Tag Archives: aristocrats

Building states on the Iberian frontier, III: who’s a lord and who’s not?

[The below post was originally written in February 2013, more or less in one go. I've been holding off on posting it partly because it was in the queue, but also because it and the next one in the series have subsequently come to form the basis of an article which will be published, online and open access, within a fortnight or so.* Now that it's been through review and editing, there seems to be no harm in letting the original out, with the proviso that this was very much a first stab at the ideas involved and that the actual article is much better-founded and more worked-out.]

Statue of Count Fernán González of Castile, in the Sala de los Reyes, Alcázar de Segovia

We can be fairly sure this man was a lord… Statue of Count Fernán Gionzález of Castile, in the Sala de los Reyes, Alcázar de Segovia

A long time has separated this post from its two predecessors, because of an especially frantic holiday followed by an unprecedentedly heavy term made still the more heavy by the pressure to apply for roughly one job every week. Recovering what was supposed to be involved in this series of posts really needed a few clear hours to sit, read and think while sucking down Earl Grey and these have been hard to find. Having just had a couple, and spent part of them once again skimming the chapter by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes that first set me off and then part scribbling squirrely illegible process diagrams till I felt fairly sure of being able to hold on to what they meant, I am ready to resume.1 The first post in the series, you may even recall, was about the historiographical traditions of Castile and Catalonia and how the latter was probably ineluctably more likely to feature peasant agency in its account of the expansion of Christian territorial organisation into the frontier zone between the principality and al-Andalus. The second explored the options available to peasants for taking part in such processes, largely from my own work, because what originally set me off on this was that Escalona and Reyes leave little room for peasant initiative in their picture. “Castilian expansion must be seen as a conscious move by a limited number of aristocrats,” they say.2 There is, of course, always the possibility that Catalonia is weird (or, as suggested here before now, that Castile is) and that by starting from there I am just more likely to find peasant agency for real as well as in the historiography. This is hard to refute, but we can at least compare like with like when it comes to the other end of the metaphorical gun barrel of political power, at which stand that limited number of aristocrats. Just who are these people and what did they do?

Process diagram

You see, I wasn’t kidding about the process diagrams…

This is one of the questions on which the Escalona and Reyes chapter is really really good. It gives numerous examples of aristocrats at work and assesses them against each other. The first approximation answer would be, I think, anyone socially lesser than the king and greater than a member of a local élite, and that latter point certainly needs some elaboration but hopefully it can stand for a moment. (I’m not entirely clear whether secular status is a requirement of their definition of aristocracy. They seem to think of these people being able to find dependent priests, but of course that could also be said of bishops and abbots… but let’s let that drop for now too.) Within that range, of course, there is room for immense variation. They point out the counts, of whom several seem to have vied in a ‘Race for the Duero’ in the late tenth century and then died, men with widespread territories that they were spreading wider and court connections that gave them a way into places (more on that, too, in a minute).3 Beneath this titled level they distinguish people by ‘scale’, mapping properties and comparing the geographical range of their scatter. In this respect they’re doing with Julio’s preferred toolkit the same kind of thing as Wendy Davies did for Brittany with range of travel and I did with comital Catalonia using a terminology of layers and reach which is in many ways just new local cladding for Wendy’s model; the point is that aristocratic status comes in many different strengths, and we all find geographical distance a useful way to ‘scale’ it.4 These aristocrats held land or rights in many places, even if they may have had a focus, and one of the interesting things that Escalona and Reyes suggest is that by expanding southwards they could transcend that focus by decreasing their reliance on it, while at the same time using its resources to ensure they could exercise power that could bring in new territories.

Visualisation of political range of various figures of tenth-century Osona

I struggle to represent these ideas about political range visually… This was from a job presentation in 2011, and obviously wasn’t enough by itself!

Now, in what they write that last part is not actually explicit. If one asks how these aristocrats used their muscle to get recognised as authority in these new territories, which were to a degree already locally-organised (what degree being obscure and presumably highly variable),5 the closest one gets to an explicit statement is (emphasis mine):

“The southern local communities were seemingly subjected by methods not too different from their northern counterparts [sic]: a general notion of collective political subjection enabled leading aristocrats to exercise a sort of subsidiary authority on community resources, as well as to obtain specific pieces of property….”6

I immediately baulk at this. The picture is supposed to be that the counts rock up with a warband in tow and say, “Hi, I’m the count!” and the community says, “What? We don’t have one of those,” and he says, “Yes you do, it’s me; king’s honour!” and they say, “What do you want?” and he says, “Well, you know, counts get pasture rights and hospitality, military service, all that jazz” and they say, “Like fun you do”, or a vernacular equivalent, he reminds them about the warband, some kind of compromise is reached where they admit he’s the count and has rights and he goes away? Some of these people operate out of hillforts. In any case, what does the aristocrat who is not a count, and thus cannot reasonably claim rights on behalf of the king or the old notions of public authority do? Claim to be representing the counts? How far down the scale can this plausibly devolve? I’m reluctant to adopt this as a general picture. And indeed, Escalona and Reyes have other possibilities in play, as further on they consider a bottom-up model:

“One obvious possibility was that local elites seized the occasion and reinforced their local dominance over their communities. However, the context was also open for local elites to try to supersede their community contexts and join the lesser ranks of the emergent Castile-wide aristocracy.”7

And here, again, arise these local elites. They do a lot of work for the scholars in this volume, and it’s never really worked out who they are, but their participation appears to be crucial, so more needs to be said. Elsewhere, at the earliest stage of this process, as said in a previous post, the word `chieftains’ seems to be appropriate for these people, which gives us something.8 At this end of the chapter, we learn that Escalona and Reyes see these people as free, as capable of military service, perhaps with horses, but also as people who can be under obligation to do that and to build and maintain castles. They may also be capable of and interested in raising churches, though other agencies are possible for that, including, “the collective initiative of local communities; individual decisions from some of their leading members”. Since they go on immediately to say, “However, the role of local elites has been relatively overlooked,” it would seem that those leading members are not members of these local elites.9 You see why I find these people hard to pin down. I suppose that we are talking headmen, clan chiefs, ancestral lords of hillforts, local judges, and so on, but exactly what ways these people need to be subject to public responsibilities that the counts and aristocrats can enforce and how far they are themselves in charge is something of a sliding scale here, even in any given case.

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

Now, I think I know exactly who is meant here, in at least one case, albeit a Catalan one. I have before now written both here and elsewhere about a man called Centuri, a personal name apparently derived from a Roman military rank (centurius) or perhaps a post-Roman community representative (centenarius, centenus), which is surely to say, a local headman.10 We see this man once, in 887, when he was among a number of people from a hilltop settlement (no fort, but a guard-tower, and possibly a late Roman burial ground too) called Tona, in Osona, who sent to the local bishop to get their new church consecrated. Tona is pretty close to Vic, whence this bishop, Jordi, came, but for all that there’s no further documented contact between the area and Vic for another forty years.11 Centuri seems to have been one of the major locals here: he was providing a good chunk of the endowment of the church, and his son Albaro was to be the priest of it. Nonetheless, he was not alone, several other citizens of the villa also made gifts and some twenty of them witnessed the document (assuming, what is not at all certain, that this was actually written up at Tona and that those present were thus the new congregation and not, as it might otherwise be, the day’s crowd of gawpers at Vic cathedral). Now, I am happy with looking at this man as the sort of local élite member that Escalona and Reyes need for their picture. I imagine that they could find many who occupied that role, even if not many exactly like him, as one of the points I was making when writing about Centuri was the imaginativeness and isolation with which some such local communities appear to have individualised their self-expression.

Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Arxiu, pergamin núm. 9135 (2-VIII-2)

The original act of consecration of Sant Andreu de Tona, Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Arxiu, pergamin núm. 9135 (2-VIII-2)

Nonetheless, two big questions arise out of it. The first of these, which Escalona and Reyes more or less answer, is what would such people get out of involvement with the aristocrats? They also say that the sources to assess what the balance between top-down and bottom-up initiative was in such cases basically doesn’t exist, and I wonder if that can really be true given how Wendy Davies manages to find such people interacting with San Pedro de Cardeña in this area; perhaps Escalona and Reyes’s scale just doesn’t come down small enough.12 I am, myself, inclined to see the two as inseparable; if the counts couldn’t find willing collaborators wanting such opportunities they’d have to enforce their position by recruiting someone else to apply local armed pressure whenever they wanted something, and given the fact that Escalona and Reyes quite convincingly see these power-grabs as being carried out competitively, that could quickly wind up serving someone else better. There is a subsidiary question, of course, which is in exactly what way are these local élites not aristocrats, if on that smaller scale, and maybe that would help collapse this problem of devolved ability to exact ‘collective political subjection’ somewhat, even if it means seeing something perhaps worryingly like the sort of clannic authority envisaged by Barbero and Vigil for them.13 But ignoring that one, the more important question I want to ask is, over whom do the local élites have power? Who is helping them build these churches, maintain their castles, and comes with them when they go fighting? Who pays attention to their judgements? And what are they doing in this grand frontier endeavour? Because this post is already 2000 words, perhaps this means I should stop the unrolling of the thoughts there for now. But we haven’t got to the bottom of this. What we are approaching here is a need to separate out the things of which authority over such a community might be composed, and ask who has them and on what basis. Then, and perhaps only then, can we start to ask how someone coming in from outside can change that, and whether such changes necessarily need such intervention to occur. So, there will be another one now. Stay curious!


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

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

2. Ibid. p. 164.

3. Ibid. pp. 168-173 and see also p. 157 Map 15.

4. Ibid. 165-168 and Map 16, e. g. 167-168: “Overall Avitus seems to have held property over an area of about 90 x 75 km…. This may well represent a maximum scale for this area and period.” Cf. Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach”, ibid. pp. 9-29, and idem, “Mapping Scale Change: Hierarchization and Fission in Castilian Rural Communities during the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Wendy Davies, Guy Halsall & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), People and Space in the Early Middle Ages 300-1300, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 15 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 143-166, DOI:10.1484/M.SEM-EB.3.3751; cf. also Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1988), pp. 105-133; J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), passim.

5. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, pp. 161-162; cf. Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West”, in Escalona & Reynolds, Scale and Scale Change, pp. 87-117, DOI:10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4769; Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi“.

6. Escalona and Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 171.

7. Ibid. p. 175.

8. Ibid. p. 165.

9. Ibid. p. 178.

10. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi“, pp. 105-108.

11. 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. no. 9; cf. doc. no. 78.

12. Escalona and Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 175; cf. Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: individual, community, and Church in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), pp. 106-108, and Davies, “On Suretyship in Tenth-Century Northern Iberia” in Escalona & Reynolds, Scale and Scale Change, pp. 133-152, DOI:10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4771.

13. A. Barbero & M. Vigil, “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista: cantábros y vascones desde fines del impero romano hasta la invasión musulmana” in Boletín de le Real Academia de Historia Vol. 156 (Madrid 1965), pp. 271-339.

Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.


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

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis'” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.

Seminars CXXX: a woman in a high castle

Seminars in both London and Oxford have now restarted, and I haven’t even reached the summer term yet with the reports, but what is to be done but carry on? And, by a curious coincidence, just as the term in London opened with a paper by none other than Professor Dame Janet Nelson, or Jinty as it is well-documented she would prefer to be known, a paper moreover to which I could not go drat it, so I now find myself with one of hers in Oxford to blog.1 This was a paper before the Medieval Church and Culture Seminar on the 6th March, entitled “Putting Dhuoda in Context”.

Supposedly a illustration showing Dhuoda, wife of Marquis Bernard of Septimania

There are no contemporary illustrations of Dhuoda and when I’ve searched for later depictions, before as now, this is all that comes up, which appears to be from something like a Unicorn Tapestry; if anyone knows more about it, I would love to… The page it’s from reprints a 1930 biography of Dhuoda in French.

Dhuoda is (as many of you will know) one of the very very few female authors known to us from the early Middle Ages, and extra interesting for me as the wife of one of the first Marquises of Barcelona, the unlucky but tenacious Bernard of Septimania. We know of her largely because she wrote a handbook of advice for their eldest son William, who like his father ended up dead in a rebellion against King Charles the Bald, and of whom I have often said that it could justly be said that he should have listened to his mother.2 As Jinty said, in what was throughout an entertainingly personalised paper, she has spent much of her lifetime reflecting on this person, whom the historian Pierre Riché’s wife apparently knew as “that woman” with whom she had to share her husband, who was similarly afflicted.3 The trouble is therefore finding new things to say about her, but this is less hard than it should be because she has not often been looked at as we might look at a male noble of the period, in terms of ancestry, property, influence and so on. She does certainly have one important distinction that most of our medieval writers do not, that of being a parent (which helps us deal with silly ideas about indifference to children and so on—when your source-base is primarily generated by celibates, well, what might you expect?). But, because what we mainly know of Dhuoda is that she loved her husband and son and encouraged the latter to loyalty whereas he got into trouble despite her advice, it has been kind of assumed that she was powerless. Not so! She wrote her book at William’s coming of age, when he was leaving the fold, over a period of fourteen months, and largely it seems in Uzés, where in Bernard’s absence she was more or less acting as countess between time, or rather, writing the book in what were probably precious few idle hours. During the hours of business, however, she was running a decent chunk of the Spanish March for Bernard and fund-raising for his campaigning. Furthermore, she was on the border in several ways: Uzés would soon be shunted into the Middle Kingdom of the Franks by the Treaty of Verdun that brings me so much of my search traffic here, and she dates the book, “Christo regnante” and regem spectante”, two clauses which sing straight out of a great many of my Catalan charters to me; these are the dating clauses you use when you do not know who the king is, or, significantly, have decided he’s not legitimate.4

The high castles of Uzés (tours de duché, de l'évêque, and two others)

The high castles of Uzés, all rather later than Dhuoda but giving you an idea of how she might have surveyed the town

To see Dhuoda as anything less than a political player in a sensitive position, therefore, is to miss a major trick. This added an extra dimension for Dhuoda for me that I hadn’t previously got, though since it’s due to Jinty that I know enough to think of queens as not getting much time to sit down when the king’s away, perhaps I should have thought it this far through.5 Typically also for Jinty we got a discussion of the other family who were in the area, the wider networks of which Dhuoda was part and through whom she got and sent her news, and which sometimes, indeed, included Bernard; he was not always absent. Jinty also pointed out that they presumably met at court, and that Dhuoda was not writing advice on how to handle yourself there from a position of ignorance.

A Nîmes MS of Dhuoda's Manuelis pro filio meo

The Nîmes manuscript of Dhuoda’s Manual

Looking back at this paper, therefore, apart from the affection that Jinty brought to her subject and which the capacity crowd demonstrated for her, what stands out for me is that if all we had was the career pattern, some kind of itinerary (which in fact we don’t have) and the odd reference in other texts, except for being married to a man this career would look like a respectable one for any courtier of the period: get educated at court, marry someone you met there, wind up with an administrative position for which you’re partly qualified by your ancestry in a difficult position during a time of civil war that ultimately costs you most of your family… I mean, there are male relatives of Bernard’s about whom we cannot say as much or even demonstrate them as important.6 Just because the title of countess was not yet used by powerful women of the Midi as it would be a century later doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at one of them when we read this text, and that is important because it reminds us that powerful people of all stamps could probably also suffer loss and enjoy affection, even if only one of them for this period really cared to write about it.


1. It’s documented, for example, in Paul Fouracre & David Ganz, “Dame Jinty Nelson… An Appreciation” in eidem (edd.), Frankland: the Franks and the world of the early middle ages : essays in honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester 2008), pp. 1-6 at p. 1. It’s important to get it in early on you see!

2. The most relevant translation, though there are many, is probably Marcelle Thiebaux (ed./transl.), Dhuoda: Handbook for her warrior son, Cambridge Medieval Classics 8 (Cambridge 1998). There did also come up in questions the rather poignant reflection that one of the manuscripts of the Manuel is now in Barcelona, where indeed it has been studied by none other than Cullen Chandler, in “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 265-291, and one possible explanation for the text having been preserved there is that perhaps William did in fact listen at least to his mother’s injunction to keep the book with him, and so it wound up in a Barcelona library when he was killed there…

3. Lately accumulated in Janet L. Nelson, “Dhuoda” in Patrick Wormald & Nelson (edd.), Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world (Cambridge 2007), pp. 106-120.

4. Jinty offered the former interpretation, and the latter is not something I’d quite want to attribute to Dhuoda, but it’s certainly how one needs to read the later charters: see (with all the usual cautions) Michel Zimmermann, “La datation des documents catalans du IXe au XII siècle : un itinéraire politique” in Annales du Midi Vol. 93 (Toulouse 1981), pp. 345-375.

5. I suppose that my default reference here is Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume 2: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 387-430, but it probably ought to be Nelson, “Medieval Queenship” in Linda E. Mitchell (ed.), Women in medieval western European culture (New York City 1999), pp. 179-207.

6. Starting with Bernard’s brother, and sometime co-Marquis, Gaucelm, if you want someone to research (please…). This is not the first time that I have expressed amazement that there is so little literature on such a crucial figure of the Carolingian period, given some of the people who’ve had monographs: there is, quite simply, no focussed study of Bernard of Septimania other than Lina Malbos, “La capture de Bernard de Septimanie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 76 (Bruxelles 1970), pp. 5-13, which is, you know, not a lot. More can be added via Martin Aurell, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La Royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve d’Ascq 1998), pp. 467-480 or Josep María Salrach, El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136-137 (Barcelona 1978), vol. I, but this is somewhat of a local historiography.

Leeds 2011 report 3: Catalans, coins, churches and computers

[Edit: hideously mixed-up footnotes now all match up and exist and so on.]

Looking back at it, it does seem rather as if the 2011 International Medieval Congress was fairly intense for your humble blogger. Having been called to the warpath the previous day and then entirely surrounded by people with Livejournals, the third day of the conference, Wednesday 13th July, also provoked me in various directions. I’ll try not to relive too much of the drama, not least because I intend a separate post for one of the episodes, but this is roughly how the day went.

1014. Concepts and Levels of Wealth and Poverty in Medieval Catalonia

It is unusual for Catalan scholars to turn up in England, where Spain is usually represented only by Castilians, and I had read work by two of the speakers in this session and also its organiser, so I was determined to show my face. In fact the group had already discovered my book and thus my existence, so it was all quite well-timed and it seemed like a jolly happy meeting. There were also of course some papers and those went like this:

  • Pere Benito Monclús, “Famines and Poverty in XIIth-XIIIth-century Catalonia”, looking closely at who spent their wealth on feeding the poor in time of famine when the usual Church safety net was stretched too far, concluding that it was the public power last of all.
  • Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, “Rich Nobility and Poor Nobility in Medieval Catalonia, 10th-12th Centuries”, stressing how little we have actually found out about quite a chunk of the medieval Catalan nobility, and how varied it is; this was not really news to me as such, but it was actually really nice to hear someone talking about my research area as if it mattered all the same.
  • Sandrine Victor, “Salaries and Standards of Living in Catalonia according to the example of Girona at the 15th century”, was doing careful quantitative studies of the demographic distribution of wealth, and had a lot to say about labourers and their accommodation (almost always rented, unlike their masters’ owned houses) in the late medieval city.

The last of these papers was perhaps the only one that was presenting new work as such, work in progress even, whereas Senyors Benito and Rodríguez had both elected to give papers that were kind of introductions to their topic for specialists from other fields. There were quite a lot of these papers at Leeds this year, it seemed to me, and though I would rather see more developed or developing work, I understood why they did; they wouldn’t have known there would be anyone who knew the area there and I’m hardly a whole audience anyway. It was impressive how many languages the questions were in, though: English, French, Castilian and Catalan (one question in German, too, that had to be translated), and the conversation afterwards was, well, extremely informative. But we’ll get to that next post.

1121. Making the World Go Round: coinage, currency, credit, recycling, and finance in medieval Europe, II

I got into this session late somehow, probably because of hunting really bad coffee with Catalans and then realising I needed to be across the campus next, but what I caught was interesting.

  • Gareth Williams, “Was the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England a Queen? A Possible Posthumous Coinage in the Name of Harold II”
  • What was going on here, as far as I could divine after my late entry, was that there seems to have been a very short-lived issue of coins in the name of King Harold II from the royal nunnery of Wilton, almost all known from one hoard that also contains 1067-68 coins of William the Conqueror. Gareth suggested that the responsible party might be Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor’s widow, Harold’s brother, who owned the nunnery, and who didn’t submit to William straight away; that seems to make sense of what we’d otherwise have to assume was counterfeiting so that was pretty cool.1

  • Tom J. T. Williams, “Coins in Context: minting in the borough of Wallingford”
  • This was an interesting combination with the archaeological attention that Neil Christie had given Wallingford the previous day, though possibly only really interesting to numismatists; it did however include the fact that we can use Domesday Book to plot where one of Wallingford’s moneyers, Swærtlinc, actually lived in 1086, and he’d struck for Harold II as well so some English at least did come through, even if at a low level.2 One of the questions raised (by Morn Capper) was whether moneyers were too important to remove or too humble, and we still don’t know, but Mr Williams is I believe aiming to try and answer this for the later period as Rory Naismith tried to answer it for the earlier one, so we shall see I guess!3

  • Henry Fairbairn, “The Value and Metrology of Salt in the late 11th Century”
  • As you know I think the salt trade’s important—I must have read something once4—but I don’t really know how important so this was worth hearing. The units involved in salt-measuring are a bit obscure but by working up from tolls, we came out with figures of approximately 150 g of salt per penny in a world where a pig is 8 pence and a sheep 2 and a half. That makes salt less of a bulk product and more of a luxury than one might have thought and it must have been hard to get very much of it if you were a peasant. So that’s not nothing.

1202. ‘Reading’ the Romanesque Façade

I had wanted to go to this session partly just to see beautiful things and get my Team Romanesque badge metaphorically stamped, but also because Micky Abel whom I met a long time back was supposed to be presenting. In fact, though, she was unable to be there and then I got distracted by books, and so I missed much of the first paper. I have hardly any notes, but it was gorgeous to look at, because it was about the Conques tympanum and we know how that goes, right?

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques, from Wikimedia Commons

  • Kirk Ambrose, “Attunement to the Damned at Conques”, thus argued that the passivity of the victims on the Hell side of the tympanum was actually supposed to frighten the viewer, and
  • Amanda Dotseth, “Framing Humility at San Quirce de Burgos”, took us through a complex system of sculptural ornament that seems to have been dismantled and put back in a different order at some point in its history, but which also may have encoded the monks of the relevant church into the artwork
San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

1301. Digital Anglo-Saxons: charters, people, and script

This was essentially a session advertising the work of the Department of Digital Humanities of King’s College London, still the Centre for Computing in the Humanities when the conference program was printed. The DDH is one of KCL’s expansion zones, and there’s a lot to advertise, so it was something of a shame that Paul Spence, one of the speakers, had been unable to show, not least because that was the charters one. Instead, however, his paper was kind of combined with one of the others. Thus, we got:

  • John Bradley, “Anglo-Saxon People: PASE II – doing prosopography in the digital age”
  • This put the expanded version of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which now (as you may recall) contains all the people in Domesday Book too, into a wider context and emphasised how they had gone for a structure dictated by information, not by sources or persons, which he called a `factoid’ model. This seems like a really useful way to think about treating this kind of data, actually, and I was impressed with the flexibility it seems to have permitted them. Of course, I’d never then actually attempted to make serious use of PASE and having done so for this post now I’m slightly less sure how much use it is to me…5

  • Peter Stokes, “Computing for Anglo-Saxon Palaeography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic”
  • Dr Stokes’s paper was about ASCluster, the umbrella project that tries to manage all the data that the DDH handle in their various Anglo-Saxonist endeavours together. Since they don’t all focus on the same sorts of data, trying to create a way of making them all connect is actually really tricky. You would think that pulling a personal name out of their charters database and also PASE and getting all the information together should be simple enough but the databases weren’t designed together and they aren’t searched in the same way, and so on. I could feel his pain; I remember these kinds of dilemma all too well. By the sound of it they have some challenges still to defeat, though the ability and lateral thinking on the team demonstrated by these two presentations would encourage one to think that they will in fact defeat them.

You can tell perhaps that I had mixed feelings about the efforts here. This is not just that I doubt that the money they’re likely to sink into this integration of their projects is going to see a return in terms of use; it’s already possible to search these things separately and compare the results oneself, after all. That isn’t actually their problem: they made a case for doing it, got the support and are setting about it, fine. Lack of use is a problem that a lot of this sort of project is suffering and we will hear more about this in future reports. No, my cynicism came from a much simpler source, which is that I had never at this point nor at many points subsequently managed to get their exciting-looking database of the Anglo-Saxon charters, ASChart, the one that I do have a use for, to work. Once I knew of it, I quickly found that the site would never load, from wherever I tried it, home, office, JANET or commercial internet, never. And I tried it many times, in the months after this session, every time I happened to have reason to check on this post whence I’d linked it in fact; nada. They must have known it didn’t work, because it can’t have been serving any pages, and yet it kept being advertised as a completed project, while actually the only recourse was Sean Miller’s scratch pro bono equivalent. This kind of thing annoys me. The result of an unsuccessful attempt to replicate an already-existing resource should not be that your team gets showered with more money and converted into a full department, especially in a time and at an institution where huge cuts had only a little while before been projected across the whole of the humanities. I don’t want them all fired, of course, quod absit but I would like the system to reward and therefore encourage fulfilment of the things that the money was awarded for. But no-one in power checks up and so there’s no consequence, bar slight embarrassment, if those things don’t work, and the system doesn’t actually incentivise them to improve the situation.

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

I was all set up for this rant when I got round to writing this post, therefore, and so it comes as something of an anti-climax to have to say, er, now that I check, it seems to be fixed. But it does, so I do. If the DDH team are reading, therefore, I’d better say thankyou for putting the effort, the bigger server or whatever in that has made this resource finally available, not least because as far as I can see there was little that required you to do so. So, it’s up, and even if the charters after 900, i. e. most of them, are not yet there and the links through to PASE crash in a sea of Tomcat errors, nonetheless it is better—in fact the Tomcat errors have gone away even while I’ve had this post in draft and those links now work!—and I suppose therefore that we may hope for better still. There are now diplomatic indices, linked from marked-up XML texts, which bodes extremely well for the future when the whole corpus is loaded and is something that I would love, especially just now, to have for the Catalan material (albeit that there is something like six times as much of that and no-one has databased any of it except Joan Vilaseca). This also means that when they get the post-900 material up, the whole thing will actually deliver something that Sean’s site doesn’t already do, though his free-text search is still unique and could be used for some of the same things. Well, anyway, we have two online Anglo-Saxon charter databases now, and yes, I have said before that I wish funding bodies would JFGI when they get an application for such a project, in case it already exists, but these two both have their points and I am running out of reasons to be cross with the DDH so perhaps I’ll try and stop?

ASCharters site screen capture

ASCharters site screen capture

Anyway. That was the last session of the day, and then there was dinner and then finally the dance, which was absolutely tremendous fun even if I did miss `Blue Monday’ but about which little can usefully be said here that hasn’t been said already. So with that I’ll wrap this up and move on to the more Catalano-centric post promised at the beginning there.


1. We know an unusual amount about Edith, which is coordinated and analysed in Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith: queenship and women’s power in eleventh-century England (Cambridge 1997).

2. I’m not quite sure I’ve got this right, because try as I might I can’t get him out of PASE—ironically given the above!—but he comes out of a search of the Fitzwilliam’s Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds no problem, and PASE have that data (I know, I gave it them) so he ought to show up. In fact only three people from Wallingford come out of PASE Domesday at all. I must not be using it right. That can’t be broken as well, surely?6 And even EMC doesn’t show any coins for him from Harold’s reign. I can only guess that the British Museum collections must have some unpublished examples; this could certainly be true.

3. Now available in the shiny new R. Naismith, Money and power in Anglo-Saxon England: the southern English kingdoms, 757-865, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series 80 (Cambridge 2011).

4. In fact, what I must have read is John Maddicott’s “Trade, Industry and the Wealth of King Alfred” in Past and Present No. 123 (Oxford 1989), pp. 3-51 (to which cf. the following debate, Ross Balzaretti, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. No. 135 (Oxford 1992), pp. 142-150, Janet Nelson, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. pp. 151-163 and John Maddicott, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred: a reply”, ibid. pp. 164-188), since that’s what I have notes on, but what I probably should have read is Maddicott’s “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

5. See n. 2 above.

6. Afterthought: PASE’s About page says it excludes `incomers’, and this is a Norse name.7 Can that be what’s happened here, that the Danish-named moneyer isn’t being included as English? Because, er, that seems analytically questionable to me…

7. Also, if the DDH team are reading, the About PASE link from the Domesday search interface page goes to the Reference page, not the About page as it does from other screens.

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.

Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

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

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

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

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

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

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


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

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

3. On all this the best guide remains Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, though cf. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115. Specifically, on al-Mansur you could now see Philippe Sénac, Al-Mansûr : le fleau de l’an mil (Paris 2006), on the judges Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99 and on the coinage J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243; on the 985 sack of Barcelona you should now see G. Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here in PDF, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008. On feudalism, well, give me time

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

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

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

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

8. That comfort comes most obviously from Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

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

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

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

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

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

Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

On the 23rd of February, the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was given by Peter Sarris, who was speaking to the title “Aristocrats, Peasants and the State in Byzantium c. 600-1100″. This seemed as if it would be worth seeing, so I made it down there despite the teaching preparation. It took a bit of an effort to follow, I will admit: Professor Sarris is a speaker of almost aggressive erudition, and several of the audience agreed with me that we’d had to change up a few gears to avoid being washed away in the flow. The handout included most of a chapter that Professor Sarris has contributed to the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, without reading the which, presumably, we couldn’t be expected to understand fully. I am, I should therefore say, proceeding ill-prepared, as I still haven’t.

The meat of the paper was a reappraisal of the relation between the three elements of the title in the light of what we now realise (Professor Sarris said, distinguishing himself explicitly from Chris Wickham in this) to have been a far larger survival of rural slavery in the Eastern Empire than used to be thought. His answer was largely that although the breakup and reduction of Byzantium does, naturally, ruin the super-élite whose importance spanned the Empire, and a second level élite, whose riches were rural but whose position was primarily anchored by their operations at Constantinople, was obviously subject to the vagaries of court politics, a third-level élite existed, whose basis of power was much more regional and rural. These operated in structures of power that survived not only the breaking-off of Western and Eastern Empires but the Muslim conquests. When the Empire was big and successful they were linked to it by larger élites, but without that connection, they were independent enough to survive, or indeed to link to new élites like the Emirs. He argued that the disruption of the seventh century has been exaggerated, because it primarily affects the élite who wrote our sources, much as the same argument has been made for the seriousness of Viking attacks in England and Francia, but agreed that there were some fundamental economic changes, a shift to kind instead of coin, a new pastoralism. Even then, he argued, this was worst at the frontier and nothing like as bad closer into the capital, and even at the frontier, more or less the same sorts of people are in charge before and after. The weakest support for the argument, although a very medieval one in its rhetoric, was probably the one that went, “You know how we now accept much more continuity of power and estate structure and so on in the West than we used to? well, imagine how much continuous it must be in the East where none of your barbarian rubbish happens to kill off the state!” but there were lots of others and I was happy to accept his point.

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Indeed, there is no mileage for anyone in arguing with Professor Sarris about evidence for aristocratic power in Byzantium; he has made it all his own. The point where I think he and I do have to part company is where he argued that this élite survival makes a peasant-focused account of events (and here again I think he had Chris Wickham in his sights) useless. He argued that this has been attempted, largely on the basis of the Farmer’s Law, which since it could be dated anywhere between sixth and ninth centuries has been slid around to serve many arguments. I am still not sure that the correct thing to do, however, is to refuse to use it at all, and it did keep coming up, even if mainly to demonstrate how it could mean almost anything. Sarris’s basic pitch was that the aristocracy survive, even in unlikely places (and it was a very fair point well made when he pointed out that several if not all of the so-called cave monasteries (as above) are identified as religious buildings solely because they contain chapels—so, surely, would a secular palace, which is how he would like to see some of these structures), and that this means that slavery survives too, because the social structures that support it are not removed, even if they are updated, including changes of terminology that have helped to obscure its existence (coloni adscripti not being very different from enapographoi georgoi being the same as paroikoi). I admit that to me this last sounded a lot like slaves-to-serfs but with more continuity of law behind it, and I find that in my notes I have marked it as `special pleading’, if only because ‘paroikoi’ appears to have a much broader sense so it’s not as simple as saying that wherever the word comes up we must think of slaves; it’s also ‘parishioner’, if I’ve understood correctly. What I think this tells us is that Byzantine government could accommodate a fair amount of euphemism.

It’s not that I’m not happy to admit that there was a lot of Byzantine rural economic slavery; I’m sure that there was and they did keep leading successful campaigns that must have taken prisoners, every, you know, three emperors or so. It’s just that in all this paper there was no room at all for peasant agency, as if a successful aristocracy could eliminate it. The argument reduced them to chattels, just as does slavery. I don’t want to buy that so totally, and I could mention James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak again if that would help, or just point out that we are here often talking about frontiers, and frontiers are zones of opportunity. Even more so in zones of conquest: don’t like your lord? Have you thought about converting to Islam and taking service with the local governor? and so on. This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields. So I will happily revise my ideas of the Byzantine state and aristocracy according to Professor Sarris’s new standard version, and keep it in mind when I next read up my recent-but-outdated textbooks on the subject for one reason or another. But I do feel that someone could deliver a partner paper in which almost none of what Professor Sarris said here was relevant, because they were actually studying the peasants of his title.

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (3 of 3)

The second evening of the St Andrews conference I’ve been reporting, Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, held the conference dinner, which was really rather good (though we paid separately for it), and then the next day was the last. I packed at some speed before the papers started, and as a result, it subsequently became clear, left my phone charger plugged into a wall—bet you were beginning to wonder about that—though I didn’t notice this till the battery actually ran out on the last day of Leeds, by which time it was a little late to do much about it.

A high medieval chrysobull awarded to one of the monasteries of Mt Athos

A high medieval chrysobull awarded to one of the monasteries of Mt Athos

Anyway, the third day was only a half day and in that half, Ann Williams discussed the alleged predatoriness of Earl Godwine upon the late Anglo-Saxon Church and found the evidence somewhat thin—apparently she plans to rehabilitate Archbishop Stigand next—and Rosemary Morris took us though the considerable intricacies of the tax evasion, or avoidance—when you can get the Byzantine Emperor to sign off your tax reduction, much to the annoyance of his own officials who are trying to enforce payment, the legality of your tactics are fairly moot—practised by the monasteries of Mt Athos in the eleventh century. She challenged the Western diplomatists to come up with anything as impressive as the chrysobull of Alexios Comenos; give me time… Then in the second and last session Matthew Zimmern told us about Stavelot-Malmédy, a house which developed a split personality to match its dual site in the ninth century, for reasons that once more could be apportioned on the one side to royal interests and on the other to those of the familia of Columbanus.

The modern Kremsmünster Abbey viewed from the North-East, from Wikimedia Commons

The modern Kremsmünster Abbey viewed from the North-East, from Wikimedia Commons

The conference and that session were closed out, saving the summary, by Leanne Good who was presenting on the foundation of the Bavarian (now Austrian) monastery of Kremsmunster. It only occurred to me some time after I’d left the town that although I’d been talking to her avidly about the edition of the place’s charters, which I met through Lay Archives, she may have been confused as I had jumbled it in my head with that of Kaufungen, which is a rather different place. Sorry, Leanne! Anyway, because Kremsmunster was a frontier foundation on a border with ill-defined territories owing notional loyalty to a non-Christian polity there were lots of things that leapt out at me from this paper that sounded like my area; granted, her non-Christians were Slavs and Avars and mine were, well, if only I knew but in some cases at least Muslim, but there are parallels. Not least, Tassilo of Bavaria was doing this exercise partly so as to pitch himself as a mission leader and Christian ruler in the face of Carolingian pressure on his independence; the situation isn’t quite the same with Guifré the Hairy, who is basically free of such pressure, but the parallel still gave me some added perspective on what Guifré may have been trying to do with his monastic foundations.

It also involved some interesting speculation on the audience for the foundation document, presumably the court, which in turn raised questions about what kind of pressures Tassilo was trying to deal with among his own nobility. It is as we were later to hear in Leeds; sometimes, the strange things that people do tell you most about them. Of all the papers we heard this was the one I most wanted a copy of, for my own purposes, and I must in fact mail and beg one. Warren Brown summed up, reminding us how much we’d heard about how the sources themselves interfere in the history they record, but also reminding us that so do our own interpretations. Should we really be surprised when we hear of cleric-kings, of family monasteries or monasteries with no monks, or is it just our modern perspectives messing up our expectations? And of course, though we had seen monasteries several times as political tools here we had also seen powerful communities asserting their own agendas, and ideally our pictures of how monasteries and secular powers interacted in the early Middle Ages would always remember that both parties to the interaction had some input.

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, borrowed from the Gypsy Scholar, who in turn borrowed it from Wikipedia

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, borrowed from the Gypsy Scholar, who in turn borrowed it from Wikipedia

All of this, anyway, will go some way to explaining why I got so much out of this conference. I ordinarily avoid themed conferences, partly because one of the things conferences do for me is tell me about stuff that I otherwise had no idea about, but I think that this one genuinely pushed all participants to think new things about their material and its possibilities, so I shall reconsider this policy now. I also got to meet a number of people of importance for my own work and, I hope, several new friends, and any excuse to go to St Andrews is a good one. So I came down on the train quite cheerful (though if Roy Flechner is reading, I should like to say once more: that bus would have got us there in plenty of time). As soon as I was back near a computer, however, I had to send literally twenty different e-mails as upshots or in preparation for the next conference, as a result of which my home and so on hardly saw any of me before I was off again, with the blog running on automatic and a suitcase with room for spare books as I headed for Leeds. The blog of that will follow in due course, but first, some light historiographical reflection… (Stay posted.)

P. S. Also, Sarah Tatum would like me to encourage you all to submit your work to the European Review of History, which is apparently short of medieval material at the moment. And, you know, there are worse places to be seen…

Seminary XLVIII: plus ça change, plus c’est la Rome chose

The penultimate (I almost typed punultimate, but I’m afraid I probably have more than one left) gathering in this year’s Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminars took place on the 12th May, and Chris Wickham drove direct from giving one paper in Oxford to give us a different one in Cambridge, in the course of things proving that Cambridge’s tidal one-way system is a form of gatekeeping the University would never have stooped as low as. Anyway, your humble correspondent may have had too little sleep and too much tea so I’ll try and stick to the reportage. The title of the paper was “Social Change (and Complexity) in Early Medieval Rome, 700-1000″.

The paper was divided into three parts, and the first of those went on ceremonial. The focus was on the elaborate adventus ceremonies that Rome mounted for incoming emperors, something which needed doing fairly rarely, and so was always exceptional, but nonetheless had a background going back to the late Empire, and which had been progressively updated to incorporate new social orders like the ex-Byzantine militia (whoever they actually were) in the old hierarchy.1 Rome was in this respect open to change as long as it could package it firstly as antique and secondly as unique; nowhere else went to the same level of elaboration over these things except perhaps Constantinople, one of the few cities bigger than Rome in any of the Empire, let alone the West where it was unrivalled. (This was really the only part of the paper which really went back to 700; most of the focus was on the tenth century, which was of course fine with me.)

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

This led to questions of how such a city supported itself, which are unusually complex because inside, say, 20 miles of the centre, there was no visible peasant landholding. This doesn’t preclude agriculture, of which there obviously was some even within the old city walls, but it must have been tenant farming because all, to an incredible degree of exclusion, of the land visible in the tenth-century charters was Church-owned and had been as far back as can be seen in the record. This doesn’t mean it was full of churchmen because almost all of it was leased out to aristocrats, including for example the Foro di Nerva above, on which in the ninth century private housing was built. Other previously-public spaces developed workshops, housing, gardens, and so on, apparently built for profit, but the land remained the church’s, and there was apparently no guarantee of heredity when the time came for the leases to be renewed, though since most of these leases were made for three lives, a certain amount of future planning was possible. Nonetheless, when laymen give land to the Church in these records, it is land that they had leased; land that they owned was all much further away. Yet they lived in Rome, and leased land to do so, land on which they tried to turn a profit but which they did not own. The rents were tiny, so what the Church got from this was something that Chris had yet to resolve; one assumes, protection and a clientèle but I got the impression that Chris would have preferred an economic rationale, and as he observed, since these arrangements last for generations and are often seen at renewal, they must have been economically viable because otherwise all the leasing churches would have gone bankrupt.

Anyway, Chris’s general point was that there is a lot of change in Rome, especially in the tenth century, a lot of it at the high political level but also a growing change in the development of the economy, artisanal titles becoming more and more visible in charters as the year 1000 approaches, various sorts of associations of clerics and laymen joining the existing ones (often seen through the ceremonial by which they articulated their links to the old and current orders). Despite this, the social structure of the city, most of all focussed on the pope but below him mediated through dozens of links between Church and churches and aristocrats of various grades, with a pre-eminent family (the Theophylacti, family of the Patrician Alberic) not diminishing that variety, stayed more or less the same. The long-term nature of the lease situation and its apparent inherent stability left the aristocrats, who were getting profit from the lands and the social capital of a Roman presence, and the churches who were getting, well, we don’t really know but they kept doing it so there must have been a reason, with no reason to alter things. In the end, Chris suggested, it was Henry IV and Gregory VII who spoiled this equilibrium by really really messing with the ability to maintain this lay-ecclesiastical property-sharing; reform undid Rome’s social networks.

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

That bit sounds a bit glib, but I’m fine with the implication that the tenth century is pretty stable. I’ve seen a few of the relevant charters, however, and the impression I got is that it’s not just the economy that’s elaborating.2 Or maybe it is, but landholders are transacting more, or being recorded more, scribes who used to only be seen working for the pope are seen doing private jobs, this is when at least one of the texts of the papal formulary and general order of practice known as the Liber Diurnus is probably created, and in general Rome is taking part in a much wider economic phenomenon visible all around the Western Mediterranean in which at least, after some hard centuries, the economy is beginning to kick out a genuine surplus.3 An awful lot of the change that’s supposed to happen around 1000 firstly comes from this new availability of surplus, and therefore the resources with which to do things differently, and secondly, is largely seen (because of the nature of our sources) in terms of elaboration and increased preservation of documents. That last makes it hard to tell what’s new and what was already there but just invisible, but as Chris said, in the few places where documents go back further than this period, they don’t show the same concerns and, although formulas changing can obscure or reveal a lot, they also represent a change in social practice that has made the old ones less useful. This is an old argument associated indelibly with the name Barthélemy, though it should as I’ve argued be associated instead with its resolution by Bedos-Rezak, and I won’t do it again here. But it did seem to me that Rome was here partaking of a wider pattern from which its indubitable distinctiveness shouldn’t be allowed to separate it. The wind was blowing on Rome and on, I don’t know, Aigüatèbia de Conflent alike.

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The other thing that I wanted to remark on was the behaviour of the `aristocrats’. For Chris’s purposes anyone not farming their own food is an aristocrat, and I thought that in a society as stratified as Rome that didn’t break things down enough. Some of these guys, the Theophylacti for example, were really important people who could make most of the city follow their bidding (no-one can make all of Rome follow their bidding, not since Octavian if then), and some were just struggling people we’d call knights anywhere else, and to imply that they’re all supported by the same system and that that doesn’t change, while acknowledging that they are also changing the face of Rome’s public spaces and embroiled, as we can tell from Liutprand of Cremona, in all kinds of power politics, seems like a disjunction to me. These are people involved in political change and economic agency, and I felt that the link between the fierce competition and change at that level, and the apparent stasis of the social structure, needed exploration. But then, we know so little about what these people did. It’s always amazed me how little work there is on Alberic. A guy starts calling himself Prince of Rome and ruling the city alongside the pope! Apparently no-one can oust him. He can almost ignore the kings! And yet somehow Pierre Toubert seems to be the only person who’s thought him worth writing about in the last century (and I confess, I haven’t read that writing).4 Am I missing something or is that badly out of synch with what people would find interesting anywhere else? So it’s easy to understand why such a story is not yet told, and the story that Chris was telling at system level was equally new to me and equally fascinating, but I did feel that there were these two halves to the story which will only make sense together, and now I’m hoping someone will do the other one.


1. Much of what Chris was saying will, I expect, emerge in his own work in the not-too-distant future, but two references of resort were Pierre Toubert’s Les structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle (Rome 1973) and Roberto Meneghini & Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, Roma nell’Altomedioevo: topografia e urbanistica della città dal V al X secolo (Roma 2004).

2. The Roman charters with which I’m familiar are mainly edited in L. Allodi & G. Levi (edd.), Il Regesto Sublacense del Secolo XI, Bibliotheca della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria (Roma 1885) & L. M. Hartmann (ed.), Ecclesiae S. Mariae in Via Lata Tabularium. Partem vetustoriem quae complectitur chartas inde ab anno 921 usque ad a. 1045 (Wien 1895), both of which give a giddying impression of social complexity.

3. The Liber Diurnus is something of a controversy; its function, date and importance are all long disputed. The two most recent contributions to the debate I’ve seen are Hans Hubert Anton, “Der Liber Diurnus in angeblichen und verfälschten Papstprivilegien des früheren Mittelalters” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Teil III: diplomatische Fälschungen (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXIII.3 (Hannover 1988), pp. 115-142, and Hans-Henning Kortüm, Zur papstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995), pp. 312-318, but I’m sure there’s more since I was up with this stuff. As for the economy, I don’t think the tenth-century growth is widely enough appreciated. It’s somewhat dwarfed by the economic take-off of the eleventh and twelfth centuries but this take-off run unleashes an awful lot of social development and change. The only decent comparative treatment I know arises in a conference volume, La Croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. Toubert, Latium, and idem, “Une révision : le principat d’Albéric de Rome (932-954)” in idem, Études sur l’Italie médiévale (IXe-XIVe s.), Collected Studies 46 (London: Variorum 1976), V.

Guifré consangineus Borrelli comite

The Castell de Llordà, Vall d'Aran, the centre of the old term of Isona

The Castell de Llordà Vall d'Aran, the centre of the old term of Isona

I’m coming to realise that in some ways the best thing for this blog’s content, other than commentary on other people’s research which always feels a little parasitical, is the footnotes that don’t make it. You know what I mean? The word limit is tight, there’s this thing you’ve tried to dispatch in a paragraph, you’re pleased with its erudition but it doesn’t ultimately have much to do with your argument. So it gets cut every time and you never actually get it in print. (Not that the stuff that stays in ever yes let’s leave that shall we right.) But they’re perfect for blog posts. So here’s one about a man called Guifré. Or maybe Gauzfred.

Gauzfred, or maybe Guifré, and far from alone in my period and area in bearing either name, was a relation of Count Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell (945/7-993), which is how I know about him. Exactly what relation he was, however, is not clear. He turns up in documents only four or five times, which is more than some nobles get, but still isn’t really enough. Let me break them down for you:

  1. In 973 he appears with Borrell in two fascinating charters whereby the deserted city of Isona, where Borrell had been maintaining garrisons and a small rural population to support them, was handed over to the monastery of Sant Sadurni de Tavèrnoles with instructions that they should populate the area. There’s masses more that could be said about this operation and as it is another footnote that didn’t make it I may well blog it separately. For now, however, note that our man appears here as Guifré, consanguineus Borrelli, kinsman of Borrell.1
  2. The next one is the dubious case; in a document of 981 through which land was sold just outside the city of Vic in the centre of Osona (not Isona), at a place called les Planes, a Count Guifré is named as neighbour. This is difficult because there was living at the time a Guifré who would later be Count of Cerdanya, and his brother Oliba was already entitled count by this time even though their father, Marquis Oliba Cabreta of Cerdanya, was still living. This is a family where the comital dignity was always shared between all brothers so if one of that generation were a count by 981, it’s not impossible firstly that little Guifré were and secondly that he had land in the thriving city of Vic where the family was well connected, even though it be in someone else’s actual county. Otherwise, however, we have to believe that this was Borrell’s kinsman because of how he goes on to appear.2
  3. In 987 there was a very large gathering about the frontier city of Cardona, which is probably also worth a blog post but has at least had lots written about it already. At it, Borrell attempted to refound the city for the third time in his family’s history, and gave the inhabitants substantial judicial privileges and amnesty to any fugitives who made it there. He also made Viscount Ermemir of Osona their defence commander and patron, and did various other things organising their independent operation. Guifré, or rather Gauzfred was there to see it done, and attested as Gocefredus comes et frater Borrelli, Gauzfred, count and brother of Borrell. Guifré of Cerdanya was Borrell’s second cousin once removed, and besides the name is different this once, so this is definitely not meant to be him and far more likely to be the mysterious kinsman with frontier interests.3
  4. Later that same year the same Viscount Ermemir is said to have made a present of some of his properties in that area to the new monastery of Santa Maria de Serrateix, which, confusingly, the family of Guifré of Cerdanya had recently founded and about which we will shortly hear more in The Case of the Disappearing Abbot. This document is what they call ‘dead dodgy’ as it attributes the foundation, which was within living memory by a count still in power, Oliba Cabreta no less, to his grandfather Guifré the Hairy, already halfway to legend in this area but not a plausible figure for the job in 987. It’s possible however that that’s all that’s been changed in this copy, and whether that be so or not there appears as witness Gauzfred, frater comitis Borrelli, brother of count Borrell, without a noble title of his own.4

There may be more in documents whose editions I haven’t yet got at, Solsona especially given the focus of these involvements, but I would like to think he’d have been spotted by the aristocracy-hungry antiquarians of yore. So, let’s briefly gather that: a kinsman of Borrell’s who can later be described as a brother—but then why not call him that in the first place? At first not a count—there are some titles that don’t always get mentioned when individuals are doing business but that’s not one—but later a count in good standing, and then finally, when not with Borrell but witnessing a donation to the ‘other’ family’s house, not a count again. Almost always concerned with lands on the far frontier, but the only sign of his own land is back at Osona, which hasn’t been on the frontier for a century.

The Parador de Cardona, 14th-century castle in a 9th-century precinct and now a hotel!

The Parador de Cardona, 14th-century castle in a 9th-century precinct and now a hotel!

The evaluation of these traces is difficult because these documents of course have authors. Some of their content is dictated by the formulae that legally valid, or maybe socially adequate, documents, ought to follow, but less than you might think. For example, there is no formula for the Cardona franchise, because there just isn’t another occasion like it: it has a short narrative, a privilege unrivalled by anything else in the area’s history and so many special provisions that it bends out of any standard shape. It was clearly also a major occasion and the scribe may have been inclined to record it in high register, giving people dignity and standing they didn’t normally own to (though he didn’t call Borrell dux, which sometimes happens on such occasions).5 And lastly it survives only as a copy, so whatever agendas it was drafted with have probaby also gone through more or less conscious corrections by the copyist. That’s the sort of problem I mean. The scribe who (originally) wrote the Serrateix donation presumably worked for the abbey, which was a family house for the family of Besalú-Cerdanya, not Guifré consanguineus‘s, so would they have recognised any half-title he might get in circumstances like the Cardona one? If they did, did the eventual copyist who added in the Guifré the Hairy reference recognise it, and might he have taken out this other Count Guifré’s title anyway, and even maybe chosen the name Gauzfred instead, to stop him confusing things and making it look even more anachronistic? And then what did his neighbours in Osona call him and is that the only really normal record?

Then, who might he in fact be? Borrell had two known brothers, Ermengol Count of Osona who first appears in 942 and seems to have been dead in 945 when Borrell first appears as count donating for his late brother’s soul, and Miró, who after the retirement of their father Sunyer in 947 succeeds alongside Borrell to the counties of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, but who seems from his will and Borrell’s almost non-appearance there till then to have been really concentrated on Barcelona alone.6 Both these are mentioned in other family wills and so on, but Gauzfred is not. He is not to be prayed for in either of Miró’s or Borrell’s bequests, or mentioned in Sunyer’s or his second wife Riquilda’s donations either. But Sunyer had a previous wife, Eimilda, whom we hardly see except in her marriage pact, which isn’t dated as it survives but from the presence of an older Viscount Ermemir of Osona we can date to before 917.7 There are no children recorded from that marriage and we don’t see very much trace of her, but Szabolcs de Vajay has argued that a woman called Guinilda who turns up in the nobility of southern France ought to be identified as a daughter of this marriage, and if there was one…8 And it is clear at least that Gauzfred’s family relationship to Borrell is troublesome to describe, as well as being strongly implied by the record that Sunyer’s second wife got her sons into the succession and managed to more or less wipe out the record of poor Eimilda and her children if there were any.

The monastery of Santa Maria de Serrateix as it now stands

The monastery of Santa Maria de Serrateix as it now stands

So since I first discovered this guy in the records, my feeling has been that he was a son of Sunyer, either by Eimilda or by some other relationship not recorded, who was shunted out of any claim he might have had to the succession by Sunyer’s second marriage and the grooming of those children for the various counties in Sunyer’s hands. However, like those mysterious priests of a while back there were apparently some things for which dealing with this awkward relative were necessary, and with brother Miró safely dead and the need to organise the far frontier whither Gauzfred seems to have been banished, at least professionally, Borrell seems to me to have found him a róle as a coordinator and overseer of the various agencies, monasteries, bishops and viscounts, he had running settlement projects in these rather wild areas.

So I like to think of Gauzfred as a greying warlord, quite possibly based in Isona, a man who had never got to be count, to whom Borrell made an offer of status that he couldn’t refuse in exchange for cooperation in those northern frontier zones and who at last took a place in the state for a short while. But he must have been old when he did so. Count Ermengol was apparently old enough to fight in 942, so at least 14 and probably older. That means that Sunyer was married to Riquilda by 927 latest and I would rather say at most 925. If Gauzfred was born to Eimilda the previous year, 924, he would have been 49 by the time his rehabilitation appears to us, and then 64 by the time of his last appearance; and given that Sunyer and Eimilda were married by 917 at least he could clearly have been a lot older. All the same it heartens me, to see in these documents not just the fascinating machinations of frontier government, and the righteous-aggressive process of bringing it into touch with a dominant centre, but also the 40-year-old magnate Borrell reaching out the hand of friendship to his ten-year-or-more-senior family black sheep, and it apparently being accepted after so long quite literally in the wilderness. I hope that Gauzfred was able to die happy with his lot.


1. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Diplomatari del monestir de Tavèrnoles (segles IX-XIII)” in Urgellia Vol. 12 (Montserrat 1995), pp. 7-414, doc. nos 23 & 24, the former also edited from a different copy as Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 17, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 174.

2. 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. 491. On little Count Oliba of Ripoll and his even littler brother Guifré, and indeed their martial then monastic father, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), II pp. 141-277.

3. Now edited by Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la vila de Cardona, anys 966-1276: Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Històric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les masies Garriga de Bergus, Pala de Coma i Pinell, Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7, but the older edition of Jaime Villanueva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España tomo VIII: viage á las iglesias de Vique y Solsona (Valencia 1821), ap. XXX, is still useful because of the commentary. More up to date work on this document and its contents from Victor Farias, “Guerra, llibertat i igualitarisme a la frontera” in B. Riquer i de Permanyer (ed.), Historia Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. Josep María Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 112-113.

4. Villanueva, Viage Literario VIII, doc. XXVII. This must also be edited in Jordi Bolòs i Masclans (ed.), Diplomatari del monestir de Santa Maria de Serrateix (segles X-XV), Diplomataris 42 (Barcelona 2006), but I haven’t found time to get at that yet; it would be interesting to see what Prof. Bolòs thinks of our man Gauzfred. These two volumes are also where all the other evidence for early Serrateix and its foundation come from so I must check it before writing up the Disappearing Abbot.

5. I have argued that there is no authentic charter calling Borrell dux except a huge and grandiloquent donation to Sant Cugat del Vallès and the consecration of Sant Benet de Bages, the former written up by the equally verbose scribe and judge Bonhom, edited by J. Rius (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés vol. I (Barcelona 1945), doc. no. 217, and the latter not by Bonhom but equally over-the-top, ed. Albert Benet i Clarà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Ciutat de Manresa (segles IX-XI), Diplomataris 6 (Barcelona 1994), doc. no. 92; see Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 64-66. On Bonhom, who is a fabulous generator of source material, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92.

6. On the evidence for the family, see Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los Condes de Barcelona Vindicados, y Cronología y Genealogía de los Reyes de España considerados como Soberianos Independientes de su Marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), vol. I online at http://www.archive.org/details/loscondesdebarce01bofauoft, last modified 10 Jul. 2008 as of 15 Jan. 2009, I pp. 64-81. I argue for the grooming of a son for each county in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming).

7. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 9.

8. I can’t find the de Vajay reference now, for some reason, but I think I must have got it from Martin Aurell, “Jalons pour une enquête sur les stratégies matrimoniales des comtes catalans (IXe-XIe s.)” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 33 & 34 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 281-364.