausible but given the preservation and the usatici, which look very feudal to me, I’m not prepared to say it’s not been ginned up a bit.11

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), a picture that apparently I cannot overuse

The various concessions to Tavèrnoles of land in Isona, which was then as Borrell’s scribe put it in one of the charters, “in the extreme ultimate limits of the March” seem to show comital property of a different, more total, order than in the scattery allotments further in, but I wonder if that isn’t partly illusory.12 Because our main access to this information is via sale charters, it’s rare to see really really big portions of land. That may be because they weren’t there, but when I did this kind of work with Sant Joan de les Abadesses for the book I wound up concluding that after a certain point of consolidation of the lands immediately around the nunnery, property in the “terra sancti Giovannis” just stopped being for sale.13 The entire nunnery’s core alod just stops appearing in the record until the place is dissolved in 1017, but obviously it was still there until that point. I do wonder if large-scale comital landholding might not also be invisible where the counts had succeeded in totalising it. On the other hand it has to be said that, as Escalona and Reyes say of the Castilian counts, that doesn’t seem to have been something the counts were interested in. Widespread power with fiscal aspects to it was what they pursued, not intensive seigneurial ownership of an all-encompassing kind.

SantaMariaCorco-5046sh

Santa Maria de Corcó, not quite as described below but not so very far away even now

Other lords, however, do seem to have put more work into gaining dominance of certain spots. An obvious one whom we’ve mentioned before is the Vicar Sal·la, founder of Sant Benet de Bages, whose property accumulations piled up in several areas besides that.14 But his story can be put in a larger context, because in at least one area, the bicephalous villa of Corcó in Osona, he was not the first such landlord. The first ‘big man’ we can see there is in fact the very first vicar documented in Catalonia as far as I know, a chap called Fedanç who appears three times, and the first of these in 908 is the consecration of the church of Santa Maria de Corcó. As with far too many of these documents we don’t have the version we might wish of this, in as much as what we have is an update circa 1072 with lots of exciting, probably new rights, but by then Fedanç was beyond historical relevance so the fact that they still invoked him as the builder of the church seems likely to be a genuine memory to me.15 It does make his exact contribution in terms of property difficult to evaluate, though. He may have had a successor, however, in the form of a man called Morgad who starts appearing there in 952. He appears there five times from 952 to 956, once with his wife Dispòsia (nice name for a girl) and each time he or they were buying land near Santa Maria. By the last purchase they had not only become their own neighbours several times over, they were also now buying up the church’s tithes (though quite how those had come to be in private hands is not explained by the documents).16 That really is consolidation of a seigneurial interest, I think, and I doubt very much that anyone actually moved. Morgad was Vicar of Cabrera, in fact, not Corcó, and the interesting thing about that is that he there crosses paths with Sal·la.17 Sal·la turns up in so many places that it’s hard to say of where he actually was vicar, but Cabrera would have been a good guess were it not for Morgad. Both of them had a certain amount of property there and if Sal·la’s family weren’t relatively well accounted for I’d assume they must be family.18 (Sal·la’s mother seems to be unknown…) ANYWAY. The point is, long-term seigneurial family aggrandisement in localities, it happened. But at each of these stages, it has to be remembered, there were other property holders to sell to them, and heirs to split the results between, and how complete such a dominance could get might be questioned as long as it was only proceeding by these means, though of course others are harder to see.

The fourteenth-century hermitage of Sant Valentí de Montpeità

The fourteenth-century hermitage of Sant Valentí de Montpeità, hidden in a wood that would have pretty much all been vineyards in my period

So far so Bonnassie, you might be forgiven for thinking and, dammit, I refuse to apologise for following Bonnassie when he was on the mark, which was an awful lot of the time. All the same, an important wrinkle needs adding, which is that this was not how it was happening everywhere. This realisation is something I sort of owe to Chris Wickham, who asked about it at my doctoral viva; there are lots of places in the Catalan ‘arrière-frontière’ landscape of the tenth century where there was no real dominant lordly interest. I had focused on Sant Joan de les Abadesses‘s grip on the valley of Vallfogona, lost to the counts circa 940, and the castle of Gurb where a local lineage emerged over the 960s and 970s, but he suggested I also include some cases where lordship didn’t emerge, once we’d established that there were some. So I took Malla and l’Esquerda, the former interesting because it looks like prime ground and the viscounts of Girona own the castle, but, they sell it, and then the buyer dies and his widow remains the castellan and is not what you’d call oppressive or even very concerned, and the latter interesting because there’s one of those enigmatic civitates in it, good old Roda de Ter, but where the dominant lordship other than the parish church emerges somewhere else, at Casserres, where it’s sort of set up with comital help.19 I would now be tempted to add Montpeità, a busy and cave-ridden hill complex near the town of Manresa, where almost the reverse occurs; here there are just too many lords and interests, between the city and its apparently large population of clerics, the emergent monastery of Sant Benet de Bages just next door, the landholdings of the Vicar Sal·la that form its endowment and of his children that stay secular, and of several other acquisitive landholders; there was evidently a lot to get involved in here and none of the people trying managed to push any of the others out in the period I’ve so far looked at.20 In all these cases this would, eventually happen. There would even, by the fourteenth century, be a castle of Vallfogona, but my point is, basically, that there are relatively few places where dominant local lordships in frontier Catalonia emerged in the tenth century and even there they don’t necessarily last long. And my second point is, that this looks a lot like the picture of lordship and local authority that Escalona and Reyes paint in Castile but that in Catalonia it’s possible to see the space that leaves the peasants to be active in the development of these areas on their own initiative. Maybe that also merits consideration there.

Even as I state it that baldly I have one reservation. I would have to admit that we do occasionally see the counts operating a very long way out, beyond the apparent reach of the kind of developing lordship exemplified by Morgad and Sal·la here. Borrell’s business at Isona is one of these, but another is one of the earliest documents preserved from the comital archive, a sale of land at a place called Espinosa, which seems to have been that in Manresa rather than the more westerly one in Berguedà, to Borrell’s legendary grandfather Guifreé the Hairy.21 That was in 897, very close to Guifré’s death and at a time when he was very busy on the frontier where his death would indeed occur, but all the same Manresa wasn’t yet part of his bailiwick. The county of Osona, whose western border is the eastern edge of Manresa, had only been re-established at the earliest in 879 and in 889 King Odo, no less, had conceded a whole swathe of rights to Bishop Godmar of Vic that more or less gave him the comital role in the western half of this dual county.22 Nonetheless, a bunch of landholders out there saw what was coming and let Guifré quite literally buy into their community. If there were people in the city of Isona before Borrell II put them there, maybe that was the same thing going on, a sensible way to deal with the increasing proximity of a could-be protector, but it needs to be conceded that if so this is very similar to what Escalona and Reyes seem to see the counts of frontier Castile doing, elbowing their way into new places by virtue of an official title and an overweening presence. That would then make the citizens of Espinosa and then Isona the local élites, though it’s hard to see what made them other than peasants in a group, I would say. It certainly might well be that the supposedly-public power had a greater reach than private ones from outside a given area. And that’s worth noting since it helps exemplify their model at work. Even so, I don’t think this removes the scope for the people who actually farm the land deciding how they would play this new situation as it rose up before them. And really, with that acknowledged I’m fine about things, but I don’t think this is acknowledged that much, or where it is that it’s acknowledged as part of the same processes that Escalona and Reyes have drawn out so well, and so while this dawdles in the drafts folder I might see if I can get these five rambling pieces down into one sensible article that makes that point more sharply, now that I’ve worked out what the point actually is….23 Thankyou for your feedback, in the meantime, and even more, your indulgence.


1. That being, of course, 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. One possible source is Chris Wickham, “Economy and Society in early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean: themes and interpretations. Aristocratic Wealth in the post-Roman world and its Limits”, George Macaulay Trevelyan Lecture 2003, University of Cambridge, 27th February 2003, but if so it had been nuanced by the time he wrote idem, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 153-155. I am going to have to drop this one!

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 428-434.

4. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalona 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 129-135.

5. Escalona and Reyes, “Scale Change”, pp. 169-173; reference also to Robert Fossier, La terre et les hommes en Picardie jusqu’à la fin du XIIIe siècle (Paris 1968), 2 vols; Pierre Toubert, Les Structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle, Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome CCXXI (Paris 1973), 2 vols; 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; Josep María Salrach i Marés, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987); Victor Farias, “La sagrera catalana (c. 1025-c. 1200): características y desarrollo de un tipo de asentamiento eclesial” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 11 (salamanca 1993), pp. 81-121, online here.

6. For example José Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés (Barcelona 1946), doc. no. 464.

7. On Palau de Voltregà see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 137-138. Borrell’s property in Montdó turns up in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 1524 & 1705; the Girona townhouse in Ramon Martí (ed.), Col·lecció diplomàtica de la Seu de Girona (817-1100): estudi i edició, Diplomataris 13 (Barcelona 1998), do. no. 88; the Vallfogona properties in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 131.

8. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 232.

9. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 131-133; cf. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngi en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29-75, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974, 1989), 2 vols, I pp. 181-226.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 783 & 791.

11. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Diplomatari del monestir de Tavèrnoles (segles IX-XIII)” in Urgellia Vol. 12 (Montserrat 1995), pp. 7-414, doc. no. 26.

12. Ibid. doc. no. 23.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 35-42.

14. Ibid. pp. 144-148.

15. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 71.

16. That being ibid., doc. no. 888.

17. Co-occurrences in ibid., doc. nos 689 & 711.

18. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 146-147.

19. Ibid. pp. 73-99.

20. This has been the subject of three of my recent conference papers: J. Jarrett, “Two men and a monastery: clerical involvements in Manresa before 1000″, at the Medieval Economic and Social History Seminar, University of Oxford, 5th June 2013; idem, “The Priests of Montpeità: Competing Ecclesiastical Interests at the 10th-Century Catalan Frontier”, at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 4th July 2013; idem, “Counting Clergy: The Distribution of Priestly Presence around a 10th-Century Catalan Town”, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2014. I’m still not quite sure what to do with them; they want to be either a long article or a very short book and they require access to documents I can’t get anyway, so I’m postponing the decision.

21. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 6.

22. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs, doc. no. 11.

23. And indeed in the time since this was first written, in April 2013, it has now partly become 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).

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2 responses to “Building states on the Iberian frontier, V: what lords and peasants did in Catalonia

  1. A small point, about how to define “aristocrat”… something I’ve just read (or re-read?) set the definition of “noble” as what you have here, with “aristocrat” being a higher-up. It does sound like Wickham to me, and I was just going back through his essays in _Land and Power_, but it maybe was also from Costambeys, Innes, and MacLean, _The Carolingian World_, which I was having another go at the other day. Or maybe something else. Perhaps I should check references before I make such comments…

    • Well, this was my impression also, and Matthew Innes is I suppose another possible source, but whether it were he or it were Chris, it’s obviously something I heard rather than read, and in Framing… Chris explicitly propounds a more complex definition, so I think I have at least to stop pinning this idea onto him!

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