Monthly Archives: June 2007

This historian is in the library

Observe! He is not at his desk:

A tidy desk is an unproductive desk

Neither is he reading in comfort:

I don’t know what he was listening to, sorry

Because he has about three days free to write a useful version of his Leeds paper in, one that has actual evidence behind it, and is therefore not blogging very much just now…

Feudal Transformations II

Comedy diagram of the supposed feudal system

An alternative to the Poly & Bournazel approach of smothering you with moralising anecdote, in order to steep you in the culture of the feudal world, is provided in my current reading by Josep María Salrach i Marès, who seems to be taking up most of my time with the printed word at the moment. In particular, in the Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Paisos Catalans volume that he edited, which I currently have on Inter-Library Loan (bless the U. L.), he has a really useful systematic breakdown of the ideas involved in the historiography of the feudal transformation. I thought it was worth setting out here.

He distinguishes the two social systems, ancient and feudal. The former has slave-based production, a state-driven economy with redistribution by the state to its officers, and public control of justice and military power. There are other factors but that’s what he picks on especially.

The feudal system, by contrast, has production dominated by notionally-free peasants, albeit largely dependant and tied to their lands; an economy that they essentially control, because the only higher control on is the demand of their lords for surplus—increase in the demand forces them to grow more so that they eat, otherwise they’d just, as Wickham puts it somewhere in Land and Power, eat more and work less—local potentates whose status derives entirely from their own wealth and influence, not the state’s issue of a title; and locally-administered, often arbitrary, control of justice and warfare.

Having posited these two systems, he asks what would enable a society to pass from the one state to the other, and of course the answer is, the state losing its grip. This is a lot more of an answer for Catalonia than elsewhere of course, where it is possible to argue that the local rulers were left by themselves by a receding Carolingian state.

It works less well in areas where the local lords took up arms against the kings, of course, thinking Robert of Neustria or similar, and it relies very heavily on how you view the ancient state—in a lot of ways it possibly doesn’t work at all, so schematised is it—but it’s so beautifully coherent compared to Poly and Bournazel’s ramble that I love it anyway.

Winner’s preservation

There is a particular problem with doing medieval history that is well-known to people generally: the Church are how we have almost all the written evidence. We all know this, especially those of us working on charters, and spend a lot of our time trying to work out what that means for our evidence and what we can do with it despite that, or whether we just have to work with its strengths. Yes?

Now that I’ve done so much work for the Lay Archives Project I know, better than many I suppose, that there are occasionally documents in Church archives that are apparently nothing to do with the Church, but in most, almost all cases (Cluny apparently being an exception, along with most of Catalonia but not, apparently, the Midi) these are explicable either as parts of dossiers relating to property that later came to the relevant Church, possibly via a smaller one, or (very rarely—we know of two cases, maybe three) secular administrative dossiers of properties later granted to the Church, which is not quite the same thing and far more exciting to historians of government. But, basically, the Church has it all, and when we get charters like the Anglo-Saxon Fonthill Letter that were at some point in their history marked “inutile” on the dorse, we know we’re lucky to have them at all, because usually what’s kept is only what’s apparently useful.1

Illuminated initial from a St Petersburg Anglo-Saxon manuscript

This means that by now I’m surprised when I come across arguments that the Church clearly ruled the law-courts, because all the records we have show them winning. Of course they do! Why would a loser in a court case keep the document that did him out of the lands? Why would he even be given it to keep? The winner wants that. We know what happened to inconvenient documents like this…2 So it bothers me to find arguments like that, even supported with others (law is a process involving writing and the Church are writing specialists, etc., another idea that won’t die—on the other hand I don’t think even Catalonia had a surviving lay notariate so where exactly I stand on this is unclear), in the work of someone whose stuff is otherwise rich and thought-provoking. At least partly because it involves the idea that I know more in one tiny field than they do, and it seems unlikely given how much they’ve done in it themselves.

Anyway. I can bring something positive out of the rant. We do actually get to see, in Catalonia, what it looks like when the Church loses. (The counts too, but that’s easier.3) In this area hearings can generate a lot of documents, but canonically there are three each, the record of the actual hearing in which the arguments are set out, the oath of whatever witnesses are called, and finally the evacuation or quitclaim of the defeated party, a loser’s document that goes to the winner (as do the rest). Quite often the scribes don’t adhere to this and we get these lumped together in one or two documents.4 Now one of these is our special guest.

Ruins of the castle of Pinyana, once property of Vicar Sendred de Gurb

In 1002, Bishop Sal·la of Urgell, in the north-west of Catalonia, brought to court a plea against the castellan Sendred, head of the powerful Gurb family, who had for some years held the castle of Queralt.5 Sal·la, a wily fellow, was claiming that the castle rightly belonged to the cathedral of Urgell and sought Sendred’s homage for it. Sendred produced a charter in which the castle had been granted to his father, and Sal·la, uncharacteristically at a loss, obtained an adjournment to a more southerly court where he brought two ecclesiastics of good repute to swear to the truth of his claims.6

This is all we have, the set-up and the oath. But the Gurb family still had the castle years later. Baraut edits this document as if the cathdral had won the case, and Benet (see n. 5 below) says that Sal·la clearly couldn’t make his victory stick against so powerful a character, but to me it seems more likely that it didn’t stick because he lost. Sendred had a charter, Sal·la didn’t and there is thus no evacuation or quitclaim, even though that would be more use to keep than this, and I bet that’s because there wasn’t one. What we have is the oath by which Urgell’s case for the prosecution was put, and someone presumably thought that might be useful to produce again. Or maybe they just filed it disheartenedly when they returned home, who knows. Urgell’s archive seems to have been filed by neglect more than anything sometimes, I could tell you stories. Maybe another time, if you’re good :-)

But yes: that’s what it looks like when the Church loses, I reckon. It looks almost as if they won, or it doesn’t get seen.

1. S. Keynes, “The Fonthill Letter”, in M. Korhammer (ed.), Words, Texts and Manuscripts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture presented to Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge 1992), pp. 53-97.

2. I’m thinking of the Lombard case where it was shown that the defendant had burnt a charter he was claiming never to have seen, and so the judge then asked him what it had said, and he replied something like, “if it had been advantageous to us, I would hardly have burnt it!” Discussion in C. Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900” in W. Davies & P. Fouracre, (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 105-124; rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 229-256.

3. F. Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 177.

4. R. Collins, “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Davies & Fouracre, The Settlement of Disputes, pp. 85-104. More generally see J. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004).

5. On Sendred and his family see either A. Benet i Clarà, “Sendred de Gurb” in Ausa: patronato de estudios ausonencs Vol. 8 (1977), pp. 238-254, or idem, La Família Gurb-Queralt (956-1276). Senyors de Sallent, Olò, Avinyó, Manlleu, Voltregà, Queralt i Santa Coloma de Queralt (Sallent 1993).

6. C. Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 287.

Scholar eat scholar

A spread from Fillipo Vadi’s Book on the Art of Fighting with Swords, c. 1482-1487

I know a reasonable number of the UK early medievalists at my rough level—Leeds is good for that. And I get on well with a number of them, might call them my friends and so forth. But inevitably we wind up applying for a lot of the same jobs, and we have to accept that if we wish to carry on dealing with each other.

It’s not usually quite as cruel as just recently, however. A job for which I was never in the running saw one of my closer contacts interviewed, and they came second. Unfortunately they came second to another contact of mine, and at the moment we three, with some others, have an ongoing project which I hope will become a book at some point. Assuming that they can continue to get on or we can get round it…

But the person who came second place has no contract in a few months’ time; the person who came first was in a job already and had two more years left on the contract. Now they won’t be finishing the research project on the basis of which they were hired, and meanwhile the unlucky second has no job because the first reckoned they could do better than the one they had.

I suppose we all have stories like this, but I’m sure that’s not how it should be.

Better-quality pedantry

I think I have now given up on Anderson & Bellenger’s Medieval Worlds as any kind of textbook. It is not, as I said, that the selection of texts is bad, because it isn’t, it’s wide-ranging, intelligent and interesting. It’s not the citation, even, though problems with do irk me. (You noticed? Well fair enough.) It’s not even the fact that so much of its content is recycled from earlier source gatherings, because this is standard practice, though the fact that those references are all you get mean that in many ways you’d be better off with one of those textbooks, because they’d tell you where the source actually comes from. (I mention some of the books I mean below.)

Cover of Anderson & Bellenger, Medieval Worlds

The problem, the problem that means you shouldn’t let your students have this, is the utter lack of context for the texts. I just got through the chapter about the Papacy. And fair enough, we do want the Bull of Innocent III accepting King John of England’s submission to the Papacy in there I think, it’s not even obviously on the web. I might prefer that it was actually captioned as that, rather than as John’s letter of submission, which instead it merely contains, but I’ll live. However, it is necessary to tell the reader that John and England were under a papal interdict at the time, or else it looks like spontaneous Romanist piety and little could be further from the truth.

Likewise, it is useful that the chapter opens with The Donation of Constantine, because you can’t really cover the topic without it. It is odd to place it there, though, as Anderson & Bellenger’s sorting is roughly chronological, and so it would only belong there if its purported date were accurate. Also, in an ideal world, the excerpt would include the portion of the text that allotted to the popes the secular dominion over the lands of Rome, because it supports so many later claims that the editors do indeed discuss, and there is as linked above a public-domain version at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

But mainly, it would help if the reader was told the document was a forgery! They do at least caption it “c. 750″ but, given its odd position in the chapter that’s only going to alert the sharpest students. Unless you have a whole class of these, you want to use something else, you really do. For lack of a sentence or two about each actual source in this supposed source-book, the final result is interesting but also wildly misleading.

But this leads me onto another question. You can’t teach with this book, mainly because it will make more work for you in explaining the sources than not giving them at all. Also, of course, it being so new, you couldn’t really photocopy chunks because lots of it is still in copyright—not that several of the places I’ve seen teaching really worried about that, and it is sometimes hard to see copyright law as anything other than ridiculous these days—but assuming that you do care, you have a problem. The publishers would like you, of course, to get your students to buy a copy each, but you won’t do this because of the problems I’ve outlined (I hope). So what do you do?

Assuming that you find the Internet Medieval Sourcebook a bit thin in places, which I think would be fair enough, the obvious texts of this kind are things like:

  • Oliver J. Thatcher & Edgar H. McNeal (edd./transl.), A Source Book for Medieval History: Selected Documents Illustrating the History of Europe in the Middle Age (New York 1905; repr. 1971)
  • Ernest F. Henderson (ed./transl.), Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London 1892, repr. 1896 and several times since)
  • David F. Herlihy (ed.), Medieval Culture and Society (London 1968)
  • Patrick Geary (ed./transl.), Readings in Medieval History (Peterborough 1989, 2nd edn. 1997)
  • Alfred. J. Andrea (ed.), The Medieval Record: sources of medieval history (Chicago 1997)

These all have their problems. The first two are now pretty definitively public-domain, and have thus been plundered by several of the others and the IMSB, and the translations are usually OK but rather stuffy and of course written with Victorian mores shot through them. And because they’re so old, you can’t possibly equip a class with them so it means a lot of photocopying. Herlihy isn’t yet public-domain in at least the USA, and in any case it comes with its own particular spin, not one I disagree with per se but it’s there. It’s recently been reprinted so could probably be bought in bulk, but you might still not want to, and some of its translations go back to the older two anyway. (It’s all very medieval…)

I’ve seen Geary and it’s good but its publishers, as the IMSB found to their discomfort, are jealous of copyright. I haven’t used Andrea but I only know of it because Anderson & Bellenger do; they also use Henderson and Thatcher & McNeal. I suppose these are your options. But as yet, I’ve never seen a course teacher dare to rely on his or her students all buying the source-book anyway, so it comes down to photocopying in the end. And how would we teach if the copyrights were all enforced, then?

I also wanted to mention, because I’ve used them and found them good, but too specialised for this general edit:

  • Paul E. Dutton (ed./transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader (Peterborough ON 1997)
  • Brian E. Tierney (ed./transl.), The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300: with selected documents (Englewood Cliffs 1964, repr. Cambridge MA 1989)
  • Edward Peters (ed.), The First Crusade: the Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and other source materials, Middle Ages Series (Pennsylvania 1971, repr. 1998), especially the reprint which adds some useful extra Byzantine material

These people are or were trying to help, and it’s a pity that the law makes it so difficult for us to take advantage of it.