Category Archives: Feudalism

In praise of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society

Among the things I was doing towards the end of 2012 that made me stub blog posts that are only now appearing was finally taking stock of one of the monuments of the field of medieval history, Feudal Society by Marc Bloch.1 It’s a fair guess that whatever bit of medieval society you’re interested in, you’ve seen this book cited somewhere or other, so universal is its impact, but it was written before the Second World War and its very title enshrines a concept that we’ve been trying to discredit for the last four decades, good ol’ feudalism, so what I mainly wanted to know was why does it remain such a big deal? And, since I have a copy loaned to me by a man now dead but whose heirs may some day want his books back, and because it does keep coming up even now, I finally made time to read it.

Portrait photograph of Marc Bloch from Wikimedia Commons

The man himself, from Wikimedia Commons

Part of the appeal of Bloch’s work and reputation is his career trajectory itself, of course: this was a man who fought in the trenches in the First World War, became a professor at first because the German academics had been thrown out of Strasbourg University and then, when the Second World War started, rejoined the army as a reserve captain, aged 57, experienced defeat and eventually joined the French resistance, in whose service he was captured by the German occupying forces in 1944, tortured and eventually shot as the Germans prepared to withdraw. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his work is full of interest in the underclass and the downtrodden; perhaps more surprisingly, it is also not entirely about France, though much of it is. But despite the drama of his life, there are others with similarly amazing lives who have made less of an impact, you can’t read that experience back out of his work without knowing it’s there anyway, and in Bloch’s case I think we can honestly say that it wasn’t just his good fortune in being based in Paris and helping to start a transnational longue durée school of historical study in the form of the Annales just as the world was about to become very very ready for a history that didn’t deal primarily in competing nationalisms that has ensured his immortality.

Cover of volume I of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of volume I of the English translation of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, still in print today

So this book, what does it do? Well, it divides into two volumes, even in the original French, and the first more or less attempts a total picture of medieval society in the post-Carolingian world. The underlying premise here is that with the disintegration of state power in the tenth century under the pressure of invasion and economic collapse, the result was an increasing tendency for society to be defined by ties of dependency rather than ties of solidarity, a shift to vertical social relations away from horizontal ones protected and endorsed by public power, and that this shift became so fundamentally embedded that it came to be the defining characteristic of almost all medieval social organisation. So he covers law, kindred, vassalage, servitude, land organisation, and fits all this into his schema. Then in the second volume he deals in the power interests that kept it this way: nobility and noble aspirations, the conformity of the Church to these structures, the localisation and isolation of power around castles, and finally the beginnings of a recovery of state power that might combat this.

Cover of volumee II of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of the second volume

A lot of this we might now nuance, especially the causes of the initial collapse of the Carolingian and post-Carolingian state, and we might especially want to try and extract Germany from the paradigm, though Bloch worked to include it, but often having done so we might, I think, I find that we have arrived at the same places where he founded his theory by a different route. You can easily see in this the seeds of the scholarship we now think of as the feudal transformation debate, but Bloch’s chronology was longer, and more subtle, seeing a ‘first feudal age’ taking shape in the mid-eleventh century as all the earlier changes bedded down into a describable structure, and then a ‘second feudal age’ in the second half of the twelfth century caused very largely by a recovery of state power at the same time as, and obviously linked with, the economic boom of the high Middle Ages, these being united by the importance of the personal ties that held them together but rather different in the ways that importance found its expression, and both periods of development rather than of stasis.2

I think that begins also to explain why the book has held its importance so. Some obvious reasons why this should be so, starting with that one, are:

  • it does not require the problematic forcing of all change into a relatively narrow chronological window that the feudal transformation scholarship does;
  • Bloch was always, always comparative, and will occasionally break out quick round-Europe surveys to remind his reader that firstly this is not just a French phenomenon he is discussing and that secondly the French version of it may not be typical, freeing him from many of the tropes that might otherwise have caused his work to be left behind;3
  • he was cautious, and pushed nothing much further than it would go, so that we find him starting paragraphs with the noble sentiment, “Let us not, however, exaggerate. The picture would have to be carefully shaded—by regions and classes.”4
  • Despite this, almost everything in society is in his picture somewhere, joined into a wider structure that, as long as you accept his terms, makes some kind of sense together; he’s drawing a really big picture with tiny detailed strokes.
  • But most importantly of all, I think, is how short the book is, so that nothing is overdone or overstated, especially given that half of each section is qualifications and variations. One goes to it looking for a concept that’s become fundamental to scholarship subsequently such as the idea of kindred as ‘friends by blood’, and finds that he does it in a page and a half, with maybe two examples. It wouldn’t stand up if someone less insightful had written it, but given that Bloch did, instead there isn’t enough of it to make it obviously falsifiable, while the idea still comes through at full force and sticks with you, even in translation.5

Really, after reading it, actively looking for things to object to, the best I could come up with is that Bloch chose to characterise all this as ‘feudal’, because we now think that this is not very helpful.6 But not only is this one of the rare cases where a historian using such language makes very clear what he meant by it (even if that is, more or less, ‘everything’), so that Chris Wickham in his saving throw for the term ‘feudalism’ of which I’m so fond took Bloch’s ‘imaginaire féodale” as one of the three ideal types people usually mean by the word, but he was also very very aware that it was a problematic term even in 1936.7 The English translation has an introduction by Michael Postan who, unsurprisingly, mounts a rigorous defence for the term:

“This is… an approach much wider than the one that equates feudalism with feudum and begins and ends its history with that of the knight service. In Bloch’s definition the fief is only an element, albeit a very important one, of the whole situation. But to him a society might still be feudal even if the fief occupied a more subordinate position. This latitude might strike the orthodox as incompatible with the etymology of the term. But, he argues, etymological rectitude is not the final test of an historical concept. ‘What’, he asks in his Métier d’un historien, ‘if the term is currently used to characterize societies in which the fief is not the most significant trait. There is nothing in this contrary to the practice of all the sciences. Are we shocked by the physicists persisting to apply [sic] the term atom, i. e. indivisible, to an object they subject to the most audacious division?'”8

This is admittedly someone else’s voice quoting from a different work but it’s not saying anything Bloch doesn’t himself say in the book’s very first chapter: the term ‘feudal’ is an anachronism invested with vast ideological loading by the French Revolution and which is subject to several definitions that don’t always overlap, this all seems very familiar to us now, but he was going to use it anyway and came up with a better reason than many for doing so, to wit, his ability to fit pretty much everything he wanted to link together into the structure with which it provided him.9

So the lessons for us as historians after immortality might seem to be: don’t be afraid to take a controversial position if you can demonstrate its worth; in so demonstrating, minimalism will often serve you better than making your points at full strength, and thus making it easy for people to find counters; always remember to consider the places and times and circumstances where what you’re attempting won’t float; and lastly, you’ll need to be really very clever. When I first read this it struck me as a near-perfect example of the contention that historians value caution more than almost anything else when evaluating others’ work, especially when they themselves know nothing much of the subject being written about, but it’s not just caution or choosing as subject something kin which people have continued to be invested for decades, almost in defiance of any explicable factor, that has guaranteed Bloch’s work such a long life: it’s that he managed to combine not going too far with covering almost everything, in a careful and considered fashion and I think that to do that you have to be something really out of the ordinary, as Marc Bloch clearly was.


1. M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1939), 2 vols, transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961), 2 vols; all citations below from the English translation.

2. Ibid. I pp. 59-71.

3. So, ibid. I pp. 176-189 is a deliberate tour of his concept round Europe, including two differing bits of France contrasted, Italy, Germany, England, Galicia and some final notes on Sicily, Syria, and Byzantium as places to which feudalism was ‘imported’. Eastern Europe would have been nice but as far as his project goes it’s a pretty reasonable sample.

4. Ibid. I p. 71.

5. Ibid. I pp. 123-125.

6. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); and, with my usual reservations about it, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008).

7. Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nel’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51.

8. M. M. Postan, “Foreword” in Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xi-xv at pp. xiv-xv, citing Bloch, Le metier d’historien (Paris 1948), transl. Peter Putnam (New York 1954), p. 86, presumably of the English.

9. E. g. Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xvi-xx, esp. p. xix:
“The term ‘feudalism’, applied to a phase of European history within the limits thus determined, has sometimes been interpreted in ways so different as to be almost contradictory, yet the mere existence of the word attest the special quality which men have instinctively recognized in the period which it denotes. Hence a book about feudal society can be looked on as an attempt a question posed by its very title: what are the distinctive features of this portion of the past which have given it a claim to be treated in isolation?”

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. 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; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. 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 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following 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), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

Seminar CLXIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, IV

Continuing to tackle the seminar write-up backlog, I must reluctantly skip over the next paper I went to, Zubin Mistry’s “Tradition in Practice: thinking about abortion under the Carolingians” at the IHR, because it has already been well-covered at Magistra et Mater, which means that five in six of the last posts will have been about Anglo-Saxon England one way or another. Looking back at this, it does become a bit clearer why I was finding it so hard to make progress on things Catalan in Oxford… Anyway, after Zubin’s paper came school half-term, which meant that I unfortunately had to miss one of John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “From Central Clusters to Complex Centres: economic reorientation and the making of urban landscapes”, and whatever was following it the next week in various places, and resume seminar attendance with the fifth of those lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape (5): landscapes of rural settlement”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The subject of this lecture was basically the village, and how and when it moved from being a relatively loose association of linear enclosures to the houses-all-facing-one-road croft-and-toft layout that the English now think of as being typical for an old village. One way at this is via boundary ditches, and there are lots of these known, but eighty per cent of them date from after 1050, and the remainder from the seventh to ninth centuries, with nothing in between! If you buy John’s idea that use of grids and standard measurements bespeaks monastic involvement in laying out the land, even if they just provided consultant expertise when divisions were needed or something (as John thinks detectable at Stotfold in Bedfordshire), then there is presumably rather a lot of less orchestrated settlement that we are simply not seeing here, and in the ninth to eleventh century gap it’s almost all of it.

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire; the Anglo-Saxon settlement was located south of the roundabout at bottom right

Stotfold actually makes a good example of how such a community might develop. The place-name derives from a very large cattle corral (a stud-fold) that seems to underlie the early settlement; in this was later built a church and three farmsteads, with one more outside, two of the farmsteads inside having been divided on a grid plan. Each of the farms seems to have had a circle of ‘inland‘ around it, but the old corral puts them all in the same gathering somehow. Was this a village? Is it nucleated? Is it dispersed? Are these even real categories? What it’s not, anyway, is toft-and-croft down a road with common fields: that all seems to be eleventh-century or later, here around the Norman church, and then to have endured until the ninenteeth!1 Before that, however, we’re not looking at anything that would be sensibly called a ‘manor’ or similar; John prefers Rosamond Faith’s terms warland and inland, free warrior tenancies versus slave-farmed reserves, the latter of which have no documentary presence of course.2

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar again, because it’s good

The revival of planning in settlement layout is also almost entirely within the area John had earlier noticed as significant, the catchment of the Wash understood in broad terms, or in other words the east and south Midlands and northern Home Counties extending towards the Thames Valley. In this area we have plenty of what might be warland settlements, but what is oddly lacking is much sign of very large estates such as might belong to major aristocrats. Even the supposed palace sites we have are in relatively minor estates as far as can be told, leading to Cheddar’s description as a hunting lodge.3 As had been discussed in one of the earlier lectures, early and middle Anglo-Saxon high status just doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of immovable expression of hierarchy.

Reconstruction drawing of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho

Reconstruction drawing (and a highly fanciful one) of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho as proposed by its excavator

In settlements like Stotfold and the more famous Goltho, with whose dating John has strongly-expressed issues, he sees then the housing of the rising low-grade nobility, the thegns vying for social promotion, and sees this as a fairly late phenomenon. What we have here is the burhs that the tenth-century laws required such men to have if they were to claim thegnly status, which raises the question of whether there are fortified examples of such houses.4 To this John’s answer was so characteristic that I wrote it down verbatim: “The answer seems to be, yes there are and they’re egg-shaped!” You may blink somewhat at this but Goltho, and also Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, another and perhaps better candidate for a late Anglo-Saxon ‘castle’, and Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, all show ovoid ramparts around relatively small halls that fit this expectation, and there are probably more under later Norman motte-and-bailey overlays. That however takes the lectures into something quite like a new society, and this was left for the last one the next week.


1. John had a clutch of references that kept coming up for later medieval villages and settlement, and this time I wrote them down. They were: B. K. Roberts & S. Wrathmell, Region and Place: a study of English rural settlement (London 2002); A. Lambourne, Patterning within the Historic Landscape and its Possible Causes: a study of the incidence and origins of regional variation in Southern England, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 509 (Oxford 2010); and Tom Williamson, Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England: time and topography (Woodbridge 2013), the last of which he must have had in draft I assume!

2. I’ve linked to Rosamond Faith’s The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (London 1999), which covers this formulation in great detail pp. 15-136, but another work of hers that kept coming up was eadem & Debby Banham, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming (Oxford forthcoming) which is obviously going to be pretty good news for those who are interested in such things when it finally emerges.

3. See once more J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

4. The source here is a tract associated with Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (which puts it in that most dangerous category, draft moral legislation) called Geþyncðo, translated by Dorothy Whitelock as “Concerning Wergilds and Dignities” in her (trans.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 51(a). On it in this sense see Ann Williams, “A bell-house and a burh-geat: lordly residences in England before the Norman Conquest” in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), Medieval Knighthood IV: papers from the fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 221-240, repr. in Robert Liddiard (ed.), Anglo-Norman Castles (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 23-40, and more generally W. G. Runciman, “Accelerating Social Mobility: the case of Anglo-Saxon England” in Past and Present no. 104 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-30.

Seminar CLIX: lords in the middle

One of the many notable things about being in the thick of the Oxford academic environment for that while that I was was the very large number of very good doctoral students hanging about, often from outside the UK, all gnawingly nervous about their prospects on the job market and very often being supervised by Chris Wickham; had we not already established that Chris has some modern-day equivalent of ravens informing him of the world’s doings I would wonder how he kept track of them all. I cannot remember now if Nicholas Schroeder was one of Chris’s, but he was certainly one of the brighter sparks doing the Oxford seminar circuit while I was there.1 I saw him present twice, and the first of these occasions was on 28th January 2013, when he spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “The Forgotten Lords: the feudal revolution and monastic lordship in Lotharingia, c. 900 to c. 1250″.

Map of tenth-century Lotharingia

Map from M. Schroeder’s handout for the paper, pencil customisations in the original; apologies for photo quality, I’m away from home as I write this

Invoking the feudal revolution at all of course means stepping into a dense historiographical forest over the social changes of the tenth and eleventh centuries in Europe, in which as M. Schroeder observed, the debate has died without being solved. In his home country of Belgium, however, the local version was very much carried into orthodoxy by the work of Léopold Genicot, who saw the great estates of the earlier period being broken into new territorial lordships by means of lords subjecting peasants to what had previously been public jurisdiction, and solidarities developing within the communities subject to those lords.2 To this were then added various new voices, Florian Mazel arguing for a new style of ecclesiastical lordship developing in the period of papal reform in which rule via advocates and lay abbots ceases to be acceptable and a more old-fashioned and direct form of lordship had to be adopted instead, Paul Fouracre arguing that even in the eleventh century ties of lordship were more personal than territorial, the familia being the most important group to which anyone belonged, and Charles West most recently arguing that what was going on was the ultimate success of the Carolingian effort to create a locally-responsible lordship based on relationships that was, however, intended to be different from ownership but in fact never really became so before the state that required this ceased to be. Charles also argues that this worked out very differently on the two sides of the Meuse, Champagne becoming a big territory and Upper Lotharingia never ceasing to be a land of monastic lordships within a greater lord’s less intensive territory.3

The current state of the old abbey of Stavelot-Malmédy

The current state of the old abbey of Stavelot-Malmédy, whence most of the information in the paper here discussed, from Wikimedia Commons

Having laid all this out for us in good critical fashion, M. Schroeder then began the task of setting it against his work on the monastery, documents and territory of Stavelot-Malmédy.4 This hit immediately against two complications: the first was trying to get perspective on a society that is larger than just the Church when the Church’s documents are almost your only source, and the other was that the Church, as Mazel’s paradigm just discussed implies, had different pressures on the way it managed its property from those operating on laymen. I am not convinced that the ideologies are that different, in fact, but in the eleventh century especially the Church was under pressure from within itself and without to adhere more closely than before or later to the ideology its members urged upon society more widely. Nonetheless, M. Schroeder pointed out that one can find all manner of models of lordship in the Stavelot evidence, more than any of the templates outlined above accommodate: there’s already territorial lordship in the tenth century (he said), with both jurisdiction and personal ties (in labour and service obligations); attendance at courts of the monastery’s familia could be demanded from people both inside and outside its territoria, people could live inside the territoria who were ‘strangers’ because they were not members of the familia, and Stavelot’s one attempt to create a castle lordship seems to have failed and got reorganised into villages. What M. Schroeder did not see, however, was the monastery’s subordinates and advocates becoming threats to its own authority, and neither did he see much collapse of the various forms of lordship into each other until the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.

The château-fort de Logne as it now stands

The castle lordship may not have worked out but the castle itself is still quite impressive! The château-fort de Logne as it now stands

In questions two things came out: one, raised by Mark Whittow, was what archæology might add to this, which of course really hits against the problem that that archæology is arrayed across several countries and turns out to be M. Schroeder’s post-doctoral project, and the other, raised by me, was that some way to distinguish between the different rows and columns of what he called a matrix of lordship might be to consider who had set them up. I think that might work for Catalonia to an extent, in as much as counts and monasteries do seem to aim for different things there, but I don’t think I got the question out right as what M. Schroeder answered with was that the important thing might be when lordship and village organisation combined. That may well be true but I still want to know if what I had meant to ask would have been useful… Anyway, that aside, this was a very careful sifting of evidence through a variety of frameworks that left me with some hope that there are in fact ways to advance the tired old feudal transformation debate to the point where we might actually reach new ways to express and explain the developmental similarities it currently struggles to unite.


1. Although there are other publications by now, the one of M. Schroeder’s that got mentioned in the introduction was Jean-Pierre Devroey & Nicholas Schroeder, “Beyond royal estates and monasteries: landownership in the early medieval Ardennes” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 39-69, DOI:10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00334.x.

2. At the time I noted down a reference to ‘Genicot 1968′ but the venerable professor turns out to have been quite busy that year and I don’t know which publication was meant: the most obviously relevant seems to be his “Nobles, sainteurs et alleutiers dans le Namurois du XIe siècle” in Album J. Balon (Namur 1968), pp. 117-123, but that seems pretty short to be a classic and irreplaceable formulation!

3. Referring to F. Mazelle, Féodalités 888-1180 (Paris 2010); P. Fouracre, “Marmoutier and its Serfs in the Eleventh Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 15 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 29-50 and idem, “Marmoutier: familia versus family. The Relations between Monastery and Serfs in Eleventh-Century North-West France” in Andrew Reynolds, Wendy Davies & Guy Halsall (edd.), People and Space in the Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 15 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 255-274; Charles West, Reframing the Feudal Revolution: Political and Social Transformation between Marne and Moselle, c. 800-c. 1100 (Cambridge 2013).

4. The charters of the abbey are edited in Joseph Halkin & Charles Gustave Roland (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Stavelot-Malmédy (Bruxelles 1909-1930), 2 vols, which is apart from anything else one of the most handsome books I think I ever handled in the course of medieval studies.

Three-pointed sales and the limits of comital power

While I was slogging through the documents in Catalunya Carolíngia IV I became aware that I was seeing a particular thing again and again, that being apparent deals in which a property was sold to one party and then immediately sold on to another. The first set-up like this that I met, and I’m now thinking perhaps the oddest, was the repeated sales of the castle of Carcolzes, which I mentioned here a long time ago. There, Count-Marquis Borrell II borrowed half of the Osona frontier castle of Clarà from Bishop Sal·la of Urgell, pledging the Urgell one of Carcolzes to the bishop in exchange, and then wouldn’t give Clarà back. Sal·la plainly didn’t want Carcolzes for keeps (er, no pun intended), and he complains about it at great length in a document in which he sold it to his sacristan Bonhom for 500 solidi‘s worth of produce. Bonhom doesn’t seem to have liked it either, though, and sold it on to Viscount Guillem of Urgell, which we know because the next year we find Guillem selling it back to Bishop Sal·la for an equivalent price, whereafter Sal·la gave up and gave it to the cathedral of Urgell for his archdeacon nephew to hold as castellan.1

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes, image from Wikimedia Commons. I suppose the fact that there had to be a new castle shows that the problems were irremediable…

In that case it seems more or less obvious what’s going on, to wit that the bishop got swindled and that there was something really wrong about Carcolzes that became apparent to each of its holders, though never so much as to make them accept a lower price. But the other case we’ve seen here, in which Borrell II (again) sold a substantial deal of land at el Buc in Manresa for 200 solidi to his wealthy follower and castellan Unifred Amat, who then the next day promptly sold it to someone called Guifré, with Borrell witnessing, it was obviously designed to wind up that way in the first place, and I speculated at length as to exactly what configuration of power would explain it.2 Now, I have three more cases that may make things a bit clearer.

The Castell de Gotmar at Callús, from Wikimedia Commons

The Castell de Gotmar at Callús, again from Wikimedia Commons

The first of these is basically the same set-up as the previous: Borrell II’s son Ramon Borrell, acting for his father in Osona in the last year of Borrell’s life, 992, sells an alod called Castellet to a priest by the name of Miró Marcuç for 100 solidi and Miró next day sells it on to Abbot Arnulf of Santa Maria de Ripoll. Arnulf witnessed the first transaction and the same scribe wrote both.3 Here, if I had nothing else, I’d think that for one reason or another Miró needed a big favour from Arnulf and used his apparent connection to the count to get it, though one would ideally still like to know what it was about Castellet that made it better than anything Miró already owned (which was a fair bit).4 The other two cases begin to suggest an answer to that dilemma, and thus to what may have been going on in the case at el Buc too.

The Castell d'Òdena, image from Wikimedia Commons

The Castell d’Òdena, image once more from Wikimedia Commons

Back a bit to 989 and some familiar participants. We are now at the castle of Òdena, founded by none other than Unifred Amat with his daddy Sal·la, and it is two more persons of the latter name who are dealing here, the first being an Òdena-based Sal·la who was clearly connected to the family to which Unifred belongs but whose relation to them is never stated and the second being the bishop (who was Unifred’s first cousin).5 On 10th May the first Sal·la sold the second Sal·la a substantial alod that he had “from my parents or from purchase or from aprisio“, for which the bishop paid him 2 pesatas in goods, probably equivalent to 480 solidi.6 Then, on 12th May, Count-Marquis Borrell II and his son Ramon Borrell, tous les deux, sold it back to the first Sal·la and his wife for two pesadas in goods as before, helpfully explaining that the bishop had sold it to them (presumably on the 11th).7 Why on earth go through all this in three days? The answer seems to be in the only difference between the two property descriptions: the counts sell the estate “sine ulla inquietudine vel sine ullo censu vel sine ulla funccione”, ‘without any disturbance or any rent or any service’, more or less, in other words tax-free. And this is also what happens in the other case, on 16th April 990, where a priest called Sunifred gives Ramon Borrell an estate in Sant Llorenç and gets it back the same day at the price of 100 solidi, but accompanied by “censum vel functionem qui exinde exiebat vel exire debebat”, ‘the render or service that used to come or should have come from it’.8 This case gives us some extra, as not only was it obviously worth 100 solidi for Sunifred to have those dues lifted off the estate, but we also have his purchase of the estate the previous year, and then he paid a pesa in goods, probably about 240 solidi‘s worth.9 So Ramon Borrell was not getting the estate’s worth in this deal: it really was a sale of tax revenue done in a rather roundabout way.

Castell de Sant Llorenç del Munt, Osona

Castell de Sant Llorenç del Munt, Osona

Might this then be what’s going on in the other cases? With Carcolzes, I think it cannot be; the castle went through fiscal hands twice and the people who should have had the advantage of that still got rid of it. In the other two cases, however, it’s more possible. Granted, the documents don’t say that the lands were sold tax-free, but on the other hand we don’t have any indication that they weren’t the counts’ to start with, and it might be that comital land didn’t pay tax (though that would raise more questions). I do think it’s significant that all these deals involve the same limited set of participants, Borrell, Ramon Borrell or Bishop Sal·la, and that they all take place so close together, all within three years of each other bar the case with Unifred Amat. (Carcolzes is trickier, as what we have is Sal·la giving up, rather than the original pledge, but to take him at his word he seems to have held the place for two Pentecosts and more before giving up on getting his own castle back, and he did that in 993, so this could still be in that group.)

The Castell de Clarà

The one that got away: Castell de Clarà, though when Bernat and Borrell had to share it I guess there was more than this!

Whether these are all the same thing or not, though, it tells us something interesting about the power the counts of this age could claim. Firstly, it tells us that they could actually demand enough revenue from privately-held land that it was worth paying quite a lot to be rid of those obligations, though I have my suspicions that the actual demanding of those obligations was fairly new and that if played right this could be less of a general system and more of a protection racket, in which the counts picked somebody whose tax liability they were willing to enforce in order to bind them closer into the structure of personal obligations created by these kinds of deals.10 But it also tells us about limits. The counts of Barcelona circa 990 would not, or could not, simply sell tax revenue; elaborate structures of transaction had to be mounted within which that was done. Later on there would be no problem with this, or even with making a personal obligation out of it: that’s what the money fief’s for, right?11 (Likewise, at Carcolzes, Borrell could apparently not simply compulsorily purchase a half-share of Clarà but had to extort it, though that may have more to do with the fact that the owner of the other half, Sal·la’s brother Viscount Bernat of Conflent, was not under his direct control.12) But at this stage they didn’t have the tools for it; while Borrell II was alive, at least, what would later be done with arrangements in fief had to be cloaked in traditional formulae. The question I have yet to answer is whether this is because what they are doing was actually new (which other things Bishop Sal·la did might support) or because Borrell was especially keen on making his governmentalist power-grabbing look old-fashioned and traditional (which other things he did would support).13 A further question is whether this was happening a lot more widely but is undetectable when we only have one of the documents in the chain. Plenty to do! But here’s one way I’m working this stuff out.


1. C. 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. nos 239 & 243.

2. 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 678-680.

3. Ibid., doc. nos 1635 & 1636.

4. I identify him in ibid., doc. nos 1189, 1364, 1391, 1411, 1537, 1538, 1539, 1592, 1602, 1609, 1620, 1635, 1636, 1734, 1747, 1768 & 1789, in all but two of which (1592 and 1636 as above) he was buying land, mostly in Castell Gotmar and often from the same people, which makes me wonder if we see a large family here consolidating as per Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 112-114.

5. The kindred relations here are worked out by Manuel Rovira, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260.

6. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1556.

7. Ibid., doc. no. 1557.

8. Ibid., doc. nos 1578 & 1579.

9. Ibid., doc. no. 1559.

10. Ideas about what comital power could demand here are very strongly based around templates from elsewhere and less around local evidence. The best such schematic treatment is probably still Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngia 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), I pp. 181-226.

11. Best described in Marc Bloch, La Société féodale (Paris 1939), 2 vols, transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961), 2 vols, I pp. 173-175 of the translation.

12. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 136-141.

13. Sal·la for example issued lands in benefice with the prescription that its holders might seek no other lord and was the first ruler in his area to grant land by convenientia, the term that would later be used of grants in fief; see Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), online at http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~jjarrett/thesis.html, last modified 24th March 2011 as of 15th February 2014, pp. 305-307, and Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 54-59; for Borrell’s initiatives, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 141-166.

On the economics of tenth-century mills

Every now and then I write a post for this blog that is probably really a paper. Occasionally this is deliberate, because I’m having trouble working something out and I try and explain it to an imagined audience. All of those posts are still in the queue, which is now so long that the paper may be finished before they are… but this one, like one or two others, I started writing merely to get something off my chest that I hoped might be interesting and then by the end it’s nearly three thousand words and has enough footnotes for a centipede. Were it not that a lot of these posts start as me trying to show someone wrong about something, it’d be a great way to carry out scholarship. But maybe that doesn’t stop it being a viable paper, and it’s been some time since I wrote about my actual research area, so, hey: let’s ask a Marxist question about mills in early medieval Catalonia! That question is, of course: who controls the means of production? There is an accepted answer about this and I’m not sure it’s quite right. Interest piqued? The rest is behind the cut below. If not, here is that really cool mill location I wrote about before once more, why not look at that instead?

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Continue reading

Seminars CXXXV & CXXXVI: characterising some medieval disputants

The need to catch up on the seminar reports is still fairly urgent, so I must do my now-usual filtering of what is in the pile. Out, with reluctance because it was good but with reassurance because as so often Magistra has already covered it, goes the second Clerical Cosmos conference in Oxford, but do go have a look at Magistra’s reports if the subtitle, “Ecclesiastical power, culture and society, c. 900 to c. 1075″, sounds like it should hit your interests. That at last takes me into the Easter term of 2013, and that term was greeted in Oxford by a paper by Mark Whittow to the Medieval History Seminar on the 23rd April entitled, “Territorial Lordship and Regional Power in the Age of Gregorian Reform: Matilda of Canossa and the Matildine lands”.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone (who may be the cleric at her right)

This paper did the audience the good service of recapitulating Matilda’s career, something it’s quite hard to get in one place from literature outside Italy despite its importance in the politics of Germany and Italy (and especially both) in the time of the eleventh-century dispute of Holy Roman Empire and Papacy, and assessing her landed holdings.1 Out of this came several observations, one being that little enough of her focus was actually in her marquisate of Tuscany, where competition for power was perhaps not one-sided enough, and another being that while she is often represented as a champion of public office because she held one, her armies were formed of vassals based in castles even if the emperor had approved the grant of the castles. In other words, she was pretty much as feudo-vassalitic in operation as the Dukes of Aquitaine, even if she was more closely involved with a persistent and intermittently-powerful royalty than they were. Nonetheless, there was a difference in the discourse of power Matilda used, with artwork and manuscripts presenting her as imperially-descended and legitimate and traditional in a way the Meridional princes wouldn’t have used unless they went for Roman roots, as Christian Lauranson-Rosaz would argue they did in the Auvergne.2 That, at least, would have worked to undermine the claims of a royalty that drew its ancestry back to fairly recent, and certainly post-Roman, times, but Matilda was competing for the same grounds of legitimacy as her German royal opponents (and sometimes allies). So this was all very interesting and fitted Matilda into a different framework than the one where English-language historians usually meet her, but the thing that sticks with me is something that I had to raise in questions, that the pictures we have of her do, yes, twice show her on a throne, but they also consistently show her dwarfed by it, compared to her noble antecessors shown on the same throne in the same manuscript. The author of that manuscript knew the lady personally; it was hard not to conclude that the artist did too, and what he or she knew was that their patron was pretty small.3 This obviously didn’t make her any the less considerable, if so!

15th-century manuscript depiction of the Court of Common Pleas, London

15th-century manuscript depiction of the Court of Common Pleas, London

Then the very next day the Medieval Church and Culture Seminar was lucky enough, as we were told at fulsome length, to be host to Professor Paul Hyams, who spoke with the title, “Disputes and How to Avoid Them: charters and custom in England during the long 12th century”.4 This appealed to me, predictably perhaps, as it was a paper about what the charters aren’t telling us, the trouble that a dispute settlement charter averts or that preceded its issue but which its scribe thought it impolitic to recount, at least from more than one side. It dealt with the invisible threshold of wealth beyond which written records were even available, specifically, and whether we can see serfdom in medieval England as early as it may start. I wouldn’t like to say that it concluded that we could, but the plea to consider what else was going on around the documents we have – the meetings, to and fro voyages of negotiation, the feast and the talk at dinner when a transaction was concluded, all of which probably explain a lot more about how a given transaction unfolded than does its surviving record – is a plea always worth hearing, especially when loaded with this many interesting examples.


1. The core text here is a Vita Mathildis by one Donizone of Canossa, whence we get the charming picture, the text most recently edited and translated (into Italian; I’m fairly sure there’s no English translation) by Paolo Golinelli as Vita di Matilde di Canossa (Milano 2008); the secondary work that Mark cited included Golinelli (ed.), I poteri dei Canossa da Reggio Emilia all’Europa. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi (Reggio Emilia – Carpineti, 29-31 ottobre 1992) (Bologna 1994), especially Guiseppe Sergi’s “I poteri di Canossa: poteri delegati, poteri feudali, poteri signorili”, pp. 29-39, and Sergi, I confini del potere: Marche e signorie fra due regni medievali (Torino 1995); on the dispute between empire and papacy in which Matilda became so involved, I like Ute-Renate Blumenthal’s The Investiture Controversy: Church and monarchy from the ninth to the twelfth century (Philadelphia 1988).

2. For example, C. Lauranson-Rosaz, “La romanité du midi de l’an mil (le point sur les sociétés méridionales)” in Robert Delort (ed.), La France de l’An Mil, Points-Histoires H130 (Paris 1990), pp. 49-74, rev. as “La romanité du midi de l’an mil : le point sur les sociétés méridionales” in Xavier Barral i Altet, Dominique Iogna-Prat, Anscari Mundó, Josep María Salrach & Michel Zimmermann (edd.), Catalunya i França Meridional a l’Entorn de l’Any Mil: la Catalogne et la France méridionale autour de l’an mil. Colloque International D. N. R. S.[sic]/Generalitat de Catalunya « Hugues Capet 987-1987. La France de l’An Mil », Barcelona 2 — 5 juliol 1987, Actes de Congresos 2 (Barcelona 1991), pp. 45-58.

3. The manuscript is Vatican City, Biblioteca vaticana, MS 4922, and is edited in facsimile as Donizone di Canossa, La vita di Matilde di Canossa: Codice Vaticano latino 4922, ed. Golinelli, Codices e Vaticanis selecti 62 (Milano 1984). A few more bits of it are online here.

4. This was work deriving from a project to follow up P. Hyams, Rancor and reconciliation in medieval England (Ithaca 2003), and I guess we can expect it to start some disputes as well as settle some…

Seminar CIII: in which I document the end of an era

Sorry about the gap; this term is burying me somewhat. Matters should improve in a fortnight. Meanwhile, I am so behind with seminar write-ups that I must reluctantly skip those about which I am qualified to say little, and this leaves me moving on, to my complete surprise I assure you, to ME.1 Because, in fact, the presentation to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London on 15th June this year was by your sometimes-humble correspondent, talking with the title “Managing power in the post-Carolingian era: rulers and ruled in frontier Catalonia, 880-1010″.

Jonathan Jarrett presenting his research at the Institut of Historical Research

The cunning and alert reader will notice a suspicious similarity between paper subtitle and the title of my book (which, I seem not to have said for a while, you can buy here), and that would be a fair cop. I was not quite presenting new research here, although there was some towards the end; if you happened to have and have read my book, have heard me at Leeds in 2010 and also read this blog post, I’m afraid you would have learnt nothing from this presentation except by linking it all up. I don’t think anyone there present fell into all those groups, however, so I hope it was diverting for them, and there were at least some pretty pictures. What the paper did, essentially, was to give the overall thesis of the book, with some cherry-picked examples, synthesize my conclusions there, and then as a kind of epilogue talk about my next major project, and the comparisons in the way that Borrell II and his contemporaries presented their power in their documents that I have been able to make as part of the early work on that project. As such, there might be some point for the person who hasn’t read my book, but is wondering if they should, in reading this paper first, and if it leaves you wanting more, well, it’s out there. For that reason, and also just out of vanity, I uploaded the text I wrote for this to Academia.edu here. I have no plans to do anything further with it, so I imagine it will stay there unless Academia.edu melts down or disappears. You should be aware that I didn’t have time to put notes on it, so all my claims are unreferenced, but most of them are in the book and the rest will shortly appear.2

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Alice Rio invites an audience member to make their point, if they dare (I kid, I kid...)

Vain though I undoubtedly am, however, I am not actually the point of this post. The era whose end I’m documenting is not, in fact, the Carolingian one in the lands of its most loyally disconnected supporters, but one in the history of the actual seminar. Again, long-term readers will know I have been going to this seminar a long time, and it’s a lot longer than the blog too, but it goes back far further than me; it was, I believe, started by none other than R. Allen Brown, and taken over subsequently by John Gillingham and then/also Jinty Nelson. In other words, its second set of convenors have now retired. (Susan Reynolds includes some of these details in her reminiscences here; like her, I have found this seminar a lifeline, albeit for different reasons given our respective statuses.) And in that time, it has almost always been held in the Ecclesiastical History Room of the Library of the Institute of Historical Research, in the Senate House of the University of London. This, by ancient precedent, allowed those attending to haul volumes of the Patrologia Latina (or occasionally even the Græca) off shelves to check references during discussion and on the other hand by equally ancient precedent prevented anyone else using the books in there during the seminar. The other ancient custom, which had to be explained with embarrassment to every new speaker, is that the audience did not applaud, a rule which I only very rarely saw broken.

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Professor Reynolds herself, centre of photo, among other worthies of the seminar

This has now all stopped. The Senate House is being extensively rebuilt internally, the entire IHR is being refurbished in a two-year project, and the Library has therefore been moved to the other side of Senate House. Once it reopens, the seminars and the books will be housed separately and basically it will all be different. Whatever that room is to be used for in future, it seems unlikely that it will ever again house this seminar (though the seminar itself continues meanwhile, in new accommodation). And for that reason, once I’d wound up, Jinty Nelson had the typically excellent idea of getting people to photograph the room, the gathering, the proceedings and the surroundings, so that it could be somehow recorded for posterity. And Jinty and Alice Rio, both of whom I can never disappoint, asked me to put it up on the blog, and so now I have. And when it moves off the front page I shall set it up as its own page and link it from my Seminars page in the top menu bar there, and so, I hope, it will be documented as long as I have the blog, which is something I have no plans to stop doing soon. If it lasts as long as the seminar has, though, that’ll be something…

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research

Jinty herself, centre back, explaining; not sure what the others are looking at, probably a camera by this stage!


1. It was actually a surprise, because I had to look up the date I presented before I realised I was next. I thought I’d be writing up a conference at this point, which is instead next. The paper I’ve elided was Aleksandra McClain, “Commemoration, Landscape, and Identity in Medieval Northern England”, presented to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 13th June 2011, which displayed great command of her material, was very clear and seemed likely to be right in stressing that Northumbria was no cultural backwater even in the thirteenth century but did hold to conservative forms of funereal display as part of a local complex of identity; I just have no basis on which to critique this at all or anything to add of my own, so I’m afraid I cruelly relegate it to this footnote.

2. References for the new stalkers and the search engines: J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010); idem, “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).

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.

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part IV

(Written offline on trains between Oxford and London, 17-18/09/2011)

On the morning of the last day of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, as habitués know, the civilized start time of the previous days is put aside for one that beats even Leeds, presumably in the hope that people will come and see at least something before setting out homewards. That was our hope last year when my collaborators and I appeared in the Sunday morning slot, and then it more or less worked; this time was not quite so well-attended, which is a pity because I thought my paper this year was rather better. On the other hand, one of our presenters had failed to show up, so it was perhaps understandable that people went elsewhere. Thankyou, then, to those who did come and see, one of whom was the Medieval History Geek whose write-up is here.

Session 531. The Court and the Courts in the Carolingian World

    Iron-Age-style emmer wheat growing at Butser Historic Farm

    Iron-Age-style emmer wheat growing at Butser Historic Farm, from ukagriculture.com

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “2:1 Against: cereal yields in Carolingian Europe and the Brevium exempla“. You have of course read the core of this here, but I’m glad to say that it seems to make a fairly decent little paper and that the feedback, which was mainly of the form, “yes, OK, we believe you about Annapes but does your argument also deal with the low crop yields Duby reported from Italy?”, very helpful in determining what needs doing to this paper to get it submissible. I do, despite the rather flaily plan of last post, have plans to do something about this.
  • Allegorical portrait of St Luke from the Ste-Croix Gospels

    You'll be telling me next you didn't know bovine evangelists got black wings

  • Lynley Anne Herbert, “A Bishop and an Abbot Walk into a Scriptorium: uncovering the clerical courtiers behind the Gospel of Ste-Croix“, was a great thing to share a session with, an excellent paper about something almost entirely different to one’s own topic. This was an art history paper of the best kind, containing lots of pictures, very clever explanations of them that no-one’s so far come up with and even the likely solution to whodunnit, though I’ll not give that away. I can prove the point about the pictures, however, because Ms Herbert ran her presentation off this very same laptop where I first typed this and it’s still there, muahaha etc., so for those of you who didn’t come, this sort of thing is why you should have. Suffice it to say that this one was so interesting I more or less escaped without questions.
  • Cruciform tetragrams of the early Middle Ages compared

    This was an artistic parallel I can believe in

That still left the last session, though, and this turned out to be one of those joyful coincidences that can only happen when there are this many scholars present on one campus, the session where you more or less wander in off the street and can help someone you didn’t even know about minutes before.

Session 578. Images of Medieval Kingship

This session too had lost a speaker, but I didn’t see anything more interesting that wasn’t similarly hampered, whereas in this one… well, you’ll see. I was here for the second paper, really, but the first one was also interesting. We got:

    A royal Maundy ceremony in 1867

    A royal Maundy ceremony in 1867

  • Ellie E. Fullerton, “Kings of Beggars: royal almsgiving in medieval Europe”, which discussed, mainly in French and German contexts, royal ceremonial handouts to the poor, in which kings, or at least writers about kings, seem to have seen a basic royal responsibility that also offered the chance to pay off sins. Is that how Elizabeth II sees it when she gives out the annual Maundy money? Well, who knows…
  • King Alfons I and Queen Sancha of Castile, from the Liber Feudorum Maior (via Wikimedia Commons)

    King Alfons I and Queen Sancha of Castile, from the Liber Feudorum Maior (via Wikimedia Commons)

  • Shannon L. Wearing, “Representing Kings and Queens in the Iberian Cartulary: the Liber feudorum maior” was however what had drawn me in, because the relevant Liber is the cartulary of the counts of Barcelona.1 I would have loved a copy of Ms Wearing’s presentation as well, but at least in this case most of the images are already online. This was an iconographic study but done from the scribes up, which I have not seen before with this manuscript; Ms Wearing detected two clearly different artists at work, presumably at different stages, and they had different ideas about how kings and queens should look, broadly the first going for a generic portrayal and the latter much more individualised. Since it was this latter who also painted the picture I love so much of King Alfons I of Aragón and his chancellor Ramon de Caldes with a pile of charters in the archive, and who therefore gave Caldes more prominence in that illustration than the king, there’s some obvious conclusions to be jumped to about responsibility here but Ms Wearing was commendably careful. One set of questions she couldn’t answer as yet were ones about gender, however, because there are a lot of women in the manuscript, and here I was able to set some context by pointing out that the documents of which the Liber feudorum maior is mainly composed are already quite gender-odd. It is mainly, you see, the feudal oaths of which we have seen a couple here, by which the counts of Barcelona reorganised their territory into networks of sworn dependence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (and also inherited the crown of Aragón). As you will have maybe noticed, in these documents the swearing parties are identified by their mothers, and this is the only documentary context in Catalonia where this happens. A certain amount of ink has gone on why this should be but not to any great effect; it remains a problem to be solved.2 By raising it, however, I was able to relate images and text in a way that might not otherwise have been possible, because of knowing other texts to which this is different. I hope it helped and anyway it made me feel clever.
  • King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

    King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

    Also by hanging about to the bitter end like this I met Jordi Camps, whose name has been in the `Currently reading’ part of the sidebar here for, let’s say, a very long time, and who was a gentleman and encouraging to both Ms Wearing and myself. I’d known he was around but hadn’t yet managed to catch him so this was a pleasant coincidence.

But that really was the end; after that it was sitting around talking with Australians (which has become one of my favourite pastimes this summer), failing to make it to lunch with Another Damned Medievalist and Notorious Ph. D. to my chagrin, getting on a bus and then setting out homeward. So, looking back on the whole thing, what else is there to say about this Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo non-academical

First things first: my accommodation was better this year than last. Partly, I suppose, I was just prepared for the horror this time but this dorm room had been swept, there was an adequate supply of bedding and soap and there was not a goose standing on top of the block shouting its heart out at six every morning, so I slept better and thus felt better. On the other hand, out in the world I remember being periodically enraged by people who ambled slowly up the middle of corridors without any apparent conception that others might want to get past, not just at the conference but the airports as well; I don’t remember ever meeting this so badly but it seemed as if I was always trying to get past people who had no thought that they might be blocking a thoroughfare. Anyway, that’s my personal road-rage I suspect.

Socially I enjoyed this year more than last year, and last year was pretty fun. I had several groups of friends established on arrival this time, and so I could be sure of being invited to things and having people about me if I wanted, whereas last year that had been a bit more touch-and-go; on the other hand it may also have been that the discontinuation of the shuttle buses into the town made it more difficult for people to leave campus en masse in the evenings. I was annoyed by this when I wanted to travel thither, obviously, but now I suspect it was probably helping the conference vibe to have people under more pressure to stay on site and socialise.

Anyway. It was fun. It also cost a lot, but less than last year and I have, eventually, been able to reclaim the travel and registration, so the only real cost has been in time and interest on my overdraft, plus, you know, a few books… All the same the time cost was quite high; this year I could do it, next year I expect to be teaching more and it may well be that this means I cannot go again. There is also my resolve to stop coming up with useless papers so as to go to things to reckon with; I think that this means that next year I am probably only presenting about Picts at least for a while, and that not so often. But who knows how things will look by then? So we’ll see. For now, anyway, the write-up is done and it’s onto other things more English once more.


1. Edited with some illustrations (monochrome) by F. Miquel Rosell as Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva en el Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Reconstitución y edición (Barcelona 1945); discussed in English by Adam Kosto in “The Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona: the cartulary as an expression of power” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 27 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 1-21.

2. Not least by Michel Zimmermann, not just his “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557, that I usually cite and which is now online here for free, but also “‘Et je t’empouvoirerai’ Potestativum te farei). À propos des relations entre fidélité et pouvoir au onzième siècle” in Médiévales Vol. 10 (St-Denis 1986), pp. 17-36, and “Le serment vassalique en Catalogne : écriture de la fidélité ou invention d’un ordre politique?” in Françoise Laurent (ed.), Serment, promesse et engagement : rituels et modalités au Moyen Âge, Cahiers du CRISIMA 6 (Montpellier 2008), pp. 585ff, the last of which I have not yet met.