Frontier communes in tenth-century Barcelona

The Leeds paper is going well, but the supporting materials are still under way; the week ahead is being a right pig to organise; and I have to be slept and sane before I try and herd medieval bloggers, and at this time in my life `slept’ and `sane’ appear to conflict with each other badly. Anyway, I once more have no fresh content, so I’ve just done a brisk run through one of the charter files I keep looking for something to tell you about. And as it happens what I’ve come up with chimes nicely with The Naked Philologist demanding more female medieval interest figures in her blogging, and posts elsewhere about nuns indeed; so it’s time for female monasticism!

In early medieval Spain, there were few nunneries, far fewer than there were monasteries. In Catalonia, in particular, there were only three by 1000, possibly four, and all of those comital foundations which probably had strong requirements for entry (by which I mean, substantial land grants). The oldest was Sant Joan de les Abadesses, so dear to my heart, but even that had only been founded in 885; before that, then, what did Spanish women with religious urges do?

The answer lies in a Latin phrase, deo dicata, ‘dedicated to God’ (feminine), and it’s a practice going back to the sixth century if not before. I mean, you could draw it back to Cæsaria of Arles and her private convent if you wanted. Basically, imagine that you are a widow of independent means. You may well therefore need to stop people trying to make you remarry so as to reclaim your land, or you may just genuinely want to live la vida apostólica, or indeed both. So you go to the local bishop, if you’re doing it by the book anyway, and you agree that a certain portion of your estate will be set aside from secular jurisdiction under his protection, and there you live, with a priest visiting regularly to check on you, or indeed being resident if you’re that rich, simply and piously, praying a lot but not under any particular Rule or anything; these terms get worked out in each individual case.

The river Llobregat passing through Monistrol de Montserrat

Sometimes you could do this in a town house, and not really lose much by way of society; sometimes, for whatever reason, you might have had to go further afield. The charter I picked up on is one in the Arxiu Capitular de Barcelona, in which one such deo dicata, Aurúcia, gets a chunk of land for such religious purposes from none other than Count-Marquis Borrell II (which is of course why I know). It’s right out on the frontier, on the Riu de Llobregat (which is far enough out even in the late tenth century) and another of the boundaries is “ipsa limite”, ‘the frontier itself’ (though I’m never sure exactly what that means; it turns up in Girona too, which was never on the frontier). And, interestingly, she wasn’t alone; another deo dicata had land next door, and her husband is referred to, ‘the judge Odesèn who is now a monk’. Odesèn turns up enough previously that we know they had some land between them; but if all these snippets should be combined, near the end of their lives they seem to have all decided to sort out their souls and go and live like farmers (possibly quite rich farmers, for sure) in the wilderness. This was 986, not even a year after the sack of Barcelona by Muslim troops who must have come very close by this area (and the land is at a place called Torre, indicating a local fortification), so it’s not a location I necessarily would have chosen! but good on ’em all the same. It sounds idyllic. Of course you could only really have the idyll if you could afford to be idle, but Aurúcia was plainly very rich; we also have her will, what makes this clear. But here she is living, or attempting to live, a genuinely good life. It’s funny what you find in charters.

Edit: I suppose there are worse things to typo than `love’ for `live’, but I still wish I wouldn’t.

The charter in question is edited as Àngel Fabregà i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), doc. 160, and Aurúcia’s will is doc. 220 there. On female monasticism and deo votae, what I know about is basically in Spanish languages, specifically Montserrat Cabré i Pairet, “«Deodicatae» y «Deovotae». La regulación de la religiosidad femenina en los condados catalanes, siglos IX-XI” in A. Muñoz Fernández (ed.), Las Mujeres en el Cristianismo Medieval: imágenes, teóricas y cauces de actuación religiosa, Colección Laya 5 (Madrid 1989), pp. 169-182 or Cabré, “El monaquisme femení” in Borja 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 Marés (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 174-175. You can however now at least have a look in Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), pp. 164-188, and I’m sure there must be generic treatments you have closer to hand.

5 responses to “Frontier communes in tenth-century Barcelona

  1. Thanks for the link!

    It is a continuing puzzlement to me that so few nunneries were founded in Catalonia, when men’s monasteries are plentiful. I speculate this had something to do with the frontier & repopulation situation; perhaps it’s more acceptable for one or two widows to establish a pious retreat for themselves than to create a new foundation that will attract young women of childbearing age? I can’t point to any hard evidence for this idea, though.

  2. The security question is my best guess, but then Count Guifré isn’t afraid to put his daughter in charge of a frontier colonisation operation, and the nuns at Barcelona actually fare worse, so, that doesn’t really work out anyway. I’d say it’s because powerfully-established alternative traditions exist, which is true but also true for men, the whole Augustinian and Fructuosan monastic models continue important here.

    I suppose a more engaged analysis might pick up on some of Régine Le Jan’s arguments about what dynastic strategies the Merovingian and Carolingian élites are pursuing with their female foundations, and asking if there’s something about Spanish monasticism that means that couldn’t work here; but I’m not going to do it right now… (I can provide the Le Jan ref. if it’s something that would interest you, however.)

  3. I think there are several different factors involved here. One is that institutional female monasticism never seems to have been strong in southern France in the early Middle Ages either (despite the early role of Arles), so that there wasn’t an obvious place from which it could be spread into Catalonia. The other is questions of timing. When do the Catalonian male monasteries get built? The real boom in convent founding is in the seventh century, but the Carolingians justn’t aren’t interested in female religious in the same way, not hostile, just not interested. (I’m writing a paper that touches on this at the moment).

    If you want to know more about the different forms of early medieval female religious life, by the way, there are a couple of useful recent works. The more accessible (English and on the web) is Lindsay Rudge, “Texts and Contexts: Women’s Dedicated Life from Caesarius to Benedict [of Aniane]” (PhD, St Andrews, 2006), which is available from the St Andrews’ website. There’s also a recent German book (some papers in French): Lorenz Sönke and Thomas Zotz, eds., Frühformen Von Stiftskirchen in Europa: Funktion Und Wandel Religiöser Gemeinschaften Vom 6. Bis Zum Ende Des 11. Jahrhunderts. Festgabe Für Dieter Mertens Zum 65. Geburtstag, Schriften Zur Südwestdeutschen Landeskunde, 54 (Leinfelden-Echterdingen: DRW-Verlag, 2005), which has a number of papers on female religious.

  4. Very interesting! If only I could go be a rich farmer in my retirement.

  5. When do the Catalonian male monasteries get built? The real boom in convent founding is in the seventh century, but the Carolingians just aren’t interested in female religious in the same way, not hostile, just not interested.

    Some of the Catalan houses may have kept going from the palæochristian or Visigothic era, though evidence is scant, but most are foundations of the eighth and ninth centuries, either by immigrant Mozarab religious or by the comital family or upper-rank nobles. The former are very unlikely to be female, but the latter group ought to be seeing the same benefits that nobles did elsewhere; you’re quite right, though, that the Le Jan articles I was thinking of all concern the Merovingian era rather than the Carolingian one. It all contrasts rather oddly with the Ottonian profile of foundation, though, doesn’t it?

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