Tag Archives: Pierre Bonnassie

Letting in the lowly in Lournand

In the first chapter of his controversial little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000, Guy Bois mentions a church in the tiny area of Burgundy that he chose for his micro-study, a “tiny, pre-Romanesque chapel… without… any significant alterations”, at Collonge in Lournand.1 Now, in this day of Google Image search, such a footnote is an invitation full of search terms, and especially for me, because the Romanesque rebuilding hit Catalonia very forcefully and there is really not much pre-Romanesque building left up there. (It’s usually assumed it was largely in wood anyway, but there are cases of doubt.2) Thus, if I want to know what the churches of the kind of people I write about were like, I have to start by looking elsewhere, so I did.

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

Bois gives no reference for the date of the chapel, which seems to be dedicated to Saint Laurent, and the website I found for it thinks it’s actually fourteenth-century Romanesque, again with no authority cited. Looking at the pictures, it seems to me that it’s so basic that it could readily be either, and only the bell-tower is very indicative, that being Romanesque in original style despite its modern patch-up but also quite possibly an addition, as these things often are in Catalonia. So the jury, unless there is a Burgundian equivalent of the Catalunya Romànica of which I don’t know, is probably out. It’s so basic that if all you wanted was an idea of what the tenth-century church would have been like it might serve anyway.

Interior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing altar

Interior of the chapel

However, the date of the chapel is not the big question that Bois is using it for here: his query is instead whether slaves were allowed in in the tenth century. That raises questions that are larger than simply, “was this building even standing then?”, such as “were there still slaves then, or should we be talking about serfs?”, “what’s the difference anyway?” and, what Bois is concerned with, “what human rights did slaves have in this era?” The “what’s the difference” question has a neat semantic answer, to wit, a serf can be sold with land he or she works, but a slave can be sold as goods in their own right, but as with definitions of aristocrat that work on whether the person works land themselves or not, while this may be consistent it’s not necessarily historically relevant to the period in question.3 If a slave has a house and some kind of agreement with her or his master about what work they do on a normal basis, and if a serf isn’t guaranteed that his or her children will inherit the holding, it could be quite difficult to draw lines between their status. Bois does so more or less at control of the children, saying that serfs’ children are their own even if their dependence is hereditary but that a slave’s children are the master’s to dispose of and house as convenient. It’s on this basis that he argues that Lournand pre-1000 was still a slave society, because its holdings are all one family to one homestead which is too convenient to be anything but arranged.4 That seems to me to rest on an idea that all homesteads are equivalent and that we could somehow tell if two were an old single one divided, whereas my limited experience of the Cluny charters suggests that measuring these plots isn’t really possible. It’s not clear to me where a lot of Bois’s numbers come from in this chapter, indeed, but I’ve worked with Cluny boundary clauses a bit and I don’t think you can map them continuously between generations, so I’m inclined to mistrust the logic here.

Exterior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing portal and bell-tower

Exterior view showing portal and bell-tower

However, the question about admittance is one that he raises justly, and does so moreover on the basis of work by Pierre Bonnassie, to whom I am more generally sympathetic. Bonnassie and consequently Bois both make admittance to worship in church a big part of the decline of slavery.5 Even though the Church itself is a big landowner and runs a lot of slaves, albeit often on quite privileged terms, the basic starting point that a slave too has a soul that must be saved makes important breaks in the legal idea that a slave is a chattel, a possession and not a person. Christian doctrine is pretty kind to the humble anyway, so there’s just a certain basic level below which anyone who may approach the altar can’t slip, but there’s also the question of Church marriage, which once applied to slaves seriously impinges on the master’s right to arrange his or her labouring population and their reproduction as she or he chooses. As a good Western liberal, I’ve never really got how people can class other people they live with and see daily as somehow not-really-people, but obviously that distinction is inherent in a slave system, and if such non-people are then allowed to become partakers in your religion’s principal rite of union with your god, that’s something of a blow to that distinction, to say the least. So, it’s a crucial step away from subhuman status to have been able to go to Church in the Middle Ages. (In my area, where slaves were often Muslim prisoners of war, it wasn’t an easy step to take either.) There really wouldn’t have been a lot of room in the tiny chapel at Collonge or, presumably, any precursor it had, but who was in that space would have at some point, be it fifth-century or eleventh-century or somewhere between the two, been a very sharp social issue, and one that we can say almost nothing about.


1. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992) pp. 28-29 & n.

2. My pet case here is the now-twelfth-century Sant Andreu de Tona, where the stone structure located by digging in the 1940s was dated to an otherwise unattested reconstruction in the eleventh century precisely because it was stone, the assumption being that the well-attested building of 889 put up by Romanising notables on a hill basically made of building stone would nonetheless have to have been wood. See Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Antoni Pladevall i Font, Albert Benet i Clarà, Dolors Arumí i Gómez, A. Cavallé i Crivillers & R. Espadaler i Parsarises, “Sant Andreu de Tona” in Jordi Vigué (ed.) Catalunya Romànica III: Osona II, ed. Vigué (Barcelona 1986), pp. 639-44 and cf. J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 106-108.

3. The go-to for this terminological discussion for me, because it set out explicitly to compare ancient, medieval and modern usages, is Michael Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage (London 1986), where the papers by Stanley Engerman and Wendy Davies (but of course) might be the most use, but I think this definition is my own, all the same.

4. Bois, Transformation, pp. 18-20.

5. P. Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, online here, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

This post is probably more a note to myself than anything, and comes again apropos of my having a while back read Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque.1 It relates to iron-working, which is something I’ve had a vague interest in for a long time, as I do with technical knowledge in general. (It also relates oddly both to the subject of the last post, as one of the things Robin Fleming has argued about sub-Roman Britain is that iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries, and to some of my most recent reading, the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, in which several of the estates surveyed were obviously working iron out of the pre-Alps, so the world remains full of coincidences.) My interest is more than general, however, as the spread of iron-working in Catalonia was one of the things that Pierre Bonnassie saw as being part of its agricultural take-off in the late tenth century which help set up that area’s particular instance of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’.2

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden, from the Biblia de Ripoll

That image again from the Bíblia de Ripoll, which we now know to show Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Eden, but hopefully for Bonnassie with tools typical of the medieval Catalonia in which the Bíblia was made…

Most people from Bonnassie’s part and generation of the academy would have been informed on this by the work of Georges Duby, whose picture of the use of iron in the early Middle Ages was extremely gloomy and largely based on minimalist and decontextualised readings of such sources as the Brevium exempla, which he would now find matched in Professor Fleming’s vision of early medieval Britain, I suspect.3 In this respect Bonnassie was unusual, however, as his cite of reference for such matters, aside from the charters he knew so well, was Lynn H. White Jr’s Technology and Social Change.4 In its day that was an excellent book, I think, and I own it with pride, but there seems little doubt that the picture of 1962 has moved on somewhat. Finding out where the new picture comes from, however, has been a bit tricky for me and this is where M. le Professeur Devroey switches the light on for me. Since I don’t now have access to the original, the best I can do for you is to transcribe my notes and you’ll see at least what I took from his text:

“La question de l’outillage”

“Delatouche argued that serfs brought own tools to work, hence low record of them in inventories but has not been followed (P. Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au moyen âge). Largely based on Annapes.”

There is a small inset section here taking apart Duby’s reading of the tool lists in the Brevium exempla, of which Devroey observes that here as elsewhere, “Duby ne pose pas la question essentielle de savoir ce qui est inventorié dans cette liste,” ‘Duby does not deal with the essential problem of knowing what is inventoried in this list’, music to my eyes, and then returns to the main text. The book is filled with these inserts and it makes it quite hard to follow at times, because they’re individually quite interesting but not always where you would expect in the text. Anyway, my notes go on:

“Archæological finds however show lots of iron tools right through, often in burials. Also we find lots of smelting debris, furnaces everywhere and renders in metal v. common (Un village au temps de Charlemagne… [Leroux]; Lesne).”

Here an inset box analyses the renders in iron in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés polyptych, partly coming in in finished items, and notes that this is paralleled elsewhere, as indeed I have been seeing at Santa Giulia di Brescia. Then we return to the thread.

“In Germany, and maybe not just there, this spreads a lot in Carolingian period, metalwork part of everyday production; remember, their swords are famous… (McCormick, Origins; J. Decaens in Archéologie Médiévale 1 (1971)).”

“Technologies, entrepreneurs et artisans”

“It’s not a Revolution; slow changes C5th–C12th with local adaptations. Many parts of this system around before 1000, heavy ploughs, water mills, three-course rotation, diversification of crops; it’s the combination that makes for the big changes though (G. Comet in Études rurales 145-146 (1997)).”5

That last point sounds excellent news to me who have been arguing something similar about the feudal transformation for many years, that it was the outcome of many things already happening happening at the same time, in different places at different times,6 but in general it is clear I have a lot of reading to do now, which is good: an idea of where to read this stuff was exactly what I lacked. The best of these may be the last, the Comet article, because investigation reveals that it was but one article in an issue entitled Georges Duby, which was a collective reassessment of Duby’s work on medieval agriculture in which the man himself took part and which I must therefore read before sending off the attack on that I currently have in draft… Oh well, better to find it before than after! And for the reference I owe thanks to M. le Prof. Devroey.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. 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 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 472-478.

3. E. g. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval (Paris 1962), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 17-22 of the translation.

4. L. H. White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

5. These are my notes based on Devroey, Économie rurale I, pp. 124-130, and may not represent an accurate summary of that text. The references they include are to these works, none of which I’ve yet read: Pascal Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au Moyen Âge (Paris 2002); Joëlle Le Roux, “La métallurgie : les bas fourneaux et la forge : l’outillage en fer” in Jean Culsenier & Rémy Gaudagnin (edd.), Un village au temps de Charlemagne : moines et paysans de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis du 7e siècle à l’an mil. Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 29 novembre 1988 – 30 Avril 1989 (Paris 1988), pp. 291-300; Emile Lesne, “L’économie domestique d’un monastère au IXe siècle, d’après les statuts d’Adalhard, abbé de Corbie” in Mélanges d’histoire offerts à Ferdinand Lot (Paris 1925), pp. 385-420; Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002); Joseph Decaëns, “Un nouveau cimetière du haut Moyen Âge en Normandie, Hérouvillette (Calvados)” in Archéologie Médiévale Vol. 1 (Paris 1971), pp. 1-125; & Georges Comet, “L’équipement technique des campagnes” in Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), pp. 103-112.

6. I haven’t really done this in print, rather than in a classroom, but the germ of the idea is in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 171-173.

On the economics of tenth-century mills

Every now and then I write a post for this blog that is probably really a paper. Occasionally this is deliberate, because I’m having trouble working something out and I try and explain it to an imagined audience. All of those posts are still in the queue, which is now so long that the paper may be finished before they are… but this one, like one or two others, I started writing merely to get something off my chest that I hoped might be interesting and then by the end it’s nearly three thousand words and has enough footnotes for a centipede. Were it not that a lot of these posts start as me trying to show someone wrong about something, it’d be a great way to carry out scholarship. But maybe that doesn’t stop it being a viable paper, and it’s been some time since I wrote about my actual research area, so, hey: let’s ask a Marxist question about mills in early medieval Catalonia! That question is, of course: who controls the means of production? There is an accepted answer about this and I’m not sure it’s quite right. Interest piqued? The rest is behind the cut below. If not, here is that really cool mill location I wrote about before once more, why not look at that instead?

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Building set into a riverine waterfall at Marfà, Castellcir

Continue reading

Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

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

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

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

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

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Bonnassie story in full, or, psst! wanna buy a tower?

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

I said I would tell you Pierre Bonnassie’s story that I used, with caution, in the Oxford seminar paper just gone, and so I will. It’s about a man called Hisnabert and a tower scam. No, not a pyramid scam: read on. Here’s how Bonnassie put it, in my own rough translation.1 He was writing of the wild lands beyond the organised frontier, and said:

This extreme march was really a terra incognita, except to a few specialists. How can one not, in dealing with this, cite the enormous mistake committed in 1012 by the monks of Sant Cugat concerning their territory of Calders? At that date, a certain Hisnabert, pretending to be descended from a very noble line, presented himself to them and claimed that he had, with great effort and at great expense, installed his household, his peasants and livestock there, cleared the territory there and built a tower fifteen cubits in height. The monks, taking him at his word, saw in him ‘an envoy of God and of Saint Cucuphat’ and conceded the domain to him under very advantageous conditions. It would only be five years later, in 1017, that they discovered the imposture (nothing had been done and Calders was in the same state ‘of desert and of solitude’ as in the past!) and they delayed no longer in getting the donation anulled by the judges of the count, Ramon Borrell.

Zing! How could this come about, you may ask, and there the answer is a bit more complex. Sant Cugat is one of the older monasteries in Catalonia: it later claimed to have been founded by Charlemagne (of course) but at the very least it was operational by the 850s, and in 878 it obtained a precept from King Louis II, the Stammerer as he is known to us, confirming all its properties.2 This was, shall we say, aimed at the future, in as much as it included a huge swathe of frontier land at that point well beyond any organised control.3 But, by the approach of the year 1000 that had changed; continuous creeping frontier clearance had advanced the line of organised settlement well into these “extreme furthest ultimate marches” and Sant Cugat was now facing the possibility of being able to claim its rights in these lands, for which reason in 982 it had had them freshly royally confirmed so as to deal with any possibility of people claiming reversion under the Visigothic thirty-year rule and so on.4 The territory was still far from them and difficult to control, of course, so this was why someone like Hisnabert would have seemed so heaven-sent to them; a powerful man who could perhaps reduce some of it to order and get them something out of it. (And if he couldn’t, of course, well, nothing much lost, something that Bonnassie’s version chooses not to consider.)

A tower in Calders, Barcelona

A tower in Calders (probably not the right one but not far off the right height)

But is this really what was happening? If so, it seems very odd that we get to hear about it. That the story was written down once in the grant to Hisnabert is probably explicable: this was an unusual situation and probably demurring voices were raised at the monastery, so the story functions here as a kind of insurance, saying why this odd thing made sense to do. But why do we have it? Once the old grant had been proved worthless, would you keep the original? and would you then, as Sant Cugat did, copy it up later into your cartulary? Okay, maybe their copying endeavour was that attention-less and their archiving that shoddy, but it’s a problem, enough of one to make the original text worth hunting down, and happily for us all, Josep Rius Serra’s edition of Sant Cugat’s cartulary is online. So, what does that say? Well, this is a long document, by the should-be-legendary super-scribe, Bonhom.5 It begins with an account of the capture of Barcelona by Louis the Pious that brought these lands into royal control, the fact that they then remained unused,

because of the incursion and persistent siege by a multitude of the depraved and most savage Ishmaelite race with their troops which raised battles and raids without intermission against the fortifications and castles of the Christians which were founded in the marches of the aforesaid Barcelona

all of which made it a bit unsafe, if you see what he means, and so for more than thirty years, do you see what he did there (and Bonhom is a judge, his own copy of the Visigothic law survives, we know he knew what that implied) it was left for pasturing beasts and nothing more.6 He then sets out the bounds of the property, and there’s quite a lot. But, he adds, after many years of this ceaseless plunder and demolition by the Muslims, Ramon Borrell and his brother Count Ermengol (the First of Urgell) raided through to Córdoba itself, guided by the Hand of God, and:

they put all the Saracens and Berbers to flight, with the help of God, and the king of the Muslims [Mucelemiticum], who had fled to them, they placed in the royal seat at Córdoba. Then God gave tranquillity unto the Christians, and they went out and walked everywhere around the aforesaid Marches [presumably thereby setting boundaries...] and they built many fortifications and castles which had once been destroyed by the aforesaid power of the pagans.

And, you see, this is why I don’t mind so much that there are no chronicles from this area so early, because that’s most of one for 1010 right there. There’s even truth behind the Biblical triumphalism: it seems that a number of frontier fortresses were demolished as part of the peace terms between Borrell II (because he had to come into this somewhere) and his brother Miró III and the Caliph al-Hakam II after he came to power in 961, so these places would have been vacant for most people’s memory by this time.7 And this is the context into which Hisnabert arrives, after a full page of the printed edition gone on historical preamble. Bonhom goes on:

Meanwhile there came forth a certain noble man, Hisnabert, of the nobler sort of origin, who predestined by God and Saint Cucuphat had taken over much of the aforesaid place and sought it from us to live in, he having come there with all his household… [and the rest as in Bonnassie]. For this place, heavy experience tells, was placed in great terror and trembling, so that anyone who should live there from day to day would not escape being himself often subject to danger on account of his or others’ possessions or money. On account of which it pleased us [Abbot Guitard of Sant Cugat, in whose voice the document is phrased] and all the congregation of monks subject to the aforesaid martyr, with the consent of the lord Count Ramon, his wife Countess Ermessenda acquiescing, Borrell Bishop of Osona assenting, Pere Bishop of Girona and Ermengol Bishop of Urgell agreeing, we unanimously with good heart and prompt will give and concede the aforesaid town and its church of Santa Oliva with the money or offerings of first fruits or other gifts of the faithful, and of these tithes we dedicate two whole parts [presumably of three]… to you the aforesaid Hisnabert.

There then follows a long precision of the terms under which he holds, which are basically that his family may inherit it but that neither he nor they may bestow this property or its proceeds anywhere other than Sant Cugat, that Sant Cugat will still be able to pasture their animals there and they retain rights of access and can remove him if necessary. And the abbot and fifteen monks sign along with six untitled laymen and the count and countess. So okay, let me just pull out some things there:

  1. If Hisnabert is actually a fraudster, it’s not just the monks and abbot he’s fooling here; he’s also fooled the count and countess and every bishop in Catalonia, some of whom know this area as only frontier landgrabbers could (that’s Saint Ermengol to you);8
  2. the specification of the property’s bounds calls it Santa Oliva, “as it was called in antiquity”; I don’t quite know if they’re anticipating him restoring the church, they don’t say so explicitly, but they do appear to anticipate it rendering tithe (or rather money: denaria not decima), which in turn implies a reasonable population base and it’s hard not to imagine the church is already up and running;
  3. it seems to be implied that Sant Cugat’s contact with this area has been, and will remain, running herds of animals through it; at that rate, they ought to be passing through the area probably twice a year if not more, and should also have known there was no tower if tower there wasn’t, not just far quicker than five years later but even before this was being granted, which is also implied by the gravis experientia of its vulnerability that they report; it all reads as if this was familiar territory to them, even if still wild.

All of which then makes me want to look at the five-years-later charter, also available online.9 And, lo, it is a bit complicated, but basically what happens here is that a woman called Adelaide comes to court at Barcelona, on behalf of her infant son by her late husband Guillem del Castell Sant Martí, whose father Galí had cleared some frontier territory at Calders, and she says Sant Cugat are moving in on her land and what’s the count going to do about it? So the abbot rocks up with his papal privilege and royal precepts and so forth and sets them all down, but the array of judges present, including Ponç Bonfill Marc, Son of Ervigi Marc the Wonder Judge, look them over and find there’s nothing in them covering this property. Red faces for Sant Cugat’s men! But it’s no better for Adelaide, who also can’t prove any right to the land. “On which account,” intones young Ponç, “it was judged in the same court to be better and more true that this land should be princely land just like the other spaces of waste land,” or to put it another way, the count gets to swipe it. It seems to be at this point that the abbot produced the grant to Hisnabert, or Isimbert as Ponç prefers to spell it, which is the first point at which it becomes clear we’re talking about the same property or properties, but the judges decided that since Sant Cugat had held no right to the land, they could not rightfully have granted it to Hisnabert. The count, however, so careless about his property, decided that probably Sant Cugat should have it after all, now, and granted it there anyway, aww, whereafter,

since it is necessary to build castles and fortifications in the waste marches and in solitary places against the attacks of the pagans, and since Isimbert himself did not develop this land, which instead remains a waste and solitude, the above-noted Guitard, abbot, and his monastic brothers were advised and ordered, on the instruction of Countess Ermessenda and by her son Count Berengar, and by the men written below, that they should seek out such a man as would build and develop this waste land in the service of God and Sant Cugat, just as they should require, and they give it to that man by this precarial charter of donation for management together.

By this stage I’ve already lost track of just whom Hisnabert even would have ripped off: Galí and son, the monks, the count? But what is clear is that no-one is here saying he wasn’t a nobleman or had lied or whatever, or that there was no tower. That would have been at Santa Oliva, presumably; the land here is at Calders, and the problem seems to be that he hadn’t developed that, in other words, that his tenure had resulted in insufficient value added. The count, or rather the countess—this case, despite its date of 1017, seems to have dragged on past Roman Borrell’s death in 1018, take note—weren’t happy with that, but the implication seems pretty strong that if the monastery had not been told to do otherwise, they’d have given the lands straight back into Hisnabert’s hands. Instead, the document as we have it has the whole hearing copied out merely as a precursor to the new grant to one Bonet Bernat. And then, right at the end, in a fit of afterthought worthy of his learned father, Ponç adds, along with his own signature and that of the other judges, this codocil:

we the judges who edited this, and by the ordination of our competence gave a term to the waste land at Torre, the tower that Isimbert made in the lands of Sant Cugat by the ordination of the above-noted donation that Abbot Guitard made to that Isimbert, and we reserved all the lands brought under cultivation, and all the buildings and workings that are in the circuit of the already-said tower to that term. The rest however, we ordain just as is written here. Signed Ponç, also known as Bonfill, cleric and judge, who have written these things….

And that, I think, changes everything. Because look, a tower! It was there all along! And cleared lands and buildings and stuff! Hisnabert had done his stuff! Instead, what seems to have happened is that Adelaide’s suit, far from the only one that Sant Cugat’s efforts to make its privileges and precepts count in these lands kicked off, had started an enquiry no-one wanted, not even her at the end, leading to Ramon Borrell being able to assert fiscal control of the area and thus retaining the ability to direct it, via Sant Cugat. That this is so, even though the terms on which it was given back to the monastery grant them full right, is clear from Ermessenda’s later order to change its manager; Bonet Bernat was presumably one of her people she wanted in instead. Or, indeed, maybe Hisnabert just hadn’t done enough. But either way, Sant Cugat weren’t, to their credit, about to turf him and his familia out on their collective ear; his tower was quietly secured as its own term by the judges, quite possibly once the countess (not a woman it was wise to cross) had left, and left “the rest… just as is written here”. So for once, a happy ending, except for Adelaide and her little son Bernat (wait, Bernat? but no, there are probably a dozen Bernats here, it probably isn’t the son being put in charge alas) at least.

Charter of Sant Cugat del Vallès

A charter of Sant Cugat (not the right one, but probably about the right height...)

Those of you who were at the paper will maybe notice that this isn’t quite how I told the story there: instead, I suggested that the monastery had dispossessed Hisnabert for some reason, and had kept the charter to be able to prove their own title to it and the terms under which they could do that, whereas actually it seems that they probably kept it because they still had him there on the land. I would have to confess that I seem to have relied too heavily on notes and didn’t myself then notice the codocil in the second document, which does rather alter the picture. Still, I take some small solace in the fact that apparently Bonnassie didn’t either and he had it in print for thirty-five years before anyone spotted a problem…


1. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975, 1976), I p. 127.

2. R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolíngis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica II & III (Barcelona 1926-1952), Sant Cugat del Vallès I.

3. Not that this area was completely anarchic! I have got so fed up of waiting for my paper on this to come out that it is very tempting just to stick the proof PDF on the web somewhere, but for now, I still hope that you will one day be able to see: 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 forthcoming), pp. 83-109, now heading for its fourth third anniversary in process.

4. On the thirty-year rule you can at least see my work, in this case, Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342 at pp. 325-327.

5. The document is edited as J. Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés (Barcelona 1946), doc. no. 449.

6. On Bonhom, meanwhile, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92, where his copy of the Forum Iudicum is briefly described and where references to it are given.

7. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona. False metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming), pp. 1-42 at pp. 14-15 with references to the Catalan scholarship.

8. On whom see Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16.

9. Rius, Cartulario II, doc. no. 464. This one’s brilliant.

In praise of the Liber sanctae fidis

I am of course primarily a charter geek, but it’s hard to form much attachment to individual charters. If I had to I’d pick the one that Adam Kosto opens his 2005 Speculum article with, because not only is it nuts, the fact that it still exists is nuts.1 But more on that another time, maybe. The point is that they’re small, so you can’t form much of an attachment to the author or the characters unless they also appear in other charters, so you don’t then get to have a favourite source so much as a favourite scribe.2 What then is my favourite source? Well, teaching reminded me of a very likely contender, so I’ll tell you about it.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

In 1013 a chap called Bernard of Angers made a pilgrimage to a place in the Languedoc called Conques, which he’d been hearing a lot about at Chartres, in whose famous school he was studying. He was determined to find out the truth of these stories, which marks him out as that most unusual of things, a medieval sceptic. And, when he arrived in the Languedoc, and first met its peculiar love of reliquary statues that were carried around like trophies on special occasions, his reactions were everything John Calvin could have wanted:

I also thought this practice seemed perverse and most contrary to Christian law when for the first time I examined the statute of Saint Gerald [presumably of Aurillac] placed above the altar, gloriously fashioned out of the purest gold and the most precious stones…. And soon, smiling at my companion, Bernier—to my shame—I burst forth in Latin with this opinion:
“Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?”
Bernier had already been guided in forming his judgement, so he mocked the statue ingeniously enough, and beneath his praise lay disparagement. And not at all undeservedly, for where the cult of the only high and true God must be practised correctly it seems an impious crime and an absurdity that a plaster or wooden and bronze statue is made, unless it is the crucifix of our Lord…. This incorrect practice has such influence in the places I mentioned earlier [Auvergne, Rouergue and the Toulousain] that, if I had said anything openly then against Saint Gerald’s image, I would probably have been punished as if I had committed a great crime.3

Despite this sceptical attitude, Bernard soon came to make at least one exception to his principles on this account, and he was persuaded to by a twelve-year-old girl with a childish love of jewellery. The specially odd thing about that is that she had been dead for about 600 years and her remains were in one of those statues, she being of course Saint Faith, Sainte Foi or her name in whatever other language you may wish to name her in. And this is the statue.

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Bernard had reason to be dubious, because the saint hadn’t been resident at Conques that long: she was martyred at Agen at the beginning of the fourth century, and her relics had rested there quite peacefully until the monks of Conques, which was a daughter house of a monastery at Figeac and seems to have lacked a saint of its own, stole them in 866. This action more or less had to be, could only be, justified by miracles indicating that the saint was happily channelling God’s will in her new home, but the profusion of these seems to have been enough to set Bernard’s mind a-twitch. After a few months at Conques, however, he was not only convinced, he decided to write them all up, something in which the monks appear to have been happy to entertain him, and the saint also since she carried out a miracle while he was there which he rushed to see (though it is sketchy as all get-out, I tell you, as he never saw the supposedly-blind girl before she was supposedly healed and didn’t know how bad her sight was before).4 Some time later, he came back and wrote up some more, and then there were two separate additions of further miracles by some of the monks, presumably after Bernard was no longer available. Sainte-Foi de Conques was a big pilgrimage church on the route to Santiago de Compostela so the throughput of potential curables was quite high. Like many of the churches on those routes, quite a lot of investment had been put into Conques to make it worth diverting to see, and it still is.

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

So why is this a great source, what makes it any better than the average collection of miracles? Well, a bunch of things, starting with the author.5 Bernard is exactly the guide we need into these cults, because he himself starts from a direction we recognise, that of not believing it (though he was plainly a devout and indeed reformist Christian). By the end he has not only drunk the Communion wine, but is actually the saint’s propagandist; all the same, he retains the outsider’s view of what’s strange and funny that we usually have to assume we’ve lost because the insider doesn’t see it like that. Of course, he travels with his own set of dogmatic and social assumptions, but they are ones that we have a reasonable handle on because of Chartres’s educational system producing quite a number of characterful writers. This means that we get a fascinating and useful account of an area where things were not necessarily like elsewhere in France, full of new castellans, prominent noblewomen and lively saints’ cults. It’s probably no wonder that I first met this source in the writings of Pierre Bonnassie.6

Secondly, it’s funny. Saint Faith seems to have had something of a local reputation for liking a laugh, indeed. In a bizarre picture of what was probably a Peace council to which the reliquary statues of various saints had been brought, Bernard makes it seem like a many-way football match in which his team is first to score when he writes as follows:

The most reverend Arnald, Bishop of Rodez, had convened a synod that was limited to the parishes of his diocese. To this synod the bodies of the saints were conveyed in reliquary boxes or in golden images by various communities of monks or canons. The ranks of saints were arranged in tents and pavilions in the meadow of Saint Felix, which is about a mile from Rodez….

A boy, blind and lame, deaf and mute from birth, had been carried there by his parents and placed close beneath the image [of Saint Faith], which been given an elevated and honourable position. After he had been left about an hour, he merited divine medicine. When he had received the grace of a complete cure, the boy stood up speaking, hearing, seeing, and even walking around happily, for he was no longer lame. And when the common people responded to such an amazing event with uproarious joy, the important people at the council, who were seated together a little farther off, began to ask each other: “Why are those people shouting?”

Countess Bertha replied, “Why else should it be, unless Saint Faith is playing her jokes as usual?”

Then all of them were flooded with both wonder and joy because of the exquisite miracle. They called together the whole assembly to praise God, recalling frequently and with very great pleasures what the respectable lady had said—that Saint Faith was joking.7

Part of the fun here is lost to us, in that Bertha is quoted using a peasant word, joca, for the saint’s jokes, and this seems to have been some of the cause of delight, but of course the main part of the story here, beyond the cure itself, is that Faith’s fame is so widespread and her actions so frequent that when there is a popular clammer, the nobility’s natural assumption, even miles from Conques, is that Faith’s acting up. And she does seem to, and not always completely benevolently. Her main line in miracles as told by Bernard is cures of the sick, yes, but she also quite likes trinkets and jewellery. And if you had one she wanted, she would get it:

A young man called William, a native of Auvergne, was worried about a distressing situation and filled with unbearable anxiety, so he vowed to Saint Faith his best ring, which was set with a brilliant green jasper. Things turned out for him better than he had hoped in the matter, so William went to Conques because he was concerned to fulfil the vow he owed. But when he had approached the sacred majesty, William brought out and presented three gold coins, for he calculated that he should be able to redeem the promised gift with one that was larger even though it was different. When he was already about six miles from Conques on his return journey, William suddenly felt drowsy, so he stretched out on the ground and fell asleep for a little while. He soon awakened, but he didn’t see his ring, which until then he had worn on his finger. Then he searched his companions thoroughly and very closely but he didn’t find it anywhere, and he looked in his own clothing, and found nothing. He even proceeded to untie his belt once more, thinking that chance it might have slipped through an inner fold of his clothing, but there was nothing. What, then, should he do? Downcast and filled with confusion he turned his mount back toward Conques. He returned very quickly to the saint and prostrated himself at the foot of her image. There, in a tearful voice, he complained bitterly about the loss of his ring in this way:

“Oh Saint Faith, why have you taken my ring from me? Give it back to me, I implore you, and be satisfied with receiving the ring as a gift. I will give it to you and won’t think it lost, but rather safe. I have sinned, I confess, I have sinned before God and before you, but, Lady, do not look to my transgression but to the customary compassion of your kindness. Do not cast me, a sinner, into sadness, but forgive and make a gift return with joy.”

While William was constantly repeating these and other similar pleas, he looked to the side. Marvellous to report! but believable to the faithful, he saw his ring lying on the pavement. Immediately he snatched it up and returned it to the holy virgin, rejoicing greatly, and those who were standing there marvelled at the sight, for they saw Saint Faith’s power even in trivial matters.8

You’ll notice that she presumably also kept the money… And the reason her statue is quite so over the top is that when a gift like this was made, of jewellery, it was added to the reliquary, which is why the truly sharp-eyed will see that the left leg of her chair is adorned with, among other things, a nineteenth-century cameo. But this is the sort of personality that comes through, a kind of mostly-benevolent magpie poltergeist with a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of property combined with a compassionate care for the sick. And at this point, if you’re teaching this, you can remind the students that she was after all only a little girl, twelve says the literature, which fits with that relatively nicely, and you can probably get them to talk a little bit about how the saint’s character comes through in the stories. And then at some point you can pass some remark calculated to make them realise that, modern cynics though they may be, somewhere along here, about when they started taking seriously the character of a four-hundred-years-dead child as shown in the supposed supernatural events reported by her supposedly credulous and self-interested publicity merchants, they took the blue pill and briefly joined the saint’s cult, in as much as they believe in her enough to impute characteristics to her. Then, of course, they will likely shake themselves mentally and dismiss it all as fabrication and rationalise it, but for a little while they were travelling with Bernard, in his mindset of an initially-sceptical but finally-enthralled enquirer from outside, and that’s a teaching moment worth many lesser ones. I don’t know how many other sources there might be that can do this, but I am very fond of this one.


1. Referring to 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 Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-96), doc. no. 549 of 990, in which one Ramio guarantees one Juli that he, Ramio, will not prosecute him, Juli, for all the bread and wine he stole from Ramio when they lived together. How this comes to be of any relevance at all to a cathedral archive is beyond my imagining, and Adam’s too, though it might, as I’ve had suggested to me, have had relevance for John Boswell.

2. My favourite scribe would undoubtedly be the judge Bonhom of Barcelona, who was not only legible, but learned, verbose, conscientious and inclined to over-share, so that he, for example, apologises in one signature for the document being a bit wonky because he was sleepy when he wrote it, or explains in another case that he wrote it on two occasions in two different inks. This is really useful to me, even though he was presumably only trying to prevent people suspecting his charters were fake. That, of course, tells us that people were checking such things… For more on Bonhom, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92.

3. The Latin text of one of the versions of the text—it seems to have circulated as booklets, which weren’t always assembled in the same order, which is just one more reason why it’s such a rich source—was printed in Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897), but I’m here using the translation of Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994), which adds various other materials and is much more than just a convenient Englishing. There this extract is cap. I.13. I’ve taken the liberty of converting her spellings to UK English, just because I find it hard not to auto-correct that, and also of leaving Saint Faith’s name in normalised English because otherwise it’s the only one that isn’t.

4. Ibid. I.9.

5. Well, here, starting in fact with the fact that apparently the people at large in Aurillac didn’t understand spoken Latin by 1013. Take that, Patrick Geary! But of course we wouldn’t know that without Bernard having been happy to write about himself and his doubts in this way.

6. P. Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148.

7. Sheingorn, Book of Sainte Foy, cap. I. 28.

8. Ibid., I.21.

Feudal Transformations XIII: storing more and working less

Somehow I am staying ahead this semester. Having known for more than a week that I’d be teaching this time, I had lectures prepared a full fortnight ahead at the time of writing, lectures that are simpler and hopefully more effective than last semester’s, and therefore quicker to build; and consequently I am also finding time to do some actual work (as well as, as you will have noticed, blog a load of stuff).1 Specifically, I have started the background work for my Kalamazoo paper, for which I foolishly promised something that would actually require research, and by now I have an idea what shape it will be and what two of its jokes are, which is, surely, half the battle. I may not have read any of the substantive information I need to do it properly, but I know that if I absolutely had to I could already pull something together and this is very encouraging. (Incidentally, could someone who has my e-mail address and a digital copy of the Kalamazoo programme mail it me? I’ve tried from work and from home and I can’t download it, the operation hangs or fails with an error. Thanks in advance.)

Professeur Pierre Bonnassie (d. 2003) at the Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, 1993

It has also led me to be reading Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, which I mentioned a while ago, and consequently to be thinking (even more) about peasants and the good ol’ feudal transformation. If you’ve met Bonnassie’s work at all you’ve probably met it where he argued that between the end of large-scale agricultural slavery in late Antiquity and the development of serfdom in the years just after 1000 (for him) there was a sort of sweet spot, briefly enjoyed, where the majority of peasants were basically free, even if under public lordship.2 Obviously this only really works in South-Western Europe (‘du Rhône à Galice’) and buckets of cold doubt have been cast on it even there, but as with many of Bonnassie’s theories it still looks basically defensible in Catalonia, where the open frontier gives peasants somewhere to run to and lords, therefore, a reason to be nicer than they might otherwise be so that the peasants don’t run there.3 The debate there swirls around the effects of this. Does the peasant freedom to seek their own fortune in new lands on the frontier account for economic dynamism, increased land clearance and all that unfolds therefrom? Or is that instead driven by the pressures of lordship on the peasants once newly subjected? Chris Wickham finds an ingenious halfway house, arguing that to see peasants as venture capitalists starting small businesses is woefully anachronistic, that left to themselves peasants would not work to raise their lands’ output (“peasants had two alternatives, to eat more or to work less, and I suspect that they did both”) and that although the pressure to improve therefore comes from the renewal of oppressive lordship the peasantry still deserve credit as the innovators who had to work out how to come up with, quite literally, the goods.4

Excavation of the Molí d'en Valeri o de la Sal, Malgrat, Maresme, Catalonia

Excavation of the Molí d'en Valeri o de la Sal, Malgrat, Maresme, Catalonia

The other debate that springs from this is on the rôle of technique and technology. Bonnassie argued, on the basis largely of Lynn White’s book, that in the run up to 1000 peasant equipment was getting better: the heavy plough had finally made it to the area, iron tools were more and more common and watermills were newly prevalent.5 Subsequent work, however, has suggested that the heavy plough is basically irrelevant to the average Catalan homestead, where there wasn’t really room to turn it round and the soil is light anyway; that there’s no reason why iron tools should have been more available, since the techniques of smelting don’t change for a few centuries more, so this must actually be effect not cause, the cause being richer peasants; and that watermills are common much earlier, but don’t then seem to have this effect.6 (Also, of course, when most of your documentation comes from a recently-reorganised and expanding frontier zone, almost all infrastructure takes a while to set up, so it’s the wrong place to look for the agricultural state of the art as it will be late; but it’s where most of the documents come from.) The counter-argument, therefore, is that rather than being propelled by innovation or better techniques, the agricultural growth here was a slow buildup of the occupation of newly-cleared land, which was worked in the same way as ever but slowly increased, therefore fed more people who would occupy more land and so on till, boom, exponential growth.7 And if that’s so, then in my opinion the change has to start with the climate, but you’ve read me on that score already.

Village of Laurac, largely fourteenth century as stands

Village of Laurac, largely fourteenth century as stands, fortified during the Albigensian Crusade

Two of Bonnassie’s contributors engaged with this question in the best way, that is, from the archæology, and produced almost opposite nuances of his approach. Firstly, Jean-Paul Cazes tells the readers about underground grain silos at what appears to be his pet area, the Lauragais in Southern France.8 The thing here is that these perfectly unremarkable dug-out spaces in the ground, which stand out really well as crop-marks, only show up there associated with Roman-period settlement or sites of the ninth century or later. Identifying sites in that gap is of course tricky, tricker than Cazes allows in the small space the contributors seem to have been allowed, but all the same the association is pretty striking, and he argues that it means that the agricultural growth here was local, that is, the peasants were newly able to keep their surplus locally rather than having to render it up to the royal vill or similar as we are told they would have done in the Carolingian era. That is, there may or may not be growth testified in this but there is certainly a relaxation of exploitative authority. It’s a fascinating way of demonstrating what the master who was being fêted had asserted from documents alone.

Medieval peasant at work with a hand plough, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National de France

Medieval peasant at work with a hand plough, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National de France

Then, in the immediately following article, Aline Durand tackles the question of how these peasants actually set about working the land.9 In an article that covers a huge amount of ground in a very short space, Durand inventories the tools that later Toulousain documents suggest a peasant was expected to turn up to do his labour service with, and that wills and so forth suggest that they owned, and argues that whereas big estates calling on large labour pools would have ox-teams and heavy ploughs the peasant working his own land would have used an ard or a hoe for most of the work and a hand-plough like the one above, probably not even with wheels, to till his small and light-soiled fields. Durand thinks these tools would have had iron blades, which is where Bonnassie saw the change; Durand’s sources are later so Bonnassie could still be right (and Durand was hardly going to choose this venue to say otherwise). I don’t know where we are with this now: if there is an Owlfish reading, they may be able to add perspective. However, Durand, not content with this short tour de force, observes that while the tools don’t seem to change as some paradigms would argue, field use does: she notes that seigneurial labour levies operate on three ploughings a year, one to break up the sod, one immediately preceding the sowing and another to bury the stubble. This third one, she says, was largely skipped by people working their own land, as far as we can tell; this is after all back-breakingly hard work, especially if you’re doing it as above rather than with an ox-team. However, she suggests that once the model and its superior productivity (because it refreshes the soil) was widely observable people would start to use it on their own lands.

This part of the argument is to say the least unproven, because of course her primary sources are documents of lordship so showing what’s going on on land that aren’t under lordship, at least that directly, is hard to do. Also, it conflicts with her own reason why this wasn’t happening earlier, viz. that peasants didn’t want to do the work. They would rather eat more and work less, as Chris has it. But a more subtle metric of competition might explain a new pressure to produce surplus for both groups, I suppose. Either way, these papers match each other quite well, Cazes showing that apparently peasants were keeping more of their crop than before and Durand showing that crops are being made larger than before by technique, and not just extra land being used. In this respect they fortify their master well, and show his own impressive ability to bring unexpected forms of evidence to bear in support of his initially charter-based claims.10 Whether the causation should run surplus, therefore increased extraction, therefore pressure to grow more, as Wickham would want it, or increased extraction therefore surplus, as I think Bonnassie would have, however, I’m less sure. I might, in the end, side with Gaspar Feliu and others like him and gloomily conclude that the option in which the peasants lose out is probably the more likely.11


1. Of course, all this progress comes at the cost of anything that might be mistaken for a life, but since that was also the case last semester when I was hanging onto my deadlines by the skin of my teeth, I’m still winning.

2. Classically in Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

3. So maintained, for example, in Paul H. Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

4. 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. Quote is near the end as I recall.

5. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 435-475, esp. 459-475, largely on the basis of Lynn T. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

6. For the plough arguments, not made explicitly for Catalonia but clearly applicable, see Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994); on iron-smelting I admit my understanding has been recently updated by the comments on this blog-post at Armarium Magnus, which contain references, at least the ones I was interested in did; and on earlier mills you might be best advised to see, if you only could, if I only could, etc., Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London forthcoming), Chapter probably-3 about Roda de Ter. Also some useful perspectives in C. Arbùcies & J. Oliver, “Vinyes que ja no hi són. Per una arqueològia agrària del domini feudal del treball pagès: les vinyes de Sorre, Montardit (el Pallars Sobirà) i Musser (la Cerdanya)” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 321-337.

7. For a range of views on this issue, and others, mainly focussing on whether or not Robert Fossier was wrong about it, try Georges Duby (coord.), “Table Ronde” in La Croissance Agricole du Haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990), pp. 181-203. Fossier argues that he wasn’t, as you’d expect. Contrast Bonnassie’s contribution to the volume, “La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge dans la Gaule du Midi et le nord-est de la péninsule ibérique : chronologie, modalités, limites”, ibid. pp. 13-35.

8. J.-P. Cazes, “Les silos et leur significance dans le haut moyen âge. L’exemple du Lauragais” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 45-50.

9. A. Durand, “La labour de céréaliculture en Languedoc méditerranéen (Xe-XIIe siècles) : quelques points de repères”, ibid. pp. 51-56.

10. For example, see his reply to Dominique Barthélemy in Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

11. Referring to Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, partly addressed by another of the Festschrift contributors, Pere Benito i Monclús, in his “El plet dels homes francs de Sarrià (1258). Crisi i pervivència de l’alou pagès a la Catalunya medieval” in Débax, Sociétés Méridionales, pp. 71-79.