The Nature of Landed Property in the Middle Ages II: Gaspar Feliu redux

You have probably had the experience where you have a paper or similar that hangs about for ages never quite finished. And if you’re disciplined, you finally set a point where it is done, you reach that point and you grit your teeth, format it and submit. And, likely as not, you then find something that makes it look dangerously lopsided, irrelevant or worst of all, derivative. I have recently been saved from this by the skin of my teeth, because I (perhaps foolishly) let a paper slip in between the final edit and the formatting. The paper is one of the offprints I was so kindly sent by Professor Gaspar Feliu, and it’s called “La Pagesia catalan abans de la feudalització”, ‘The Catalan peasantry before feudalization”.1 There is even a summary in English, except that… well: let me just quote it.

The possibility of get land through the aprisio during the Reconquest has helped to spread the idea that aprisio made it possible the birth of a stratum of free peasant ownwer (alodial) and it allowed for a time of relative well-being between the ancient slavery and the feudal submission. This article argues that most of the pre-feudal peasantry was slave or subject to various degrees of serfdom and that the imposition of feudalism could not make worse the previous status.

You see, I worry that this is how it reads when I send letters in Catalan… and ‘feudal submission’ sounds like a particularly vicious wrestling finale. But anyway: it may not always be clear from my blog, especially since many historians of power appear to forget the people over whom power was actually exercised, but that’s really pretty darn relevant to my work, and I ought to have realised how important such a paper was likely to be.2 I hadn’t, and I put this partly down to the ‘ten-year wall’ I’ve written about here before, but also because for reasons I don’t fully understand, Professor Feliu’s views are not usually widely cited even though his expertise is recognised.3

Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort

This paper gives some hints as to why this might be, though, because by way of setting up he discusses the views of several other scholars, not least Pierre Bonnassie, who for the last thirty years of his lifetime utterly dominated the field because of his monograph La Catalogne. Though it is as old as I am, that is still the main work on the feudalization of Catalonia, and the numerous ones of Josep María Salrach, who is the main other contendor and also mentioned here, are hard to separate in philosophical terms; Salrach’s picture is subtly different, as I’ve discussed here, but pinning that down at a textbook level would be very hard.4 Also mentioned with respect by Feliu is the only Anglophone scholar who has lately made a dent on early Catalan history, Paul Freedman, whose main book he quotes parts of by way of illustration.5 And, having carefully and respectfully set out these scholars’ views, he says, as I translate: “It must be said before going any further that the discrepancies are only ones of detail, and that my heterodox proposals should not be taken as any reflection on the high scientific esteem which I think is merited by each and every one of the teachers and colleagues mentioned above.”6 So you can tell that the stuff is about to hit the ventilator, right there.

Medieval peasants at work

The reason that it concerns me most obviously is that the paper I’m trying to finish is exactly and wholly about aprisio, which is a word that is used in the documents of my period about properties that have been cleared from wasteland and occupied by settlers. It seems to come from the Latin word for `taking’, but its exact significance is problematic, and I appear to disagree with almost everyone who’s written on it (some more than others). For more detail, well, you can wait till the paper comes out, it’s taken me long enough that I’m not going to spill it all here. I’m afraid that I also have to disagree respectfully with Professor Feliu about aprisio, but why, in this respect, should he be different? There has to be something I have an original view about, after all. He does have separately-arrived-at similarities to several parts of my view, which I must duly cite, but there is a good distance on aprisio between us which I hope can remain friendly. All that matters less than it might, though, because what Professor Feliu is doing here is talking about the same thing that made me resort to the blog the last time I read something of his, a very important reinterpretation of the way we think about medieval property.

It’s rather odd that we should need that, because we (well, I) talk about medieval landholders all the time, and sometimes I slip and say ‘landowners’ or even ‘landlords’ as if they were all the same thing and it doesn’t seem to matter. But perhaps it should, because under these words are very different concepts. Let us imagine a Catalan farmer of the tenth century called Duran (because that always amuses me as a name, sorry). Here he is:

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Now as you can see Duran (and his mate, probably his brother, whom I’ll name Sunifred because as they’re supposed to be Catalan peasants, the chance of neither of them being called Sunifred seems small) are yer actual peasants, in as much as they work the land rather than getting others to do so for them. But do they own the land they work? Well. From this obviously, we can’t tell. Could we tell from a charter that mentioned them? Well, again. If they’re selling it, or if they’re giving it away then yes, for now; but if they’re only witnessing we’ve no idea though they probably have land somewhere. If they’re the neighbours, it’s a bit harder to settle this question. In actual fact, both Professor Feliu and I would agree that in the Catalan material, you don’t see them as neighbours if they’re tenants.

We know this because certain people turn up widely: not just the nobles, or at least the people with titles, but people we can identify again and again because of their wives, their parents or family, or, more sketchily, because of the people they work with in transactions. These people turn up in most big archives, because of being people who had connections with the religious house whose archive it was. My pet one’s a guy called Adalbert of Taradell, whose wife was called Guisla and whose sister Ovímia eventually seems to sell him most of the family inheritance. But he buys a lot, and then makes some of it over to his local cathedral in his will and the parchments he’s accumulated seem to go with it, which is how we know any of this.7 So there’s Adalbert, and he turns up over a fairly wide area. When I worked this out I reckoned that he had at least twenty different estates, mostly small but some not, in four or five settlements over, say, a sixty-mile range. Now there is no way, obviously, even if he didn’t have them all at the same time, that he’s farming all of these himself. It can’t even be a family operation, because the rest of the family have other lands that we see separately, so the problem just multiplies when you bring them into it.

None of this is surprising, perhaps, but stay with me and let me draw the obvious conclusion: that means that someone else is working those lands, and we are never told their names. Adalbert is the neighbour even when he can’t actually have been living in all these places. The people there are documentarily invisible. Professor Feliu thinks there are a lot of these people over the various landowners’ estates, Bonnassie thought they were few, I am somewhere in between.

But if Duran and Sunifred do in fact own their land, that doesn’t mean they keep all their crops. No sir or madam, this is the middle ages and every man must have his lord; King Æthelstan said so, it must be true.8 Or something. At the very least, unless they have secured an immunity somehow as some people did, they probably have to help keep the local fortress in order for the count, mend bridges, and put up messengers for the night and lend them beasts if necessary, and in theory they also have to give a tenth of their crops, the first fruits and various other offerings to the local priest, who then gives some of it to the bishop and so on. How far that latter bit works is more troublesome, but anyway. They may also, depending on how humble they are, also have to pay cens to a lord, which can be anything from a token amount, couple of chickens and some wax yearly or whatever, to substantial takes from their income depending on how they got that way and to whom. They may have to pay quite a lot in produce if they’re actually farming someone else’s land in the expectation of owning some of it as an eventual reward, a system called complantation that the pre-Catalan land-developers are quite keen on. And beneath that level, they’re tenants, because they’re basically renting the land.9

I remember when all this were fields… oh ‘ang on.

Now this is kind of schematised and a bit simplistic, but it does. Or does it? Professor Feliu thinks maybe not. Having set out the orthodoxy for Catalonia, with lots of small peasant owners, like Duran and Sunifred, doing their public works, massing up with their pikes and daggers when needed to defend the land, and perhaps paying their tithe but otherwise basically untroubled by lords, he goes into the attack (again, I translate):

I do not deny that there existed peasant cultivator-owners, but that this was the situation of the majority of the peasantry and, with still more emphasis, that they owned the greater part of the land, especially alodial land [i. e. land which was held free of rent or cens]. The properties of ecclesiastical institutions were omnipresent, the wills of magnates show multiple possessions, many in far-away places, and acts of exchange and sale and the boundaries of properties frequently repeat the same names, implying a full accompaniment of rentier-owners.

He goes on to claim that there is an important confusion between peasants appearing as landowners and them being alodists, render-free landowners, which isn’t the same thing at all as he has set out.10 And in a lot of ways this is the same dichotomy that I was originally spurred to write about his stuff for, because thirty-five years ago a young not-even-Dr Feliu was as I recorded saying that this is basically because the sources lie and we can’t trust them.11 And as you can find me saying, that seems wrong to me and I don’t agree either with Matthew Innes that really all ownership is only of renders and no-one actually owns the land.12 I said then that really ownership is the right to take revenues from a place, and so is tied to the land, but Professor Feliu has carefully messed this up for me. I’m sure he would concede this is important, but he would I think also point out that people ‘own’ and dispose of land, and the revenues from land, from which they also pay someone else renders of produce or even money.

So do the cultivators and the rent-takers both own it? Feliu would say, I gather, that ownership is multivalent and that the lord could dispose of the revenues in the same way as the peasant could dispose of the land, and that the exact balance between them over who gets what is impossible to second-guess without more detail. Which, I guess, we all knew, but his point is that we should expect that balance to be a lot worse, even in Catalonia, for the cultivator than it is usually expected to be. Well, yes, OK, I can come some of the way towards that, although it’s hard to tell from this article whether he thinks that things were so bad before feudalization that that made little difference or whether they were bad, and now got worse; the conclusion on p. 40 sits magisterially on the fence, while flicking scholarly rubber bands at Bonnassie, Freedman and Salrach for their optimism. And fair enough, some might say, but really, I am still stuck about property. Who does own these properties? Whose land is it? Can we say, in terms that mean anything to us? It is necessary for me to try and sort this out, somehow, or I shall be continually aware that some of the terms I use most frequently are fundamentally undefined.

Graph of the Blogosphere

So OK, this is where you come in. This is the blogosphere, right, and we’ve all presumably seen several posts in various places, even in ‘real’ media, talking about the instant feedback and review of the whole interactive Web 2.0 thing is doing for writing. I mean, just FWSE‘ing « blogosphere collaborative writing » brought me this perfectly good example second hit, and there’s a more relevant take on it at Old English in NYC, which probably means that it’s been covered forty times already at In the Middle, with which I confess I don’t keep up.13 So maybe we can get us some of that here. I know that many of you reading are broader-brush political history or literature types, but equally I know that there are people reading who dig their own charter-based corners or have other good reasons to be thinking about ownership and power and tax in their material. How does all this sound compared to your areas? Can you talk about ownership without uncertainty, and if so, what does it mean to your area of study? Feel free to offer comments, suggestions and so on. And if we come up with anything good, firstly I’ll put a permanent link to this post in the sidebar so it’s easy to keep contributing to, and secondly if we try and write something comparative or even collaborative, I hereby put my hand on my heart and say I’ll acknowledge anyone as co-author whom a majority of other contributors think should be so named. Complex but fair I hope. I’ve no idea whether we will get anything out of this, but I feel like giving it a try. Come mix brains!

1. Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 no. 1 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 19-41, with English summary p. 41 and French résumé p. 40.

2. An honourable exception here to Professor Thomas Bisson, whose Tormented Voices: power, crisis and humanity in rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge MA 1998) gives the peasantry and its suffering full strength, but this focus is also the one that leads him to stress the rôle of violence in the so-called ‘feudal transformation’ and then a posse of early medievalists to try and give his theory a kicking in Past and Present (nos 142, 152 & 155 all told, detailed references too lengthy here but mostly given on this page and partly online through FindArticles).

3. So for example he gave a ‘state of the question’ paper in a huge conference celebrating the millennium of Catalan national existence, published as G. Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i económia” in F. Udina i Martorell, Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (Barcelona 1992-1993), 2 vols, I pp. 81-115, which surely makes him an authority, yet no-one seems to agree with him when he suggests that really, the lords orchestrated most border settlement, ibid. pp. 89-92.

4. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du IXe siècle à la fin du XIe siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols; his scholarship accessible to Anglophones through the translations of parts of this work in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 114-133 or along with much else of relevance in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991). No easy route for J. M. Salrach, whose key work is El Procés de feudalització, segles III-XII, História de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987).

5. Paul H. Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991)

6. Feliu, “La pagesia”, pp. 23-24.

7. Studied for now in J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 184-188.

8. In the lawcode II Æthelstan, translated in F. L. Attenborough, The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge 1922, repr. New York City 1963), at cap. 2.

9. Ironically, the place I have found this most clearly set out for Catalonia is again in early work by Professor Feliu, a résumé of his doctoral thesis printed as a separatum by the University of Barcelona, which he kindly sent me with this same article: G. Feliu Montfort, La Formación del dominio territorial de la Sede de Barcelona (800-1010): resumen de la tesis presentada para aspirar al grado de doctor en filosofia y letras (Barcelona 1975), but for Catalonia you could find it in more regular print in J. M. Font i Rius, “La comunitat local o veïnal” in Udina, Symposium Internacional, I pp. 491-576, and for everywhere else, try Chris Wickham, “Rural Society in Carolingian Europe” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 510-552.

10. Feliu, “La pagesia”, p. 24.

11. G. Feliu Montfort, “El condado de Barcelona en los siglos IX y X: organización territorial y económico-social” in Cuadernos de Historia Económica de Cataluña Vol. 7 (Barcelona 1972), pp. 9-31.

12. Referring once more to Matthew J. Innes, “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in Jennifer Davies & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot forthcoming2008), pp. 247-267, which is easy for me because he let me have an offprint in 2005; it may well have changed a bit since then however.

13. I’m afraid I find the whole FWSE thing too amusing to easily let go of, for some reason.

10 responses to “The Nature of Landed Property in the Middle Ages II: Gaspar Feliu redux

  1. I’m not a charterist/cartophile or whatever the term is, but I’ll throw in some suggestions, starting from ‘modern’ idea of land rights (as in C19 onwards). You can have outright ownership of property (freehold) and tenancy (leasehold), but even with freehold, other people can have rights over your property. One of the main things that conveyancing lawyers spend their time doing is seeing exactly what legal rights are attached to any piece of property put up for sale and who has a claim to those rights, even if they’re not exercising them at the moment. So if someone is entitled to come along and dig coal from your garden, or make you contribute towards repairing the local church, even if they’re not doing this now, that’s a problem that the solicitor needs to tell you about. It’s possible to lose (or gain) a right by custom (that is long use), but that is decided by fixed legal criteria. For example, my church allows people to take a short-cut and walk across its car-park. Except, that once a year it closes the gates and prevents this, so that a public right of way can’t be created. Similarly, if you don’t evict squatters within a fixed period of time, they can acquire legal rights to stay and even own the property.

    If what we have in the early Middle Ages is a legal system with definite rights in this modern way, then you can, in theory, reconstruct it. (It might not have a view of ‘ownership’ that maps neatly onto our categories, but that’s a different matter). It’s possible that people didn’t in most cases write down legal obligations/rights that were seen as obvious, because legal documentation was less systematic and not written by professionals at the time. (Even today, there are duties connected to occupying property that aren’t necessarily mentioned in conveyancing transactions, such as having to pay council tax). There may be unknowns in such a system, but they are known unknowns.

    The problem is, does a tree falling in the forest make a noise if no-one hears it? If the early medieval system is one in which a ‘right’ only exists to the extent someone claims it, then we can’t reconstruct the system coherently, because it’s inherently fluid. You pay rent to your lord if he notices and demands it, and maybe whoever you sell your land continues to do that, if the current lord’s sufficiently powerful and sufficiently near, but maybe not. In that case, a charter will tell you the current ‘legal’ situation, but it’s not necessarily the same the next year, let alone in 20 years time. In such a system, the most you’re likely to be able to do is point out regularities that may have become ‘customs’ in an informal sense, e.g. that you are normally expected to get your lord’s permission to transfer land. And ‘ownership’ then is intrinsically fuzzy, because what matters is who is making claims on the land now or in the foreseeable future.

  2. This is a very real problem, and one of the other sharp things that Prof. Feliu points out, which I’m saving for a methodological paper I will some day finish, is that the thing about charters is that they are generated because someone is changing something about the use of the land. Actually picking up on what’s usual is inherently problematic because we see it only in flux. Likewise, some of our most informative documents about people’s practice and expectations are hearings, which means that the norm was in dispute, and therefore not shared by all parties… Complicated. And yet maybe conflicting norms is the best way in?

    Another problem is who sets rights. As you know better than many, Carolingian capitulary legislation is more honoured i’the breach than th’observance, but Wormald’s and others’ work suggests that this may not be a problem, and I’ve suggested elsewhere on here that law is just a voice of authority in this period, not a prescriptive instance of coercive power. So at that rate rights would become consensus agreements, affected by law sometimes but not set by it. What they could be of course is set by local coercion, which is presumably where ‘mals usos’ come from. There’s another way in, maybe, the idea of legitimate and illegitimate rights that feudal complaints sometimes express, or even claimed rights by the users of the ‘usos’ that are put in those terms. Somewhere behind that must lurk an idea of legitimate rights of extraction. But that’s rather late. Could we argue back, just because they say that these things are ancient? After all, in my area, 30 years is legally ancient!

    All not so much answers to your points, which are not straight away answerable at least not with my current headache, as more things to poke such ideas with…

  3. But, wait — what if the Catalan peasants are actually English peasants?

  4. Damn good point there :-) But easily answered: they’re not (now). How’s that for service?

  5. In regards to ownership, I was wondering about property owned by the church and property owned by secular lords. Could the church have property that was actually under the supervision of a secular lord? For example, a monastery that is part of a town and that town is ruled by an earl or count. Who owns the land the monastery sits on? The church or the secular lord?

  6. Well. It is conventional in the high Middle Ages for the Church to be chary of being involved in low-court jurisdiction, which might impose the shedding of blood as a penalty; and they also sometimes feel bad about spending time running estates rather than praying, and so their `lay’ responsibilities are farmed out to an advocate, who is usually from the local nobility and often very hard to oust. And the Carolingian kings regularly appointed nobles as lay abbots of monasteries, or indeed themselves, by way of handing out rich honores. But in Catalonia both cases are rare until later. Monasteries in towns are unusual (it does happen, but I don’t have good examples to hand) but of course cathedrals are urban, and bishops fighting with local lords over, for example, who takes the profit from the city’s mint, who tries the men of the cathedral’s lands, who takes what part of the market profits, where the market should be, and so on, that you can easily find at Vic, which is bang in my target area and discussed by Paul Freedman. But this is the revenues being disposed of as property, rather than the case you’re talking about where the monastery’s actual lands are at issue.

    In that exact case, it depends whether the monastery (or cathedral) has been able to acquire and enforce an immunity or an exemption (from king or pope respectively) which free them from secular jurisidiction. Otherwise the count or whoever can probably still claim various `public’ dues like military service, fortress-work and high justice (murder, theft and arson). But the actual land, I think, would always be considered the monastery’s. Sometimes it can complicated, though, because sometimes counts found monasteries on their own lands, and then they retain interests, which are sometimes hard to identify and more influence than actual legal obligations. So there are many edge cases, but I think the ownership of the land is always clear. What’s not clear is to what that entitles others who may make claims…

    This is the problem I’m wrestling with really. We know that many people could claim many things from lands. But when someone writes a charter and records who the neighbours are, it’s possible to say “on the east, the land of Adalbert”. But Adalbert isn’t the count, and on the other hand he doesn’t live there, so in what way can we describe this idea of belonging that the scribes have so little problem with?

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