Tag Archives: Asturias

Name in Print XVI

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which thus to add the unpaid hours that grind my wage for teaching down to well below minimum wage… but, lifting my head briefly from the interesting but unremunerated business of adjunct teaching, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.

fsmasbbovo

No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!


Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.

The second king of Spain

Earlier this year, in the quest to finish an article, I was working my way through the Castilian translation of one of the major Arabic sources for the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula, the Tarsī‘ al-ajbār of al-‘Udrī.1 This eleventh-century writer took a historical-geographical approach, and, as we have the text at least, proceeded town-by-town and for each gave an account of its natural features and situation then its ruling families.2 Since the same four or five clans dominated all the cities of the Sharq al-Andalus, the Upper March, or Zaragoza and points north and east, call it as you like, this gets very confusing after a while as people who need ancestry given to three removes to distinguish one Muhammad ibn Lubb from the next occur in city after city, but Fernando de la Granja provided some hand-drawn fold-out family trees and it’s manageable. I was here mainly for the wālī family of Barcelona, but they come in a long way behind the main source of independence, treachery and mayhem on the March, the lordly family we know as the Banū Qāsī.

A map of the Banū Qāsī domains and the wider political situation c.  910

A map of the Banū Qāsī domains and the wider political situation c.  910. As we’ll see, I think this is a deal too generous to Asturias, but that swathe probably did all recognise the same king. Nevertheless… read on! By Crates [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now the Banū Qāsī, supposedly ‘sons of Cassius’, have come in for a lot of attention just lately and I haven’t been able to read very much of it, so I risk being out-of-date, but nonetheless, on the extremely rare occasions I have been able to teach that which I actually work on (maybe five times in my life), I have tried to use one particular teaching point about them.3 This is that it is said in the Chronicle of Alfonso III of the family’s greatest patriarch, Mūsā ibn Mūsā ibn Fortūn ibn Qāsī, that he called himself “the third king of Spain”, tertius rex in Spania, meaning he was number three in importance in the contemporary political firmament.4 The Chronicle has lots to say about Mūsā, who was a rough contemporary with its Asturian royal heroes. At the point when Mūsā is supposed to have said this, he was ruler of Zaragoza and the entire Upper March, had rebelled against the Emir of Córdoba six times and defeated him nearly as many (though also been forced to submit four times) and had also laid waste to several Christian armies, and he certainly did control a lot of cities. Nonetheless, this claim has always seemed to me to leave something important unsaid, which is, who did he think was the second king of Spain?

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā in Tudela

Tudela are still very proud of their ‘Rey del Ebro’, as you can see. By Arenillas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

One has to admit straight away that no text other than the Chronicle of Alfonso III contains this line, and for its author, writing in the capital of the growing kingdom of Asturias, the answer was obvious: while the Emir of Córdoba probably still, despite a kingdom full of aristocrats like Mūsā, ranked as number one in his mind, King Alfonso’s Asturias was surely number two, and indeed the whole point of having Mūsā say this was presumably to show the audience that important and famous outsiders had recognised this long since. It makes that point so well that I suspect that it was just made up for this purpose. But if Mūsā had said such a thing, is that what he would have meant? Certainly, in his world, Córdoba, when it could get itself together, was the only single power he needed to fear: he fought emiral troops eleven times at least, losing on most of those occasions (though never so badly as to lose his position in at least one of the Marcher cities). Asturias, on the other hand, he met in battle only twice, and on each occasion they were teamed up with the Basques of Navarra, at Albelda both times. On the former of these occasions Mūsā defeated the Christians, on the latter, they him. He also fought local forces at Álava once, which was probably not yet Castile so counts as Asturias (this being my quarrel with the map).

Muslim warriors painted by al-Wāsitī in a thirteenth-century text of the Makam of al-Harīrī

For want of any closely contemporary media, here is a thirteeenth-century picture of some Muslim warriors, set to go with a tenth-century text telling a story set in the seventh century! Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, his measure of the political scene has also to be measured in his alliances. Here again the Emirate was foremost: Mūsā fought as part of emiral armies on at least four occasions, against the Catalans twice and Vikings once, the fourth being the Álava campaign. When he fought against the Emir, however, his allies were not Asturias but the Basques, into whose royal family his mother had been married. They came to his aid three times, though he also fought them four times, and the families remained closely intertwined, Basque princes fighting on both sides in the second battle at Albelda. It really doesn’t seem to me that Mūsā looked north-west that often. His ‘second king in Spain’ would probably really have been himself, but number three on the podium probably wouldn’t have been Ordoño I’s Asturias, who were just where his Basque sometime allies found extra troops when they needed to make a point. Standing competitively by his side in that ranking would have been the King of Pamplona, I reckon.

It’s too easy to forget that Navarra and the Basque families who ruled it were for a long time really big local political deals, because in the end the kingdom got swallowed into its neighbours and didn’t lead the great drive towards unification led by Castile that has been the grand narrative of so much ‘Spanish’ history. I have a chapter now in press that points out that in 1031, when the Caliphate of al-Andalus definitively ended, it would have been impossible to foresee a Castilian domination of the whole peninsula. That was not just because the exact state of the Muslim zone was still in flux, but also because the leading Christian monarch at that point was King Sancho Garcés the Great of Navarra, and he was lord of the Counts of Barcelona and Castile and would soon get his nephew in as King of León. It wouldn’t last, but not everything does. Mūsā’s famous, and probably spurious, quote still helps remind us that the way things finish up need not be the way they looked long before.


1. Fernando de la Granja (trans.), “La Marca Superior en la obra de al-cUdrí” in Estudios de edad media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-546.

2. I say, “as we have it,” because the text as given by de la Granja periodically makes it clear that it is in the voice of another writer reporting what al-Udrī had written, rather than the work itself, so there’s no reason to suppose that what we have is all of what al-Udrī wrote, rather than a selection by someone else.

3. Until quite recently there was only really one thing, Alberto Cañada Juste, “Los Banu Qasi (714-924)” in Príncipe de Viana Vol. 41 (Pamplona 1980), pp. 5-96, with some useful remarks added in Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 217-222, but now there is also Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La Dawla de los Banu Qasi: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus (Madrid 2010), which has caused quite a stir, largely in places where you can follow it up yourself if you like. I haven’t yet read this as I would need some days in London to achieve it… Only two libraries there seem so far to have acquired it in England, ironically both in the same building.

4. Referencing the Chronicle of Alfonso III can get one into trouble: there are four more or less contemporary critical editions, all done more or less without knowledge of each other, and the Castilians don’t like it if you use the French version. I find that more neutral in commentary and better aware of German work on the manuscripts, however, so recommend Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), and whichever edition you use you will find the text sub Era 888 or s. a. 850. There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999), but I don’t like this as it blends two different recensions of the text in a fairly selective way. Most of what follows comes from Cañada, however.

Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford

The title is true of the present and the past, for I continue very busy even now that term has stopped. We will not speak of job applications, but even without that and purely domestic affairs, over the last week I have:

What I have not done is written blog, as you have noticed and may also now understand. So, let me change that by giving an unfairly rapid account of four Oxford seminars from last May, connected by nothing more than their location and my interest but perhaps also yours!

Scylla and Charybdis

On the 7th May 2012, the speaker at the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was Dr Paul Oldfield, now of Manchester, and his title was: “A Bridge to Salvation or Entrance to the Underworld? Southern Italy and International Pilgrimage”. This picked up and played with the facts that as pilgrimage to the Holy Land grew more and more important from roughly 1000 onwards, Italy became equally crucial to it as a point of embarkation for those going by sea, which was most people going, but that this enlarged transient population also bred an alternative economy of banditry and ransoming. Pilgrimage was of course supposed to involve suffering, though maybe not quite like that, and this seems to have bred stories that also greatly exaggerated its natural dangers, especially concentrated around the very busy and notoriously tricky Straits of Messina but also, for example, Vesuvius (3 known eruptions 1000-1200) and Etna (probably rather more). Classical literature that plays with these places as gateways to the bowels of the Earth was well-known to the kind of people who would write about these things. The result was, argued Dr Oldfield, that one might wind up unexpectedly meeting one’s Maker en route (and dying on pilgrimage was reckoned a pretty good way to go, in terms of one’s likely destination) but some of the things that might kill you were gates to Hell, at least as they were talked about, making Southern Italy an uncertain and liminal zone that reflected the status, decontextualised, uprooted and vagrant, of those among whom these stories circulated. This was all good fun and of course anything involving Italy always has splendid pictures, here especially of the pilgrim-favoured church San Nicola di Bari, so here it is for you below.

Basilica of San Nicola di Bari

First-world problems

Next, on the 9th, Paul Harvey, emeritus of Durham I understand, came to the Medieval Social and Economic Seminar to talk to the title, “How to Manage Your Landed Estate in the Eleventh Century”. That sounded as if it should interest me, so along I went. Professor Harvey was looking for the kind of problems that manorial surveys indicate big English landowners were meeting before the end of the twelfth century, and observed several in them some considerable difficulty with actually defining demesne in terms of how its labour or revenues were organised differently from anywhere else. He wound up arguing that in England demesne land was really a late eleventh-century invention, and that the surveys’ expectations were all quite new. On the other hand, that doesn’t appear to have been a time of great change in land organisation or settlement nucleation, or so says Professor Harvey, and what might really have been happening is simply that the choice between direct extraction and leasing was made on the basis of what was convenient given the existing settlement patterns, but that the surveys themselves might be changing things by defining more closely who was responsible for what renders. In either case, using them as windows on earlier land use is probably dodgy! This mainly seemed to meet with people’s approval but it seemed to me that this must, if it’s happening, also be the point at which the Anglo-Saxon hide ceased to be a useful land-measure, as it was based on a standard yield. Land that could produce that yield was a hide; if yield went up, the hide got smaller. You can’t easily measure land like that, especially if you’re trying to change the obligations of a hide. When I raised this Ros Faith pointed out that Domesday Book uses plough-teams anyway, so I suppose it was kind of an obvious point, but I was glad to have thought it out anyway.

Buildings of opposition

The church and/or palace of Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo

The next week, speaker to the Medieval History Seminar was Isaac Sastre Diego, developing the work on which he’d presented earlier that year to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar. Here he took a group of Asturian monumental churches, Santa Maria del Naranco (above), San Miguel de Lillo, Santa Cristina de Lena and one or two others, that have distinct royal connections. The first and third have been called palaces, the former by modern historians and the latter in the seventeenth century when it’s first documented, but Isaac argued that they need to be seen as exclusive royal chapels in which perhaps the king himself was officiant, since the two `palaces’ both have altars in but no clear separation of space for the clergy. Isaac saw this as a deliberately new kind of display initiated by King Ramiro I (who is named in an inscription on the altar at Naranco) to deal with the similarly new monumentality of the rule of Emir ‘Abd al-Rahman II in Córdoba, perhaps also the Carolingians and most of all their probable candidate for the throne whom Ramiro had defeated, Nepotian (whom as we know would later be recorded as a lord of wizards). Isaac sees these sites as buildings of opposition, in which an explicit differentiation was made between the new r´gime and its competition both in the past and at the time. Discussion, especially with Rob Portass, brought out the extra dimension that at Oviedo, where the first two of these sites are, they would have been in explicit distinction to the cathedral and royal place of King Alfonso II, which were in the city while these still perch on the hills above. Chris Wickham suggested that San Vicenzo al Volturno might be seen as another such opposition building, which works for me. I had expected not to get much out of this seminar because of the earlier related one and in fact it was really thought-provoking, so I hope it gets published where I can easily find it.

Twelfth-century monastic xenophobia

Last in this batch, the same place a week later was graced by Professor Rod Thomson, with a paper called, “‘The Dane broke off his continuous drinking bouts, the Norwegian left his diet or raw fish': William of Malmesbury on the Scandinavians”, which is hard to beat as is much of William’s work, which of course has mostly been edited by Professor Thomson. William was here talking about the Scandinavian response to the Crusades, where he gets unusually ethnographic, but as you see not necessarily without an agenda. As far as William was concerned these nations were still barbarian, and would be that way till they learnt civilisation, however orthodox and devout their Christian beliefs might be. This was a communicable disease, too, barbarians being more resistant to acculturation than those among whom they came to live! Most of the paper was however an exegesis of William’s method of using his sources, which was neither uncritical nor reverent but highly intelligent. There was even a suggestion that William might have had access to some saga material. This raised various intelligent questions, one obvious one being what he thought he was himself in ethnic terms, to which the answer seemed to be `the best of both English and Norman and thus neither’, and another being that of how far his sources and his audiences shaped his attitudes, which there wasn’t really time to resolve. It’s always impressive to hear someone who’s really lived inside a text without turning into an apologist speak about it, though, and Professor Thomson got points for this and also for being almost 100% unlike what I expected him to be like from his writing alone, all of which only goes to show that it’s not just the cover of a book one can’t judge by, both for William and his editor…

Right, that should do for this time; next time, much more than you probably want to read about mills, with footnotes sufficient for anyone who’s been wondering where they’ve been these last two posts! À bientôt!

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain

I have mentioned Graham Barrett here before, not least as one of those people whom I fear would, if they’d done my doctorate, have done it a good deal better than I did (though, y’know, I’m happy with my outcome). When I mention him, moreover, people pipe up saying how impressed they’ve been with his papers and wanting him to publish on slates, so, you probably want to know about when he presented one called “The Literate Mentality and the Textual Society in Early Medieval Spain” to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 21st November last year, especially since this was kind of a mission statement for his soon-to-be-finished doctorate. So, okay, here I am to tell you about it!

Frontage of León cathedral

Frontage of León cathedral; there are worse places to have to work...

The main question Graham was addressing here was the social level of literacy in Northern Spain, 711-1031, not including Catalonia (though less because of me, I imagine, than because of Michel Zimmermann, whose monster work covers this kind of ground; Professor Zimmermann probably has more to fear from Graham than I do). This gives him some 4,000 charters to play with, of which roughly a quarter are now in the cathedral archive of León. Some useful figures followed, characterising the sample: 61% cartulary copies, 21% originals, 6% loose copies; 54% donations, 36% sales, 10% ‘other’, and so on. He then stressed, however, that these categories aren’t necessarily useful for his kind of enquiry: more relevant may be that only 19% of them are transactions between lay-persons. That’s a lot, by early medieval standards, but the vast majority of the material here still concerns the Church. Preservation peaks at around the year 970, which makes a kind of sense in terms of war and stability but surely needs a better explanation than frequency of randomised destruction; we are instead, Graham argued, probably seeing a sea change in the social uses of writing.

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970, complete with scribes busy altering the social fabric

[Edits to the first sentence of this paragraph, with apologies] At this point there was a pause to address the historiography, whose various offerings on what early medieval societies were doing with writing Graham didn’t find entirely helpful in his case, and the material he brought to bear more or less proved his point. For example, the boom in document preservation is in non-royal ones, so not driven by government directly.1 Instead he sees the pressure to write as having come from the Church, with monasteries and so forth being set up in new areas and effectively archiving community memories in such terms as boundary clauses, names of witnesses and knowledgeable persons, and so forth, and defending themselves at law in such ways that meant others needed documents too, when without that outsider pressure the whole thing might have rested on the community’s collective memory. (The references to documents the monastery didn’t make and didn’t preserve of course indicate that other people could write as well as the monks, and he would come to this.2) The fact that documents were valued at law – and Graham said that he has no court cases where a side with documentary proof ever loses, which surprised me and must, I think, despite its totality, be a factor of preservation as we’ve seen here before – meant that people were willing to forge them, store them, copy them and if necessary, destroy them.

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica

The law, which is the Visigothic Code on which Graham was presenting when reported here the time before last, even governed to an extent what documents were supposed to be written, and was itself a form of socially-active writing, albeit one that could be modified or ignored, and referred to silently, i. e. without saying that that’s what it was; it was, at least, a starting point and suggestion for how to deal with the situations it covered.3 One could argue—Graham did not, quite—that the Bible was used the same way, even though its status was rather different, and higher; nonetheless, it too was a source from which the writers of these documents drew their ideas of how things should be arranged (and, indeed, what would happen to those who disarranged them). These two texts were treated with at least some respect; other, lesser, ones were apt to be recycled, modified, edited or miscopied in fruitful ways, and the last part of the paper focused on their writers.

Three scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Three identified scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Scribes are surprisingly rarely identified in Graham’s documents (it surprises me, anyway, but then I am used to a corpus that is mostly originals) but those who are can be broken down into royal, episcopal, monastic, aristocrats’ and village scribes, almost all clerics or likely to be so. One third of these, roughly, only wrote a single document that survives, but as the period went on it became more usual for a few people to write a lot of charters, which I think probably tells us something about towns becoming spaces of public action and possibly, given its presence in the preservation, the development of León as a capital. These people had written models, of which at least one was the Formulae Visigothicae or, presumably, a version of those texts’ ancestor, with regional variations visible in the detail, and the documents they made could be done at the time of the transactions concerned, although sometimes they would come later. (This must be harder to judge with fewer individuals and I would want to leave some conceptual space for writing them before the ceremony too.)

Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978

Grant by King Ordoño I to Bishop Fronimio of León, 28 June 860, Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978; slightly bigger version linked through

What the ceremony at which the text was deployed, witnessed, signed and given to the property’s new (or new-again) owner did, argued Graham, was to embed the act of writing and its encoding of an action in society. The increase in specialised scribes, as he saw it (contrary to my suggestion above) was a recognition of this by the powers-that-were, monopolising the authority of text and the ability to make it. Here again is supposed a world where for a while, writing got ‘out’ into a wider social plane, but where before that, it had been mostly élite and rare. Michel Zimmermann would, I think, agree with this, but I’m still struggling to see that boom in access to text in the 970s, which I have in my material too albeit maybe a decade or two earlier, as a phenomenon of society rather than of preservation. I’m not sure that when documents are rarely preserved it necessarily implies that few people of that era could write, rather than just that they were not writing things that get preserved. The Visigothic Law and the Formulae Visigothicae envisage far far more things being written down than we have from the tenth century, and the very limited preservation on slate, rather than parchment, from that era seems to show that in action, with accounts, lists and so on far outnumbering solemn documents.4 I, instead, find it easier to imagine a continuity in attitudes to writing from seventh to ninth centuries and that what changed after that was less more people finding it necessary to get at quills and more a greater number of institutions surviving, due to economic growth and so on, that would preserve a certain sort of document better for us. And for that case I would cite girls being taught to write at home, the incredible scale of loss of documentation from the societies of the Peninsula who didn’t have the good fortune of a continuous Church presence through to the modern era and the apparent survival of Visigothic norms of writing, including to an extent the script (something which is a lot truer for Graham’s area than mine5). All the same, I would certainly have to admit, firstly, that Catalunya no es Espanya, secondly, that the evidence we don’t have is obviously impossible to characterise, and thirdly, that Graham’s more complicated version of the history of text in his area would, indeed, look just the same as my simpler one in terms of evidence that we now have.


1. Compare, most obviously, Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979, 2nd edn. Oxford 1993), for a governmentality-driven thesis.

2. And until this work gets published, there’s Roger Collins, “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), XVI.

3. Compare Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism, V, and 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. 33-55, just to stick to the English-language literature.

4. I am used to consulting the slates in Ángel Canellas López, Diplomática hispano-visigoda (Zaragoza 1979), but Graham informs me that I would find many more in Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Documentos de época visigoda escritos en pizarra (siglos VI-VIII) (Turnhout 2000), 2 vols, where there are also pictures, for which you otherwise have to go back to Manuel Gómez Moreno, Documentación goda en pizarra: estudio y trascripción (Madrid 1966), with the reproduction standards of that era.

5. On which see Anscari M. Mundó, “Notas para una historia de la escritura visigótica en su periodo primitivo” in Bivium: Homenaje a Manuel Cecílio Díaz y Díaz (Madrid 1983), pp. 175-196, though cf. Collins, “Literacy and the Laity”. I’m sure Graham could provide far more up-to-date references than all of these but they are where my views came from.

Seminar LXXXIV: going to law in post-Visigothic Spain

On the 2nd February I had a great quandary. In London, at the Institute of Historical Research, the estimable Rosemary Morris was presenting what I understand was an excellent paper featuring charters and shouty peasants; you’d think I’d have been there. But at the same time in Oxford, which is after all where I live now, Graham Barrett was presenting to the Oxford Medieval Church and Culture Seminar about surprisingly similar matters, and his charters and peasants were Spanish not Byzantine. Because of this ability to actually read the documents in question, and the matter of the train fare and late night, and also because Graham is one of two or three people who I’m perpetually glad aren’t working on Catalonia, because if they were I’d have nothing left to say, I opted in the end to stay in town for his paper. It is possible that Professor Morris’s paper will be covered by someone else, and I’ll mention it if that happens; I certainly hope it will. But Graham’s paper was entitled “Visigothic Law after the Visigoths” and it was certainly jolly interesting. It was also rather a while ago, but Graham said afterwards that he was disappointed to see that I wasn’t podcasting it live to the web, so I feel that a slight delay is only just revenge for his taking the mickey…

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica, seriously would you look at this manuscript isn't it great?

If you don’t know, and why would you etc., after the Muslims toppled the Visigothic kingdom in what is now Spain over the period 711-714, both the parts of it now under Muslim dominion and those not continued to use the lawcode of the Visigothic kings, the Forum Iudicum, Forum of the Judges or Book of Judges (as mentioned just the other day in fact) to regulate their affairs, at least the Christian populations did. This applies as much to Catalonia, and indeed the old Visigothic province in Gaul, Septimania, as it does to Aragón, Castile, León and Asturias (ironically, in the latter case, given how much time it had spent fending off the Visigothic kings when they were around), and argh 25 years ago already now Roger Collins wrote a neat article about this for the English Historical Review which is still an excellent place to start with this stuff.1 (There’s also a bucketload of work in Castilian and Catalan of course, which I don’t know as well as I know I should.2) Since then there has been some work on these matters for Catalonia, but rather less in English than one might wish, and Graham is now moving in to close that gap.3 The Visigothic Code, as it’s also known (and as it’s online in translation), remains important because it is a a weird mixture of the archaic, four- to six-hundred year old rulings being cited in courts, and the current: in Castile and León we have eighteen manuscripts of the code dating to before the twelfth century, mostly from shortly before then, because it was still being copied. These copies are not all complete, and all vary in details, selecting what is useful and adapting accordingly. A detailed comparison of the manuscripts therefore gives a kind of index into what people in any given area were worried about coming up in court, at least it does if we can plausibly locate the manuscripts’ place of use (and Wendy Davies, present, suggested that trying to map usage and citation of the Code around the known manuscripts would be informative, which indeed it would).

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860; it doesn't cite the Law, but I haven't got an image of one that does I'm afraid

It’s not just the copies of the law itself that tell us about its use, though, it is cited in dozens of charters, often actually cited with book, title and chapter, and very often these citations are correct. This is impressive, but it’s perhaps more interesting when they’re wrong, or the relevant law doesn’t even exist; here we are presumably seeing a mis-learnt citation or a strong belief that something is such old custom that it just gosh-durn must be in the law; but in the latter case, it’s that it’s in the law that they feel will validate it, not that it’s old custom. (It’s possible, of course, that these citations are intentionally false, since not many people are actually going to be in a position to look this stuff up and in any given assembly the people who are are probably writing the charter…) Not all these uses are even identified, however, which goes to show that to some extent the law genuinely had shaped the way some things were done, or at least the words in which those things were written about. (Graham’s handout has a number of examples of this choice of an otherwise unparalleled phrase to talk about, for example, adultery or homicide.4) These words, Graham hazarded, were probably not usually passing from person to person in the context of full copies of the Code, but just single sheets of the most useful cites perhaps, tucked into a folder of example charters and scraps of formulary that the average scribe might have had to work from, rather than anything as grand as a book. That copying without context could explain a lot of the apparent deviations, though again one would expect practice to dictate which way they deviated.

Folio 64r of the 1058 Leonese copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Folio 64r of the 1058 Leonese copy of the Liber Iudicorum, showing Book IV Title 2 law 20

It has to be said that sometimes, when the laws were invoked, they were deliberately bent or mutilated. I think Graham used this example too, but I can’t pin it down in my notes so I’ll import it from Catalonia: there is a particular law in the code (IV.2.20, as shown above), which protects the rights of the heirs of a property-owner, as follows:

Every freeborn man and woman, whether belonging to the nobility, or of inferior rank, who has no children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, has the unquestionable right to dispose of his or her estate at will; nor can any arrangement that either may make, be set aside by any relatives of theirs….

This turns up a lot in donation charters, but when it does, crucially, pretty much everything between ‘whether’ and ‘great-grandchildren’ inclusive is usually left out, so that it becomes a law guaranteeing the right of unrestricted alienation of property when its framer (the glorious Flavius Chindasuinthus, King, no less, as you see above in red) had intended precisely the opposite. Not everyone citing the Code knew this, most likely, but some certainly did because they’d copied it themselves.5 Here we’re nudging at questions about authority and written norms and what you could do with them in the Middle Ages that have troubled many of us and will trouble many more, but the kind of work that Graham is doing here certainly add to the detail we can try and answer such questions from.

Title page of a 1600 edition of the Castilian version of the Book of Judges

Title page of a 1600 edition of the Castilian version of the Book of Judges, from Wikimedia Commons

The way that Graham wound up framing the way these texts were used, then, was as a point of departure. Often, the law would be invoked to set a penalty for a certain thing, but then the document in question records that with that out in the open, a compromise was then reached that was more agreeable to all parties. (Of course, there is a preservation factor operating here, because one of the compromises we see most often was to give some land instead of paying an impossible fine or becoming a slave—those of you who have heard Wendy Davies speak on such matters, or indeed Graham himself in Kalamazoo last year, will recall this practice no doubt—and charters in which land was transferred are tremendously more likely to survive than those in which fines were paid, because land remains relevant long after a person’s criminal reputation or lack of one has disappeared into generational memory loss. On the other hand, we don’t have very many charters at all in which someone sells land to raise money to pay a fine, at least not in which they tell us that’s what they were doing, and precious few where they are actually enslaved (although I could find you one in which such a person was then freed, which may be more likely to be preserved since he would need it to prove he could alienate property legally and that, in turn, would lead to it being preserved with the property charters, etc.6) so it may yet be that the compromise was much more common than the actual sentence being imposed. If I remember rightly, Graham said he knew of one document only out of the thousands surviving (albeit that only hundreds are court cases) where a sentence seems to have actually been carried out as in the law. Even there, I might caution, we’re still just assuming, as other cases where verdicts were subsequently abandoned show. In either case, the law is the framework that the parties start with, but even though the verdict is pronounced by judges, as in the Code, and carried out by an official called the saió just as in the Code, it is very rarely with the Code that people finished. It shaped their world, yes, but they made their own shapes out of it. Authority may not be the word we want: due process may be. The Code determined what was due about the process, and the actual hearing hopefully determined what was fair and equitable. It’s not a bad model for law in a society where enforcement is hard to find.

King Vermudo II of León and Galicia, as depicted in the 12th-century Libro de las Estampas

King Vermudo II of León and Galicia, as depicted in the 12th-century Libro de las Estampas, from Wikimedia Commons

The other thing that interested me especially was a coda in which Graham returned to a throwaway remark with which he’d begun about a note in the Chronicle of Sampiro that records that King Vermudo II of León (985-999) confirmed the ‘Laws of King Wamba’ at some point during his reign. Wamba’s contribution to the Code was very small, and where it occurs lengthy and pompous and making me think more of Patrick Wormald’s warnings about what kings really wanted out of legislation (i. e. to look like real royalty, rather than to improve the affairs of the realm) than almost anything else in the thing, but he was certainly the last king to add to it and therefore the final version was in some sense his; it must be the Code referred to here.7 If so, that’s really interesting because it’s at almost exactly that time that over in Barcelona a certain count called Borrell II whom you’ve heard me mention before started recruiting a new cadre of highly-trained judges to run his courts, one of whom indeed copied a text of the Forum Iudicum that we still have. Why did both of these Iberian potentates at either end of the peninsula decide to revive this juristic form of status-building? For Vermudo, of course, the claim was implicitly to stand in succession to Wamba, as the Code itself says that only the prince may issue laws. To issue the old laws therefore made him a king in that same old style. For Borrell, it was more subtle I suspect: as with much of his policy, his new stress on law and the Code emphasised that his authority stood on ancient foundations that no-one now in power had the authority to deny. The Code was older than the caliphs of Córdoba to whom he sometimes pledged allegiance, older than the Carolingians who’d installed his grandfather, and certainly older than those upstarts in León whom he may once, all the same, have got to consecrate him an anti-Carolingian archbishop.8 I’m pretty sure about all the ways in which, for Borrell, the Code was old. But after hearing Graham’s paper I know that I also need to pay some more attention to the ways in which it was also being made anew.


1. R. Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet‘: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512; you could also see his “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104; both are reprinted in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorium Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), V & VI respectively.

2. The things I can most obviously think of are all by Aquilino Iglesia Ferreirós, specifically his “La creación del derecho en Cataluña” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 47 (Madrid 1977), pp. 99-424 and more recently La Creación del derecho: una historia de la formación de un derecho estatal español : manual (Barcelona 1992) and (I gather from Dialnet) Max Turull, Aquilino Iglesia Ferreirós, Oriol Oleart Piquet, Mònica González Fernández, Historia del derecho español (Barcelona 2001).

3. For Catalonia, I can go no further without mentioning the excellent 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), of which pp. 33-55 cover this stuff.

4. And since there has so far been no late Latin in this post at all, let me take one of his examples here: the Law says, “If a freeborn woman mixes herself up in adultery with her own slave or freedman, or else wishes to have him as her husband, and she is convicted of this by clear proof, she should be put to death”, “Si ingenua mulier servo suo vel proprio liberto se in adulterio miscuerit aut forsitan eum maritum habere voluerit et ex hoc manigesta probatione convincitur occidatur”, text from Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), Book III Chapter 2 Title 2, emphasis Barrett’s. Then, we find in a charter preserved by the nunnery of Sobrado from 858 the confession, “I mixed myself up in adultery with the slave of Hermegildo named Ataulfo”, Commiscui me in adulterio cum servo Hermegildi nomine Ataulfo”, ed. P. Loscertales & G. de Valdeavellano in their (edd.) Tumbos del Monasterio de Sobrado de los Monjes (Madrid 1976), doc. no. 75, emphasis and transl. Barrett. Note, of course that firstly, that was not the woman’s slave but someone else’s, and secondly, that she was not put to death as the law prescribes. More on that below…

5. Here I run shamelessly off the back of Bowman, Shifting Landmarks, pp. 39-43. One of the people we know knew this stuff was my official favourite scribe, the judge Bonhom (or Bonsom, often, in the literature), whom Bowman discusses ibid. 84-99 along with his fellows. We know Bonhom knew it because we still have his own, heavily-glossed, copy of the Law, it being Biblioteca del Monasterio del Escorial, MS z.II.2, and recently fully edited as Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Josep M. Font Rius, Yolanda García & Anscarí Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona (Barcelona 2003). And, now that I look at Graham’s handout more closely, I see he has an example of just this kind of misuse of the same clause from Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección documental de la Catedral de León (775-1230), vol. I (775-952), Fuentes y estudios de historia leonesa 41 (León 1987), doc. no. 256.

6. In fact, I will: it’s Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 161, also ed. in Ordeig (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 392, in which a priest called Nectar buys someone out of penal slavery enjoined upon him for homicide. The relevance of this example is that the priest, whose name was Nectar, yet, already, says in the document that one sentenced to slavery cannot redeem himself, which looks like a legal citation but is actually not in the Law.

7. The chronicle reference is J. Pérez de Urbel, Sampiro: su crónica y la monarquía leonesa en el siglo X (Madrid 1968), cap. 30, Silense redaction, and when I invoke Patrick Wormald I mean his “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian Wood, (edd.) Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138.

8. On Borrell’s management of the past I hope you will soon be able to see 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); on the archbishop, meanwhile, see idem, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41 at pp. 13-16, and refs there.

Lost in citation II: slaughtering sacred cows

For a variety of reasons, only one of which is my imminent departure, my department is currently in full-on publication frenzy. The boss has calculated that, if we include our personal work, the department is trying to send nine books to various presses by the end of the calendar year. One of these, Derek Chick’s corpus of the coins of King Offa, is already with the press; my magnum opus will be finally with the printers soon after mid-October, hopefully still available for Christmas :-) and that leaves me only three which remain my job for a short while longer. Of one of these will I speak. I shan’t say which one, though it will I guess be kind of obvious; that’s not the same, however, as making it web-searchable… It involves, once again, the ghost of Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, so you may want to tune out now…

Gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.8162 (Grierson Collection)

Gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.8162 (Grierson Collection)

In this text, the question is covered of what was used as a medium of exchange in Asturias and León before there was coin being struck there. There have been a range of theories about this, and a fairly recent article by Wendy Davies that is characteristically thorough covers most of the options.1 She detects several regions of practice, some using metal-based standards and possibly, in León, actual metal proto-currency, but others using several value referents, including livestock:2

… there are some very clear regional differences: before 930, price in Sahagún texts was usually expressed in terms of clothing or farm produce, especially animals, which were sometimes given a valuation in silver solidi but more often not; and it was once expressed as a silver vessel.20 Thereafter, price was often expressed in terms of solidi until the 970s, when this mode of expression came to predominate. Although the number of cases is smaller, Cardeña transactions more often used solidi to express price before 930, as they did from the 960s, but frequently used produce and objects in the 930s and 940s. Half of all tenth-century cases also had a valuation in solidi attached; records of Cardeña sales were more likely to use the concept of the solidus than records from the other collections, at any point in the tenth century.21 Celanova transactions, on the other hand, used metal concepts only rarely and they never predominated in this period. The contrasts between the three are therefore stark: western Celanova essentially non-metal-based; eastern Cardeña more metal-based than not; and central Sahagún changing its practice across the century….

So, OK, the question that arises is what these various populations thought a solidus was and what it was worth, and that’s where we come in. This certain work I’m copy-editing said, until quite recently, as follows:3

It has to be remembered that when there are no coins in circulation, the use of units of account is possible only on condition that a verifiable value referent exists. In the case of Galicia this referent was the ox, and logically that has to be taken to mean an ox of average stature, neither extraordinarily strong nor particularly thin. This could be modulated by a practice whereby more or less than the stated value changed hands if the ox that was actually given in payment was especially excellent or manifestly deficient. Some authors (Gautier Dalché, 1969a, pp. 49-50; Sáez, 1946, pp. 5-6) have failed to grasp this mechanism of fixing prices by equating a value of account with physical goods (an ox, a modio (measure) of grain, a sheep, etc.). On the other hand, Mínguez, 1979, p. 43, n. 5, accepts that an average value served as a reference. He admits that there could occasionally be some upwards or downwards variation in prices, but from a fixed referent.

You see here that we are in good old regula magistri territory here, and so I thought it would be best to cite some actual evidence for the practices we’re talking about here, not least because I’m not sure I believe in any value standard where an ox could be worth the same as a sheep. Would you believe, the evidence turns out to be harder to find than you might expect? I mean, there are some fabulous prices: “a chestnut-coloured cow, a quilted and lined linen cloak, 12 cheeses, and this price in the place of 4 gold solidi and 1 tremiss”, but this just doesn’t help at all because (a) the authors quote it wrong, reading ‘IIIIor’ as ‘4 or’ not as a short-form of ‘quattuor’, whereas there is really no gold referred to, (b) in the manuscript there are seventeen spaces after the word for ‘cheeses’ so the price is probably incomplete (and was perhaps never actually fulfilled) and (c) there are of course no gold solidi for them to be talking about, Louis the Pious’s above being unknown in this area and the only coin of that denomination that has been minted in the West for more than a century.4 Of course, arguing from silence with Spanish coin finds is a dangerous game but it’s a problem.5 So what about them there magistri? The authors cite three works that tried to address this very problem by collecting references to prices in León, Galicia and Portugal in this period. Surely exactly what’s needed! Well—you know what’s coming—no.

The most up-to-date of these references was the first blow from Don Claudio, a paper from the Spoleto conference of 1960. However, that only actually refers back to an earlier article of his for the data—yup, we’ve played this game before—and it also makes it clear that the equivalence of a sheep to a solidus is being made via the grain measure known as a modius; that is, we see that a modius can be worth a solidus and that a sheep can be worth a modius, and therefore…6 And OK, that is logical, but it still gives us a chain at whose ends we can have supposedly equivalent sheep and cows and I don’t reckon this much. Also, Sánchez-Albornoz thought these were probably sometimes being paid in leftover Roman silver coin, which numismatists and historians since him have found frankly implausible.7 Next up would be the Portuguese contribution, which was published in Don Claudio’s own journal, and that has a long list of equivalencies, but only one mentions a sheep with an equivalence to something else, and that’s a modius. Only halfway there I’m afraid. It’s slightly better for cows, but their value (where it can be clearly averaged to a single cow, which is very rarely) is usually around the two-solidus mark and sometimes rather higher. The lowest it gets is one-and-a-half.8 And then there’s a study on Galician Celanova, and that messes things up further by having two sheep that were worth four modios (which the author suggests may be because the modios were of barley not wheat, thus unhinging any hope of using his own evidence that way because of course this is never specified) and eight sheep elsewhere that were worth twelve solidi.9 And these two and Sánchez-Albornoz’s paper all refer to an earlier paper of his, and that refers you back to almost his first paper of all from 1928.10 How anyone who doesn’t have access to an incredible research library is supposed to follow this up is beyond me.

Thin cows grazing

Some cows will sell for more than other cows at market

So with the 1928 paper, at last, we reach port. Here are 266 price equivalencies from the early eighth century to well after 1000, meaning that another factor that we simply can’t calculate for is inflation. We can tell it’s a factor because he cites a Celanova reference in which four cows are worth forty solidi from 1001. In 796, however, the other articles all said, there was a cow worth one solidus; but it turns out that when you actually check the real document’s text it’s actually two separate prices, a cow and a solidus.11 What there is quite a lot of is boves soldades, which it is assumed are cows worth a solidus. It’s not clear to me that that’s what it means at all, however, I could equally argue that soldadis is derived from solidus the adjective, solid, worthy, especially as this is also the period in which people start referring to their liege followers as homines solidi, which I don’t think means they are people worth a solidus. (Slaves usually go for much more than that.) And, furthermore, the prices are off still: Castile shows us a bovis soldadis worth two modios and a goat worth one, and Celanova often talks about ovelias modalias, which by analogy ought to be sheep worth a modius.12 The prices, if they suggest anything at all overall, may suggest that an average cow was worth roughly twice what an average sheep was, but we’re still talking median not mean and it’s still not matching neatly to any currency equivalent. These animals vary in worth and that’s all there is to it.

Catedral de Le&ooacute;n

The Catedral de León, still home of the eponymous Archivo

So, even if I could find the two documents that Sánchez-Albornoz cited as proof that a sheep could be worth a solidus too, documents from 1001 and 1008 that pay 100 sheep or 100 modii, or 100 modii or 100 solidi, I might still be inclined to dismiss them as singletons. But since a hundred of anything ought to average out quality variations a bit, it’s still worth investigating, of course. Sadly, however, these are the only documents Sánchez-Albornoz cited from the Archivo del Obispo de León, as opposed to the Archivo de la Catedral. You might think these two would be the same things, but apparently not. The latter has been edited, for a start, and these documents aren’t there.13 So, where are they? You’ll notice that if you search on Google for ‘”Archivo del Obispo de León”‘ the only hits are from Don Claudio’s work. I can’t find any other reference to this archive. Complete-looking lists like this one don’t mention it. I realise not everything is on the web, but it’s also not mentioned in the edition of the cathedral’s documents. I do not know if it was a separate thing (which happened at Barcelona, so quite plausible14) or what. Maybe it got destroyed or dispersed during the Civil War. I presume Don Claudio didn’t actually make it up! But it’s not apparently there now and its documents’ shelf-marks can’t be traced. So there’s basically no proof of this solidus sheep at all, and the cow looks pretty weak also (otherwise it’d be worth more, oh ho ho). This, by itself, cannot constitute evidence of social practice over three very different economic zones over a century and a half of considerable economic change. This bit has therefore been removed from the text and I hope that in the long run our authors will agree that was for the best. As to the actual situation, perhaps it’s best to leave Wendy the last word there:15

Different valuation systems clearly meant different things to different people in northern Spain in the tenth century. All those considered here were notional units of account – mental constructs…. In some parts – near Celanova and Sahagún especially – they related to active systems of commercial exchange; in others – near Cardeña – the systems belonged to the world of writing and had less to do with buying and selling. The Atlantic systems were distinctive, but not wholly cut off: they certainly indicate thriving exchange economies, with some commercial aspects – the very existence of valuations makes this a sale culture. The systems of the meseta were even more obviously thriving, more commercial, as also more urban and less characteristically rural, and already by the late tenth century were beginning to be related to the wider economic networks of Spain and of the world beyond. Their relationship to the economic mainstream of western Europe obviously cannot be assessed in respect of the tenth century alone and needs a forward look into the eleventh, but the fact that transaction practice was already changing in mid-tenth century is an important signal of wider
and deeper change.

Slaughtering the sacred cows of Iberian numismatics one at a time, Jarrett, out.


1. W. Davies, “Sale, price and valuation in Galicia and Castile-Leon in the tenth century” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 149-174. Not only is this thorough about saying what the evidence says, it also sets out how much evidence there is and how it’s distributed over time. There are graphs of charter survival. That’s what I call thorough.

2. Ibid., pp. 157-158.

3. I shan’t give a citation for this, partly because of the nod towards discretion already mentioned, partly because I gather that the one of the authors who had their name on it may actually have let the other write it, and largely because this text is not going to survive so even if you knew what the finished book was you still wouldn’t find this there.
4. Actual text P. Loscertales & G. de Valdeavellano (edd.), Tumbos del Monasterio de Sobrado de los Monjes (Madrid 1976), doc. no. 18: “Precio, id est bove colore marceno, manto laneo vilado et chomacio, kaseos XII [                 ], et est ipso precio in aderato solidos IIIIor et I tremese”. On the absence of gold solidi in the West, which went back to the Visigothic kingdom at least, see Mark Blackburn, “Gold in England during the ‘Age of Silver’ (eighth-eleventh centuries)” in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 55-98. On the Visigothic coinage the new work of resort is Ruth Pliego Vázquez, La Moneda Visigótica (Sevilla 2009).

5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Digitizing Numismatics: Getting the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Coins to the World-Wide Web” in The Heroic Age Vol. 12, online at http://www.heroicage.org/issues/12/foruma.php, last modified 12th June 2009, §5.

6. C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “Moneda de cambio y moneda de cuenta en el reino asturleonés” in Moneta e scambio nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 8 (Spoleto 1960), pp. 171-202 at p. 183.

7. References to the debate in Davies, “Sale and valuation”, pp. 161-164.

8. P. Laguzzi, “El precio de la vida en Portugal durante los siglos X-XI” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 5 (Buenos Aires 1946), pp. 143-147.

9. Ernesto Sáez, “Nuevos datos sobre la costa de la vida en Galicia durante la Alta Edad Media” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho España Vol. 17 (Madrid 1946), pp. 870-885.

10. Sánchez-Albornoz, “El precio de la vida en el reino astur-leonés hace mil años” in Logos: Revista de la Faculted de Filosofia y Letras, Buenos Aires Vol. 3 (Buenos Aires 1945), pp. 245-264, repr. in idem, Estudios sobre las instituciones medievales españolas (Mexico City 1965), pp. 369-410, citing idem, “La primitiva organización monetaria de León y Castilla” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español 5 (1928), pp. 301-345, repr. in idem, Estudios sobre las instituciones medievales, pp. 441-482.

11. L. Sánchez Belda (ed.), Cartulario de Santo Toribio de Liébana (Madrid 1948), doc. no. 67.

12. Homines solidi: Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutation d’une société (Toulouse, 1975-1976), II pp. 743-746. Bove soldado worth two modii: Loscertales & Valdeavellano, Tumbo de Sobrado, no. 29. Goat worth one modius: J. A. Fernández Flórez (ed.), Colección diplomática del monasterio de Sahagún (857-1300) (León 1987-1993), doc. no. 357. Oveliae modaliae: 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), doc. nos 340 & 403.

13. They ought, if they were going to be there at all, to be in José María Fernández Caton (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León, III: 986-1031, Fuentes de le Historia Leonesa 55 (Leó 1995), but they ain’t.

14. As with many cathedral and monasteries, in the high Middle Ages the bishop’s property at Barcelona was administered separately from the cathedral’s proper, which was held by the chapter: unlike most of them, this separation still persists today meaning that there are two parallel editions of the early cathedral’s documents divided according to which half of the operation wound with the lands concerned!

15. Davies, “Sales, prices and valuation”, pp. 173-174.