Tag Archives: frontiers

Building states on the Iberian frontier, IV: what’s going on

[As with the previous one of these posts, this was first written in February 2013 as part of a single piece of thinking-in-text that has since resulted in an article that should be online for all to see within a few weeks.* That article will represent a more fully-thought-out (and also shorter and better-founded) version of some of the below, but the first thrash-out still seems worth posting.]

In what ought to be the last of these posts, originally inspired by that crucial sense on reading someone else’s work that this is not how you see it, but without the initial ability to articulate what your difference is, I need to try and come to some kind of conclusion about what I think is special about frontier settlement, perhaps in Catalonia and perhaps (I hope) more widely.1 It is a strong feeling of mine that this is not thought about enough, that we have a tendency to pile up case studies about frontier societies without working out what of these cases is common or distinct and in general to talk about these things without theorising from them in a way that might inform others, so, I must put my money where my mouth is mustn’t I? So, OK, let’s start with why anyone opens up a chunk of frontier waste-land at all.

Peasants undertaking land clearance in the Sachsenspiegel

Peasants undertaking land clearance in the Sachsenspiegel

The first and obvious thing that seems safe to infer from this happening is that the people in question want more land. There could of course be a lot of reasons for that; the obvious ones are to do with agricultural or other natural resources, but it also seems to me that if we are talking about a genuine frontier situation, these must essentially be gambles; if you have good information about what a piece of land will bear, be it “this seems the sort of place where olives might grow well” or “there’s gold in them thar hills!” then it’s not really a frontier, or not a classical one; if information is available to you it’s not the unknown.2 So, OK, it’s presumably a general desire for more resource, which would need to be provoked either by a problem with the existing situation at home, food shortage or labour surplus, or by a wish to better one’s situation relative to those at `home’ with whom you continue to interact, i. e. a project to obtain wealth and/or status. That might cause some people conceptual problems unless there be a lord pressuring those people to hand over surplus, of course; I probably don’t need to remind readers here about Chris Wickham’s famous opinion that without oppressive lordship peasants would, “work less and eat more”.3 Nonetheless, we have here seen some time ago that, at least on the frontier of tenth-century Catalonia, people of a fairly ordinary if affluent sort were prepared to spend a lot of money in order to get resources that would make them money, sometimes just a share of those resources rather than any kind of monopoly, in the form of mills, and I think that we don’t have to turn the whole central medieval peasantry into proto-capitalists in order for there to be enough would-be nouveaux riches to staff a slow move out into new territories just over the edge of current jurisdictions.4

That said, these are the reasons of the producers, and one main message of the Escalona and Reyes chapter from my reaction to which I span all of this is that the initiative for such expansion could instead be that of the élite, be those élites `local’ or more seriously-ranged contendors.5 One obvious reason for them might be security. One of the first requirements of some of the big frontier concessions by the Catalan counts is the building of fortifications, as we’ve seen here while I was wrestling with whether such concessions could meaningfully be called feudal or not. This might be seen as just a power-grab, ensuring that whoever lives in these zones be properly dominated by people under obligation to a wider authority, but one ought not to forget that it also and genuinely constituted a means of defence for populations `behind the lines’. This kind of concern was a live one in late-tenth-century Catalonia. We have also seen here how people from all over the principality could be rallied to fight in `public expeditions’ when danger threatened from the Muslim south.6 It is also possible to cite a castellan who had been given one of these concessions by the counts, Amat de Gurb who held a tower called Atonell in the area of the current Santa Perpetua de Gaià (and maybe even that tower, since it is held to be tenth-century and is also triangular), paying the ultimate price in defending it against the raid of al-Mansur in 978; sometimes, the obligations of such a position of dominance had to be fulfilled, whatever the cost.7 This, surely, must also have been the case in Castile, famously described as `a society organised for war’ and subject to attacks from the same Muslim power at this same time.8 The enemy need not, of course, be so foreign; the recipients of the Cardona franchise charter of 986 were encouraged to get themselves land from ‘Christians or pagans’, as long as they could defend it themselves, and going rather farther back, this is one of the things I think Cullen Chandler has right about Charlemagne’s and Lous the Pious’s concessions to immigrants from the south on this same frontier; it created a band of serious yeoman soldiery with ties direct to the king who could be used as some kind of counterweight to an otherwise-dominant autochtonous or gone-native counts at the top levels of delegated power.9

The castle complex of Santa Perpetua de Gaià

I’ll wager that it was a lonelier place to die in 978 than it is now… The castle complex of Santa Perpetua de Gaià, from the website of an architects’ firm who are apparently now restoring it. If that tower could speak, the first thing I’d ask it is just how many rebuilds it remembers…

Those concessions did also create dependents, of course, and that can’t be ignored even if the master rapidly became unable to reach or protect his followers.10 Each time Count Borrell II handed over a castle to one of his men, or to a monastery, the securing of surplus from agricultural workers in its vicinity must have been assumed to come with; several (perhaps all) of these castles had nearby units of land called beneficia which probably had this function, and it is not so close to the end of the tenth century when we start to find these being called fiefs, or at least feva, though cases where this word is equated with fiscum do mean that so early we should probably see this as the portion of notionally-public land attached to the castle from which its upkeep and support were to be provided.11 The progress of these allotments and the dues they could command towards becoming wider accumulations of seigneurial rights and abuses that we could lump under the general heading of ‘the ban’ if we loved Marc Bloch enough to brave Susan Reynolds’s unhappiness with our terms, is something that doesn’t need to be covered here; I will say only that Gaspar Feliu’s twenty-five-year-old plaint that Pierre Bonnassie’s work on this needed replacement after standing for more than a decade still wants an answer, which may even be because Bonnassie’s picture was basically right.12 Something probably must be, after all, pace Paul Edward Dutton’s gloomy prognosis that as medieval historians, “the best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways.”13

In any case, that frontier settlement by élites must have involved the obligation of people there to support those élites with food or service is pretty basically evident, and while we can see it with the Hispani‘s passage to subjection in the ninth century or tenth- and eleventh-century complanters putting in their work for two on the agricultural margins, we must suppose it in all cases, in varying and changing degrees of formality and structure. We might see this as a simple equation of subjects with power, or we might see a more sophisticated and, I have to grudgingly admit, Foucauldian, attempt to turn activity in these regions into a general recognition of a right to act in the name of power here. This would be the “notion of popular collective subjection” that Escalona and Reyes invoke in their picture of these processes, but while it certainly must have been one of the results of such activity I’m not sure that their study gives us much insight into how it had been created, whereas I hope that the one I’m developing here may.14 With that said, I’m not sure that my élites were conscious of this result of their activities in these areas, because it seems to me that if your aim is to create a recognised space for ‘state’ power by intervening in otherwise ungoverned territories, you don’t hand it out to a dependent as soon as you’ve met with any success. So I might wonder whether this isn’t more cause than effect, at least this early and here. Anyway, this would be an issue for another study and perhaps even another student.

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), a castle donated to the Church pretty much as soon as Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell had got it up and running

So, we have a range of conceptual possibilities for how frontier settlement might be going on, and who might be getting something from it and what, but the question then becomes the more complex, how can we recognise these possibilities in the surviving record on any more than a one-off basis provided by the occasional super-informative document? Can we build anything from this box of possibilities that will survive the shaking of ‘not invented here’? To my mind the best way to do this kind of work is not to try and provide a universal answer or even a universal list of answers, but instead to provide a deeper set of questions, the sort of structure of inquiry that might eventually become material for a flow-chart with possible solutions and formulations at the bottom. Such questions might be: what are the points around which each area is organised? Does it in fact have a castle, as did my case study at Gurb, or an old fort no longer used except by the Church as at l’Esquerda not so far away and about which you’ve read so much here, or indeed a church and nothing more as at one of my favourite, because documented only in archæology, cases, Santa Margarida de Martorell?15 Sometimes, and perhaps more often in other areas, and of them especially Castile where the ‘aldea’ operated in this kind of way if I understand it right, the organising point would actually be a settlement, the village proper and the rights it collectively claimed, and some places would have had none of these things and only the vaguest of unities.16 My favourite case here is the villa of Montells, near Vic and spread out enough to have an upper and a lower portion as well as places that could be described as between those halves, but no apparent church or fortification due to a plethora of others nearby or because the whole place really only counted fourteen people or whatever; I could do more with the documents from here than I have.17 Again, here there is some clarity for Catalonia about what the situation would become—the name of the principality does after all derive from the word for `castellan’—but less about how things were before, when the move into the frontier zones was nevertheless happening.18 Even later, of course, the places that were being brought into control did not arrive under control in this definitive form; that was the result, not the cause.19

That is one important thing that we could attempt to distinguish cases by, not least because unlike many of the things we might look for, this could be archæologically detectable in settlement patterns, assuming a useful ceramic sequence ever comes within reach.20 Questions that we can probably only hope to resolve by even finer interpretation of the documents would be about the processes that were going on that might be controlled and who controlled them. There are a lot of these, once one starts to break it down: any of land clearance, grouping and linking of settlement, defence, worship, the settlement of disputes and representation to other groups or higher authority could be in different hands, some or all of the same hands or under no control at all. There are probably more categories I haven’t yet thought of. But when we have so many variables in play, a clear narrative in which some group, be it bold pioneer peasants, comitally-organised aristocracies or ‘local élites’, was actually creating territory, may well be over-simplistic. Probably each group only controlled some of these aspects and a truly domineering élite would need to have appreciated and been able to interfere conclusively in each of them; this will not always have been the case, and perhaps not even often, all of which would have left some recourses open to the communities control of whom was at issue.21

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop; which of these was dominating whom, eh?

Once again we seem to be up against the plausible word limit and to have reached a temporary conclusion. That might even have been the big point I have that others can take away to their own frontiers. These are, however, conclusions about lordship and settlement generally, and I’d actually promised them for locally. Reasoning down from a model rather than up from practice is unusual for me, but I do still have some stuff I want to say to reattach this question to what lordship could actually do in these frontier situations where institutions are in formation, specifically in Catalonia, and briefly glance at Castile again with those things in mind, but this looks like far enough for a post and I feel as if I have got over the hump with struggling to express my point of view on the still-excellent chapter that rattled my personal cage on this question. Hopefully it’s not been too dull for you! But if so or if not, one more yet a-coming.


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

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

2. E. g. Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (1999), pp. 55–72, DOI:10.1177/097194589900200104 or David Abulafia, “Introduction: seven kinds of ambiguity” in idem & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 1-34.

3. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalona 880-1010: pathways of power, pp. 92-93, though don’t use what I say there to try and get across the Riu Ter….

5. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, pp. 164-173; cf. my review of that volume in Historia Agraria: revista de agricultura e historia rural Vol. 59 (Valencia 2013), pp. 193-197 at p. 194.

6. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològico LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1771; Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 524.

7. Emilio Morera Llauradó, Tarragona Cristiana: historia del arzobispado de Tarragona y de territoria de su província (Cataluña Nueva) (Tarragona 1897-1899), 2 vols, repr. as Publicaciones del Instituto de Estudios Tarraconenses «Ramón Berenguer IV» 9, 13 & 31 (Tarragona 1954-1959), 3 vols, reprinted again (Tarragona 1981-2001), 5 vols, ap. IV.

8. Elena Lourie, “A Society Organized for War: Medieval Spain” in Past and Present 35 (1966), pp. 54-76, DOI:10.1093/past/35.1.54, repr. in eadem, Crusade and Colonisation: Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Aragon, Variorum Collected Studies 317 (Aldershot 1990), I, and in John France (ed.), Medieval warfare: 1000-1300 (Aldershot 2006), pp. 339-362; James F. Powers, A Society Organized for War: the Iberian municipal militias in the Central Middle Ages (Berkeley 1988), online here; for al-Mansur’s campaigns see Miquel d’Epalza, “Descabdellament polític i militar dels musulmans a terres catalanes (segles VIII-IX)” in F. Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 49-80, online here.

9. Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la vila de Cardona, anys 966–1276: Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Históric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les masies Garriga de Bergus, Pala de Coma i Pinell, Col·leció Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7; Victor Farias, “Guerra, llibertat i igualitarisme a la frontera” in Borja de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.) Història política, societat i cultura dels Països Catalans 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. Josep María Salrach i Marés (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 112-113; Cullen Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 19-44, DOI:10.1111/1468-0254.00099. Of course, I do disagree with him that Charles the Bald continued with this tactic (and I am not the first), or that this has anything significant to do with the justification of landholding by claim of its clearance known as aprisio, but you can read about that elsewhere (J. Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol.18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342, DOI:10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x).

10. Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands”, pp. 328-330, cf. P. Imbart de la Tour, “Les colonies agricoles et l’occupation des terres désertes à l’époque
carolingienne” in A. Picard (ed.), Mélanges Paul Fabre : Études d’histoire du moyen âge (Paris, 1902), pp. 146–171 at pp. 162-169; cf. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts”.

11. Beneficia in e. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 63, 241, 245, 277, 343, 405, 417 & 767; see Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, or indeed Marc Bloch, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

12. S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); G. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” in Udina, Symposium internacional, I pp. 81-115, online here, at p. 115, referring of course to Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.

13. Paul Edward Dutton in discussion of idem “Voice over Writing in Eriugena”, paper presented in session ‘The Boundaries of Free Speech, II: silencing the voice, restraining the pen’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 15th July 2009.

14. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 171.

15. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 100-128, 81-99 & 44 respectively, and refs there.

16. E. g. Ignacio Álvarez Borge, “El proceso de transformación de las comunidades de aldea: una aproximación al estudio de la formación del feudalismo en Castilla (siglos X y XI)” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 5 (Salamanca 1987), pp. 145–160, online here; cf. Julio Escalona, “De ‘señores y campesinos’ a ‘poderes feudales y comunidades’. Elementos para definir la articulación entre territorio y clases sociales en la alta Edad Media castellana” in Álvarez (ed.), Comunidades locales y poderes feudales en la Edad Media, Biblioteca de Investigación 27 ([Logroño] 2001), pp. 117–155 or Jordi Bolòs, “La formación del hábitat medieval en Cataluña: Aldeas, espacios aldeanos y vías de comunicación’ in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (2013), pp. 151–180, online here.

17. And so could you! They are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 350, 509, 559, 653, 661, 784, 968, 1075, 1130, 1136, 1144, 1258, 1264, 1303, 1315, 1324, 1341, 1347, 1367, 1460, 1462, 1588, 1715, 1724, 1730, 1788 & 1792.

18. Bonnassie, Catalogne.

19. J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127.

20. E. g. Philippe Araguas, “Muro, castro, roca… Peuplement rural et fortifications aux confins de la Catalogne et de l’Aragon pré-romans” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 211-222, and Benoît Cursente, “Conclusion”, ibid. pp. 231-235 vs Eduard Riu-Barrera, “La cerámica del Mediterraneo noroccidental en los siglos VIII-IX: Cataluña, el país valenciano y las Baleares entre el imperio carolingio y al-Andalus” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 259-263.

22. Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1999), is the go-to for solidarities in medieval communities; cf. however for this area Thomas N. Bisson, Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis, and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge 1998).

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

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

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

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

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

Process diagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

2. Ibid. p. 164.

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

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

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

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

7. Ibid. p. 175.

8. Ibid. p. 165.

9. Ibid. p. 178.

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

11. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 9; cf. doc. no. 78.

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

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

Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Building states on the Iberian frontier, II: clearing the land

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Continuing as promised, or threatened, the rethink of my picture of frontier development in Catalonia spurred by the recent chapter by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes on the same themes in tenth-century Castile… let’s talk about peasants.1 At some level, after all, the expansion of settlement, social structures and government into an unorganised zone requires the basic work of somebody taking tools to the soil, felling unhelpful trees, clearing scrub, putting it to the plough or planting helpful trees and generally turning the land to use. This is implicit in any story of territorial expansion that isn’t simple annexation of territory where someone else has already done that. The question is thus not whether this is happening, but rather who is controlling it. Now, I have worked on this for Catalonia, partly because it’s just inherent in an expanding frontier situation as I say but also because of an early article by Cullen Chandler that I disagreed with and which gave me a fair bit of work to figure out what my alternative picture was (and even longer to publish it).2 This does mean that I could simply direct you to that work but because it’s part of the argument that I’m developing here in reaction to the Escalona & Reyes chapter, it needs to be out where it can be seen. I will reuse some text, though, and the first bit I will reuse is that from my book which attempts to describe how other historians have answered this question of control. Given that what follows is quite a lot of quotation, and that the whole post is plural thousands of words, a cut seems moot here… Continue reading

Building states on the Iberian frontier, I: putting the peasants up front

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let's have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let’s have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

As I sat down to write this I was having trouble thinking something out, and by now my favourite strategy when this happens, assuming that I can’t trap someone at a pub table and thrash it out at them verbally, is to try and write about it. So this is the first of a number of posts messing with questions of agency and, well, credit or blame I suppose, in the creation of medieval society at the Muslim-Christian frontier in medieval Iberia. It comes out of reading a genuinely excellent account of that for Castile in the tenth century (the most important of European centuries, as I’m sure you realise) by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes.1 It gets right down into the mechanisms by which lords got themselves into positions of power on the frontier and then used those to make themselves more important wherever else they turned up, creating extensive lordships which would only be converted to intensive ones much later. This is a really clear chapter, informed by a lively and interesting new theoretical base, and is important not just for the tenth century and debates about state formation on frontiers anywhere, but also about the delay in what comes after, the intensification, which of course plays into the feudal transformation debate of which everyone is so tired and so on.2 It really made me think but one thing that it made me think was that it’s only about lords. This has made me write a great deal, and out of general mercy for the audience I put the rest behind a cut, but if you feel up to it I would be very interested in feedback and corrections, not least because I tread on several nationalisms in the course of it and need to know what bits may make people angry… Continue reading

Leeds 2012 Report 2

My notes from last year’s International Medieval Congress seem to be pretty good, but I’m disturbed by how little of what I apparently attended I recall in any detail without them. I suppose this is why we take notes, but looking back through them I can see several of the hares that I’ve been coursing through the last year’s thoughts visible here, and I feel as if I actually ought to be using these posts to acknowledge people whose thoughts I obviously soaked up without the care and attention to whose they were that perhaps I should have taken. Anyway, that is a long preamble to the second post from my backlog that will try and give some account of the research I saw being presented at that conference.

504. Politics of Territory I: perceptions and practices of space in Germany and France (c. 850-c. 1100)

The 10th July started for me with a pair of sessions coming out of a project that Jens Schneider introduced, Territorium, which I think could be sort of categorised as geopolitical philosophy, comparing and checking the ways that French and German scholarships think about the connections of territories to the state. For me the interesting thing here was how people would define their ‘territories’, especially since in the first session we seemed to be especially encouraged to consider where territories ended, that is, frontiers, always and forever an interest of mine. This comes through in my notes, from which I relearn the following.

  • Laurence Leleu, “Space, Territory and Border in Saxony”
    Saxony had been outside the Frankish kingdom at the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign, implying a linear border, then became a marca, a province inside the empire but whose character was special, implying a zone. The speaker thought that this zone’s edges were often conceptual compared to geographical features like the River Elbe, even when it wasn’t the border. Within this zone, there were internal divisions, counties and bishoprics and even peoples (according to Adam of Bremen), but they often had islets and exclaves, so, basically, it was complicated, and the classic difference between line and zone was here largely a difference of scale. I thought the last point was the take-away one, though I was struck by the geography versus theory one too.
  • Miriam Czock, “Representations of Swabia: boundaries, spatial organization and power”
    This paper attempted to apply concepts of space to ask more useful questions about what political identities were available to those who lived after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Swabia is interesting in this game because it’s a territory that defies traditional German historiography by not having a ‘root’ people or leader; Dr Czock argued that people’s connections were to the monastery of St Gallen, the local castle network and the fiscal property in the area. I recognise that I’d be vulnerable to this criticism myself, and perhaps that’s why I think of it, but this seems to me like what we can see from the landholding and trial records rather than what was necessarily most important; at the least, though, it gives us an alternative set of structures to test origin theories with.
  • Albrecht Brendler, “Space of Power in Early Medieval Provence”
    Provence emerged from the expulsion of the Muslim garrison at la Garde-Freinet in 903 in some confusion, explained Herr Brendler: the Muslims had been only one side in a many-faceted civil war and though there was a clear Count of Arles, William I, his territory included two other counties and several bishoprics of areas that had been pagi, but no metropolitan ones; William called himself a Marquis, but of which crown wasn’t completely clear though King Conrad I of Germany claimed it. It theoretically belonged to larger organisations and wasn’t quite one itself yet it emerged as one because its parts weren’t part of anything else. I may, in that last bit, be going beyond what Herr Brendler said but if so that’s because I could basically write the same of Catalonia. This is a very interesting parallel, which I don’t seem from my notes to have appreciated at all at the time.
  • Charles West, “Response”
    Here Charles tried to mix up categories by pointing out that power over space is still carried out by acting on people, so that the people and space distinction may not get us anything useful, but that if it does what we are usually seeing is a monastic concept of space, which may not be the general one, especially since several different concepts of space could operate at once. It’s important not to privilege the one we can most easily see.
  • I tried to argue in questions that the sources’ intent was really the best way to approach such issues of importance, a functionalist approach, which Dr Czock argued would miss larger-scale change. Ryan Lavelle pointed out that in UK terms a project like this would be an archæological one and wondered what mapping via GIS would contribute. I also wondered that, but in a rather more negative way; I couldn’t see what it would contribute that plotting things on paper wouldn’t make just as clear. In general good questions came out of this and I think everyone went away thinking.

This was probably particularly evident in how many of us came straight back after coffee for the second half!

604. Politics of Territory, II: perceptions and practices of space in Southern France (c. 750-c. 1200)

  • Adrien Bayard, “Fortifications and the Organisation of Power in Carolingian Aquitaine”
    This paper looked specifically at fortifications in the campaigns of King Pippin III by which Aquitaine was dragged more or less unwillingly to rejoin the kingdom of the Franks in the second half of the eighth century. Archaeology has shown a huge variety of sites in the area, ‘private refuges’, small hilltop forts, walled villages and big cities, some of which (like Bourges, notice the name) Pippin took by siege. The south was in general a zone of fortresses, even this early, unlike the north where palaces seem to have organised the territories (and Septimania where monasteries were key), and no matter what they were controlling, in terms of territory, service, renders and so on, a hilltop site seems always to have been the basis of lordly power in these zones.
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Reforming Church, Producing Territory: the second birth of the diocese of Die (c. 1000-c. 1200)”
    This paper was interesting in as much as it was chasing a ghost: the bishopric of Die is dissolved, and the extent of its medieval territory is unclear, though it was much larger than the modern province and seems to have included several exclaves. Over the eleventh century, during which time the bishops’ power was on the rise not least because of Bishop Hugh who became the papal legate to France under Pope Gregory VII, the county of Die seems to have sunk underneath the bishopric in people’s minds as the thing that defined the area. The counts wound up lords of only small parts of the area as the bishops profited from their increasingly international connections. (I have to admit that I wasn’t clear how they were profiting, exactly, but something seems to have brought about this change.) This however only lasted until the more powerful counts of Valence succeeded to the county of Die and their tame bishops started muscling in. M. le Coq saw this as an area where bishops were always in charge but which one might vary; I have to admit that again I wonder if ecclesiastical sources would show us enough of comital power to be sure of that, but I haven’t looked at the documents and M. le Coq has.
  • Steffen Patzold, “Some Reflections on Interregional Comparisons: France and Germany”
    Here Professor Patzold laid out some of the problems that arise with comparative projects like this: even though the team had picked peripheries that more or less match and scholars at similar career stages using similar questions, the sources vary considerably over the zones chosen and may still have been leading their conclusions. For example, with mostly non-royal charters in the south of France and far fewer and only royal ones from Saxony, we ineluctably have a middle-range perspective in the former and only a top-down one from the latter. But is the source difference itself a result of difference, or merely accident? On the other hand, because of the difference of languages, things that genuinely were similar between the two zones may be hard to recognise: is a vicarius a minister or were the two offices different across the language divide, and so on…
  • Discussion this time was less fruitful, I felt. People, including me, suggested various extra questions that might be bases for comparison, such as what use people had for the kings (this was me, based on the Königsfern idea that I took from Kalamazoo 2010), who appointed bishops and so on. Wendy Davies stressed that a comparison like this must rest on things that are similar otherwise it’s apples and oranges, but the various project members were keener on pointing out differences or reasons these questions wouldn’t work, and a particular boundary got set up around the project aims, the ideas of territory and space, over which I for one could not see. I realise that there is loads of work on space at the moment but when we’re talking about spaces of power, I agree with what Charles had said: spaces of power are spaces over which authority is claimed, and if no-one recognises it then those claims are empty. I don’t see how these spaces can exist except in the minds of the people in them, and the way we get at that is not by ignoring the dealings of those people in favour of deconceptualised mapping. That wasn’t what any of the speakers had been doing, either, but it seemed to be the platonic idea to which the discussion retreated as more traditional practitioners tried to make their favourite questions help.

Of course, sometimes such questions genuinely aren’t helpful. Even if they might be, they feel as if people are suggesting that if you’d only asked them first, they could have told you how to do your project much better! Nonetheless, this is supposed to be one of the things that presenting your work in public gets you, other ways to think about your problems, and I was quite surprised how reluctant some of the people in this comparative project were to try actual comparison, in their own terms or ours. I hope some day to organise conference sessions that actually demand this of speakers, I think it’s the only way forward in some areas and frontiers is definitely one of them. Well, anyway, then there was lunch and after that I returned very much to my own comfort zone, if I had even yet left it.

727. Producing, Keeping, and Reusing Documents: charters and cartularies from Northern Iberia, 9th-12th Century

  • Wendy Davies, “Keeping Charters Before Cartularies”
    Quite a lot of this paper was a summary of the patterns of the survival of the charter evidence from Northern Spain prior to 1000, and as such quite familiar to me. The points that did stand out for me were that enough charters were updated that it is clear that they could usually be got at; that they seem to have been stored in church treasuries quite often, but that that the marks that most bear on the dorses suggest some record of the records; and that laymen clearly kept documents too, as we have so many lay ones that survive to us even if through Church archives, so they presumably dealt with the same dilemmas of storage albeit on a smaller scale, unless the layman in question chose to keep them at a church.1
  • Leticia Agúndez San Miguel, “A Monastic Power in Reconstruction: the versatility of the past and the present time in the Becerro Gótico of Sahagún”
    It was quite strange to hear anyone other than Wendy talk about Sahagún, in fact, but this was a quite detailed codicological treatment of the monastery’s earliest cartulary, which the speaker thought had been put together as part of a project to get King Alfonso VI to confirm and add to the monastery’s property at a time when the Bishop of León and the Cluniac congregation were moving in on the old monastery’s area. This meant inventing a number of royal documents, but after a while the real ones they apparently did have got added in anyway, once the immediate need was past. Almost everything that got put in the cartulary was put there defensively, though, was the general conclusion, which is not how I have come to see some of my target archive’s early cartularies I must admit. I may have to rethink.
  • David Peterson, “The Becerro Gótico of San Millán: the reconstruction of a lost cartulary”
    This was a detective-work paper, trying to piece together from an archive loaded with forgeries and a later cartulary what was in the earliest cartulary which is now lost. It seems to have been available to a couple of historians shortly after the monastery was dissolved in 1835, but ‘seems’ is the operative word. From what can be reconstructed, it seems that the later cartulary was heavily selective, containing only two-thirds as many documents in rather nicer copies. The picture of the lost one that emerges is of a book that was compiled as sort of quire-length dossiers of documents bound together and then continuing to expand, some onto extra sheets, some into the next quire. The new cartulary rearranged much of this at the top level, the order of the dossiers, to serve in a dispute with Calahorra, and some of the initial quires of the Becerro Gótico also had their origins in disputes, this seems to be more and more what we find behind cartulary compilation these days, which may also explain why their arrangements sometimes don’t make much sense to us; firstly, we would probably have had to be there, but secondly, their production was probably often quite urgent and may have cut some corners… This was a very suggestive paper despite its micro-study premises, which is in many ways my favourite sort of paper and the kind I like to write myself, so I am suitably envious!
  • Discussion here was good, but perhaps only if you’re a charter geek; especially worth considering, though, was the role of script change in the compilation of these things. The two Becerros Goticos there above are so called because they were in Visigothic minuscule, which is, shall we say, an acquired faculty; at San Millán the replacement is called the Becerro Galecana, from its Frankish-style script. These things must also have affected the use of original documents, and the sources themselves tend to stress such issues when cartularies explain themselves at all, but we keep finding reasons the task was finally undertaken to be more immediate.2 There’s a tension here to work out with future cases.

Powered by tea, I now did something I’ve never before tried at Leeds, which was to start a timeslot in one session and dash to another after the paper I wanted to hear. I try not to do this, because it’s rude to the organisers and the speakers whom one ignores in the first session and not exactly helpful to the second session, but sometimes one is just caught between senses of obligation and the proximity of the sessions makes it possible, and when the first session also has one of its speakers drop out, the temptation just gets too much. It seems best to combine the reports because they were experienced as one block, so, here goes.

808. Political Rupture in the Early Middle Ages & 809. Cultural Memory, III: Inclusion and Exclusion (i)

  • Geoffrey Koziol, “Principles Know No Law: justifying insurgency after the Carolingians – Boso, Robert of Neustria, and the Saxons”
    It was a definite bonus of last year’s Leeds that Geoff Koziol was present, enlivening many a discussion and one of the people out there most energetically interested in the late- and post-Carolingian era where my own work resides. At the time I write this I very lately finished properly reading his first book and I really enjoyed it, not something I would say of every history book I read.3 Reactions to this paper exist that are less enthusiastic, however, and although its general suggestion, worked through rebellions against kings of 879, 923 and 1073, that those raising rebellion rarely actually addressed or raised specifics in their propaganda but instead asserted big moral imperatives, was reasonable, there was room for counter-examples or arguments that like and like had not been compared here. Nonetheless, the comparative range and conceptual power was as engaging as Geoff’s stuff usually is and I was glad I’d heard it, even if I promptly ran away…
  • Clemens Gantner, “The Popes and their Frankish Others in the 8th Century”
    The timing worked out just right and I got to hear all of this paper, which was looking at the extent to which the diplomatic contacts between popes and Franks of this period indicated that the popes saw Franks as a gens, and therefore not the same group as themselves. The Franks were evidently easier to define than the Byzantines (obviously not Romans any more, but not ‘Greeks’ till the ninth century) or the Muslims (many many ethnonyms), not least as they worked the ‘gentile’ concept quite hard themselves at times, but anyway, the eighth-century popes seem to have never reckoned the Franks as other than foreigners.
  • Mayke de Jong, “The Temptations of a Foreign Past: the early medieval West and alterity”
    I don’t like the word `alterity’, as is well-established, so it was nice to find that neither does Professor de Jong, though I don’t like it mainly because `otherness’ would plainly do; Prof. de Jong was arguing for its removal from our work as a theme on higher grounds, though, that it makes the period seem strange, foreign, easy to dismiss and incomprehensible. As Prof. de Jong observed, assuming we don’t rule out the idea that things change for the better completely, there must be a worse `before’ and a better `after’ when this happens, but this is no reason to let other people stick this onto us.4 Likewise, any effort to define ourselves involves defining what we are not but for Prof. de Jong, it’s important for early medievalists to throw bridges across the ensuing gap and storm it, resetting connections that others might prefer to ignore.5
  • The most interesting question here was one that Clemens had to face, of whether there was in fact a neutral way to talk of another political unit’s people in this period. Clemens thought that the fact that the way the popes conceptualised Franks was not the same as the way in which they did other Others made his conclusions valid, but Walter Pohl floated the much more unsettling answer that if a way of describing a group was neutral this would probably not be clear to us now!

I suppose that as Paul Edward Dutton said at a different conference, “The best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways”, which still sounds like a lot of fun to me.


1. Since this paper was given, of course, these issues are now given what is really the full treatment in Warren C. Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), the long-awaited publication of work from the Lay Archives Project for which I was once a data monkey. I will write more on that in due course, when I’ve actually read the volume, which is not yet though it is one of the very very few academic books I bought as soon as it came out at full price. (Quite why, I’m not sure, given I will very shortly be able to buy it cheaper at Leeds and haven’t used it yet, but obviously I meant to.) Anyway, leaving that aside, even before that volume emerged one could find related concerns being raised in Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 and Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and it’s obviously no accident that they were in the Lay Archives Project too.

2. The text of standard resort here is of course Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium (Princeton 1994), which is still excellent, but although it will be a long time before its general case doesn’t stand up, exceptions to it do keep emerging. One can get some other perspectives from Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle & Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires : Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993) and Adam J. Kosto & Anders Winroth (edd.), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: the preservation and transmission of documents in the medieval west. Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique (Princeton and New York, 16-18 September 1999), Papers in Mediaeval Studies 17 (Toronto 2002).

3. G. Koziol, Begging Pardon and Favor: ritual and political order in early medieval France (Ithaca 1992).

4. This is well set-out in Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), which I cite much more than my mean review of it would make one think I would, though I stand by that in as much as this issue is well set-out several times over…

5. And in fact I read, only a day before writing this, another attack on the same issue by no less than Jinty Nelson, that being Janet L. Nelson, “Liturgy or Law: misconceived alternatives?” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Nelson & David Pelteret, Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, Studies in Early Medieval Britain (Farnham 2009), pp. 433-447, who argues that both sides of the line lose something by not crossing it.

Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850″. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).