Seminary XXVIII: settling disputes across three countries

A monk in the stocks being berated by a bishop

Promised for a few days now, here is a report on the last seminar of the term in the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages series, at which Wendy Davies was speaking to the title “Disputes and disputing in early medieval Spain: some comparisons with Wales and Brittany”. Wendy is perhaps the only person who could speak to this title, having spent considerable and intense scholarly hours acquiring a knowledge of the relevant charter corpora second to few and in combination, none. I’m not sure I got very much out of the effort of comparison, though, as it distracted me from the fascinating, and sometimes horrifying, dispute stories. However, because Wendy is a scholar, it behoves me to point out that she did make some serious points of comparison, considering the evidence from the point of view of:

  • kinds of dispute: Spain leaves us many more cases that don’t involve land in dispute, though this is usually because land is what is given instead of the financially-impossible compensation
  • procedure: Spain shows up officers of the court, mainly the ambiguous saiones, and makes much more of producing documents in evidence, even if they can as shown elsewhere on this blog be oversworn fairly easily, and Brittany has a lot of cases but only ever one sworn statement, which suggests that it’s something they really don’t usually do
  • modes of proof: Spain likes documents and sworn statements, as said, inquests, walking bounds (this last probably also occurring in Wales and Brittany) and even the ordeal, though I emphasised what Jeffrey Bowman has said, that you only go to ordeal when everything else has failed, so it’s always a breach of procedure even if it is itself done ritually; in all areas, however, the verdict and opinion of the local ‘good men’ can be crucial or even overcome an otherwise procedural judgement
  • outcomes: for major crimes, as well as compensation for the victims or their kindred, Spanish courts take a fine themselves, and sometimes this is land that is then donated to the Church which is the only reason we know about this
  • and

  • enforcement, usually done with sureties in all areas (though I couldn’t find you this in Catalonia), and in Spain the documentary forms may be hiding private settlements that are much more obvious in the Breton documents

Wendy emphasised that all these areas had formal courts, though the Breton ones could be no more than village assemblies: she suggested that such courts probably existed in all areas, but either only Brittany bothers to document them because there is almost no higher structure there, or else, the documents in Spain from them have not been preserved because there is no ecclesiastical interest in doing so. I think that last one shouldn’t be overstated: there are judgements from Catalonia that, I’m sure, exist only because the judge was a donor to the church of entirely unconnected properties (I should blog that one, just to have it somewhere), and though arguing from silence is always dodgy there could be an argument in this one. We kept coming up against the problem of what each society might have considered worth recording, and what that meant that we couldn’t see; in this, whatever Wendy pulls out of this (and she was speaking of another book), she may well reset our previous understanding which hasn’t really changed since two articles of Roger Collins’s in the mid-eighties.1

But always the best bit of disputes studies is the stories, because this is where we see medieval people in extraordinary circumstances, where we know emotions ran high and where any supposed grip of ritual or social control slipped looser than usual. It’s where the humanity of our subjects comes out strongest. So it seems best to close this with one of the more surprising stories that Wendy handed out, from northern Portugal in 943. The parts that I have emphasised are where the Latin, which is, er, unusual, most threatens to evade translation, and if anyone wants the original to compare, I’ll happily transcribe in comments.2

There is no doubt, but it remains known by many: I, Adulf, a priest, for my sin and by the schemings of the Devil who deceived me, I committed homicide upon a man by the name of Leo. And I compensated that homicide to his kin and there remained of that payment a portion due from me that I could not supply. And they led me for to die and I came before my lord Ansuri Gudesteiz and his wife Eilewa. And I asked the worthy men that they would make up stories to that man, so that he might put forth his protection for me since I did not have [the wherewithal] to supply that and so that I might liberate myself of that homicide and I would give to that lord Ansuri all my heredity so that I might be free of that same homicide for all the days of my life, and just so did he. On account of which I Adulf the priest, it pleases me through good peace and free will that I should give or concede my church to you the lord Ansuri and your wife Eilewa, my own church called Sao João, whose basilica is founded below Mt Petrosselo, the river Tamega running to the villa that they call Luzim in the aforesaid place in the homestead which was my father Prudentius’s, which I built from the grass up…

And from there on much more normal, but it’s quite scary stuff, isn’t it? The agonies of remorse but at the same time the hope of somehow escaping the ultimate punishment, and the whole doing the best he could but ultimately needing more help than he could get without basically subjecting himself. On a macro scale this is how peasants are supposed to become serfs, or at least one way, but firstly this is a professional who presumably lives on tithes as well as what used to be his estate revenue, and secondly he’s no ordinary peasant, if his father had this homestead and he could raise his own church on it. Makes me wonder who Leo’s kin were, and how powerful. And from there the whole question of how and why the murder took place! The Devil deceived him: is that just empty metaphor, or did he have some plan to achieve something by the murder that didn’t come off? Dammit, Adulf, you could have told us more…

1. I say `another book’, because of course she only just published Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007). The two Collins articles, meanwhile, are R. Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, & idem, “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (eds), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104, both of which are reprinted in R. Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), V & VI respectively. Collins argues that the Visigothic legal forms that generated Spanish dispute documents required an initial statement of the case, a record of any oath sworn, and a final quitclaim by the losing party, so that every case should generate at least three documents, but that these later combine into two or even one. The Leonese stuff that Wendy was showing us just doesn’t fit this: it comes from all points in the process, and those processes often had many stages, all of which generated some documentation of which we rarely if ever have more than one piece. Pity, because the Catalan stuff might almost fit the scheme…

2. Alexandre Herculano (ed.), Portugaliae monumenta historica a sæculo octavo post Christum usque ad quintumdecimum. Diplomata et chartae, vol. I (Lisbon 1867), doc. no. LIII, p. 31.

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