Tag Archives: gender history

From the Sources VIII: a network of dowagers

I can’t now remember what it was I read or remembered that made me suddenly remember this document and decide to put it before you, but it may even have been writing the Widow Warlords post of a while back. Of course, when I actually dug up the charter in question it turned out to be slightly different from what I remembered, but there’s still so many points one can make with it that it seemed more than worth translating. So, this is the first will of Viscountess Adelaide of Narbonne, dated 4th October 978.1 (I don’t have a decent source to pin down the place-names, however, so most of them I leave in the Latin.)

“In the name of the Holy and Individual Trinity. Any man whatsoever, while he persists in this mortal pilgrimage, ought to raise his eyes up on high to the contemplation of the divine majesty, so that when he shall come to judgement, he shall be found justified. On account of which I in God’s name Adelaide, as I am exceedingly terrified of this day, order to be made [a document] in which I choose my executors [‘alms-givers’] so that, whatever they shall know of my will, that may they carry out. These are their names: Archbishop Ermengaud, & Raimond, & Vasadello, Seniorello, Bernard, Adalbert, Sigard de Petrulio.

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

Sadly the nunnery of Saint-Sauveur, entitled to the lion’s share of the properties listed below, doesn’t appear ever to have got finished… The lucky beneficiary would therefore have been this place, the Cathedral of Saints Just et Pastor, Narbonne, or at least its predecessor. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

“That holy work which I have begun outside [‘below’] Narbonne, to be built in honour of omnipotent God and the Holy Saviour, I leave to my sisters and to the lady Countess Arsinda, in such a tenor that my selfsame heredity of Vidiliano may revert to my sister Arsinda, and the selfsame alod of Tolomiano may revert to Ermessinda, and my heredity of Artimiciano may revert to Garsinda, and let them also hold these and possess them while they shall live; and if they bring the holy convent to completion, let the aforesaid alods all together revert thither in all integrity; & if they do not complete the aforesaid convent, after the death of Arsinda, let the selfsame heredity Vidiliano revert to the canons of SS Just & Pastor [Narbonne] in common; & the selfsame heredity of Artimiliano, after the death of Garsinda, revert in a similar way to the canons of Saint-Paul [Narbonne]; the selfsame alod of Tolomiano revert between Notre-Dame which they call la Grasse and Saint-Pierre which they call Caunes. The selfsame alod of Trolias with the selfsame part that I have in the same church, let revert to the monastery of Saint-Aniane. The selfsame alod of the villa of Boraxo let revert to the monastery of Saint-Pons [de Thomières], except the selfsame tower; let Aurice hold the selfsame tower with its manses that are tied to it while he shall live; afterwards indeed let it revert to the selfsame monastery of Saint-Pons. The villa of Bajas with its term, let Guadaud hold while he shall live, except those vineyards that others plant there; & when the convent of Saint-Sauveur shall have been made, after Guadaud’s death let it revert thither in all integrity; and if the convent shall not have been made, let revert those vines which come to my part in that villa to the guardian and keyholder of Saint-Paul who keeps the altar there; that villa with all its other heredity let revert in common to the canons of Saint-Paul. The selfsame alod that I have in the villa of Geminiano, which was Person’s and Daniel’s, and the selfsame vines that were Godrand’s, let hold the priest Dieudé while he shall live; afterwards indeed let it revert to the church of Sainte-Marie which they call Quadraginta. The selfsame alod that I bought from Bishop Arnulf in the term of Oveliano, with that same one of Taliaventos, let that now revert to the canonry of Saints Just & Pastor. The selfsame manse of Florenzac, which was Saint-Étienne’s, let revert to that same church. That alod which I have in the circuit of the castle of Saint-Martin, let revert to the monastery of Saint-Laurent. The selfsame alod of Cananiello let hold Golfred while he shall live; after his death let it revert, with the church of Sainte-Marie which they call Quart, to the monastery of Saint-Sauveur [Aniane]. That suburban settlement [burgus] which I bought from the woman Ebbo, let hold Hugues and Alulf while they shall live; afterwards let it revert to Saint-Paul, & let Saint-Paul hold among its possessions just as much the selfsame manse where the priest Nectar lives. The selfsame vines of Cesasinano, which Bon Vassal [or ‘a good vassal’] pledged to me, let revert to Umbert, as long as he redeems them from Bon Vassal. The selfsame manse of Aquaviva, which is in Lézat, let revert to Saint-Nazaire the see of Béziers. The selfsame manse within Narbonne which I bought from Saint-Pons, let revert to it.

The church of Saint-Paul-Serge de Narbonne

The other major beneficiary, or at least the church that now stands on that site with a much more developed saint’s cult, Saint-Paul-Serge de Narbonne. Par GO69 (Travail personnel) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

“I also [wish that] this mercy and alms which I make on account of love for the highest eternal King, may be for the remedy of [my] soul, so that I may be able to avoid the punishment of [my] collected [sins], & attain to eternal happiness, and by His mercy the Creator may ignore the collected evils which I have done from the day of my birth until now, and at the same time the lord my man Matfred and my parents may provide for themselves a common mercy therein, and all my kinsmen and relatives, and all the faithful departed. The selfsame alod that I have between Biarum and Syronis, let revert to my son Ermengaud, and the selfsame church of Ductos which they call Sainte-Marie, with its parish, let revert to that same man. The villa Columbaria with its church of Saint-Pierre let revert to my son Raimond. The selfsame gold cups let revert to Ermengaud, and let him give fifty solidi for them to the canons of SS Just & Pastor which they may spend in common, & to the canons of Saint-Paul similarly 50 solidi, and to Saint-Nazaire the see of Carcassonne 50 solidi, & to Saint-Nazaire the see of Béziers 50 solidi. To Raimond let revert one silver chain, & two candelabra of silver, one with rolls and a belt, one with gold cublismonario [?], & let him give for those 50 solidi to Saint-Pons, & to Saint-Aniane 50 solidi.

Excavations in the cloister of Saint-Sauveur d'Aniane

Digs going on at another place that did all right from Adelaide, not the Saint-Sauveur she wished to build but that of Aniane, again in much later form

“Of the collected harvest of the vine and corn that I have in Florenzac, let the selfsame half revert to Ermengaud, of the other half the selfsame third to Saint-Thibéry [Agde]; the other two to Saint-Sauveur d’Aniane. Similarly of the harvest that I have in Nebozianense, let the selfsame half revert to Ermengaud, the other half let revert between the selfsame monks of Vabre and the monks of Joncelles. Of the harvest of Pociolo, & Urbanio, & Cavorras, let three parts be made; let one part be given to Saint-Michel de Galiaco, the other to Saint-Sauveur, & the other to Saint-Cecilia. If our convent shall have been completed, let revert thither my horses; if not, however, let 4 of them revert to Ermengaud, with the selfsame 2 mules, & 4 horses to Raimond. Of the other horses let three parts be made; one part let revert to the canonry of Saints Just & Pastor, another to the canons of Saint-Paul, the other to Saint-Aniane. Of the harvest of Villamagna, let half revert between Ermengaud and Raimond, of the other half let one third revert to Saint-Sauveur, the other two to Saint-Martin. Of the harvest of Vallemagnensis, & Caucenogilo, & Cogiano, let the selfsame half revert to Raimond; let them distribute the other half among churches and the poor. Of the harvest of Narbonne let revert half to the convent being built there; & if, God permitting, it shall have been constructed, I ask that my daughter may be abbess there, & to the selfsame woman let revert my jewellery, with the selfsame mancuses and golden things: the other half of the harvest let revert to Raimond. Let them make Archiberga & Adalberga & Belhomme & Aldeguer free and let each one of them be given five solidi. Of the chalice and offertory and 2 patens let the lord Ermengaud order one chalice to be made, & let him give it with the paten that Belhomme has to Saint-Paul. Let the cattle of Abuniano revert to the convent we are building. Let the cattle of Matucino along with all my swine revert to Ermengaud & Raimond, & let my aforesaid executors make a grand banquet of them. Of the substance they may have in their ministry, let them have for their work 20 solidatas, & afterwards whatever they may be able to find of my substance, let them faithfully divide it among churches and the poor, for the remedy of my soul; let them receive from me by God such a reward as the mercy for me for which they may implore Him.

Medieval chalice and paten in the Bibliothèque nationale de France

I’m pretty sure that this chalice and paten are later medieval than is relevant for this post but they are firstly French and secondly absolutely gorgeous [edit: and, as it turns out, rather earlier than I thought, see comments…].

“This testament done the 4th Nones of October, in the 24th year of the reign of King Lothar. Signed Adelaide, who ordered this testament to be made and signed and asked to sign. Sig+ned Aldo, who is called Baroncel. Sig+ned Arlabaud. Sig+ned Guadaud. Sig+ned Isimbert. Sig+ned Ramnulf. Dieudé, notary, wrote these words.”

There’s obviously loads one could say with this document, especially if you do more than skim it as I guess you mostly just did. The particular bigger point that made me choose this one needs other information, so I’ll go into that last but meanwhile there are three things apparent just from this that are worth highlighting.

  1. Firstly, Adelaide comes over here as a patron of her city in a quite late Antique style. Most of the bequests favour either the cathedral (SS Just & Pastor) or the archbishops’ other church, St-Paul, with the little-known city monastery of St-Aniane coming in a reasonable third, and there’s also a clear expectation that it will be easy to sell things as needed, suggesting a ready market and in general an urban milieu. To me this looks different from my pet counts on the other side of the Pyrenees, except maybe the count-bishop Miró Bonfill’s investment in Besalú, but is that in fact because they have to rule differently? As an elderly city-based viscountess, her options to travel widely may have been limited compared to their more itinerant and military power.
  2. Secondly, the main impression this will gives is that Adelaide had a lot of stuff and was managing it quite closely, with known persons in charge of almost every bit of it and produce and livestock counted to nearly the head (the horses at least). But actually these things are relative: she bequeathed property in eighteen places, about three hundred and fifty solidi‘s worth of treasure and money, an unknown quantity of cows and pigs but apparently no more than one banquest would demolish and at least eleven and probably at least fourteen horses, the last being impressive because horses were almost all war animals at this time. That seems a lot but isn’t out of the realm of possibility for a major castellan in my Catalan documents, and Adelaide is an apparently sovereign viscountess. It is at least clear that there was more in the tank, as she was bequeathing produce from eight different estates here and only one of the actual estates is itself bequeathed, had you noticed? And in fact she also made a later will in which she bequeathed an almost entirely different set of properties, including the actual honor of the viscounty, which went to son Raimond.2 All the same, she doesn’t seem to have been in the top flight despite her position.
  3. The third thought is a similar one: there isn’t much hierarchy visible here, is there? One of these people holds a tower; otherwise, she, her late husband and the archbishop are the only obvious aristocrats here. There is no count, fine, but where are the castellans? Not appearing in this film, it would seem. Her six executors and five witnesses are quite possibly military men, someone must be riding those horses she has, but again there’s not a lot here to distinguish her from a rich castellan herself. Was there anyone holding office from her, we might wonder? If so she doesn’t say so. If we hark back to Jeffrey Bowman’s five qualities of female aristocratic power, it’s not clear that Adelaide had very many of them.3

But the gender angle is important, and it’s what initially made me notice this document. It’s not just that Viscountess Adelaide was herself a woman in power, her world contained many other women. Although her daughters don’t seem to merit naming, unlike her sons, one of them at least was hopefully to be an abbess, and her sisters were to support the building of the nunnery, not any male relatives. The figure who interests me most here is the countess, however. Did you notice her? It would be easy not to, since she doesn’t apparently get any property, but nonetheless she is there, Countess Arsinda of Carcassonne, helping out with the nunnery by uncertain means. I can’t help feel that it’s significant that she bears the same name as one of Adelaide’s sisters, too. The female namestock round here was restricted, as we know—this is after all another post about a woman called Adelaide—but these two reasons to believe some kind of connection do support each other.

Saint-Pons de Thomières

A common focus of interest… The modern settlement of Saint-Pons de Thomières, which in the days of Viscountess Adelaide and Countess Garsinda was probably not much more than a new monastery. By Fagairolles 34 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, when I first read this document I couldn’t help but notice the countess, because this was the sixth time she’d turned up in the relevant documentary collection.4 Nor is she by any means the only countess or viscountess appearing with such frequency. That collection was selective, but unless the Benedictines who put it together had a real thing for women in office there is something going on here. Furthermore, as this document shows, they were not women apart, but seem largely to have known each other. Here we see Viscountess Adelaide of Narbonne relying in part on her comital neighbour Arsendis; that’s the only connection between those two this anthology shows us, but Adelaide also shows up twice with Countess Garsinda of Toulouse, who also spent some time as a dowager ruler; the first time they concur they were both giving to Saint-Pons de Thomières, as did Adelaide again in her will, and the second time is Garsinda‘s will, in which Adelaide was the largest immediate beneficiary.5 Since Garsinda’s appearances here otherwise are pretty much only to do with Saint-Pons, which was clearly a concern of hers, and that’s presumably what governed the editors’ selection from documents otherwise now largely lost, we’re seeing just once here a connection that obviously meant more to both of these women, as did that between Adelaide and Arsendis to them for all that we only get a flash of it. I’m pretty sure more could be done to reconstitute these networks, which were probably largely constituted by marriages, but the picture I was already left with was a half-century or so of the French Midi in which a number of ageing women organised several aspects of society more or less in cooperation with each other, having got used to government with their husbands and seeing no immediate need as yet to hand over to their sons. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve looked at here of female power, there is something here that looks usual as well as frequent, and I wanted to bring it to wider attention.


1. Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, rev. Émile Mabille, Edward Barry, Ernest Roschach & Auguste Molinier & ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. V (Toulouse 1872, repr. Osnabrück 1973), online here, Preuves : chartes et diplômes no. 130. It being online, I won’t type out the Latin for once; you can check, after all.

2. Ibid. doc. no. 151.

3. I’ve just linked to where I reference this paper, but because it could hardly be more relevant I’ll cite it here too: 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. This post here is of course about the milieu in which almost all his example women grew up…

4. She occurs in Devic & Vaissete, Histoire générale de Languedoc Vol. V, Preuves : chartes et diplômes nos 79, 89, 103, 104.4, 104.6 & 130, which as per the nature of the collection are from several different archives any of which might show her up some more.

5. Ibid. nos 125 & 126 respectively; presumably Garsinda’s earlier arrangements were timore mortis ones.

Widow warlords

A couple of days ago I found myself engaged once again in one of the arguments about medieval society it’s just impossible to resolve, that of how possible it was for women to wield political power as men did. It’s impossible to resolve because it obviously wasn’t usual for women to do so, so every case of a woman who did is exceptional and thus probably unsafe to generalise from. There’s a whole argument’s room in that ‘probably’ of course, but on this occasion the argument focussed on Jeffrey Bowman‘s article on countesses in Catalonia and the Midi in the tenth and eleventh centuries that I mentioned a few posts ago, and there you may remember me promising a post about how I thought his case could be deepened. So, this is it.

Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona as portrayed in Televisió de Catalunya's series Ermessenda

There are no contemporary or even medieval depictions of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, but that’s OK because TV has since provided

Professor Bowman, you may remember, developed a fivefold set of acts of power that he thought women would need to do to hold power like men, and then argued that they did, at least in this area and time.1 These were fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’, and of these perhaps the toughest to show is fighting. His best example, and everybody’s for female power in this area, is Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, who wound up running her son’s and initially her grandson’s governments and had to be forced to let go by said grandson making open war on her. One of the issues about her rule was that she didn’t send campaigns into Spain to keep the castellans rich, but she certainly directed armies when necessary, though whether she was actually ever in battle herself is harder to show. Her three-generation coregency and final reduction to ignominious and short-lived dowagerhood is about as extreme an example as it’s possible to get, however, even if she was followed by another countess of almost as much ability and independence of whom we have already heard (but who also got murdered).2 And besides, she was at the head of her state. There is only room for one such person at a time; like Margaret Thatcher, she did not necessarily leave the ladder down behind her. So what were the possibilities like a few rungs down?

Now, I could tell you about viscountesses (and in a future post I will) but viscounts were not really very different from counts by the late-tenth century; they too were rulers of their areas, even if some notional comital superiority was occasionally acknowledged.3 So how much further down the ladder can we get? Well, in my famous book I mention a lady called Adelaide (as so many were) who ran a castle. This is admittedly Bowman’s third act of power, not necessarily his first, but it’s worth looking at how she got it. The castle was the Castell d’Orsal, south of Vic, and it enters our record in the hands of the viscounts of Girona. They sold it, however, to a man called Radulf, and he then sold it to Adelaide.4

Remains of the alleged Castell de Malla

This is on Wikimedia Commons as the Castell de Malla, but to the best of my knowledge that should be the just-visible remains on top of the hill (what you can see is basically what there is).5 What this building is, therefore, I’m not at all sure… By Elmoianes (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-es], via Wikimedia Commons

Now straight away we hit the problem of exceptionality, although for once not about the woman but about the castle. Orsal’s initial owners must have been holding it privately rather than in their official capacity, since though they were viscounts they were not viscounts here, so it’s not entirely clear that the castle had military obligations to fulfil, although there was a ‘beneficium’ in its territory which suggests fiscal land-stocks dedicated to its upkeep.6 The comital family also held land nearby, both Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell and his sister Godregilda Countess of Pallars, and had clients here, of whom one, Riculf, may have been Adelaide’s husband.7 Also, it doesn’t seem that the castle was worth keeping – all these powerful men selling it very quickly – so it may not have been very well-equipped or repaired. It was apparently OK for Adelaide to be a castellan, in other words, but that may be because there was nothing that really came with the castle. And for castellans, she is the best case I can find.

But, surprisingly, we can get lower down and much more certain at the same time. Rather earlier in the century and higher up in the Pyrenees, we have the will of a woman called Oliba (usually a man’s name but here specified ‘femina’).8 She was old enough to have two sons, one of whom was a deacon and the other dead, and she was reassigning the inheritance to take account of that latter fact. And, in the course of rewarding the surviving son Ludiric because he had “remained in my obedience and desired so to do”, she gave him an alod big enough to have an island in it, in the territory of the castle of Bar, and it came with various revenues including those “de predam et de ostem”. I cannot think of any way to translate that but “from plunder and from campaigning”, and with that seems to follow ineluctably the implication that this land supported a warband, and neither the fact that she was an ageing widow nor that he was a churchman were apparently going to stop that.

Obviously it's only a guess, but here's a farm in Bar with an island in the Riu Segre on its likely property; it could be where theirs was...

So, OK, again, we have the obvious cavil: there’s nothing here that proves she herself was fighting, even less that proves that he was. In fact, he can’t have been expected to, if he owned the land, since if he was receiving revenues from some venture he was presumably not bringing them in himself or he could just have kept them— with Ma dead, who else could claim? Nonetheless, they were running soldiers. Whether they told those soldiers where to go or just sent them out for pigs (another of the revenue sources mentioned), no questions asked, they controlled men of war enough to take some of their booty off them. And this, apparently, like Adelaide’s control of a castle, was, if not usual, at least by no means so odd that it needed explaining in the charter.

When I bring these examples up, and others of women witnessing or signing documents, people who work on other early medieval areas where they get none of this stuff often ask me why tenth-century Catalonia should have been so well-disposed to women’s rights, justifiably enough. I have tended to suggest that if they had my evidence density maybe they’d see this too, because these are—here it comes again—probably not usual cases. But they were possible cases, and that in itself merits more explanation than I’m usually willing to give it. That doesn’t mean I have one, but I will suggest two interlinked factors that must have played a part. One, both Adelaide and Oliba were widows, which is to say, there had once been a man with whom they shared these rights, and second, as often said here, in Catalonia the law of resort was still the Visigothic Judges’ Book.9 These connect because the Visigothic Law was fairly generous to wives and widows: while their husband was alive, they held ten per cent of his property with him, and after he died, they got to keep that tenth for their support, until or unless they married again, in which case it devolved to the children of the first marriage since she would now have a new tenth.10 How often that was actually done is not clear, but it was often enough that “from my tenth” is a way that widows disposing of property by charter explained how they came to own it.11 Now, unless we are to suppose that people deliberately chose that tenth to exclude any land they held with a military duty or whatever being done from it, which would often have been quite hard to do I’d guess, widows of men who ran soldiers must sometimes have wound up with a warband’s base on their hands when he died, in perfect legal right. Actually, this land of Oliba’s came from her parents and Adelaide just bought her castle, but my point is that women running soldiers must have come up enough that if it was acceptable one way, it might be acceptable in others.

We expect, of course, based on later primogeniture and despite any number of romances in which women get knights in to defend their castles and don’t even always marry them, that this would have seemed so unnatural that it had to be altered. There are enough female litigants in the record here, though, including castellans’ widows who defeated the Church in court, that I suspect women being so shunted out of control would have generated a record.12 I also think we probably expect that particular sense of the unnatural too much. We might, realistically, be beyond the law in Oliba’s case, with frontier pig-raiding a bankable source of cash, but she still had a charter written and in any case, pioneer pragmatism surely ought to have seen an old woman elbowed out of place in favour of an able-bodied man sooner, don’t you think? If it was weird out here, it should have been fightin’ weird not legal weird. So perhaps it wasn’t weird at all, just unusual. We still have the philosophical wrangle about what to do with an unusual thing that perhaps still happened a lot, of course, but if we’re not happy making rules out of it at least we can also avoid making rules out of its more common opposite.


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. The standard book on Ermessenda is Antoni Pladevall, Ermessenda de Carcassona, comtessa de Barcelona, Girona i d’Osona: esbós biogràfic en el mil·lenari del seu naixement (Barcelona 1975), but you can find him reprising it more recently for an audience of Romanesque fans in “La Comtessa de Barcelona Ermessenda de Carcassona” in Amics de l’Art Romànic de Sabadell no. 109 (Sabadell 2011), pp. 519-538, online here as PDF.

3. On viscounts and their power see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141; cf. cf. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngi en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29-75, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974, 1989), 2 vols, I pp. 181-226.

4. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 82-83; the documents in question are printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 1774 & 1805.

5. Jordi Vigué i Viñas, Albert Benet i Clarà and Antoni Pladevall i Font, “Castell de Malla” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya romànica, II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 292–294.

6. The beneficium is in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 350; see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 84.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 661, 1542 & 1730 show Borrell’s lands here; the first of these shows Goldregilda as neighbour. For Riculf, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 84-86.

7. My reference here is Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 7–143, doc. no. 70. Now, it’s a while since I saw the text of this document. I’ve been citing this charter for this fact ever since my doctoral upgrade in 2001, but my viva revealed that I’d read one other thing in this document quite wrong, and now that I go back to my notes I find that they say nothing of this, which is a little disturbing. It’s on open shelves in Cambridge University Library, P582.b.1, probably North Front 5 still; if any of my readership happen to be passing, and wouldn’t mind photocopying or scanning a text, I would be quite grateful for it…

8. See Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

9. Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), online here, III.1.6 sets the tenth, though note that III.1.7 says that the bride’s father inherits it when she dies, presumably not a usual occurrence and not something I can document.

10. This, however, is common: some examples are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 95 (where the woman had kept the tenth from her previous husband despite remarrying), 560, 579, 596, 636, 726 (consenting to its alienation), 919, 1040, 1263 (a couple who weren’t even legally married, Unifred and Sesnanda), 1299, 1404, 1548, 1727 (Ermessenda!) & 1822 (citing the Law for it), and these are just the ones in that collection where I made a note of it.

11. Ajó, widow of the Vicar and judge Guifré de Néspola and perhaps daughter of the Vicar Sal·la, founder of Sant Benet de Bages. Again we see the problem: she was certainly unusually privileged, and the result is almost unique in terms of preservation, but how much more could we nonetheless expect this unusual thing to have happened… ?

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).

A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

I don’t hang about the late antique sources as much as perhaps I should, given some of what I have taught and hope to teach again, but there are of course only so many hours in the day. This means that stories from quite well-known sources can catch me by complete surprise when I read stuff by people who do hang out there, and a while back one such that I was surprised I’d never seen anywhere else wandered before me, courtesy of a paper by one David Grafton.1 This tracks medieval and indeed later identifications of Arabs and, by false implication, Muslims, to the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Grafton believes this is a fourth-century conflation of the Biblical story placing Ishmael’s exile in about the right part of the world with the general picture of the peoples there as barbarians and generally beyond the pale of civilisation. That seems to stack up to me, but in the course of it he refers to an early mention of the Arabs, or at least one of the tribes of Arabia (whom all writers concerned are happy to call Saracens2), who in 373 appear to have revolted against Rome. A clutch of ecclesiastical historians report on this and consider it most serious, though I note just in passing that Ammianus Marcellinus does not. Does this suggest a particular Christian context, you ask, and I say, indeed it do matey, ‘ave a look at this from Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

About this period the king of the Saracens died, and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mavia, the widow of the late monarch, finding herself at the head of the government, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine… the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man called Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses, and to conduct him to Lucius.3

Now this Lucius was the Bishop of Constantinople, but at this exact time the Roman Empire’s dominant Christian creed was Arianism, and Lucius was an Arian bishop. This immediately caused problems as Moses refused to receive ordination from him:

“Your creed is already well-known to me… and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile, and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.” Having again protested, upon oath, that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans, and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.

Grafton reads this as evidence that there was Christianity among the Arabs, and furthermore that it was Catholic Christianity, and that the revolt can therefore be seen in terms of orthodoxy versus Arianism. I’m absolutely sure that that’s how Sozomen wanted it to be seen, and probably the other historians who record this episode, all of whom seem to be deriving it from Rufinus. I, myself, would be a very great deal happier about it if Ammianus mentioned any such thing, or if Sozomen mentioned the names of the Roman and Phoenician generals Mavia (or Mawiyya, as she is modernly transliterated) is supposed to have defeated in her revolt. As it is, it looks like a story more or less invented, or at least spun, to indicate that everyone knew that Arianism just wasn’t really legitimate even when it ruled Constantinople. I find it hard to imagine the trip off to find the exile bishops so as to settle a troublesome frontier people, don’t you? I would like it a lot more if any non-ecclesiastical source mentioned this woman. But they don’t, as far as I can quickly find out.6

Modern portrayal of Queen Mavia receiving the obeisance of two Roman legionaries

Of course, for perfectly understandable reasons Mavia has become something of a heroine in certain areas of the Internet, and I really do wish that there was some source for her that wasn’t religious polemic so that I was not in the position of spoiling the day of people like the artist responsible for this…

However, this is not the last mention of her and her people (who are known, in the limited historiography on this, as the Tanukh, I don’t know whence since all references I can chase up easily go back to Sozomen). In fact, to my continuing surprise, they turn up at no less a place than Constantinople, defending it against the Goths in 378 after the disaster at Adrianople in which Emperor Valens was killed. Sozomen adds only, “In this emergency, a few Saracens, sent by Mavia, were of great service.”5 But this, this time, Ammianus does mention, and he has a lot more to say:

A troop of Saracens (of whose origin and customs I have spoken at length in various places), who are more adapted to stealthy raiding expeditions than to pitched battles, and had recently been summoned to the city, desiring to attack the horde of barbarians of which they had suddenly caught sight, rushed forth boldly from the city to attack them. The contest was long and obstinate, and both sides separated on equal terms. But the oriental troop had the advantage from a strange event, never witnessed before. For one of their number, a man with long hair and naked except for a loin-cloth, uttering hoarse and dismal cries, with drawn dagger rushed into the thick of the Gothic army, and after killing a man applied his lips to his throat and sucked the blood that poured out. The barbarians, terrified by this strange and monstrous sight, after that did not show their usual self-confidence when they attempted any action, but advanced with hesitating steps.6

You can see why Sozomen cut this back a bit: it’s not exactly staunch Catholic conduct. What he also seems to have done, however, or possibly Rufinus did, I haven’t checked, is add the link to Mavia. Ammianus does, as he says, describe the Saracens elsewhere, but it’s in pretty disparaging terms, starting with, “The Saracens, however, whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies…” and going on into a series of clichés about their nomadic, horse-riding, milk-drinking habits, their lack of laws and their enthusiastically-consummated short-term marriages that make these people more or less the same as any other set of outer barbarians he might describe.7 He never mentions a queen, however, so my initial position remains sceptical. I meant, before posting this, to have chased the limited historiography down and tried to gather if there’s any reason to believe that Mavia was anything more than a moral tale. Sadly, time did not permit before I left Oxford and the local resources aren’t as useful for it. This means, of course, that there’s still hope, but even if she should in fact have been a fabrication of the church historians, why was it necessary or useful to fabricate a queen? Perhaps you have thoughts…


1. David D. Grafton, “‘The Arabs’ in the Ecclesiastical Historians of the 4th and 5th Centuries: effects on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations” in Hervormde Teologiese Studies Vol. 64 (Pretoria 2008), pp. 177-192.

2. Grafton discusses this word and its origins, ibid. pp. 178-183, but a more in-depth account to which one is usually referred is John V. Tolan, Saracens (New York City 2002).

3. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VI.38, here quoted from the translation by Edward Walford as The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, as epitomised by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (London 1855), online here, where pp. 308-309.

4. The thing that Grafton cites which I should seek out, as it presumably collects this information if it exist, is J. S. Trimingham, “Māwiyya: the first Christian Arab Queen” in The Near East School of Theology Theological Review, Vol 1 (1978), 3-10, though there is also Glenn W. Bowersock, “Mavia, Queen of the Saracens” in W. Eck et al. (edd.), Studien zur antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift F. Vittinghoff (Vienna 1980), pp. 477–495 and indeed apparently more. No-one appears to consider it possible that she was just a story, so maybe I’m too cynical. Benjamin Isaac, “The Eastern Frontier” in Averil Cameron & Peter Garnsey (edd.). The Cambridge Ancient History XIII: the late Empire A.D. 337-425 (Cambridge 1998), pp. 437-460 at pp. 447-448, runs through this episode and confirms (p. 448):

Our sources on the Mavia affair are all ecclesiastical, so that their interests focuses exclusively on the religious aspects of the episode. The history of Mavia has been discussed frequently in the modern literature, and some scepticism expressed as to the reliability of these sources.

He goes on, however, “However, even a minimalist interpretation allows several conclusions” and then basically accepts everything except the scale of the damage, so I am apparently more minimalist than minimalist here…

5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.1.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestarum, transl. John C. Rolfe as Ammianus Marcellinus: Res Gestarum quae supersunt (New York City 1939-1950), 3 vols, online here with limited corrections by Bill Thayer, XXXI.16.

7. Ibid. XIV.4.

Almodis, by Tracey Warr: a review

A long time ago I wrote a post that tried to tell the story of the specifically-Catalan feudal revolution, in purely political terms: a collapse of governmental initiative, a move towards independence by the frontier magnates dependent on the revenues and status they derived from the border raiding that was no longer being coordinated, and the eventual recovery of power by the young Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I, aided not all by his grandmother the Countess of Girona who was flatly sure he had it all wrong and wouldn’t give up her regency. He was aided not just by the idea of institutionalising a feudal structure in the nobility, but by a controversial wife, Almodis de la Marche, twice married already and this time abducted from her second husband. She doesn’t appear to have regretted this, as she appears with him in many documents and received as nearly as many oaths as he did. In general, she seems, somewhat ironically, to have been exactly the same right hand of comital government that her obstinate grandmother-in-law had once been for her new husband’s grandfather, Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell. The couple eventually forced grandma, in her seventies, to surrender and there must have been a final meeting between the beaten old countess and the controversial young one, which I’ve always imagined would film tremendously. Indeed, I said as much in that post. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that someone would base a novel on the events.

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya, as shown in the Liber Feudorum Maior (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The author of this novel, Dr Tracey Warr, contacted me with a view to organising some kind of book launch talk. I didn’t know how that would work out and decided I’d rather not, but said that I would certainly review the book if she cared to send me one. She did, and I so far haven’t, but in very late 2012 I finally got that far along my to-read shelves and lighted on it. And at last, here is the review.

Cover of Tracey Warr's Almodis: the Peaceweaver

This is, first of all, not a book to be judged by its cover. The woman in a modern top and flamenco dress disappearing into neo-Classical architecture tells you nothing at all about either plot or historical accuracy: the former is imaginatively woven through the known threads of Almodis’s life, which are enough to start with, and the latter is really fairly impressive. Many of the same names feature in Dr Warr’s historical note as do in my footnotes here, and she attempted to work in their words where possible, which sometimes results in slightly unlikely exposition, but exposition that isn’t out of place in the lead character’s mouth, as she is,or becomes, a politician first and foremost. Despite this, as said, the events of her life cry out for, cannot indeed really be explained, without considerable drama and tension:

“Almodis de la Marche was a real person. That she was repudiated, kidnapped and murdered, that she was three times married, had twelve children, played an active role in the government of Toulouse and Barcelona, and was literate, are all documented facts. It was a story that needed writing!” (‘Historical Note’)

Well, it has been well written here. I was initially somewhat deterred by the way in which it’s done, which is first-person present tense internal monologue, usually but not always from Almodis’s perspective. The device of a loyal (but complaining) servant from the North of France gives an outside perspective somewhat like the one that Bernard of Conques gives us on the cult of Saint Faith that I once talked about here, as well as a character more amiable than the countess (who is more admirable than amiable), and when the countess and her servant argue a lot of social information is squeezed through their conversation. It sort of has to be, because Dr Warr is careful enough to avoid her characters going too far towards breaking out into lyrical descriptions of the countryside—these are here but kept more or less under control—so conversation between the characters is vital for conveying contextual information. A lot is done, perhaps inevitably, by making Almodis a devotee of Dhuoda’s, which lets the Carolingian background in through in occasional shafts of light, though as we’ve mentioned here there is at least a Barcelona connection there…

Given the restrictions of the style, though, this sort of revelation is handled very well. My only eventual problem with the narrative technique was the way that the present-tense narration tends to collapse chronology; it’s just as well that each chapter is headed with place and date, as I frequently had to check back on finding that we seemed to have jumped quite a few years. By the end of the novel, in fact, the jumps get very large indeed, so that Almodis’s life and death in Barcelona get very little space after the drama of getting her there, leaving her effect on the government and the civil war in Catalonia almost untreated, perhaps because we’ve already seen her at work in these ways in Toulouse. Just for that reason, though, I’d like to have seen what difference there was in Barcelona, and Catalonia getting more narrative time generally. So I was a bit deflated by the end, which doesn’t leave Almodis’s murder explained very well (though of course she stops narrating at that point and obviously hadn’t seen it coming, so it’s hard to do more in a story told this way). All the same, I read to the end very avidly despite my initial reservations. I can’t allow for the effect of me being familiar with the characters in a way, and being delighted with how they were imagined, but I finished the book in two late-night sittings because I didn’t want to stop reading, and was pleasantly surprised by the way that the story wasn’t told as I expected it. None of the scenes I’d imagined as part of it were present in this version except the confrontation with grandmother Ermessenda and even that didn’t play out as I’d always figured it would. Yet as far as reimagining historical figures’ lives and loves go, I’m now more convinced by Dr Warr’s version than I am by my old one, so hopefully it’s as interesting also to someone who doesn’t think they know what’s coming.

Depiction of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona and Countess Almodis de la Marche from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Ramon Berenguer I and Almodis again, in happier times than her final ones. High five! Again, from the Liber Feudorum Maior via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Warr makes Almodis into an extraordinary but plausible character and most of the supporting characters are also very well-drawn, although even though our narratrix is a woman in a man’s world, the men are often somewhat less developed as characters. Churchmen, especially, get little depth, and one of the things I did find implausible was how little truck Almodis seemed to have with worship. More could have been done with that, if it was deliberate. Again, this is partly technique: Almodis works through women first and foremost, and her family next, and the Church last of all, and that makes sense in the story’s terms. If there’s a deeper historical agenda here it is to make the eleventh-century Midi clear as a world where women could and did hold the reins of power, even if only as far as the men in their family let them. One of the things that’s clear about her era, however, is that while widows were best placed to wield political power really, many men in power did rely on their wives to help them with it, and Almodis and her grandmother-in-law are as said the best examples I can think of of that working in practice.

That the lack of Church was the thing I found most implausible, however, means that not only did that agenda not dominate things enough to bother me, but that Dr Warr got away with an episode in which some of her characters wind up embroiled in a battle while disguised as monks, so for that alone I would recommend this book, but there is more to be said for it besides. It doesn’t pull its historical punches, it delivers a fair few unexpected twists, the writing can be affectedly beautiful but the emotional content is delivered raw and ungarnished and the period and country of the narrative are given enough space to remove any doubts one might have that their struggles have purpose. So, don’t be misled by the cover; this is a serious entertainment…

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Domna grammatika: a surprise from Michel Zimmermann

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

Cover of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

I am now, nearly, finished reading Michel Zimmermann’s huge book Écrire et lire en Catalogne that has given me so much difficulty along with its information, only the bibliography and appendices (themselves two hundred pages) to go.1 One of the problems with understanding what is going on with this work is its pedigree. It is a version, little revised, he says at the outset, of his thèse d’état, a huge-scale thing akin to a German Habilitationsschrift that doesn’t really exist in the UK or US systems and doesn’t, any longer, in France either. Firstly, this means that a lot of it dates from a long time ago and when one comes across references to ideas published ‘recemment’ in 1978, one begins to wonder how much it was updated to reflect Zimmermann the learned professor as per 2002 rather than Zimmermann the young scholar as per 1982.2 Furthermore, these beasts could easily be the fruits of a decade’s work and then here he is updating it in the 2000s, so there’s prospect for quite a lot of change of opinions and knowledge even between its chapters. This may explain a thing I found in the last chapter which I didn’t expect, either from the material or the writer, and which for balance I thought I had to mention here.

The last chapter, a mere slip of a thing at 140 pages, is about what people learned in Catalonia and how, ninth to thirteenth centuries. This work gave rise to several other articles for its author in the eighties and if you put them back in somehow this would be a respectable little book by itself, and a useful one. It ineluctably duplicates some of the rest of the book as well, though not as much as the previous chapter, almost all of which is already present in the first volume somewhere.3 Here the author worked harder to eliminate what was redundant, and the citation is also more thorough and it generally reads more easily. I don’t know whether this makes it earlier or later in the book’s process, but it’s pleasant. There is, anyway, a substantial section on cathedral schools and teachers and one of the first things this does is to analyse the titles that are used of teachers in the documents. Caput scolae is the one we see most of, as below, ‘headmaster’ almost, but behind that (and I would say, largely later) we also see scholastici (advanced students?) and grammatici, and the surprising thing is that among that latter group there are two women.4

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297

A gift by the Archpriest Ermemir to Riculf, caput scolae of the cathedral of Vic, named on the first line (Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297, with my fingers at the corner

These records are not quite as unambiguous as one might wish.5 We only have the name of one of them, Guisla grammatica, and the other appears as only homo domna gramatika, which looks as if it must be a scribal error in some direction or other, possibly for Hemmo, Emma; the Greek spelling of ‘gramatika‘ gives me strange memories of a lady I met once in Cambridge but also makes me wonder if the scribe thought the word couldn’t be declined, like Hebrew terms, though in that case why did he only know it in the feminine? Moreover, the first is potentially to be identified with a Guisla who was the wife of one Guillem, and he may be one of the other grammatici around the cathedral of Vic at this time, as they certainly had one of that name. In other words, Zimmermann suggests, she might be a grammaticus‘s wife using the family title, rather than actually having any teaching role herself; the cathedral’s grammarians certainly seem to have passed the title down to their heirs, but those heirs presumably also inherited the teaching? We don’t know for sure. But it’s interesting, and it’s also something that based on other parts of the book I wouldn’t entirely have expected M. le Prof. Z. even to have mentioned. Vic was somewhere with a history of encouraging female learning and study in a small way, and it’s nice to think that might have briefly been institutionalised as lay instruction took off more widely in the mid-eleventh century.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles, Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., II p. 889 notes work published in 1978 by Colette Jeudy as having been made public ‘recemment’. Now, I struggle myself with admitting that the 1980s no longer counts as ‘recent’ (it’s still a horrible memory for me) but I think my working practice now is, don’t call anything recent which didn’t come out during the youngest likely readership’s lifetimes…

3. We do, admittedly, get the third run-through in the book of the inventories of the libraries of Ripoll and Vic, which also appear in the appendices, but here it’s just for books containing scientific material that Gerbert of Aurillac might have been able to see. This includes MS Ripoll 106, which we discussed here a while back; it’s kind of nice to think that he probably also flipped through it. (Though, to him, it would have been ‘recent’…)

4. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, II pp. 870-886 and here esp. pp. 878-881 for what follows.

5. Even in citation, alas: Zimmermann references these documents as Arxiu Capitular de Vic, nos 1052 and 1060, and gives a date for one of them that seems to preclude these numbers being dates, not shelfmarks. They’re not complete shelfmarks, however, says I as one who knows the ACV a little bit, and though the documents may be in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2006-), I haven’t gone and looked, I admit, as for some reason no library in this country has more of it than fascs 1 & 2, even though I know darn well the thing is finished because I got given its plates in an adventure I have yet to tell you about