In Marca Hispanica VI: Plana de Gurb (but not the castle)

The area around Vic, if you’re looking at it through the lens of a tenth-century charter sample, is dominated by a few places where Vic cathedral had serious interests. For the third chapter of the thesis, and for part of the third chapter of what will be the book, I focussed on one of these, Gurb, where a powerful castellan lineage managed to anchor themselves by playing off patronage from the counts against patronage from the bishops.1 So I went rather hoping to see what they’d done.

The trouble with looking for material remains from my period, when people are largely building new things in sparsely-populated areas that they’ve organised, which is precisely why it’s exciting of course, is that they tend to build in wood, and then a few decades later when the area’s filled out a bit and the population is under tighter lordship, somebody replaces it with stone and wipes out your archaeology. So though I have plenty of mentions of churches in the Gurb area like Sant Julià de Sassorba and Sant Cristòfol de Vespella, and indeed Sant Andreu de Gurb itself, none of the surviving fabric is what my subjects would have known or worshipped in. The buildings there are still really quite old, eleventh- to twelfth-century in their various cases, and in the case of Sant Julià at least really rather beautiful, in a layered kind of way, especially in glorious morning clear:

Sant Julià de Sassorba in the early morning, being overflown by a hot air-balloon

Sant Julià de Sassorba in the early morning, being overflown by a hot air-balloon

(N. B. the hot-air balloon is not medieval, but I was rather pleased by it anyway.)

Sant Cristòfol is more sober and functional, and also weirdly foreshortened:

The church of Sant Cristòfol de Vespella

Sant Andreu de Gurb itself is bigger than either, and someone (I think I can guess who) put some extra work into it after 1091, when it was consecrated as is, to make this relatively minor church look a bit more splendid and major:

Apse and tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in ‘extreme close up’

But even getting that far was something of a battle. Gurb is not hard to find on a map. It’s incredibly hard to find on the ground, because it’s not where the map puts it. The map and also the roadsigns direct you to the new town, which is about four housing estates, a street of warehouses and retail giants and an edge that blends indistinctly into the suburbs of Vic itself. It’s been swallowed by the expanding city. We got very frustrated by this, because I knew there was a church there somewhere and it was apparently invisible. So we made like proper invaders and climbed a hill to get the lie of the land, whereafter it became apparent that Sant Andreu was actually up the road that was not signposted to Gurb, but to Sant Bartomeu del Grau. So we went there, and having found the church, which is now surrounded by about two other houses, under almost any of which there must presumably be archaeology of habitation, we looked at how we might climb up to the castle. Only…

The Turó del Castell de Gurb as viewed from Sant Andreu

Right, you see how the top of that hill that the camera thought was too close to the sun has a built-up look about it? That’s where the castellans hung out. It’s on a walking route from the church, but it looked from what we could gather as if it would take about an hour and a half. And I might have tried that, had we been able to see where the route went, but the only ways forward seemed to lie through private land. No useful signposting. I had reluctantly to give up on my castle visit, although even knowing that it was so distant from the village helped me to rethink the way people must have related to it. Apart from anything else, if the castellans had decided on a rampage, you’d have had a good half-hour’s warning at ground level…

So what we did instead was to follow the road up to Sant Bartomeu del Grau, which was a brand-new settlement in my period. It perplexed me because, due to this, I was imagining that it was tiny. But, all the same, it must have had some agricultural land so as we drove further and further up the mountain across the Plana de Gurb from the Castell de Gurb, I got more and more confused as all the growing surface passed behind us. Only when we got to the top and I found that there is, on top of that mountain, about 120 acres of good flat growing land, which is now being used for a shiny new town development around the old Romanesque centre (whose church is now being reconstructed from a state so ruinous it wasn’t even worth photographing). That made it a lot clearer to me why someone would have thought it worth climbing up here and building things in the first place.

The other reason though was also evident: firstly, the plateau is slightly higher than the Turó del Castell de Gurb across the way, and secondly, though you can see the castle clearly enough, it’s hours away, on foot or on horseback. Hours away and just over there… You may recognise the rectangular shape on the right-most crest, it’s the same one as in the previous photo, now viewed from the other side:

The Plana de Gurb and the Turó del Castell de Gurb, viewed from Sant Bartomeu del Grau

And somewhere down there on the Plana, a long time ago, the people I write about, and though they’d have been working it harder, that landscape at least hasn’t changed much since they were there. I’ll get the castle next time, somehow, but I understand where it fits far better now.

By the way, isn’t it gorgeous? It was really very hard crossing the Pyrenees back again and seeing all the land become flat again. I may have accidentally become a Catalunyaholic.

1. There is a lively feeling of community among the housing estates of Gurb, it seems, as it managed to generate Santi Ponce i Vivet (ed.), Gurb: un poble arrelat a la terra (Gurb 2003); for work on the churches, the archaeology and lots of photoes however see the articles in Jordi Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I, ed. Jordi Vigué (Barcelona 1984). The castellans are basically studied by Albert Benet i Clarà, La família Gurb-Queralt (956-1276): senyors de Sallent, Oló, Avinyó, Gurb, Manlleu, Voltregà, Queralt i Santa Coloma de Queralt (Sallent 1993). Of course, there is also Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 156-209, and before too long I’ll be able to format that like a book. You may, er, you may then recognise some of the illustrations.


10 responses to “In Marca Hispanica VI: Plana de Gurb (but not the castle)

  1. Yeah, it is. I was thinking that and then saw you had written it out. Something dramatically gorgeous like that can be very evocative when checking out sites researched or read about. Also, as you note in your post, it gives you a sense of the spatial that can be lacking when you have not actually been to the site (since you begin to think of times by foot and horse between relatively nearby sites).

  2. Another vote here for gorgeous. One reason I imagine that Catalunya still exists.

  3. I think it exists in part because it’s quite rich, agriculturally and now also industrially, compared to other drier parts of Spain, and so has a strongly defensive population and resources that it can mobilise; and that verdant potential is part of why it looks so nice, of course, it’s all connected. But as the Sacalm/Tona post tried to make clear, it’s politically very distinctly constituted as well. It’s like Texas trying to legislate to make Austin an autonomous district, it’d dramatically change the political balance of Spain to make Catalunya indepedent.

  4. I do believe this is the castle of which you speak. Amazing view from up there… and you could see anyone coming your way, long before they got there, which is the point of the whole thing.

  5. another site, seems a more religious bent… of course I cannot read the language, so I can only assume.

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