People who ask me what I work on are occasionally moved to respond, when I tell them “Catalan charters”, by asking if there are any narratives from my area. And well, in the sense they mean, chronicles, saints’ lives, no, there aren’t.1 Extracting a macro-history for Catalonia once the various Frankish annals stop paying attention is a bit tricky and has thankfully been done very well by others cleverer and subtler than me.2 However, as I’m always trying to show, that doesn’t mean there are no narratives, because every transaction is a narrative. Not only that, it often contains another, describing what happened that caused this transaction to take place. Sometimes that’s as conventional as “Jesus died to save us and the Fathers tell us that alms may free the soul from death”. And sometimes, it’s a court case where it’s all clearly got a bit mad. But aside from murder, jealousy, envy and contention, can you get at the good side of humanity in these documents? Well, maybe sometimes.
You see, there once was a man, a mighty man who was named Sal·la. He was a vicar, which here means an officer who holds the place of the count at some castle or other, a fiscal representative. But Sal·la ranged over such a wide area that we don’t know where he was actually vicar of, and one of his documents calls him an ‘egregious prince’. You could find his lands on the western Girona border at Sacalm, or right out in the ‘extreme furthest limits of the marches’ at Òdena, and many points between; he gave land to peasants under an agreement that they would develop it for him, he built towers and he founded a monastery at Bages in honour of Saint Benedict of Nursia, Sant Benet to the Catalans, and well for us that he did or we’d have precious little record of him, were he never so mighty.3
Now Sal·la had children, in fact he had at least four. A boy called Sunifred died in infancy, but the others whom we know about grew to adulthood, and they were called Unifred, Isarn and Filmera. (There’s also another Sal·la who’s clearly related to this bunch but they never call him a sibling and I feel sure they would have if that’s what he were.) Filmera became Abbess of Sant Pere de les Puelles in Barcelona, probably by agreement with Count Borrell II that Sant Benet would hand over the castle of Maians to him, because Sant Benet was subject only to the bishop of Rome, and Borrell didn’t like his defence network falling out of his hands like that. Unfortunately, Filmera was probably still abbess in 985, when Barcelona was sacked by the Muslims and all the nuns carried off as captives. In fact Sal·la’s kids by and large don’t seem to have lived long and prospered. Sal·la himself lived till probably 970, when he must have been old; we first see him purchasing in the late 920s. Unifred fell ill and died in 978, all the same, and Isarn didn’t live a great deal longer. Filmera may even have been the last living in her generation of the family. But let’s talk more about Unifred.
Unifred was an unusual man in one small respect, which is that he affected a surname, Amat. Then, as now, that simply means ‘Beloved’, from Latin amatus. Even more unusually, his son Guillem also adopted the surname, and he was the only one of the family who continued on to be important after Filmera’s unhappy deportation. Both were presumably beloved by Guillem’s mother, Riquilda, but she seems to have died not very long after he was born; she didn’t execute Unifred’s will in 978, and little Guillem only came of age (14, under Visigothic Law) in 982, when Riquilda’s brother Seniol, a priest, passed on to him a load of properties, presumably hers, that he had been holding in trust till that time. So he was ten when his dad died and his mum was already gone. Dismal, no?
And not much better for Unifred, you might think, but there you’d be wrong. One of the people who did execute Unifred’s will, along with brother Isarn and some others, was a woman called Sesnanda. Exactly what she was to the family takes a little working out, because we only have land transactions to go on. She was clearly no farm girl, as she bought land from Unifred before he died and then called him “senior meo“, ‘my lord’. But even in comparatively equitable Catalonia a female landholder is a rarity in the documents, especially one with no apparent family, and after a while it becomes clear that the connection between them was a bit more than patronage. Many years later, in 996, she came to a court at Vic, and there she appealed one Bonfill Sendred for having appropriated lands of hers in Òdena. When the court asked this venerabilis femina how she claimed these lands, she explained that they had come to her from ‘her man the late Unifred by bounden testament, by a series of conditions [the formulaic phrase used for the sworn declaration of a testament] and by other scriptures’. And in case we were in any doubt, she went on to explain that Unifred had cleared these lands from the waste “with his father Sal·la”. But it’s quite a lot of land at issue: when it’s actually listed, it covers much more than just Òdena. She had done well out of Unifred, even if we don’t have the bequest from his will that might show this and explain things better.
The court found for her, of course—we have the document, after all. But it seems clear that Unifred had pretty much showered her with wealth at his death, leaving poor lil’ Guillem to mostly inherit his mother’s lands instead. So Sesnanda was apparently dearer to Unifred than just a vassal, and you’ll notice that by 996 she doesn’t remember him as ‘my lord’ any more but ‘my man’, “viro meo“. So now we have only imagination to fill the gaps. A daughter of some vassal of Sal·la’s, orphaned early and rapidly catching Unifred’s eye and protection? Was Riquilda already dead? Maybe this was soon after she’d died, and Unifred found himself lonely and glad of a pretty pair of considerate eyes. (Or, of course, maybe Riquilda wasn’t dead, and Unifred was fed to the teeth with her and fancied a bit on the side; but that’s a little cynical, isn’t it?) And then, a few years later, Sesnanda’s on her own again, but Unifred’s done his best to make her a rich woman able to make her own choices, and by 996 she’s at least middle-aged and respected, ‘venerable’ and what we might call a common-law partnership is something she can call on in court and the judges recognise her claim. Now, we have to fill in a lot of gaps, but nonetheless, between these property movements, there is a love story. Unifred much-beloved, indeed; a bitter-sweet thing to smile at in a rather tragic collapse of a grand family.
If you have enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming) by the same author, where this and many other stories are told, and whose body text the author finished on Wednesday! Available in time for Easter
20092010 I really really hope!
1. This curiosity addressed in Thomas N. Bisson, “Unheroed Pasts: history and commemoration in South Frankland before the Albigensian Crusade” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge 1990), pp. 281-308.
2. Mainly by Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, as in Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies Catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980) and Josep María Salrach, as in El Procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres de l’Abast 136 & 137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols; if you wanted English, you’d be stuck with Roger Collins, Early Medieval Spain: unity and diversity, 400-1000, 2nd edn. (Basingstoke 1995), pp. 250-63, or Michel Zimmermann, ‘Western Francia: the southern principalities’ in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume III: c. 900-c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 420-56 at pp. 441-49. Better than either, but hard to obtain, is Josep María Salrach i Marès, ‘Carlomagno y Cataluña en el marco de la Europa carolingia’ in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 19-27, transl. as ‘Charlemagne and Catalonia in the context of Carolingian Europe’ ibid. pp. 427-31.
3. Now trust me, I could document all of what follows except where I explicitly say it has to be imagined, but the footnotes would be pages worth. Instead, if you really care, you can either wait till the book comes out, or you can lay hold of Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, where this stuff is set out at pp. 228-236. Some other attention is paid to Sal·la and his kids by Adam Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 44-74 at pp. 60-62.