What’s in an immunity?

Cover of Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre, Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe

A recent arrival in the “what do you mean you’ve never read that?” category is the second volume of essays by the Bucknell group, Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe edited by Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre. I should of course have read it, and now I am doing, and straight away it is throwing up things to think about. First up, immunities. The introduction, by Chris Wickham and Timothy Reuter, has some quite interesting stuff about immunities. What is an immunity, I hear you ask, being quietly confident that I mean something other than resistance to the Black Death? Well, I’ll try and explain without being boring. Give me a moment to pep myself up here… Okay.

An immunity, in this sense, is a concession you get from the king that means that the property to which it applies no longer pays tax or renders to him, or has to answer to his judicial officials, who may or may not be his direct servants or the local nobility’s acting in the king’s name. (Maybe there’s no difference most of the time.) As those proceeds are no longer going to the king, the immunist keeps them, and though there may be exclusions (Anglo-Saxon grants almost always reserve work on bridges, guard service in fortresses and hospitality to royal messengers, for example, the so-called trinoda necessitas) it’s not a bad little earner. It is also, as Wickham and Reuter pointed out, basically for the Church. There is an argument that says that when so little of the documentation used by lay people survives, we wouldn’t necessarily have these, of course, but as a paper I hope to have out soon arguing with another in Early Medieval Europe shows, I think, even where we do have royal concessions of this general sort to laymen, they don’t look the same as Church immunities.

Where I start to have to differ from Wickham and Reuter is in their subtle argument that, whereas concessions like this are usually seen as weakness on the part of the king, who is effectively granting away his right to rule an area entirely, they should actually be seen as evidence of the closeness of the beneficiary to the king. What’s the point, they argue, of getting a concession that frees you from the intervention of royal agents, if royal agents are no longer working? Why do you go to the king at all if that’s the situation? So actually immunities are a reliance on the king for protection, they say, and that sounds quite convincing, doesn’t it? Except. That.

We get lots of these concessions in Catalonia, till late on. The last royal document to Catalonia is from 986, the year before Louis V, last monarch of the Carolingian line, dies and hands over the realm, inadvertantly, to the Capetians. By then, no Carolingian ruler has been to Spain for 179 years. None has even come as far south as the other side of the Pyrenees for nearly a century. The Carolingians no longer appoint the counts of Catalonia, they’ve been succeeding en famille since 898. The last Catalan count to come to court is Guifré of Besalú in 954, when he needs royal approval to help him with deposing a local viscount, but before that, none had done so since perhaps 891, or maybe 882, and if you would rather a date of which we’re certain, since 878. There are no signs of royal vassals still working in the area; Josep Maria Salrach suspects that the last ones rebel in 957 and get bloodily suppressed. So by 986 any royal concession to Catalonia is a dead letter, and has arguably been for some time; the kings cannot make things happen here. It certainly doesn’t show any closeness to the king or the court; they send people, or sometimes just letters to get these things, but that’s the only time they show up at court, and the king can expect nothing from them. So what’s the point?

It could be argued that having a royal diploma, even if it’s no practical use, is a status play, makes you look important, ancient, deeply established, and thus may profit your house indirectly. But it may actually be more direct use than that. You see, it does seem that though there is no reason for the counts to pay any attention to these things, they do actually do so. Evidence of this comes from a series of nine immunities issued to the cathedral of Girona between 816 and 922, because their content changes. In one they claim fifty per cent of the toll from the city of Girona; in the next they’ve ratcheted it down to a third. If you can’t actually make good on the claim at all, why would you bother? This must be a negotiation with the counts: “Nay, Bishop Guiu, ‘enutritus in aula‘ thee may ‘ave been, but tharen’t ‘avin’ all that. A third’s what we let tha predecessor ‘ave and that’ll ‘ave to do for thee. Now then.” So these documents are worth having; but only because the counts respect them, even though there’s nothing the king could do if they chose not to.1 Now as to why that is, well, that’s a different paper. Give me a few months :-)

P. .S. They also point out, elsewhere in the introduction, that the sort of concepts of property I was struggling with the lack of in my documents a while ago belong to Classical Roman law and seem to have dropped out of Vulgar law. If this means I need to read Roman law to finish that paper idea I may have second thoughts…

1. The precise cite for the paper in question here is C. Wickham & T. Reuter, “Introduction” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (eds), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 1995), pp. 1-16. As that emerged the now-standard work on Frankish immunities was in press, and it is Barbara H. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space: power, restraint and privileges of immunity in early medieval Europe (Ithaca 1999), but I’ve never yet quite worked out how to fit what she says into my thinking. On these documents specifically and especially the Girona case, there is an excellent article which is almost impossible to get hold of, but I give you the reference anyway: Ramon Martí, “La integració a l’«alou feudal» de la seu de girona de les terres beneficiades pel «règim dels hispans». Els casos de Bàscara i Ullà, segles IX-XI” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 49-63 with Castilian summary p. 530, French summary p. 543 & English summary p. 556. Ramon Martí is another of those whose articles generally deserve a reprint volume. Anyway, there you are.

6 responses to “What’s in an immunity?

  1. This reminds me of something off topic. If I’m remembering rightly, the Carolingians (specifically Louis the Pious, before Charlemagne died) tried to take Tarragona. Where might I find some information about that campaign? Collins mentions it but doesn’t have great documentation on that point.

    Also, I’d be inclined to agree with you about diplomas as status, at least as far as my own work in 11th c. Aquitaine goes. Those guys hadn’t seen a king in a long time but, for example, the monks of Charroux went to Compiegne in 1085 specifically to get a diploma confirming their immunities. There was no way in heck that Philip I could actually do anything about it though, if anyone had ignored it. Amy Remensnyder has some good stuff on this too.

  2. I should like to point out that in many cases, the question of immunity, or exemptions, does not seem as financially crippling as it might first sound. Often, when land was given to someone, usually a layman, it was only for the lifetime of the recipient. That said, the recipient used every means he could to keep the land, and often succeeded.I believe that Wickham, in “Framing the Early Middle Ages,” points out that this general land giveaway did eventually get the Merovingians in a spot of trouble. Also, some Anglo-Saxon charters exist which give certain minsters, specifically in Kent, an exemption, or remission of toll for one or two ships landing at the port of Lundenwic.

  3. Michael, there are certainly also cases where the king is giving something that he could not himself exploit, and thus actually extending his domain by entrusting it to someone loyal. All the same, any proper land study of royal resources in this era needs a really rigorous attempt to work out what the kings granted and what they held, and until someone replaces the last book to this (Wolfgang Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut (Berlin 1960)) we’re basically stuck with his conclusions, which is that both Merovingians and then Carolingians ran out of patronage steam towards the end of their runs. It’s been dismissed as unlikely by many scholars, not least Matthew Innes, but we still don’t really have the basis to overturn it.

    Prof. Gabriele, I’d forgotten the Remensnyder take, but of course this is why Girona keep hauling out their diploma from Louis the Pious in court, even though they also get it updated every reign: the old one has Urcarolingian cachet. Someone could, and it may indeed be I, do something with this importance of the Carolingian identification in Catalonia. I have one orphan paper which starts on this idea as part of something bigger and my sense is more and more that that bit needs saying first.

    As for Tarragona however, I’m less sure. My immediate recollection, which may be faulty but could probably be checked in either of Astronomer or Thegan in the DMGH, is that when Louis and his armies campaign against Tortosa and Huesca in 809, one of the two armies swings down to Tarragona first but doesn’t try to retake it, just raids and harries. Actually taking Tarragona at that point would probably be pretty easy; it’s a long way off the frontier, basically ruinous and the Muslims have no real interest there. Equally, however, holding on to it is a real problem because there’s just nothing much to use and not much hinterland to exploit. It’s not easily defensible even once it genuinely is on the frontier, either in the eleventh century reconquest campaigns or before. There’s fairly solid evidence from the Arabic side that the Catalan counts actually do retake it in 941/2, though, and then have to give it back in negotiations in 961, and I can give chapter and verse on that if you would like though you should be aware that someone in the USA who reviewed one of my papers, and must therefore be Paul Freedman, Adam Kosto or Thomas Bisson really, thinks it very unlikely even though to my mind the evidence is pretty clear. Sorry not to be more use right away; I can try and dig up the 809 cite later if it would help. The place I will be looking is my notes on Josep María Salrach’s El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols, if that helps at all.

  4. First of all, please call me Matt.

    Anyway, really interesting stuff here. I’m especially interested in the memory of the Carolingians in Catalonia (leading a roundtable at the Medieval Academy on the memory of the Carolingians soon and I’m editing a volume on the Charlemagne legend). If that appears somewhere, please let me know. If you’re interested in doing it for a panel, I might have an idea, so send me an email…

    As for Tarragona, thanks for all the thoughts. It’s kind of what I was thinking. If you find anything out, please let me know. I’ll scour Astronomer and Thegan sometime. It’s kind of a minor thing but might allow me to make a neat point…

  5. Right, got it. Thank heavens, my recollection is correct. It is in Astronomer, cap. 14, and he says that Tarragona is one of several places that the seaward army take in an initial advance in the first of three campaigns against Tortosa or Huesca, which is probably (says Salrach) 804X6, though the Arabic sources seem to remember one fewer expedition than Astronomer does: “At succedente æstate cum quanto visum est bellico apparatu in Hispaniam proficiscitur, profectus est per Barcinnonam et veniens Terraconem, quos ibidem repperit cœppit, alios fugavit, universaque loca, castella, municipia usque Tortosam vis militaris excidit et flamma vorax consumpsit.” You go, Franks! Unfortunately, what Astronomer doesn’t explicitly say but leaves implicit in the account of the subsequent Cordoban retaliation, they have to give it up in the following retreat when things go wrong. Salrach reference is the work as given above, i. pp. 32-5. And in Googling for that I found a copy of it for sale for cheap, so this has done me good. I shall drop you a mail about the rest, too, though I certainly can’t make Vancouver on this notice alas :-) Pity, looks interesting, but I have done two foreign trips already this year and another next month and my carbon footprint is in only slightly less shock than my bank balance…

  6. Thanks, Jonathan!

    And keep me informed about Carolingians in Catalonia…

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