Tag Archives: countesses

Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in Exeter

We seem now to be firmly into June 2013 in my never-decreasing backlog of reporting, and next up in it was a day out to Exeter, somewhere I hadn’t been for a long time but which called me now for the same reason as it often has before, a gathering of the intermittent organisation known as Historians of Medieval Iberia. The main reason this had occurred was the presence in the UK of a man much cited here, Professor Jeffrey Bowman, visiting Exeter, because of which Professor Simon Barton thereof had wanted to organise a day symposium, and so being called we variously went. Due to the uselessnesses of First Great Western trains, I was only just in time for the first paper, but in time I was, and the running order was as follows, in pairs of papers.

  • Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Lordship and Gender in Medieval Catalonia”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Per multa curricula ex parte destructa: membership of a Church community in Catalonia c. 1000″
  • Robert Portass, “Doing Business: was there a land market in tenth-century Galicia?”
  • Teresa Tinsley, “Hernando de Baeza and the End of Multicultural Iberia”
  • Graham Barrett, “Beyond the Mozarabic Migration: frontier society in early medieval Spain”
  • Simon Barton, “The Image of Aristocracy in Christian Iberia, c. 1000-c. 1300: towards a new history”

Professor Bowman’s paper is now out as an article, but some brief account may be of interest anyway.1 The way it worked was to do what I love doing, standing Catalonia up as a better-evidenced counter-example to a broader theory, in this case that of Georges Duby that female lordship as early as the tenth century was an incredibly rare occurrence seen as a pale imitation of masculinity. To do this involved setting up some kind of definition of lordship, which Professor Barton suggested should at least include fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’. Women with military rôles are not unknown in the Catalan records (wait for a future post here, as I think the phenomenon goes down lower than Professor Bowman had time to look), countesses in the eleventh century at least certainly presided over courts alone, a good few held castles in fief (or by other arrangements2), we have various Arabic testimonies to the countesses of Barcelona being conduits for diplomatic communication and under ‘special projects’, if we mean things like land clearance, Abbess Emma is an obvious example.3

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, a woman who would not give up government till there was no choice, in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

So that case looks pretty much made: in this area, for that definition of lordship (and it does occur to me now that it is a very tenth-century-and-later one because of the inclusion of castles, though one could still say the same of Dhuoda I guess), it’s hard to see anything odd about female participation in lordship here and we should stop thinking it odd. And I suppose I’d agree with that, and not necessarily just here (another future post) but there does still seem to me to be a difference, in the Languedoc at least where the ninth century gives enough to compare with, between the rôles in and frequency with which women appear in charters, especially as far as their titles go, to suggest that even if this situation wasn’t odd, it might still be new. It did, however, last: Professor Bowman was keen to stress in questions that those who have looked for a shift towards a lineage system here have found it hard to locate over any timeframe much shorter than a century.4

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

As for me, little enough needs saying there: in the throes of another project entirely and with no time to come up with two papers so close to each other from it, I’d offered the latest version of the now-legendary Sant Pere de Casserres paper; I ran through where the place is, what the sources are, why there’s a problem with the narrative of its foundation and what the actual story might be that would fit it; Graham Barrett suggested some modifications to my Latin and then the questions were all for Professor Bowman, which is fine as he was building a much bigger thesis. One of my problems with the Casserres paper is working out what larger point it makes; the other, of course, is non-responsive archives, but that’s a bigger problem than just here…

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The second session put two rather less-connected papers together. Rob was out to demonstrate peasant access to the land market in his corner of early medieval Spain, which has often been overlooked because the dominant Spanish historiography interested in peasants has been more interested in how they resisted power than how they cooperated with it.5 This Marxist perspective needs rethinking, argued Rob, not least because many of these peasants did not live in the Marxist ‘peasant mode’, but operated in both vertical and horizontal networks of power and assistance. Even when those networks led to the monastery of Celanova, whence most of Rob’s material, it was not always to peasant disadvantage to cut a deal with the monks, whose rents were limited, and the land that was then sold to them had often come from other peasants previously. The problem here is of course the definition of peasant, but I think I would agree that whatever we call the free smallholders here they could happily do business with each other, and do so with an eye to their own benefit.6

The Alhambra palace in Granada

The Alhambra palace in Granada, now very keen to be widely known as a World Heritage site

Miss Tinsley’s paper came from a completely different place, sixteenth-century Granada, where one Hernando de Baeza, a Christian interpreter for the last lords of the Muslim state there, was writing a history of recent events. This man is almost exactly the author a multicultural twenty-first century reading of events at the end of Muslim rule in Spain wants: his sources included Africans and women, he spoke all the necessary languages and about the only minority group he doesn’t mention is Jews, but the work was only published in the nineteenth century, from two incomplete manuscripts and is consequently confused and disordered in structure, which with its anecdotal style has left it out of most serious historiography. There is now, however, a recently-discovered complete manuscript to work from (which a Mexican archbishop had made in 1550 to help with converting native Americans!) and this offers more details with which the author’s life can be filled out. He seems to have been an ambassador to the papal court for Queen Isabella, briefly papal chamberlain and a protector of Jews, but whom King Ferdinand however booted out of his offices and whose parents had been burnt by the Inquisition! He seems to have written his history in Rome, a disenchanted man. He may therefore have been attempting something like a dream past of late medieval inclusion, before intolerance and persecution wrecked everything for him and his family. Again, just what we might wish but correspondingly slippery to deal with! This all sounded tremendous fun and I hope Miss Tinsley can make the man’s name better-known, although it transpired in questions that she is dealing with a recalcitrant editor of the manuscript who is being very careful what details he lets her have. That sounded dreadfully familiar, alas…

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860

Then came Graham Barrett, who was speaking on those curious populations in the frontier Christian polities of tenth-century Spain whose personal names were Arabic, about whom I’ve spoken myself once or twice, including at an earlier Historians of Medieval Iberia gathering, pre-blog. As that suggests, I had given up trying to get my work on this published before Graham had arrived in England to start his Ph. D., but also in the room was Professor Richard Hitchcock, who was fairly sparing about the absence of his more successful work from the presentation…7 I found it hard to rate this paper neutrally, anyway, it was much too close to my own fruitless sidetracks of yore. Graham’s take on things is always original, however, and he knows the documents far better than me, so there were new thoughts available. In particular he raised the possibility that lots of the relevant documents might be forged, although why one would then put Arabic names into them (and the same names over quite an area, I’d note) is hard to explain.8 He also correctly pointed out that migration of southerners was not necessary to explain these names and that they themselves were not evidence of ethnicity or even cultural affiliation,9 but that they might usefully be mapped against other markers of that, if any could be agreed. There’s definitely a project here, but I suspect that in fact neither of us will be the ones who do it as we both have easier things to attempt…

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Lastly our host, Simon Barton, asked whether the approximate synthesis to which historians of North-Western Europe seem now to have come about the medieval aristocracy applies in the Midi.10 Most study of the Spanish nobility has been of families, rather than of a class, but Simon argued that a class identity can be seen in formation after about 1050, with a hierarchy of aristocratic rank, heraldry and literature all developing to emphasise it. He suggested that these markers were developing not so much as spontaneous expression of ideals but as tests that helped mark people off from their imitators, which exposes the ideals in play to us in negative. This was a good wrap-up to a good day that refreshed a realisation for us that even if it’s thinly spread and uncertain of duration, nonetheless there is still a medieval Iberian scholarship in the UK and we’re all active parts of it; it’s never a bad time to be reassured that one has colleagues!


1. Jeffrey A. Bowman “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200″ in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 83-85.

3. Idem, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005), pp. 229-258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

4. Cited here was Theodore Evergates, “Nobles and Knights in Twelfth-Century France” in Thomas N. Bisson (ed.), Cultures of Power: lordship, status and porcess in twelfth-century Europe (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 11-35; Georges Duby, “Women and Power”, ibid. pp. 69-85, provided the basic counter-type here.

5. Classically, Reyna Pastor de Tognery, Movimientos, resistencias y luchas campesinas en Castilla y León: siglos X-XIV (Madrid 1980).

6. R. Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanaca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here, contains some aspects of this paper.

7. R. Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008), building on his “Arabic proper names in the Becerro de Celanova” in David Hook & Barrie Taylor (edd.), Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain: Historical and Literary Essays Presented to L. P. Harvey, Kings College London Medieval Studies 3 (London 1990), pp. 111-126; references to my presentations can be found on my webpages here.

8. One example would be the apparent court notable Abolfetha ibn December (good name huh?), who certainly does appear in the forged Santos García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), doc. no. 22, but also in the less dubious José María Mínguez Fernández (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Monasterio de Sahagún (siglos IX y X) (León 1976), doc. no. 19 and Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952) (León 1987), doc. no. 68; at that rate, it begins to look as if the reason for putting his name in a forgery would be because it was known to belong to the period being aimed at, which is to say that at least up to three separate forgers thought he was a real historical person.

9. As also argued in Victoria Aguilar, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes 15 (1994), pp. 351-363 esp. at p. 363 and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI), ibid. pp. 465-72 with English abstract p. 472; they collect the Leonese evidence in Aguilar & Rodríguez, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media Vol. 6 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

10. E. g. (cited) David Crouch, The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300 (London 1992) or Constance Brittain Bouchard, “Those of my blood”: Constructing noble families in medieval Francia (Philadelphia 2001), to which cf. S. Barton, The aristocracy in twelfth century León and Castile (Cambridge 1997).

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.