I am, as the sidebar may still report by the time this post actually goes up, still slogging through Barbero and Vigil’s Formación del Feudalismo for the Aprisio paper that is hopefully also not any longer mentioned there. I have expressed myself on how heavy going this book is before, and I am torn between urging that its considerable importance makes it compulsory reading for any scholar of early medieval Christian Spain (and even non-Christian Spain, though there maybe only one chapter), and the unshakeable feeling that, if it was so set, the field would be reduced by about ninety per cent as most people gave up the will to study. That all said, and it’s nice to have it off my chest, I’ve just found something interesting. See this little nugget:
Another notice relevant to the era of Ramiro I makes manifest the great difficulties that this monarch endured in consolidating himself on the throne. These difficulties were of orders both political and, more markedly, social. Ramiro I deployed great energy against all his adversaries, members of the nobility who disputed the throne with him. The Albeldense informs us that this king found himself confronting various latrones whom we may consider as peasants in rebellion, that is to say, something similar to that which took place in the reign of Aurelio, and, combined with them, there were also persecuted wizards who were condemned to the fire; these magicians would have been practitioners of the indigenous non-Christian rites and whose roots are to be sought in the ancient organisation of society.1
In some ways this is typical for Barbero and Vigil—you can already see in my fairly close translation perhaps that this is not the most mellifluous prose ever committed to the page—but in others it is not. Most of this book is very careful much-chewed-over consideration of the evidence, but there are certain preconceptions that they had which meant that occasionally they saw something that fitted and it got straight through without critique. I’m afraid this was one such curveball. Some background first of all.
Statue of Ramiro I of Asturias outside the Palau Reial in Madrid, photo by the author
Ramiro I was King of Asturias between 842 and 850. Some sources say he was son of Bermudo I (789-791) but Barbero and Vigil show good reasons to be suspicious about such claims in the Chronicle of Alfonso III, which is among other things very concerned to show a good long ancestry for its namesake monarch and seems to have pedigrees that no other source retains.2 Also, he lived a long time before succeeding if he was born during Bermudo’s reign, and since Bermudo allegedly abdicated because he was persuaded that his having entered the diaconate a long time before barred him from royal power, it is perhaps less likely that he was having kids after abdicating. So anyway, whoever he was, Ramiro was not unopposed, and he first had to defeat a rival king called Nepotian, supposedly a relative of Alfonso II (791-842) whom they were battling to succeed. Had Ramiro not won, I imagine it would now be clear that Nepotian was the closer kin and therefore rightful heir, but Ramiro defeated and killed him and so it’s Ramiro who got written into the succession. Not that things got easier for him: two years later Vikings made one of their few descents on Spain, though Ramiro was tough enough for them, and in 846 the Muslims captured the southernwards city of León, though it is a very long way from clear that Ramiro actually controlled that area despite Alfonso III’s chronicle’s claims, which are a lot more to do with the fact that he did.3 Anyway, Ramiro was unable to laugh that one off and it stayed lost to Asturias for some time.
Santa Maria del Naranco, near Oviedo, previously the royal palace of Asturias, probably built for Ramiro I, image from Wikimedia Commons
Now most of my cynicism about the sources here is straight out of Barbero and Vigil, so you can tell I get on all right with that, but when it looks as if the sources might support some assertions about long continuity and ancient indigenous custom
, which was kind of their deus ex machina
for Asturian peculiarity, such careful sifting of evidence seems to have gone out of the window and we get things like the paragraph above, where to read it you would think that Ramiro’s opponents raised the earth and woods against him in the forms of their inhabitants. It’s like what the Telmarines must have thought when Narnia came back to life
, isn’t it? So, what does the source actually say? Here’s a translation, with the Latin in the footnote:
Ramiro reigned seven. He was a rod of justice. He tore out the eyes of bandits. To wizards he put an end by fire. And the tyrants ranged against him, with amazing speed he overthrew and exterminated. Firstly he overcame Nepotian at the Bridge of Cornellana and thus came to the throne. At the same time the Northmen first came to Asturias. Afterwards of the same Nepotian along with a certain tyrant Aldroito, he blinded the eyes of both of them, and, the victor, killed the proud Piniolo. At Liño he built a church and a palace vaulted with wonderful artistry. There he passed away from this world and rests buried in Oviedo. On the day of the Kalends of February in the Era 888.4
So, er hang on, where’s this unified rural opposition again? I had Nepotian all drawn up with an army of dwarves and hags already, and that just looks like a fairly generic statement of harsh justice meted fairly to me. At the very most it’s a “no-one could kick King Ramiro’s behind! No sir! He kicked theirs! And how!” level of panegyric, not a detailed analysis of his opposition. Unlike in the slave revolt under Aurelio that Barbero and Vigil reference, I don’t see any sign here that there was any genuine peasant uprising in this note; I’m sure Asturias had enough badlands, most notably to the southern edge through which traders might be going to and from Muslim Spain, to keep a fair few bandits going. I don’t think banditry always has to indicate peasant reactions to oppressive rule, I see it more as a reaction to opportunity to make it rich quickly and run away safely, and a border land like there certainly had that.
But what about the wizards? Well, two possibilities spring to mind. Firstly, as Yves Bonnaz whose edition of the Chronicle of Albelda I’m translating there points out in his commentary, regulations against witches and wizards is a good old Visigothic tradition from when the Christianization of Spain was a lot more shaky, and if you’re writing up a good old-fashioned just king in the ninth century, that template probably appeals enough that you invoke it. In that case the chronicler is just trying to say “he enforced law like the kings of old (and thwarted all the causes of social ill mentioned in their laws as I will now list)”. In fact he may be upping the ante, as the Visigoths ‘only’ prescribed 100 lashes and scalping for wizards. Tough times call for tough justice!
Memorial stone from the church of Santianes de Pravia, capital of Asturias during the reign of Ramiro (note the interlace)
But the other possibility involves taking the threat slightly more seriously, and this the kings of the time appear to have done. In 856 King Ordoño I issued a charter to the monastery of San Julián de Samos giving them power to punish “blood-letters, bandits that have fled from the monastery and magicians” (“samguimistios, latrones refugas monasterii, magicos”—’blood-letters’ probably isn’t what that first word means but I can’t do any better with it, can you? and if you can, what about those bandits fleeing from the monastery?)5 The fact that this mission is given to a monastery shows how worldly Church power can get but also associates the missions of moral and spiritual order. We are, as Bonnaz points out (and here he has got some Barbero and Vigil on him I think), in an area where pagan practice was probably still widespread: “Crimes, vols, fuite d’esclaves sans doute, pratique de la magie ne sont-ils pas des phénomènes liés à l’instabilité persistante de ce pays?” he asks,6 because of course as we now see demon-worshippers spring up wherever political order gets a bit wobbly don’t they? Or maybe not. I think this tells us more about Dr Bonnaz and his politics than about early medieval Galicia, to be honest. So what this made me think of was, again, the seminar the other day by Celia Chazelle and her suggestion that priests who were a bit ‘local’ in their liturgical practice might be regarded as magicians by strait-laced reformers. I wasn’t too sure about that, but if you’re asking me what a monk calls or a king called priests who were in political opposition to him, and who probably entreated God against you in ways that might well have appealed to local superstitions, well, ‘magician’ or ‘wizard’ would be one answer I could accept, especially given Dr Chazelle’s various instances of the use of the Christian mystery in charms and spells by apparently sincere believers. So maybe this is what we’re looking at. Or maybe it just is staff-bearing wizards standing on mountain tops after all, but I thought that was a more modern idea…
Hat tip to Modern Medieval there, and oh look it’s the footnotes…
1. Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1978), pp. 262-263, translation mine.
2. Ibid., pp. 300-302 and several points thereafter. See also Amancio Isla, “Monarchy and Neogothicism in the Astur Kingdom, 711-910” in Francia Vol. 26 (Sigmaringen 1999), pp. 41-56.
3. Barbero & Vigil, Formación, pp. 279-285.
4. Y. Bonnaz (ed./transl.), “Chronique d’Albelda” in idem, Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), pp. 10-30 with commentary 67-104, cap. 45. Latin, following Bonnaz’s collation: “Ranimirus regnauit <annis> septem. Virga iustitiae fuit. Latrones oculos euellendo abstulit. Magicis per ignem finem imposuit. Sibique tyrannos mira celeritate subuertit atque exterminauit. Prius Nepotianum ad pontem Narceiae superauit et sic regnum accepit. Eo tempore Nordomanni primi in Asturias uenerunt. Postea idem Nepotianum pariter cum quodam Aldroito tyranno, oculos amborum eiecit, superbumque Piniolum uictor interfecit. In locum Ligno ecclesiasm et palatia arte fornicea mira construxit. Ibique a sæculo recessit et Oueto tumulo requiescit. Sub die kalendas februarias era DCCCLXXXVIII.”
5. Antonio C. Floriano Cumbreño (ed.), Diplomática Española del Periodo Astur: estudio de los fuentes documentales del reino de Asturias (718-910) (Oviedo 1949), I p. 271 as cited by Bonnaz, Chroniques, Alb. 45 comm. n. 2.