The latter part of a conference volume that I was recently reading, so as to make watertight the final revision of a forthcoming paper, has set me thinking about the whole transformation argument one more time.1 (Still not ready to write that paper yet.) However, because that conference was concentrating mainly on late Antiquity and was largely attended by archæologists and historians who travel with them, it’s left me looking at it from an unusual point of view, and one that I have some trouble articulating (though that may just be shortage of sleep or coffee). So here is a slightly wandering review which may help me clear my thoughts. It’s a long long post, so it mostly lies behind a cut; you’ll be able to tell, I hope, from what lies above that whether you need to read either the post or the book.
Because of the late antique focus, the book’s input is much less about the feudal transformation concept we know and, well, know, and more about what Chris Wickham has called ‘the other transition’, the end of the Roman system of trade and land ownership and the development of successor kingdoms. He, and some others, have argued that those kingdoms are ultimately based on a system of service-for-land that is later formalised as what the « mutationnistes » call feudalism and that others have wished that they wouldn’t.2 Okay so far?
Because, also, the book is mainly about the old Tarraconensis, the Roman and later Visigothic province of North-West Spain and the northern side of the Pyrenees, the contributors also have to deal with two other historical or historiographical complexes. First and less disputable is the effect of Islam on this furthest reach of Islamic Spain, though there is debate here about how strong that effect was. Second is the supposed Reconquest and its attached depopulation-and-repopulation historiography, which holds or held that the frontier zones between the new Islamic polity and the surviving or following Christian principalities along the Northern edge of Iberia became almost empty and were then settled by an aggressive movement from those kingdoms that culminated in the demolition of the fragmenting Islamic Caliphate and the recovery of Toledo, Tarragona, Lisbon or whatever your favourite important Iberian capital is. This historiography has, as we have seen before, come under less attack for Aragón than for elsewhere, and since that was definitely in the conference area opinions here varied quite widely. However I still have a sense of some consensus that the historians of the transformation who approach it mainly from documents are missing a number of important tricks, and am therefore trying to get my head round what these suggestions do to that historiography.
If I start with the effect of Islam, that may be simplest. One study here works with a big survey map of lower Aragón, locating sites on it that have shown medieval evidence from various periods, and argues that the whole area sheds population heavily from the third century on: basically the Roman third-century crisis kills the villa network and specialised agriculture and starts people leaving for areas where they can farm without a long-range market or complicated wide-ranging irrigation systems. It doesn’t, they say, recover till the twelfth century, that is though the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus have some ideas about agriculture and irrigation they don’t bother with this area.3 This sits oddly with the paper by Ramon Martí, who is arguing here as he argued in 1999 that the Muslim occupation locks and arrests a process of collapse of the fiscal ownership of land and slave agriculture. In order to prove this possible in this area, he has to maintain that there were a very large number of Muslim settlements and proposes, on the basis of evidence presented in a different paper that I shall have to track down, that almost all of the numerous settlements in Aragón and Catalonia formed on the word Palau or Palacio represent such Muslim state properties.4 (Others have reckoned for a much more ancient fiscal ownership being manifest in those, and I would argue that some of them are probably more recent too.5) Martí does however have some archaeology that suggests that some of these places are at least settled pre-Reconquest. In either case, the gap between these writers’ perception of the density of Muslim intervention is odd, and only partly explicable through their methods.
Then there’s depopulation. Here again the survey paper of Benavente, Ortiz and Paz is starkly differentiated from the others, with its argument of prolonged and genuine depopulation of a marginal area. It does however sit quite well with the historiography of post-Roman Britain, because of pointing to a reoccupation of old hilltops and hillforts in the wake of the Roman collapse. That we can believe, but another paper argues that quite a lot of what has been identified, from typology and layout, as Iberian occupation of these hilltops, is actually later, or at least, not demonstrated until the sixth or even later centuries.6 That’s interesting, to me, because although a few of the places I study are hilltops that definitely do have roots that old, the idea that such places could become power centres later on fits very well with my observations, and I would like to explore rather more the possibility that it’s exactly their rôle as old centres of burial, and therefore probably cult, that makes them such candidates for power centres of one sort or another.7 Benavente, Ortiz and Paz don’t however seem to think that this flight to the hills balances the depopulation, and they don’t really ask where the people they consider to have left went, or where the revived population came from. I would assume that they fled to the hills where water was easier to use and safety less precarious, but I’m conscious that that itself is a bit old-fashioned as an idea and it’s interesting that the archæology doesn’t appear to think it’s outdated.8 Furthermore, it dovetails almost perfectly with the single paper on Navarre, whose author sees that upland area as being fully populated for the tenth and eleventh centuries and then bleeding people onto the plains till there was almost no-one left, though this again could just be methods; she is working mainly from textual records of toponyms, which must privilege the best-documented period around 1000 quite considerably and doesn’t necessarily let us date the drain that is evident by, say, the eighteenth century with any precision.8bis
There are some other methodological problems with doing this stuff that the last two papers bring out very well, and that help to explain why these different views can be sustained over very similar areas (though of course, it may be that Bajo Aragón and Navarre were just stand-out weird in the period, in entirely opposite directions). First is of course the thinking that the interpreters bring to their evidence. It’s clear that Benavente, Ortiz and Paz are still really expecting to find “despoblación y repoblación” and that they believe their evidence demonstrates what we ‘know’ happened in these areas.9 But how can they get away with it? Well, Philippe Araguas is not the only person to point out, bitterly, that dating evidence for the archæology of Dark Age Spain is awful—usually no coins, often no ceramics and what there is almost unchanging from fourth to eleventh centuries—but he is the most sarcastic. Witness:
This formula, « before the year 1000 », is the panacea for archæologists suffering from sickness of the chronological dating criteria: since the forms (architectural or ceramic) cannot be dated, for the moment, with any kind of assurance except from the eleventh century onwards, it is in that undetermined chronological space that one places sites of uncertain date without specifying if that « before » is before the fatuous date of 1000 by some years, some decades or some centuries. In fact, if one adds up everything that historians and archæologists suppose to have been made towards the year 1000, one must suppose that the population of Western Europe at the end of the tenth century must have been extraordinarily numerous and endowed with an energy and capacity for work that is today unimaginable! In a certain number of cases it seems to me that this « before the year 1000 » would profit from being opportunely replaced by a no less vague but certainly less narrowly constraining « early Middle Ages » while waiting for the impossible director fossil that will make clear more precisely the chronology of this or that site.10
Araguas is not the only person to express such dissatisfaction with the phantoms of the year 1000, and Martí argues for abandoning the periodization and talking instead about a “medieval transition” between antiquity and feudalism, which I quite like minus the feudal hang-up.11 Benoît Cursente, summing up, asks whether there’s any age that doesn’t have another before and one after which it must therefore join, and therefore whether we can’t just discuss the early Middle Ages on its own terms rather than as a passage from and to something else, which is something that we’ve discussed here indeed, but that seems to me to lose differentiation and change.12 Really we should be doing this with more periods, not fewer; the Roman period as a transition from Celtic to barbarian, the Renaissance period as a transition from high medieval states to Great Powers, and so on. And there is the interesting perspective that from the Islamist side of the discipline Philippe Sénac thinks it makes more sense to talk about a `mutation of the tenth century’, a reference I’m sure must be intentional, when the state and its records take much more of an interest in fortifications, both building new ones and garrisoning old ones, while towns also grow to new sizes, new settlements arise in the countryside around the new fortifications (and the old ones, thus opening records of them), and new ceramic types develop by which we can date all these places.12bis
But ceramics are a key problem in this area because they fail to provide much dating evidence, and aside from them, there isn’t any. Well, not much; occasionally, as already seen, we get a few Visigothic coins. But for the most part there’s nothing to distinguish an Umayyad occupation from a poor Visigothic fiscal fundus or an eleventh-century peasant clearance. This means that it’s very difficult to get much chronology from a map, like the method of Benavente, Ortiz and Paz, when any of your markers could be hundreds of years before or after each other. (Mickey Abel once said very similar things with the particular evidence of churches in the Duero valley that appear to relate in orientation to the Muslim husūn of the area, and if by any chance she’s reading can I please please beg her to publish somehow, or failing that send me files to put up here for her?13 Thankyou.) So Araguas may be right that we push much too much close to 1000, but can we do otherwise with the dating evidence we have?
Well, the last paper dodges slightly by talking about Italy, but it does indubitably have an answer to this question. The paper is a very short piece by Richard Hodges, he of Dark Age Economics and 18 fewer research jobs in his museum, and it says, principally, two things: firstly that in order to get any useful sense of change over time from an archæological site we need to dig almost all of it, to see how shifts of settlement and use occur, and that where we’ve been able to do this long chronlogies have emerged that really mess with historical paradigms. He gives the examples of hilltop towns in Tuscany like Poggibonsi, which I last heard of when Chris Wickham was using it as an example of how historians and archæologists don’t really want answers to the same questions. Poggibonsi, what Chris didn’t make much of, was occupied from very early on, but develops a manorial complex only in the sixth century, and isn’t documented until the ninth. It’s not alone in this; in the ninth century something seems to happen that leads to these places where the aristocracy apparently ran to in the sixth century when even in Italy villa agriculture broke down and one couldn’t stay in the towns any more (in which I think Chris might argue with him!) turning up in the record.14 Pierre Toubert, a long time ago, drew attention to this efflorescence of seigneurial power centres and clustering of settlement around them, and coined the term incastellamento, which was enthusiastically received by those following Duby in seeing similar processes at work in their areas come 1000, but here Hodges explicitly says that Toubert and his followers are wrong because this is a much older phenomenon, one that he attributes not, as did Toubert, to a collapse of public Carolingian authority, but to its arrival and the subsequent growth of a rôle and profit opportunities for the local aristocracy. This, I like very much as an interpretation as it’s very much what I see happening in the frontier areas of Catalonia.15 All the same, this is Italy, not Spain, so what can I say generally from all this?
Well, one thing is that we might have a good reason to disconnect Italy, too, from the feudal transformation that England, Germany and many other countries have already failed to join. (I think the jury has to stay out on Islamic Spain however; here Hodges compares very well to a paper by Juan Souto on Muslim Calatayud, which assumed its importance as a local power centre because of the state building it up to oppose Banū Qāsī Zaragoza, exactly as per Sénac’s `mutation of the tenth century’, but the growth of local power centres in the wake of the Umayyad state’s collapse is also undeniable.)16 If we can cut it down to just parts of France and then feel free to develop new and better paradigms for other areas that might be a great help. Or, we can develop much longer chronologies, which the archæology is plainly going to help with, though in Spain hampered by the Araguas problem in reverse, that we can’t really tell something is not close to the year 1000 when it shows up. At the end of this, the archæological stance of dismissing the documents when archæological evidence shows that historians using the documents must be wrong, doesn’t satisfy me. There must change something that explains why those documents start to look different (or, in some cases, simply to exist). In a lot of these areas it might just be preservation taking its time to reveal a long-term ‘medieval transformation’; but in others there is a social change of record that ought, I think, to reflect, a change in social attitude,17 and if we are going to get away from trying to explain so much of Europe’s development in one theory, we ought all the same to retain a few cases where a violent or stark change in social structures and attitudes between, say, 900 and 1100, really does explain what’s going on.
1. The volume, Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006); the paper Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe (Oxford forthcoming).
2. Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36; rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 7-42; idem, “La chute de Rome n’aura pas lieu” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 99 (Bruxelles 1993), pp. 107–126; idem, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51; cf. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).
3. José Antonio Benavente Serrano, Juan Ángel Paz Peralta & Esperanza Ortiz Palomar, “De la Antigüedad tardía hasta la conquista cristiana en el Bajo Aragón” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 99-119.
4. Ramon Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval”, ibid pp. 145-166, and idem, “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cutura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Madrid 1999), pp. 59-63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451, both citing Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Debax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-70.
5. For the ancient angle, see Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, “Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn de l’any 1000” in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 254-283, with English abstract pp. 285-286. For my part I could add that in Santa Maria de Palautordera, in Montseny, Barcelona, the ‘palau’ is locally remembered as the bishop’s tithe barn where the rents were collected, which had before its demolition last century allegedly been standing since the sixteenth. I’m not saying there wasn’t something else there before, you understand, just that if people could understand the term that broadly in the, say, nineteenth century, there’s surely no way to be sure that every occurrence of it is ancient without going through old maps and so on and researching the age of every single case.
6. Benavente, Paz & Ortiz, “De la Antigüedad”, pp. 105-107; cf. Wade H. Richards, “Settlement Studies in Dark Age Wales: Archaeology and Social History” in Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies Vol. 17 (1986), online at http://repositories.cdlib.org/cmrs/comitatus/vol17/iss1/art7. Arguments about Iberian settlements not so being in Carlos Laliena Corbera & Julian Ortega Ortega, “El poblamiento rural altomedieval en el valle medio del Ebro. La Cuenca de Bajo Martín, siglos V-VIII” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 33-60 at pp. 55-56.
7. Some day soon, see Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming).
8 Seen in, for example, Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissances et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 71-98; Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208; cf. J. E. García Biosca, “Gent que devallà de la muntanya. Fronteres interculturals a l’alta edat mitjana” in Ollich, Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac, pp. 557-571.
8bis. Julia Pavón Benito, “Poblamiento y vertebración territorial del Pirineo Occidental (siglos VIII-XI)” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 75-98.
9. There have been several conferences attempting to retake this idea from the poisoned legacy of Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, but I’ll just cite J. L. Hernández Garrido (ed.), Actas del III Curso de Cultura Medieval. Seminario: Repoblación y Reconquista. Centro de Estudios del Románico, Aguilar de Campoo, septiembre de 1991 (Aguilar de Campoo 1993), which references the others.
10. Philippe Araguas, “Muro, castro, roca… Peuplement rural et fortifications aux confins de la Catalogne et de l’Aragon pré-romans” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 211-222, quote at pp. 211-212.
11. Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia“, abstract p. 145.
12. Benoît Cursente, “Conclusion” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 231-235 at p. 234.
12bis. Philippe Sénac, “Stratigraphie du peuplement musulman au nord de l’Ebre (VIIIe-XIe siècles)”, ibid. pp. 61-73 at pp. 65-67. He connects all this to the new caliphate, which seems to be the Islamic Spain equivalent of the Feudal Transformation in France or the Norman Conquest in England as a tool to explain all change, and should therefore perhaps be questioned as a dating anchor…
13. Mickey Abel, “Strategic Domaine: Reconquest Romanesque along the Douro”, paper presented to the 4th Conference of Historians of Medieval Iberia, University of Exeter, 15th September 2005.
14. Richard Hodges, “Size matters: new light on the Italian Dark Ages” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 223-229, citing M. Valenti (ed.), Poggio Imperiale a Poggibonsi: dal Villaggio di Capanne al Castello di Pietra (Firenze 1996); cf. Chris Wickham, The Mountains and the City: the Tuscan Appennines in the early middle ages (Oxford 1988), where he argues that the Lucchese aristocracy at least remained essentially city-based throughout the early medieval period.
15. Pierre Toubert, Les structures du Latium medieval : Le Latium meridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle a la fin du XII siècle (Rome 1973); idem & Miquel Barceló (eds), L’« Incastellamento » : Actes des Rencontres de Gérone (26-27 Novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 Mai 1994) (Rome 1998); cf. Hodges, “Size Matters”, & Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London forthcoming), Chapter 3 part 3.
16. Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195; Juan A. Souto, “Calatayud : una madina en su contexto (siglos IX-X)” in Sénac, Tarraconaise, pp. 121-144; Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in Conflict (Leiden 1994).
17. Compare Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, and Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.