Words that all look the same: a way to deal with evidence for social change

Once or twice here, I’ve written about one particular development in the way that Spanish medieval history is viewed and talked about by Spanish historians, which can be viewed as a battle of two schools. This is not just a question of old rivalries and forgotten debating positions, though, as both schools have remained influential and they still have a lot to tell us, not just about medieval Spanish history but about ways to approach our sources in general. I came freshly up against this just the other day and decided that, with a bit of luck, the themes would be close enough to universal to make it a suitable Cliopatria debut topic. So I’ve bitten my lip and posted it there, and you can go read it and agree with the person who thought it was too long if you like. There’s not usually a post at Cliopatria with nothing in to interest even me, despite its fairly modern US focus, so you may already be reading.

On the other hand, I want the search hits too, and you may not want to start tracking me across two blogs, so employing the famous device of the cut, I’ve stationed the rest of the post with minor tweaks underneath this one…

Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz returning to Spain for the second and last time in 1983

Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz returning to Spain for the second and last time in 1983

The old school was that of Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and perhaps more importantly his pupil Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz. Menéndez may be most famous to a world audience as the historical advisor for the Charlton Heston film El Cid, which in many ways encapsulates the romantic view that he and Sánchez-Albornoz retained about the development of their modern Spain out of its medieval formative origins. It should be noted that the two of them did not agree about the state of that modern Spain, as while Menéndez lived out his days under Franco’s government, the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War caused Sánchez-Albornoz depart to Argentina in 1940 where he eventually became the President of the Republic in Exile (1962-70). This responsibility, and the separation from the source materials he knew better than almost anyone, did not stop him producing a bewilderingly huge bibliography of work on the formation of medieval Spain, and in this he was in part ranged against contemporaries who saw modern Spain as essentially a creation of the modern era. On the contrary, Sánchez-Albornoz argued—in between trashing with brutal sarcasm the work of younger scholars still in Spain whose work he thought insufficiently deferent or careful—’Spanishness’ was much older than that, and was rooted in the development of feudalism out of the Muslim installation of clans on land allotments, Visigothic military service by people more or less equivalent to knights in exchange for land, and the brave warrior culture created by the Reconquista (this being where he owed most to Menéndez Pidal, whose work centred on chivalric literature) and the rewards of its conquests for the successful soldiers. And by dint of his huge productivity and his vicious counter-attacks, Don Claudio managed, despite his political exile, to dominate the field of Spanish medieval history for a great many years, taking the lack of challenge to his theories as confirmation of their correctness. I’ve expostulated elsewhere about the complex layers of his work that this created, and a great deal of what he wrote is still indispensable even if one now mainly cites it to disagree, but it’s not actually about Sánchez-Albornoz’s work that I’m writing here. He and his teacher are however essential background for my actual subject, which is the other side of the debate.

Cover of Barbero & Vigil's La Formación del Feudalismo en la Peninsula Ibérica

Cover of Barbero & Vigil's La Formación del Feudalismo en la Península Ibérica

Beginning in 1965 with an article called “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista”, Abilio Barbero de Aguilera and his lifelong collaborator Marcelo Vigil Pascual began to try and knock the ideological stuffing out of this, Barbero especially profiting from training in a newly empirical UK including under Philip Grierson. Instead of some essential Spanishness smelted in the crucible of the Middle Ages, they emphasised much longer continuity, the Ibero-Celtic or older roots of many Spanish communities (though not the Basques, despite their once-substantial presence in the north, still betrayed in place-names), the way that the Visigothic state was given its shape by the Roman province it tried, with incomprehension and inept self-determination (as they saw it), to administer, and the very local basis of power that could come to be seen as feudalism. They assembled various articles on these lines in a book of the same title in 1974, and in 1978 gave their full statement of the case in another volume called La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica. Both books had to be published in Catalan Barcelona, so antithetical to castellano orthodoxy were they, and in a genuine sense both scholars, professors though they both were by this stage, were taking their careers in their hands by publishing such revisionism. Franco might be dead, but Don Claudio lived on and was still very much publishing, though he seems to have found their work too difficult to tackle, or perhaps didn’t see the threat from what was essentially an even older ‘Spanishness’ being proposed.

It seems to me that this kind of substitute iconography is a problem with Barbero & Vigil’s contributions, indeed. They lambast the discipline as it stood in 1978 in Spain at the beginning of Formación, damning it for unadventurous following of masters’ teachings, achieving authority by the depth of cited ‘authority’ and renown simply by page-count. But, though they themselves always stayed clear of regula magistri arguments (in which the reputation of the venerable scholar you cite abnegates any responsibility for finding evidence for your and his point) they did not always escape the ideologies they damned. They didn’t identify as Marxists, but a lot of their perspectives are based on the control of production; they denied Sánchez-Albornoz’s mystical Spanishness but set a new one up in the form of ultra-long social continuity; and though they criticised legal scholars for opposing Roman and German types as if they were real ethnicities, they resorted to such analyses themselves only a few pages away from such decrials.

Formación has become a very influential book, all the same, and given what came before and the empirical and socio-economic bent of medieval history in the sixties and seventies, it’s easy to understand why. Conferences have been held on its impact, and many current scholars of this period, not least José María Mínguez Fernández, are either Barbero or Vigil’s pupils. But it’s very hard going. The two of them wrote extremely dense prose, and when as with the Visigothic period the evidence is so limited, various Church council records and a few laws but no documents or practice and only the baldest of narratives, it can be very hard to stay on top of their style. I was ineluctably reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which a grandmother is showing her long-suffering descendant endless pictures of “Uncle Ted” in various positions around the house. Similarly I could imagine re-phrasing Barbero & Vigil’s chapters as ‘here’s our chosen social phenomenon in one Toledo council; and here it is again in another very similar Toledo council; and here again in a council at Toledo but from a slightly different angle…’ If the Spanish Inquisition had in fact turned up I’d have been very hard pressed to answer any questions about the content of the chapter and would have got the Comfy Chair for sure. Barbero & Vigil were up against a very clever and methodical man and I’m quite sure that their take has more in common with mine than Don Claudio’s, whose conclusions can be very hard to pin down in retrospect; but for enjoyment in the reading the vicious and sardonic President-in-exile wins hands down.


However! Barbero & Vigil do offer one piece of thinking that can serve a great many of us, when they come to discuss the end of slavery. This is a far bigger debate, and I’m not going to try and open it here; I’ve had a smaller go in another post. The point is that they pick up the issue that there were many Roman terms for, well, subjected workers. Some of these people we might call slaves (servi, or worse the neuter mancipium, enforcing in grammar the slave’s dehumanised status), some we might rather call serfs or tied peasants (coloni) but there was clearly a great variation. All these words continue through into our medieval sources, and this gives us problems. Were the writers of our sources being needlessly anachronistic? Did they want impressive Roman-sounding words even though really day-to-day no-one would have called these people slaves any more? Or, was there genuinely the kind of continuity of slavery and the economic structures behind it that would make such words still be relevant as the Muslims arrived? This kind of weight of words troubles many scholars, and for example it underlies quite a lot of Susan Reynolds’s objections to theories of theories of feudalism in the high medieval period as expressed in her Fiefs and Vassals. Many’s the time, indeed, that I’ve heard Professor Reynolds say at Institute of Historical Research seminars, “yes, but what do you think they meant by that word?”, and it is a problem.

Medieval peasants at work

Medieval peasants at work

Barbero & Vigil offer us one way out of this dilemma by appealing to the times, and the general change that they think was afoot, the collapse of large-estate slave farming, the increasing allotment of land to subjected workers and their consequently-increased economic independence, and an enlarged military rôle for lords and their dependants as the Goths took over. Similar patterns could be adduced all over Western Europe, in fact, and the debate could be had in most of these places too. Barbero & Vigil’s route out is to say that it is neither affectation nor continuity, but change. The words are the words a given scribe knows or prefers for people whose social station he knows, relatively, deserves them. These people are dependants of my lord, owe him tribute and cannot leave without his permission, furthermore they are descended from slaves, he says to himself, the Latin for such people is servi. But elsewhere some other scribe has seen people in a similar state and knows that such persons farming their own land for a lord are called coloni, whatever the restrictions on their movement and their ancestry may be like. Both have reason for their choices, but the times have brought the status of the estate worker slave and the ‘hutted’ servus casatus very close together, and that of the colonus close to both. These statuses for which there had been separate words are now close enough to get confused. In effect, the words are still good, but they had come to describe the same things, because those things had changed and merged..

It’s hard to know if they were right, or if this was really special pleading that forces the sources to fit a theory. But it is a theoretical possibility to bear in mind in general, that the things we put labels to won’t always stay still under the labels, and that over a wide distribution in space or time we should really expect our categories to deform.

Reference made in this post to the following works (a tiny sample only of Menéndez Pidal’s and Sánchez-Albornoz’s immense œuvres), of which I don’t claim to have read all:

  • A. Barbero & M. Vigil, “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista: cántabros y vascones desde fines del Imperio Romano hasta la invasión musulmana” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Historia Vol. 156 (Madrid 1965), pp. 271-339, repr. in eidem, Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista, Ariel quincenal 91 (Barcelona 1974, repr. 1979 & 1984), pp. 184-95.
  • eidem, La Formación del Feudalismo en la Península Ibérica (Barcelona 1978)
  • R. Menéndez Pidal, The Cid and his Spain, transl. Howard Sutherland (London 1934, repr. 1970)
  • idem, España, eslabón entre la Cristiandad y el Islam, Colección Austral 1280 (Madrid 1956)
  • idem, España y su história (Madrid 1957)
  • Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994)
  • C. Sánchez-Albornoz, En torno a las orígenes del feudalismo (Mendoza 1942, 2nd edn. Buenos Aires 1974)
  • idem, España, una enigma histórico (Buenos Aires 1957, 2nd edn. 1962, subsequent editions Barcelona 1971, 1973, 1976, 1978, 1983 & 1985)
  • idem, El reino asturleonés (722-1037). Sociedad, Economía, Gobierno, Cultura y Vida. Historia de España Menéndez Pidal Vol. VII: la España Cristiana, 1, ed. Josá María Jover Zamora (Madrid 1980)

One response to “Words that all look the same: a way to deal with evidence for social change

  1. Pingback: Rehabilitating Don Claudio « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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