It is by now no secret that I am a big fan of the work of Wendy Davies. I read her Small Worlds very early on in the work for my thesis, and internalised it so thoroughly that by my viva, where she was the internal marker, I was struck with shame for how little I’d actually cited it. By then, that was just how I thought about what you could do with charter evidence… and the fact that my book title is a riff on one of hers wasn’t even something I noticed until after I’d finished the thesis where I first used it.1 Her stuff has sunk very deep with me. And since she was also my employer for a short while and has since been a celebrity member of my Leeds sessions as well as just generally helpful and encouraging, it was perhaps inevitable that I would wind up praising her recent new book, on northern Spain in the tenth century after all, here. Now I’ve had the excuse to bring it to the top of the to-read pile (after OUP finally actually sent me the copy I bought last July), because some response to it is required for the revisions to a paper with a tight deadline. You can imagine how difficult I found it to do that particular reshuffle…
So, er, hey, you know what, Wendy’s new book’s really great. I mean, obviously unless she actually started work on Catalonia (which she keeps threatening to do) it could hardly be more relevant to my field, since she considers how the charters that make up so much of the evidence from her area of study here were made as well as why, and by whom, and remains awake to the human stories involved in each case. Anyone who has seen us at the same seminar will be tediously aware that it tends rapidly to turn to Wendy and I swapping “hey I have a case like that!” or indeed “that’s weird, I’ve got nothing like this!” stories about some Leonese or Catalan villager whose only place in the record is some desperate transaction he made to save his soul or his livelihood. It doesn’t matter to other people as much but we both want the little stories as well as the big ones. Wendy however is arguably better at making the little ones count towards the big one than I am (so far). So, I could obviously blog the whole thing as I’m just going to love it all, but instead I will spare you and just give a small chunk so you can see where I get this approach from. Chapter 2 starts as follows:
Round about 956 the monk Odoino ran off with a woman called Onega, someone his mother had brought to their family monastery of Santa Comba on the gentle banks of the River Limia in southern Galicia. This was but one colourful episode in Odoino’s more than usually colourful story, at least the way he told it himself. Not long after he was back at Santa Comba, only to be thrown out when Onega accused him of plotting against Count Rodrigo in the stormy days of the late 950s. The monastery was thereupon handed over to a woman called Guntroda, in response to her request, but a change of heart by the count—on his deathbed—allowed Odoino to recover it again. At that point Odoino’s relative, Elvira, abbess of the nearby San Martín of Grau, appeared on the scene and took over Santa Comba by force (per vim), although by 982 Odoino was insisting that he had transferred ownership of Santa Comba to the much larger Galician monastery of Celanova, together with liturgical vessels and vestments, appurtenant lands, a nearby farm and another church.
She goes on to observe: “This very complicated story hangs on the ups and downs of family interest”, and that’s roughly where the rest of the chapter concentrates, with some looking also at just who priests were and what they did that she has since expanded, but what an intro story!2 Complicated it may be but she sets it out clearly, and though Odoino is clearly the real star, waiting only for his Almodóvar to make him famous to anyone prepared to watch Spanish arthouse cinema, it is the author who found him in the archive and put him back centre stage for a page or two who connects his story to a wider one of family monasteries, donation as a stratagem in one’s experience of life, conflicting claims and obligations and, a recurring theme, big monasteries buying up smaller ones and forever changing landscapes and societies. That last, I know something about myself. That’s what I’m doing with this, but if by now you still doubted that either charters or the furthest corner of Christian medieval Europe had something to tell you, I think this book could change your mind.
1. I refer here to Wendy Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1984) and eadem, Patterns of Power in Early Wales: O’Donnell Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1983 (Oxford 1990).
2. Eadem, Acts of Giving: individual, community and church in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), quotes from p. 36. The case in question is described in José Miguel Andrade (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova (Santiago de Compostela 1995), 2 vols, doc. no. 265.