Seminary LXIX: me telling stories

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20, source of one of the stories

I said below that I had a good reason for missing Gabor Thomas’s paper on Lyminge, at least, and that I would explain what it was. Duly, therefore, it was that I was presenting a paper approximately an hour later at the Oxford Medieval History seminar, and though I now know that in theory I could have made it to both, the possibility didn’t actually occur to me that day and I think this is just as well, really. I was talking to the title, “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, and it went fairly well, really.

The title came about through a combination of two factors. For a long long time now I’ve had work in draft about why charters are a tricky source that need reading critically as well as just for data, because the people creating them were not above misrepresenting stuff, leaving important details out and so on and because the form itself encourages such elisions and illusions. I’ve spoken about this before at Leeds briefly, it’s touched on in my thesis, I’ve had many a conversation about it, but one thing I haven’t really explored, except here where I use it as post fodder, is the fact that quite a number of charters actually contain quite lengthy stories to establish the set-up that leads to the transaction that’s being recorded.

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes, subject of one of the stories

The second factor was that the seminar convenors are both people who work on themes close to my own, they thought it would be good for my scholarly profile here and, flatteringly, for their seminar or so they said, for me to show up in it as soon as possible, and would that be possible? And I said, more or less, if you want something that contains research, then not till next term, but I can pull you something together out of bits and string sooner; one organiser then said, roughly, “hurrah, bits and string it is then, see you in second week” and I went, “oh what seriously? but now I have to write the thing” and started panicking. So, the actual paper contained two stories from an earlier Leeds paper later sort-of-published as a thesis appendix and here as this blog post, one that I never got round to using because Adam Kosto beat me to it in his excellent (if tactically peculiar) 2005 Speculum article, several about the 985 sack of Barcelona that have been collected by Michel Zimmermann and Gaspar Feliu to name but two, two that you all saw here first in two other blog posts, one that Pierre Bonnassie told in his 1975-6 book that I’m not entirely sure I believe, the classic one that gave me my first (and prize-winning, I might add) paper and which you’ve heard about here endlessly (because I’m sure I haven’t finished yet) and one from a paper given only a few months before here in Oxford that will have been familiar to at least some people in the audience, not least because it had also appeared in the part of this year’s Leeds paper of which that paper was an expansion…1 This is what happens beyond a certain level of academic busyness, I guess, you either learn to say no or you start recycling…

So, in other words, the only new material in this at all was constituted in the facts that I compared Count Guifré the Hairy to Batman, and that in pulling all these things together as examples of a single phenomenon, stories in charters, I was forced not just to ask but also to answer the question of why this happened, and also why it didn’t always happen, and that was something I hadn’t done before. Now, it appears to my considerable later chagrin that the tools I took to answer this question may ultimately have been acquired from Hayden White, via who knows what intermediaries, which would be horribly ironic (and not unparalleled alas).2 I should really know more about where my theory is coming from… But ultimately, my conclusion was as follows:

Some of the tales we’ve seen here apparently had holes in big enough to get an extra arm through, but the requirement was not to convince by argument, but to establish an acceptable version on the basis of which events could now proceed as required. These were after all transaction documents; they existed only because two or more persons had found terms on which they could do business already. Sometimes those terms were usual and the formulas would suffice, though even that is a narrative assertion of a kind, stating that the transaction was normal enough that that was sufficient. When, however, the transaction was evidently not usual, because of having been agreed while chained to a prison wall or glared down by the local viscount, because of being completely fabricated or deliberately incomplete, or because, in the case of Count-Bishop Miró Bonfill and his cousins, because to get this lot to agree on anything needed something really special, the best strategy was, apparently, to tell a story. These are not micro-histories as we usually understand the term; they are very small macro-histories, frames of collectively agreed reference that enabled new actions.

I don’t know how much use that is going to have been to anyone else listening, but it will be very useful to me, so one of the things this experience also proves, I guess, is how the best way to find out more about what you know is to explain it to someone, in this case about forty-five people I’d mostly never met before in a place I’m going to be visible for the next two-and-a-bit years. There were some useful questions and comments, to, about the moments monumentalised in these memorials (I exaggerate the alliteration of the original comment only slightly) and the multiple uses of a document at the transaction and, separately, thereafter, and that’s all good stuff. But mainly I’m just startled at how sometimes, I can pull something useful out of almost nothing merely by framing something anew under the pressure of immediacy. Tutorials are really good for this too, I may well be learning more than the students. Anyway, there it goes. And I should tell you the story Bonnassie told, too, because as he read it at least it’s a good one, but that can wait for a further post. Quite enough to do here meanwhile!

1. Phew, referring to, er:

  1. J. Jarrett, “Sales, swindles and sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What To Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, printed in idem, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005), pp. 290-308;
  2. Adam Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics, and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: The Example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, which is odd mainly because in order to make a sound and important point it erects a whacking great straw man that is then destroyed with only the point left standing in the hay-strewn wreckage;
  3. M. Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par al-Mansûr et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’Historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Société des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur. Tours, 10-12 juin 1977, Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218;
  4. Gaspar Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008;
  5. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975, 1976), I p. 127;
  6. J. Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258;
  7. and idem, “Dilettante or Politician: Count-Bishop Miró of Girona (970-984) and his intellectual cosmos”, paper presented at conference The Clerical Cosmos: ecclesiastical power, culture, and society, c. 900 to c. 1075, Faculty of History, University of Oxford, 4 September 2010 and “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III”, paper presented in session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 12 July 2010.

2. I found this out by asking about it on, which would make that seem like quite the resource that it claims to be were it not that, shortly afterwards, I got a message from its founder, saluting me as one of the most prolific contributors in the history research area and asking if I would like to test their new questions feature. I had been on it about two months at this point and was (and am) logging in maybe once a week, but had of course, already tested the new questions feature. I’ve no idea what he was measuring but I faintly wanted to wash after seeing it had been measured.

12 responses to “Seminary LXIX: me telling stories

  1. Isn’t it cool when you have enough knowledge floating around in your brain to pull something new together, and have it work? And having a deadline sometimes is like someone flips a switch in your brain – mine anyway – turning things from 60 watts to 100.

    Heck, I got a Federal grant one time because, ultimately (was a 2-year process), someone couldn’t make a meeting and asked me to cover for him – I sort of knew a lot of the stuff but I didn’t know it in THAT way, if you catch my drift. Nothing to do with history of course.

    Congrats on the company you keep. The only Whittow book I have is _The Making of Byzantium_ but I have a bunch of Wickham. When you get around to publishing what you put together for this let us all know. Based on your conclusion, it looks like something that should end up in print.

    • I’m not sure about that, in fact; certainly cut down it might make a paper but the arrival of Hayden White into the picture suggests that no-one would think it that original were it not for its involving charters. It also suggests that I really need to do some work integrating this into more theory before it would float in front of the kind of reviewers it would likely get… This is often the problem.

      Mark Whittow has a book under work about the feudal transformation that will make him much more widely required reading, I think, but Chris has been a force on my work for a very long time, both directly and via others who have been influenced by him, as I’m sure is obvious, so it’s really good to be where I can if necessary bounce ideas off him.

  2. I dunno – a lot of what I’m reading lately seems to focus on a theme of, “Folks have been examining sources re X in context, but they haven’t looked at this particular topic in this way.”

    It seems to me that examining story-telling as an aspect of charters fits into this sort of thing. At least I haven’t seen it done before (when discussing charters). As you say, there has to be enough commonality to make sense of it but it looks like you’re a good way down that road already. I think a “Sometimes charters have stories and this seems to indicate that . . .” would be very interesting (provided, of course, such an, “indicate that . . .” exists).

    Or maybe I just like stories . . .

    • A good starting point on charters as stories, albeit focusing on Anglo-Saxon charters, is Sarah Foot’s, ‘Reading Anglo-Saxon Charters: Memory, Record, or Story?’, in Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, ed. E. M. Tyler and R. Balzaretti (Turnhout, 2006), pp. 39-66, if you (or Jon) are interested in following up that sort of thing…

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