Monthly Archives: August 2007

Information for websearchers

I guess from the search strings that are leading people here that someone out there has just set their students Rosamond McKitterick’s The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe as part of this week’s reading. I can’t really help you with that except to say, do wherever you’re studying read the Susan Kelly paper, as it’s one of the very few pieces of work out there in English that pauses to think about how individual charters come to be written at all.1

However, I can help the person that was looking for a biography of Mir Geribert, the self-acclaimed princeps Olerdulae. There is one, though it’s in Catalan and I’ve never seen it, by Ramon Planes, called Mir Geribert, Príncep d’Olèrdola. And that you probably found out for yourself, but maybe you can’t easily get hold of it.2 So I recommend that you instead try and find Pierre Bonnassie’s magnum opus, La Catalogne, and soak up the account of the baronial revolt in vol. 2.3 Yes, it is in French, but I’m afraid in this particular corner of Europe there really aren’t any English options. There comes a point where you have to try reading something else.

1. S. Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in R. McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge: CUP 1990), pp. 36-62.
2. R. Planes, Mir Geribert, Príncep d’Olèrdola (Barcelona: Dalmau 1970). It’s only 54 pages.
3. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du Milieu du Xe à la Fin du XIe Siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, II pp. 625-646 & 674-680.

Review: Ralph Turner’s Magna Carta

On Monday morning last I found myself putting off getting ready for work by drinking a huge mug of tea, listening to Pink Floyd’s `Interstellar Overdrive’ and reading a translation of Magna Carta. What, apart from the fact that it may well be that I could take things more seriously sometimes,1 does this mean for you? Well, it means that I’ve finished zipping through Magna Carta: Through the Ages by Ralph V. Turner, which I got as a conference freebie, er, a couple of years ago now.2 (Yes, yes, I know, I don’t get invited to those sorts of conferences now either.) And since the first answer to my recent request for blog-reader feedback basically said, “I like Spain and reviews”, and also because I thought the book was an interesting example of a certain kind of history, I thought I’d spare it a few words.

Cover of Turner, Magna Carta

The student who wants an in-depth study of the reign of King John and the actual issue of Magna Carta will still need to look elsewhere. Turner covers this, in better than adequate detail and with attention to the big arguments about it, but it’s not where his interests really lie and the chapters of the book where he covers this are the least referenced and shortest. He has after all done it elsewhere as well. This time Turner isn’t really setting out to be a historian of the thirteenth century, and his subtitle implies as much. There are points where he appears to be being a historian of historians but really this is a work of legal history. So the meat really starts once he gets away from 1215 and into what it is that this ‘great charter’ has meant to people and for what it has been used. Although, I must say that the part of Chapter 3 where he makes it clear what clauses were kept in what version of the charter, and what was dropped as soon as it could be, is really useful and arguably better than the treatment in some of the more accepted works. If all you wanted to know was what Magna Carta said, in its various versions, this would be the best place to find out.

His study of Henry III and Edward I is quite tight, and I found it a nice reacquaintance with some kings I’d last studied when I was still at school. It leaves me with an impression that Turner may not himself be at the cutting edge in this period, but he gives the reader the context of the main arguments about the interpretation of each reign in a very clear way. Students will have no difficulty getting through this, I’d say. The run from Edward II through Henry V to the American Revolution and the Victorians are a bit sketchier. Turner seems to argue that they can be so because really, Magna Carta only becomes part of current arguments at a few points in these centuries, where he studies it closely. All the same one of the interesting aspects of the sources he uses is that when the common people are allowed a voice, the charter keeps coming up, and I’d have liked a bit more exploration of this popular idea that Magna Carta held ‘our liberties’, rather than just the outcomes of occasional lawyers or politicians trying to prove something with that argument.

The last two chapters are the most legalistic. One handles Great Britain, where Turner argues that due to subsequent legislation making it outdated, and due to Britain’s prolonged managing without a written Constitution and then adopting the European Convention on Human Rights (which became law in the UK in 1998, as US readers may not realise—indeed, as UK ones may not…), Magna Carta has become an irrelevant if famous piece of history, now mainly studied to show what King John was doing that got his barons so annoyed. The other handles the USA, and argues for a far greater involvement of US law with the Charter, and that Magna Carta is to a much greater degree fundamental to US law’s concepts of liberty and the rights of the individual, however anachronistic a view of its provisions that may in fact be. I don’t know how far I’m convinced by this now, given that he plots a more or less parallel erosion of the rights and liberties that each country has in its own way guaranteed, by a now-over-mighty executive which has succeeded in persuading its populace, not for the first time, to accept such restrictions. (He interestingly points out those champions of liberty, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill abrogating civil rights in similar ways, but then of course the countries were actually under arms and in danger of invasion.)

In this way Turner’s colours are revealed. Although he praises Maitland’s treatment of Magna Carta for its attempt at objectivity, quoting his dictum, “If history is to do its liberating work, it must be as true to fact as it can possibly make itself; and true to fact it will not be if it begins to think what lessons it can teach”, it is clear that Turner does not see his own rôle as a mere commentator. The final paragraphs of the book (save the translation of the 1215 Charter in an appendix, useful to refer to but more useful if it was mentioned that it was there anywhere in the body text), set the parting tone:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Magna Carta’s great message of limits on government’s pursuit of individuals is again unheeded by a power-hungry executive, just as in thirteenth-century and seventeenth-century England, and in the thirteen colonies in the late eighteenth century. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, fears of war, internal subversion and terrorist attack threaten to tip the balance of power within the country, enabling the executive power to place itself beyond the law’s reach. An American president, following unmindfully in the footsteps of King John and Charles I, takes advantage of the people’s fears in the face of the threats of terrorist attacks to invade their privacy and curtail their liberties, detaining persons indefinitely without specific charges and denying them their right of habeas corpus. Today, at least a few journalists and jurists still stand ready to challenge individuals’ subjection to arbitrary state power in the name of a war on terrorism, and the Great Charter still affords them a rallying point.

Indeed, and at least one historian stands with them it seems. Not that I have a problem with the ethics, but it does recast one’s understanding of the purpose of the book, and defies that very same dictum of Maitland that Turner quotes with seeming approval. I think that this is a good and useful book, but it being willingly bent to serve an ideology does make me think twice before saying so. I don’t know if others would react the same way, but in my guts it seems that history and politics would prefer not to touch each other, however strongly I feel about them both.

1. I mean, why not the original Latin? Why not Wish You Were Here? Why such frivolity Jarrett? You’ll never get a permanent post with this outlook you know, etc. etc.
2. Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta: through the ages (Harlow: Pearson 2003).

Solomonic bishops and processional communities

That’s a subject line I simply can’t surpass for pretension, but actually, having just mentioned Catalan parish boundary disputes, I thought I’d tell you a story. I mean, enough theory and whingeing, we all like stories, right? that’s what we’re doing this for. So, right then.

The church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, built in the 980s

Basically, there is a village called Baltarga which in 890 had a church that was owned by Archpriest Fredarius, of the chapter of Urgell. (Here is the one they prepared later.) Just across the way is a village called Say, which is exciting because it’s Saione in Latin, and there was a judicial official called a saió so we get to wonder if such a man founded the place. Whether he did or not, though, by 890 it belonged to the monastery of Sant Miquel de Cuixà, and they had just put a church in there. The villagers had up till then always come to church at Baltarga, but they now had a better church at Say, and they demanded that the local priest (whose name was Orderic) move his operation there. The villagers of Baltarga didn’t want to trek over to Say and abandon their beloved church, so they kicked up a fuss, and by the late autumn Bishop Ingobert of Urgell had had to come out and settle the dispute.1 Ingobert must have fancied himself a Solomon, as the poor old priest finished up having to do a six-month stint in each village, with a procession from one to the other on the Feast of St John the Baptist and back again at Christmas, and Ingobert collected pledges from all the villagers totalling 50 pounds of good gold so that they’d stick to it.

As far as I know this procession does not still happen, but I bet it was a big deal while it lasted. Form your community round that! :-)

1. C. Baraut (ed.), “Les actes de consagracions d’esglesies del bisbat d’Urgell (segles IX-XII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 1 (Montserrat 1978), pp. 11-182, doc. 8.

Seminary II.1 (there is nothing new under the sun)

Another Victor Farias chapter in the Riquer volume that Liverpool were kind enough to spare me for a few weeks by the magic of Inter-Library Loan threw up some interesting concepts.1 In discussing parishes in tenth-century Catalonia, he observes that from what we can tell, largely from consecration acts and occasional boundary disputes2, rural churches were centres of small districts even before these were organised as parishes, but that these districts aren’t conceived of as zones, but rather as networks of belongings. That is, a map of connections rather than territories.

This was written in 1998, and although Farias seems to be relatively unafraid to introduce new thinking undercover in what’s a fairly discursive work with very few references—which may not be ideal—I presume it is at least reasonably established in the circles he moves in. But as you may recall it was news to me in May this year when Elizabeth Zadora-Rio told it or something very like it to the Institute of Historical Research.

In all the time I’ve been working on Catalonia, I’ve been conscious of a kind of ten-year wall. I find out about new work mainly through citation, and it takes me a while to get hold of it, and it’s very unusual for something to come to my notice and into my hands that’s less than ten years old and actually from Catalonia. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the literature up to that point, and better than anyone in Europe I’m likely to have to discuss it with, but it all gets a bit sketchy inside a decade, and I’m always conscious that things could have changed quite a lot and I not know. This time however it seems as if I’m not the only one. I guess this, like the fact that royal charters are worth having to people even when they no longer really convey material rights even at time of award, is something that is easier to see from a well-documented fringe.

1. V. Farias, “Els inicis de l’església catalana” in B. de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 154-159, 161-167 & 169-173, at pp. 167 & 171-172.
2. The consecrations are all published in R. Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Les dotalies de les esglésies de Catalunya (segles IX-XII), Estudis Historics: Diplomatari 1-5 (Vic 1993-1994), 3 vols in 5.

Hero worship: “Commerce in the Dark Ages”

Or, I can just write about the Middle Ages and its historians of course.

One of the papers I have always remembered reading after I first came across it, unlike so many which I’ve subsequently re-read, made notes on and gone to my notes catalogue to find I’d read before years ago, was one of Philip Grierson‘s, “Commerce in the Dark Ages” (which is available through JSTOR for those with access from that link).1 At the time it struck me as one of the clearest, most common-sensical pieces of historiography I’d ever read, and not that much has challenged it since then (though the sense of understanding you get when reading someone who really does get his or her material is still wonderful).

Philip Grierson at work in the Coin Room for which he paid, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

When I, through various routes, wound up copy-editing Medieval European Coinage 6, one of the exciting things about that was that I would thus be working on one of Professor Grierson’s projects. Also, as I rapidly discovered that he was somewhat less well these days (as in, less well at 95 than he had been at 90, when he was still producing scholarly work, and than at 80 when he’d still been beating undergraduates at squash) one of my hopes was that we’d be able to cheer him by seeing another of the volumes of this long series to press before too long. In the end, in fact, there wasn’t that much time: he was already too ill to come into the Department, and I wound up checking the last few footnotes and references from his personal library with him not there because he’d been installed in a nursing home for what would be the last two months of his life. I never actually got to meet him. (And the book still isn’t out, but that’s another story.)

Very recently I had cause to pick up the first of his volumes of collected papers, Dark Age Numismatics, for another paper, and was reminded afresh of the existence of “Commerce in the Dark Ages” because it immediately precedes the one I needed in the volume. So I read it again, and then I decided I needed to encourage you to.

It is basically a warning to people who use coin evidence and other goods ‘out of their place’ as evidence for trade, and I can summarise the whole attack of the paper in one extract:

The most recent work on the economic life of the Dark Ages… takes it for granted that trade, and trade alone, was responsible for the distribution of goods and coins in the centuries with which [it] deals.

Such a view is altogether too narrow, and prejudges too many issues. There are other means whereby goods can pass from hand to hand, means which must have played a more conspicuous part in the society of the Dark Ages than they would in more settled and advanced periods. They can be characterized most briefly as ‘theft’ and ‘gift’, using ‘theft’ to include all unilateral transfers of property which take place involuntarily—plunder in war would be the commonest type—and ‘gift’ to cover all those which take place with the free consent of the donor. Somewhere between the two would be a varied series of payments, such as ransoms, compensations, and fines, while such payments as dowries, the wages of mercenaries, property carried to and fro by political exiles, would all form part of the picture.

He went on to give an amplitude of examples of such alternative forms of transfer, and finished by reckoning that really for a lot of the Dark Ages2 those forms were a good deal more important than trade.

Now since he wrote Peter Sawyer’s work on the Vikings has led to a fairly large-scale revision of the way those particular ‘alternative exchangers’ did their work, and the whole raider/trader controversy has opened up around them, and this sort of evidence is key, if only because such vast amounts of English coin is known from eleventh-century Scandinavia as to require explanation in one or other terms. Meanwhile there is some argument over the importance of long-distance trade in the European economy as a whole,3 but that debate is at least half-aware of Philip’s article. In the Viking studies world, however, the tendency to play down the violence and plunder has reached a level where this kind of caution can be forgotten, and this is wrong. Myself I lean towards the idea that the Vikings are best understood as unrestrained capitalists with political ambitions, trying to amass the capital with which to mount hostile takeover bids, whether those be of a homestead in Norway or of a freshly-carved kingdom in England or Francia. But even if you violently (or non-violently!) disagree with me, if you’re working on this stuff you have, please, to have an answer to Philip ready one way or the other. Okay? Thankyou. Here endeth the lesson.

1. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

2. I’ve been laughed at for using that phrase, but relatively speaking we do have far less knowledge of the centuries it describes than those around, and I have no problem with it as such. The joke about “ended with the discovery of the candle/lightbulb/etc.” does get a bit tired though.

3. Referring to Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce A. D. 300-900 (Cambridge 2003), which sees such structures as fundamental to the development of the later economic orientations of Europe, and Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2006), which argues among a great many other things that such trade was always only marginal in the period and of no long-term effect beyond the aristocratic level. With that one might argue (and I have, with him indeed) that effects on the people who represent society’s controlling interests are not to be discounted, and with McCormick’s thesis there are a whole range of arguments (mostly expressed in a debate with him in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 no. 3 (Oxford 2005), pp. 259-324, linked up above). Wickham has read and cites Dark Age Numismatics however, and McCormick may though I have no copy to hand to check. They are at least aware.


I don’t understand the way people come to this blog. WordPress are remarkably informative, but their information confuses me. Sometimes the process is obvious. Richard Nokes kindly links one of my posts, I get a shedload more readers, this I understand. I don’t know how many, because I guess most people are reading through feeds, and WordPress only counts actual direct hits, but I see the effect on that. (I guess that means, in fact, that I will see more effect from links than from anything else but that that doesn’t necessarily relate to regular readership.)

But sometimes the information I get makes no damn sense at all. The day that I drafted this, apparently, I got fourteen hits from the blogroll beside an old, worthy and sane but uncommented and ancient, post of Another Damned Medievalist. Surely this is someone’s browser going mad, and not real information? It goes on. The same day, more people read the well-hidden Sex and Medievalists post than any other. But this seems to be because hits on the actual front page (which linked to it at the time of drafting) aren’t separately recorded so the click-through shows up as most important even though it wasn’t really because more people read what’s up front. Certainly only one of the search engine strings WordPress tells me of would have led there, and mainly what those tell me, comfortingly but uselessly, is that my little First Crusade paper is something people want to find. This is useless because it wasn’t actually a blog post so although it’s nice to know it’s being useful, without reorienting my research by some way it’s not something I can develop further for the readership’s benefit.

So what this means is that actually, although WordPress is trying very hard, I don’t really know what people are reading and what they’re skimming, what brings you here and what sends you away, unless you comment. Now, this blog was originally set up as self-publicity after a suggestion at a party by someone who seemed to believe that the blogosphere was the new Stock Market. This is why for example I don’t mention rejections or lack of progress in it; I get them, as does everyone at my level I think, but I don’t necessarily want prospective employers or rivals to find this out easily. (No, I don’t really have any rivals, fair enough. Anyway.)

But even such readership as I do have makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t be bearing them in mind as well. Currently I just spout whatever I’m currently finding interesting into draft posts, and then stick them up when the action seems a bit quiet webwise. (This is also good for last-minute reconsideration of exactly where I’m hyperlinking to or whom I’m arguing with, I’m finding…) But is that floating your boats?

I therefore tentatively invite feedback, from anyone that might wish to give it. For example, I have categories set up, many of which I hardly use, for:

  • Currently reading… (mini-reviews and outraged spluttering)
  • General medieval (i. e., ‘this is not really my area…’)
  • Anglo-Saxons (which only used to be my area)
  • Carolingians
  • Catalonia
  • Charters
  • Crusades (I keep forgetting this is there)
  • England (I do live there)
  • Feudalism
  • Islamic Crescent
  • Picts
  • Spain
  • Humour (for want of a better word)
  • Next paper is due (advertisements and panic)
  • Now working on… (doesn’t everyone use the web as a sounding board nowadays?)
  • and

  • Uncategorized

And these, apart from the last, are sort of the areas that I know my way in, a bit. Some more than a bit. If you have no other feedback, let me ask you, would you like to see more use of any of these and if so which? Or some other? If there seems to be some definite movement I’ll try and come up with a Que sais-je? kind of post or two or some recent relevance. If not, I’ll assume things are probably OK as they’re going. But thankyou in advance if you do have feedback to add.

Also in a metablog kind of way, hey Carolingian, nice to meet you but dammit next time I buy the lunch, all right? :-)

Feudal Transformations IV

More Josep María Salrach, this time from the older Procés de Feudalització, where I find him observing that both before the feudal revolution (say 950) and after it (say 1070) the count is in charge of the nobility who run his castles for him. (Although there is as you will have observed from the previous post something of a blip between times.) The difference is in the way the link works. Beforehand, the count is the representative of the public power, the power enshrined in the law as the princeps, delegated from the king, and the nobles are agents, whose title is constituted by their office that he gives them. Afterwards the relation is more two-way, an agreed sharing of power that leaves the noble the count’s vassal. Actually this means that the count has more power over the vassal, as the vassal owes not just the castle if requested, but also military service and most importantly homage, which has nasty consequences if broken, whereas before the count’s power was more or less restricted to the taking back of the officer’s honores, if he even could. But the exchange is that the count has to give away more power, leaving the vassal more or less independent in a territory that had once paid the count dues and renders which are now going to the vassal. Both sides give more to get more.

Castle of Gelida

Now of course some might say that the Carolingians imposed universal oaths of homage with theoretical penalties of death for transgressors, the local nobles were always more or less invulnerable in their heartlands unless ousted by force, and that generally less changes here than Salrach implies except in the field of theory and rules. But as ever I’m interested to see the change described so clearly. The big problem remains that we are looking at a lot of changes altogether which are not necessarily associated by nature.

Some day I’ll write it, some day.

“Of course you realise this means war”

The blogging world seems to be on vacation or in work panic, so I guess I have to contribute some content of my own :-) And I actually do have a fair bit of stuff queued up, so here is the largest to chew on.

I try and draw a line in the sand with my work that stops me going beyond 1030, because after that the evidence I use changes shape and also multiplies in volume to an unmanageable size. How modernists ever manage to generalise I don’t understand. Anyway, this should also mean, according to the accepted chronology (which is too compressed) that I miss the particularly thorough-going case of feudal revolution that Catalonia has from 1041 onwards. But a few days ago I was, because of chapters that start before and end after, reading that stuff again and got a fresh sense of what an incredible story it is, one of those that makes you wonder if the real point of this discipline isn’t to provide us with a lifetime of material for film scripts. But I’m not going to write the script, so I thought I’d try and briefly tell the story.

The fortress of Olèrdola from below

From before Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona succeeded in 993, the nobles of Catalonia had been being established by the counts in an ever-increasing number of castles. Some were new and some, like Olèrdola just above there, had been on-and-off going concerns since the Bronze Age. The idea was both to keep the nobles’ support and use their efforts in the counts’ wider endeavours of establishing authority networks in frontier areas (and thus making themselves much richer), and also to provide a defence against occasional raids from the Muslim South for which the counts didn’t have to provide entirely by themselves. Ramon Borrell however, along with his young and spirited wife Ermessenda with whom he seems to have made a formidable team, raised the game, firstly just by acting more royally and concentrating affairs on the palace, but secondly and mostly by renewing war on the now-disintegrating Caliphate of al-Andalus and beginning to haul huge tributes in Muslim gold into his prinicipality, which is how he could afford to increase his personal splendour and build masses of castles to hand out to the leaders of his armies, and so on. He and his father had built a juggernaut, because everywhere else in ex-Frankish Europe as the peasant economy slowly begins to boom and the gain from being able to exploit it goes up, such nobles were throwing off trappings of subjection to higher authority and making themselves princes in their lands beyond whom there was no recourse. But as long as Ramon Borrell, and his brother Count Ermengol of more northerly Urgell (and after his death on campaign in 1010, his son of the same name) could keep the wars happening and the gold coming in to their advantage, it was a juggernaut they could ride. Ramon Borrell seems to have been playing an Ottonian kind of game whereby he used status play to open up the gap between him and the steadily-richer nobility to justify his ex-royal authority (he does appear phrasing it like that). Anyway, this is not the story, this is just what you need to know to understand how the story unrolls.

The other thing you need to know is that traditionally, this was a society built around public structures of authority. I don’t know how far I believe that they were important still, but the counts protected a system of courts and judicial recourse that operated instead of a feud system of private wars. The peasantry were still armed and dangerous and, like the rich, worldly and administratively-active Church, looked to the counts to keep them independent. Most castles were held from the counts, whose job defence was and who were obeyed because of that necessity. But elsewhere society was more and more becoming a tissue of oaths and promises, regulating the links between persons where older structures were failing. How much of that is to blame for what happens next is a whole big debate and I’m bored with preamble now.

So in 1018 Ramon Borrell, who raided Córdoba itself in 1010 while putting a candidate for the caliphal throne onto it in rivalry with a Castilian-backed one (says Salrach, this isn’t how the León-centric Lomax writes it up at all1), and has since then extracted gold in bulk from Lleida and Tortosa repeatedly, even if a second coup in 1017 went the other way, though the Catalans still got paid to leave—in 1018, as I say, he dies. He leaves behind him a frequently-ill son, Berenguer Ramon, to take over under the rather enveloping care of Countess Ermessenda, that afore-mentioned spirited wife, who is left the county of Girona as her own dowager portion. For whatever reasons, Berenguer does not undertake war on the same level and the few campaigns he does try fail embarassingly. This means that the money that is holding him and his mother above the pack stops coming in, leaving only ideology. And on the border where the castles are in the hands of people on whom no-one checks, that doesn’t count for as much as what you can get by, for example taking over the counts’ revenues and estates yourself and maybe giving them back if and when he makes you. With enough money, after all, you can keep a judicial process going on for a long time during which time you’re taking all the taxes. So the edges start to get nibbled off Berenguer Ramon’s authority, despite Mum’s increasingly grand (and ecclesiastical) court, which is itself decreasing his power by hiving one of the main counties off out of his control. And even if this could be stopped by close and active supervision, and also active campaigning, that isn’t happening. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” and all that.

In 1035 Berenguer Ramon shuffles off his unhappy mortal coil, and his sons inherit a partitioned authority which further reduces their combined clout. All are children still, and until they come of age Grandma Ermessenda is left in charge some more, a charge that she, an old woman by now, exercises from the cites of Girona and Barcelona, leaving the frontier to her trusted men and their trusted men without necessarily being able or willing to provide the support they need. The sons are, in ascending order, little Guillem who gets the county of Osona (have a map), slightly bigger Sanç who gets the new formation of Penedès in western Barcelona, and Ramon Berenguer who gets the rest, except of course Girona which is still Ermessenda’s, so actually he gets about half of Barcelona and no more.

Watch this boy though: in film script terms, he is the Anakin Skywalker.2 Most of all, he grows up with nobles who live the new way, oaths not offices, territories not benefices, subjects not catchment, and thinks like them. Grandmother Ermessenda does not think like this, sees such thinking as the erosion of the status and rank that not only she but her tearaway grandson are holding onto. She is thus stuck between protecting him and trying to stop him getting out of hand and undermining everything she’s trying to keep in trust for when he grows some sense.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

In 1039, in the last years of his minority, Ramon Berenguer blows his teenage top and bands up with the castle-holding nobles of the frontier, not least a man called Mir Geribert, who is based at Olèrdola, who is son of a Viscount of Barcelona and daughter of Ramon Berenguer’s great-aunt, Ramon Borrell’s sister (and thus a fair bit older than Ramon Berenguer, but younger than Ermessenda). Ramon Berenguer wants Girona back, but the nobles are hoping for more, and so Ermessenda is able to strip her grandson of his support mainly by agreeing to negotiate. She hands over some fortresses, Ramon Berenguer simmers down, the nobles give up on him disgusted.

The result is increasing discontent until in 1041, in which year Ramon Berenguer is 21 and officially inherits his counties, Mir Geribert and his allies effectively secede: he calls himself Prince of Olèrdola, takes over Ramon Berenguer’s and Sanç’s properties wherever he can and invades the franchises, areas of judicial self-government awarded and until now protected by the counts. Ramon Berenguer’s response is hampered by the fact that really, this is brother Sanç’s territory, but Sanç is about fourteen at this point and not reacting in full lordly outrage. Also, the men who bring Ramon Berenguer his troops when he goes to war are partly involved, and on two campaigns, one against the count of neighbouring Cerdanya and one more dangerously against al-Andalus—he may only be in his twenties but he knows where the answer lies—his forces suffer serious desertions. In Barcelona itself, though the citizens arm themselves in his support and pledge him vast sums of money, it still isn’t enough to stop the actual bishop and the viscount (Mir Geribert’s cousins both) besieging him in the comital palace, although he does at least manage to turn the battle round and capture them. He can’t however get consensus enough together to punish them, he just doesn’t have the whole-hearted support.

The count of Urgell can’t help because he is under attack from Muslim Saragossa and has a set of peasant communes in Andorra taking the joint opportunity to secede. Cerdanya is ranged against Barcelona too; in fact the only help for the counts available is from the Church and, inevitably, grandmother Ermessenda, which comes with a price-tag Ramon Berenguer doesn’t like, and only goes far enough to save him, not to let him advance his own plans. So 1041 to 1046 are difficult years for the young hero/anti-hero. By the end of that, because he has been wise enough despite everything to keep up raiding against al-Andalus, he is able to buy support enough to establish relative peace. In 1046 he forces the nearest Muslim cities, Lleida and Tortosa, both to agree a yearly payment of tribute, which more or less guarantees him this kind of revenue for the future, though Mir Geribert remains an independent prince in Penedès and will for eight more years yet.

Perhaps because there is little of his county left, Sanç gives it up to his brother in 1049 for a fairly meagre pension, and that is more or less the last we hear of him, retirement age circa 22. In 1051 Ramon Berenguer I manages to force a tribute out of the very rich city of Saragossa. Meanwhile in 1052 everything at home explodes at once, and it’s Ramon Berenguer’s fault.

Ermessenda is by now very old, and losing not so much grip as her helping hands. The oldest churchmen, on whose respected status and pacific principles she had relied (including her brother Pere, Bishop of Girona, and the famous Bishop Oliba of Vic, son of a count, once a count himself, and also Abbot of quite a lot of places and thus a very major magnate in his own right) have died, and she is finding it hard to command the respect she once had against her grandson’s increasing control both of men and resources. In a clear symptom of this escape from her control, in 1052 Ramon Berenguer repudiates his wife Countess Blanca, whom Ermessenda found him in 1030 when he was still a child, and does no less a thing than abduct and marry Almodis de la Marche, already married to the ageing Count of Toulouse! Pope Victor II is called on to excommunicate the young count and does so. Meanwhile the uncaring Ramon Berenguer launches a judicial suit against Mir Geribert. Mir of course laughs at this, but all that Ramon wants is the cause to start the enforcement, so the war begins again, with Mir taking over whatever he may have been made to give back and more, and Ramon Berenguer keeping up war against both his grandmother and al-Andalus so as to be able to meet Mir with an overwhelming force.

Mir’s desperate tactics must in part be down to the fact that he can see how this will end if Ramon Berenguer can stay in power long enough, but he is unable to stave off the inevitable, despite a second and local excommunication of the count in 1056. Already in 1054 brother Guillem is bought out of Osona in the same way as Sanç had been; with Bishop Oliba gone he is probably finding it hard to hold onto what’s his given the war his brother has started! (The ambiguity Oliba must have felt in his last years about the comital family is hard to get one’s head around.) In 1057 Ermessenda admits defeat: she allows Ramon Berenguer and Almodis (who seems happily to have become to Ramon Berenguer what Ermessenda had been to his grandfather, the vital and enlivening right hand on whom he could utterly rely) to buy Girona from her for a vast sum of money, a sum that she hardly gets to use because she dies in venerable retirement the same year. I can’t help wondering how having her gone must have felt to Ramon Berenguer, who had spent most of his life being held up by her, in several senses. An ever-present and considerable force always part of his thinking now removed; heavy to contemplate.

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

It is by now pretty much all over, anyway. In 1058 Ramon Berenguer amasses his largest army yet to march on Saragossa—because the men will march for Muslim gold where civil war might be less profitable—but leads it first through the Penedès. Mir knows when he’s beaten at last, and runs to Tortosa whence he sues for peace. Saragossa submits to tribute for the next four years, too, making Ramon Berenguer richer than ever, and Mir is admitted back to his fidelity in a much-reduced state in 1059. And now Ramon Berenguer is in a position to start making demands for compensation and new-style homage, from one ex-rebel at a time…

And so closes the film as I care about it, but already imagine the scenes you could get out of that, the confrontations! Ermessenda spitting scorn Katherine Hepburn-style at her idiot grandson, and her final collapse; the brothers arguing; the abduction of Almodis (and the face-off between her and Ermessenda in 1057); Mir having to bend his knee to the young upstart; Mir’s court in the old hillfort with its Roman walls and fortified church; and all over the film the gold, the blood and the buildings. And this stuff actually happened. Can you imagine what it was like to be part of all this? I can’t, but it’s fun to try.

Josep María Salrach, in whose work I was reading all this again, would of course want to emphasise, and does so repeatedly indeed along with his pupils, that in all this the peasants are getting it in the neck, having their surplus expropriated to feed ever-large retinues of soldiers, their protectors first powerless and then uncaring, and that it’s all very well to imagine being one of the winners but that overall most people from whom he and the modern population descend were the losers. And fair enough, as historians we need to keep track of that and not get seduced by heroic narrative. We can leave that to the film-makers.3 But sometimes, all the same, you want a film that does it well even by our standards, and this would make such a good one…

1. Contrasting here Josep María Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització (segles III-XII), Historia de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), pp. 296-297, with Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), pp. 49-51; the best narrative otherwise is S. Sobrequés i Vidal, Els Grans Comtes de Barcelona, Biografies Catalanes: serie historica 2 (Barcelona 1961), pp. 16-26.

2. Though I anticipate this script having rather better dialogue than that…

3. Seriously, who would you cast for the final confrontation between Charles the Bald and Bernard of Septimania in 844? “At last I shall avenge my father on you, Bernard.” – “Ha. For all you know, boy, I am your father!” I’d love to see that done well…

This job that I do II

There are 3,371 more Roman coins on the web than there were yesterday. I just mention it. If I can get a search string worked out that actually gives you my contribution without the larger and more irksome work on the bronzes done by my predecessor, I may mention it again. It’s nice to have one’s work visible like this.

Update: a more direct link is here. You have to wade through four or five pages of Islamic coins that I didn’t scan, but did correct on the same day as the Roman upload went live, but after that you’re into genuine Augustan silver, so there. On the other hand some of the Islamic stuff is actually medieval, even if not tenth-century, which is about as on-topic as this post will get…

Medieval student report

Extract from a manuscript of Marculf’s Formulary

Here’s a small gem for you. When I was getting feedback on the Leeds paper before going up, Dr Alice Rio kindly sent me her opinions on the way I was using formulae. This was very welcome, but still more so was the coda to the e-mail, which she has given me permission to quote here:

By the way, do you know this weird text copied along with Marculf in all main mss. (perhaps an early example of how to write a student report)?

  • Item alio dicto ad juvenis nescientes scripturas. Miro prosortam prolixa tempora aut nullum me sermone pagene consecutum, cuius eloquia vestri, velut ad verbo dictancium, polluti mutuati ceras afferunt, currunt articuli falsitatis; sed ubi venitur ad revolvendum, delisse magis quam scripsisse pro solicissimum referit; quando sperabam capitula epistolae finisse, nec inciperat in primo.

My iffy translation:

  • ‘Another text, addressed to young men who do not know how to write. I wonder that, after such a long time, my speech has in no way been followed on the page, and the borrowed writing tablets which you bring back soiled with your text, as if from dictation, are filled with the wrong words; and when it comes to handing them over, he brings them back having erased more than he has written down on account of [his] solecisms. When I was expecting him to have finished the sections of the document, he had not even begun.’

Obviously something it would be handy to have around for copying out onto student exercises! These days we might just get a fairly big rubber stamp made up I suppose. It’s tempting. I wonder how much that would cost? But anyway, hurrah for medieval irony! Remind me to tell you (or remind you of) the one with Charles the Bald and John the Scot when things get dull round here…