More cheese than adultery

A page from the thirteenth-century Tumbo of the monastery of Sobrado de los Monges, Galicia

A page from the thirteenth-century Tumbo of the monastery of Sobrado de los Monges, Galicia, preservation context of today’s featured charter and sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Happy New Year! I’m afraid my seminar reports are still queued awaiting certain vital feedback before the next one can go up, so instead here’s something I’ve had ready to write for ages. The subject header is, perhaps sadly for our societies, not a phrase one hears often, but happily for you my readers, it is completely appropriate to the subject of this post. That subject is a charter that I read while pulling together a comparative section for my chapter in the volume Allan Scott McKinley and I are editing from the Leeds conference sessions we used to run, now in press.1 The chapter has a substantial section setting pre-Catalan documentary phraseology against that used in its contemporary Asturias-León. This, of course, takes me into the territory inhabited by the expertise of Wendy Davies and Graham Barrett, and in fact I’d heard Graham talk about this charter at Kalamazoo some time ago and then again more locally and recently, as it forms one of a group of documents that tell us that certain counts of the Leonese court took it upon themselves to start bringing public suits against adulterers, adulterers who then often had to pay off the quite unpayable fines by giving lands to the counts. Kalamazoo papers are short, and one has to be selective about what one includes, and that is the only reason I can imagine why Graham would not have told this story himself then—and he may have done in his thesis, even now nearing completion—but, there is more than he told and that more is substantially CHEESE. What do I mean? Well, read this translation.2 It’s a bit rough, because the original is not the smoothest, and I’ve only modernised a few of the names where I’m sure what modern forms would be, but you’ll get the idea.

In the name of the Lord. I, Letasia, am infamous to many, indeed it is most well-known to many people that I mixed myself up in adultery with a slave of Hermenegildo, Ataulfo by name, who was holding a tenement of his, and we ate four cows of the animals there and sixty cheeses in secret and they led me before the judge, namely Bishop Froarengo. And the selfsame judge decided that I should pay for those same cows and cheeses twofold, and I was to make over eight acceptable cows and a hundred and twenty cheeses, the which judgement left me well-pleased. On this account it has pleased me, Letasia, for all of this crime which I have professed before the selfsame judge, and thus I pay to you Hermenegildo the whole inheritance I have in the villa where my father Cristobal or my grandparents Abolino, Deodatis and Violicus lived, in the territory of Tamara, that is, land, fruit-trees and all kinds of fruits, meadows, pastures, water-meadows, waters with all buildings or whatever is for the use of men. Thus, so that from this day and time today it be erased from my right and handed over and conceded to your right and you may have power fully in God’s name. If, however, any man, what I do not believe shall be brought about, should come against this my act to disrupt it, let him pay you two pounds of gold, and you have it in perpetuity. This little charter of payment or agreement made the 8th Kalends of September, Era 896. Letasia, in this testamentary or judicial scripture, have made the sign of my hand. Sisibert, witness. Savarigo, witness. Assiulfo, witness. Daco, witness. Ebregulfo, witness. Mirello, witness. Ostouredo, witness. Quirico, witness. Ermorico, witness.

I mean, I grant you there are all kinds of interesting implications of language and social practice here. It’s more or less built out of formulary phrases without much attempt to get them joined up into sense, but obviously they have been chosen for the job even so. Letasia’s husband is not mentioned; one might expect him to be, really, if there were one, which suggests that there wasn’t, but the crime is still adultery. Nonetheless, she was not actually required to compensate for the adultery, which was presumably not considered worth punishing; it would have been hard to argue, perhaps, that it had cost Hermenegildo anything except a few hours of his slave’s labour (ahem) but for the, well, inconspicuous consumption of four head of cattle and sixty cheeses. I mean, how long was this going on? It’s not a one-off, is it, and even a four-off involves enough cheese per person that they would have been pretty easy to catch. Letasia may indeed have been pleased by the judgement, as she could according to the Visigothic Law that still ran here have been put to death or enslaved herself, although not to Hermenegildo but to her own heirs.3 Nonetheless, though she had got away lightly, she had eaten more than she cared to pay back four times over, which gives us some idea how much of a hit Hermenegildo had been able to take without, apparently, noticing. In other words, we’re looking here at lifestyles of the rich and infamous in ninth-century Galicia, and those lifestyles on this occasion included a certain amount of sexual impropriety and some seriously big amounts of cheese. We have proof!

1. To my current understanding this can be cited as J. Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & A. S. McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. I’m quoting this from Antonio Cumbreño Floriano (ed.), Diplomática española del periodo Astur. Estudio de las fuentes documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910), 2 vols (Oviedo 1949), doc. no. 68, but it has been more recently edited in Pilar Loscertales de Valdeavellano (ed.), Tumbos de Monasterio de Sobrado de los Monjes, 2 vols (Madrid 1976), doc. no. 75. The text as Floriano gave it is: “In Dei nomine. Ego Letasia manifesta quidem sum multis, set et multis manet notissimum, eo quod commiscui me in adulterio cum servo Hermenegildi, nomine Ataulfo, qui eius bustum tenebat, et comedimus de ipsis animalis IIIIor vaccas Lxa caseos furtim et adduxerunt me ante iudicem nomine Froarengum episcopum. Et ipse iudex iudicavit ut parierem ipsas vaccas et ipsos caseos in duplum, et facerem octo vaccas placibiles, et centum viginti caseos, quod Iudicum bene mihi complacuit. Ob inde placuit mihi Letasia, ut pro omni ipso furto, quod ante ipsum iudicem manifestavi, pariarem tibi Hermenegildo omnem meam hereditatem integram quam habeo in villa ubi pater meus Christovalus habitavit sive tionis mei Abolinus, Deodatis et Violicus habitaverunt, in territorio tamarense, id est, terras, pumares et omnia genera pomorum, pratis, pascuis, paludibus, aquas cum omnibus edificiis vel quicquid ad prestitum hominis est. Ita ut de hodie die et tempore de meo iure abrasa et tuo iuri sit tradita atque concessa et plenam in Dei nomine habeas potestatem. Si quis tamen homo, quod fieri non credo contra hunc meum factum ad irrumpendum venerit pariat tibi auri libras duas, et tibi perpetim habituram. Facta cartula pariationis vel placiti viiio Kalendas Septembris, era DCCCa LXXXX VIa. Letasia in hac scriptura testamenti vel placiti manu mea signum feci (signum). Sisibertus testis (signum). Savarigus testis (signum). Assiulfus testis (signum). Daco testis (Signum). Ebregulfus testis (signum). Mirellus testis (signum). Ostouredus testis (signum). Quiricus testis (signum). Ermoricus testis (signum).”

3. That said, Letasia’s case, as an apparently-freeborn woman with no husband messing with somebody else’s slave but clearly at her will and with no intent to marry him, is hard to find an exact ruling for in the Law. The closest fit, whence I get the enslavement idea, seems to be Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), online here, transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code, 2nd edn. (Boston 1922), online here, Book III Title IV cap. xiv.

35 responses to “More cheese than adultery

  1. Letasia my kind of woman! So cool, thanks!

  2. In terms of how much cheese that was, it depends crucially on the size of the cheese, I’d have thought. I could imagine the loss of the cows might be more substantial. But once we’ve got further on entering renders in the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project, we might have some rather harder cheese facts (sorry, couldn’t resist). Meanwhile, there is Notker’s bishop who had to provide Charlemagne with 2 cartloads of cheese yearly (Gesta Karoli I-15, pp. 18-19). Admittedly, it being one of Notker’s stories, you can’t be sure that this isn’t some ridiculously large amount, but it does suggest that you could get a lot of cheese from an elite man’s estates. Though the figures in your charters may also have been intentionally inflated by Hermengildo – I don’t think Letasia would have been in a position to say: “No we didn’t eat that much, that would have been ridiculous”.

    • I agree that Letasia would probably have agreed to whatever compensation was offered in exchange for, effectively, having the sexual charges dropped. As to the question of quantities, well, as Allan says below, in an Anglo-Saxon context—where I started, of course, and therefore in some ways still what I have internalised as ‘usual’, cheese is a perfectly normal staple of the working diet. It is, however, as Joan points out, unusual in an Iberian context, if not in a specifically Galician one. Nonetheless, you have the point fair and square when it comes to the cows, I think that’s the real loss and the one that’s too expensive to replace. Cows were worth (and believe me I have looked into this just lately, see sidebar) between 1 and 2 gold solidi here and then, it’s very unlikely that the land Letasia was giving Hermenegildo was worth his losses in terms of immediate market value.But of course good, well-placed land is a gift that keeps on giving…

  3. Once I got past the concept of chowing down on four cows and 60 cheeses my thoughts turned to Ataulfo and wondering what happened to him. At the least, based on the edition of Visigothic Law I have – S.P. Scott trans., Boston (2010) he would have gotten a hundred lashes. But you’d think Hermenegildo would have demoted him from a tenement-holder to a common laborer. Of course considering the relative outcome of his slave getting his happy on (gaining what sounds like a pretty nice chunk of real estate at the cost of a little beef and cheese) H. might have decided to set him up as a seducer of women, so long as those women were propertied and without heirs.

    Nice post. Thank you.

    • I can see the influence of Graham’s paper on you there, I think, with those counts starting public cases for private profit. It would bring a new meaning to the term procurator though wouldn’t it? Or perhaps not…

  4. Allan McKinley

    Can we correct footnote 1 to A. S. McKinley – I’m trying to avoid ending up in the S section of bibliographies.

    Interestingly, there are also large cheese renders in the rare Anglo-Saxon examples of what might be drawn from an estate, which have normally been taken to be a basic supply rather than a luxury. Perhaps we need to reconsider these – and the importance of meadows in general – in light of this evidence for cheese as a decadence.

    It also says a lot that a seruus had access to that much cheese and cow (was the cheeseburger an early medieval aphrodisiac?). Do we know if seruus was a general term or is this a household slave on the lines of ancilliae (but male obviously – and at this point I can’t help but think any charter revealing lesbian adultry would be pretty well known anyway mind you) – interesting from the point of view of a supposed slave’s access to resources that may allow him to acquire status (or at least lovers; on a purely functional reading at least they would be the same thing?).

    • Alteration made, and why, why, did I not spot the chance to reference I Can Has Cheezburgr? Oh well. As to the cheese, yes indeed, I thought of Ine’s food rent, and as to the slavery, hard to say; this man is clearly a servus casatus as we’d see him, and servus is probably the usual word for that where it’s specified in documents of this period and place. I’d expect an apparently-domestic slave to be a mancipium, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find the opposite way round either. By the eleventh century, though, they’d probably be a Sarracenus!

  5. BTW, my edition of Scott was published in 1910, NOT 2010.

  6. I am having my doubts. The whole thing reminds me a Boccaccio’s tale, let me propose a different setup.
    Leutasia was Hermenegildo’s wife, and she’s been ‘milking’ Ataulf – one of the serfs of his husband – for years. Hermenegildo has been letting the thing run until the ‘damage’ was big enough, then he took Leutasia to the bishop – and probably meanwhile Ataulf got the harder part -. So in the end, Hermenegildo found a way to legally own his wife’s inheritance…

    On a side note, it seems that there is no evidence of cheese and only one cow mention in 894-914 Gothia documents, could it be that cow’s milk cheese was then a celtic/atlantic tradition but not an iberian/mediterranean one?

    • Allan McKinley

      We may need to map olives (and goats/sheep who tend to provide the cheese in olive-growing regions) to establish a regional bias (or ask Chris Wickham, who has probably done this…). My guess is this is more sub than supra regional but that the Atlantic litoral is generally better for cattle farming than it is for olive production or anything else (although Norway may use fish oil?).

    • I think it’s still a Galician thing, isn’t it? As to the Boccacian conspiracy, I like it, I do like it, but in either case, isn’t it weird that the judge is the bishop? And that the ‘moral’ charge is then not pursued? I guess that if we hunted through the documents of Galicia looking for these people—or I asked Robert Portass in Oxford, who’s probably already done so—we might then find Hermenegildo in Bishop Froarengo’s following, in which case you would be very likely to be right!

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  8. This is great — but isn’t it possible that the sense of adulterium here might be something more like fraud / corruption? I.e. the criminal relationship may not actually have been sexual. (The interesting point would then be that the evident connotations of female infelicity regarding the rightful property of a male ‘lord’ have arisen secondarily.) After all, it’s not /entirely/ clear (is it?) that the use of the verb comedo means this pair ate all this meat and cheese themselves, as opposed to wasting / dissipating it in a more general way — i.e. by selling it off, or letting it be consumed in some other way for their own benefit. If I were more diligent I would have checked around a few databases to see if I could dismiss the thought: I haven’t, but it might still be worth it. It sounds to me like they were indulging in something more ambitious than romantic post-coital midnight feasts between the two of them…

    • That’s impressively suspicious, JPG, there is clearly no Occam’s Razor in your bathroom. My acquired sense is that `adulterium’ could probably bear the second meaning, and Niermeyer stretches to it, but the fact that his example of the sexual sense of the word is from the Visigothic Code and that the other cases of the usage that Graham mentioned were more clearly sexual offences (because the relevant parts of the Law were cited) means that it would really have to be an unusual usage and one that the legally-aware around the gathering would find strange. I’m less comfortable with putting so modern a sense of `consume’ on `comedere’, but it’s not in Niermeyer and the Classical dictionaries I have handy suggest that your use would actually be fair. That would make the scale of consumption easier to understand, but I wonder, in that case, what Ataulfo would have got out of helping sell off his master’s stuff…

      • Just an idea: the parallel usage in the legal texts strongly suggests the simple reading is the right one. What’s so entrancing here is that that the connection between illicit sexual relations and the consumption of piles of steak in Urgelia sauce appears to have been considered self-evident. Obviously I should quit speculating at this point, but I can’t help it. Perhaps all this eating indicates that we’re dealing with a single feast rather than a prolonged series of debauched picnics of steak and cheese sandwiches. If the salient information is all provided, we might be looking at the unhappy aftermath of festivities connected to the unsanctioned (and therefore adulterous?) marriage of a free woman to somebody else’s slave. (Now I’m imagining Letasia waking up amid the buffalo wings on the carpet of her Las Vegas hotel room, just as Heremenegild comes through the door with his heavies and Ataulf tries to hide under a soup tureen.)

        • You’re single feast reading could be quite right. Re-reading the text: commiscui me in adulterio cum servo Hermenegildi, nomine Ataulfo, qui eius bustum tenebat, et comedimus de ipsis animalis IIIIor vaccas Lxa caseos furtim. ‘Bustum’ seems to mean a grave o burial place, so this four stolen cows maybe were for a ceremonial lunch (and not a small one for what it seems)…
          Whas then Ataulf – the adulterous partner of Letasia – the decesed one, and the comedimus means Letasia’s ceremonial companions?

          • Aha. That’s certainly the principal meaning of bustum (and now I realise I must have mistakenly have been reading bustum as boscum). But Du Cange has ‘bustum, 4’ as ‘statio boum’, which looks right here: this must be a piece of land specifically intended for cattle. (He supplies cross reference to the parallel term bostar, and supplies a quote from an C11th text which defines this as ‘locus ubi comburebantur corpora boum, vel statio boum’). Much as I like a good wake, I still go for my illicit wedding feast…

            • That’ll show me, I was translating freely there. I think JPG must be right, however, because I don’t think a funeral feast would have lasted long enough to merit the imperfect tense tenebat. It seems to me that that records a situation that was the case for a long time, even though it has now (understandably!) ceased. Besides: could you really have a feast that got through that much food (and nothing else?) furtim?

              • Yes, comburebantur corpora boum makes perfect sense. Even today, northern spain (specially Basques) are famous for his steak (chuletones) house traditions. Now in Euskadi, good old tradition want-it going standing at winter time in open stances with friends and lots of small takes of new year’s cider, then at Galicia maybe it was with lots of cheeese… Let me just say: Salut Letasia! :)

            • In a pleasant variant of the old “the lurkers support me in e-mail” Usenet trope, a correspondent reading this has pointed me at the Brepolis database Latina Regni Legionis, which makes it clear that in this area what Du Cange reckoned the fourth sense is the usual one; there are a great many citations, all of which must from context concern agricultural land, and an etymology from bos is given. I’d seen it as land enough times that I didn’t stop to think what kind. `Pasture’ or `meadow’ would seem to be the most inclusive translation, though these documents already use about six other words that also demand that as a translation…

  9. This is so cool, I mean, it is great to find from time to time a new source which provides some additional glimpse of Early Medieval Asturian-Leonese kingdom, beyond those meager chronicles and “donaciones”. On a side note, you wrote “IXth century” but I guess the document is dated according Era Hispanica and thus “Era 896” would be rather 986 + 38 in Current Era, wouldn`t it?

    • Thanks for the kind words! The CE date is 858, as the Hispanic Era starts in 38 BCE, so you’re very nearly right. I should probably have put the CE date in somewhere…

      • No, I was not “nearly right”, silly me. Well, that will teach me. As to this post, do you think there are enough sources like this one out there, as to make a decent research on IXth century society in NW Christian kingdoms?

        • It really depends what you think is enough! Certainly, we’re not near the point here where one can’t ever take in all the available information but there’s certainly enough to keep one busy for a long time. There’s not so many places where there is more ninth-century evidence, but there are a few and all places differ in quality of information. There is a lot more one can say about the Frankish court, for example, and even England can offer more legislation from the ninth century than Asturias, but Asturias (or at least, Asturias-León) has far more transaction charters per square mile than either, allowing completely different kinds of enquiry about local societies. Nowhere has as much information as Byzantine Egypt, but there are many other parts of Byzantium about which we know far less than we do Asturias. And wherever archæology is being done the picture is always changing, and it changes the most where there is the least information of course. (See the next thing I will post, in fact!) So I guess the question is: what’s your question?

  10. highlyeccentric


    That is all.

    • Ah, but it’s not, because also COWS. It’s very nearly the perfect post for these reasons.

      • Er, did they do country music in 9th century Asturias? Because I think you have a decent start to a song here …

        Cheese, cows, doomed love, a lost ranch – all you need is something about trains.

        • There’s a justice, too. You’re right, it should be scored for the banjo as soon as possible! :-) Slightly more seriously, I don’t know if we know what folk music would have been like in this area at this time. Instruments tend to be perishable, alas, and the only music our sources are interested in is chant (and organs). I think that we might not be too far wrong to imagine hollering and whooping to the thump of a washboard though :-)

  11. In case you’re interested I see there’s a quite detailed account of the terms bostar, bustum, bustellum, boscum, and boscus (and their derivatives) in western European usage in ch. 6 of Leo Wiener’s Commentary to the Germanic Laws and Medieval Documents (1915). You can access this online. Not a reliable source in respect of its larger claims, but (as far as I can see) helpful on this specific issue.

  12. Hi from Galicia. I know this is an older post, but I can’t help writing something here. Nothing really relevant…

    First, busto is probably the same word that Celtiberian boustom ‘stable’ (literally bou-stom ‘cow-place’, cf. Jordán Colera 2007 I guess that translating it as tenement (meadows, pastures, dairy) is rather OK. The word is frequent as place name in Galicia, usually in slopes and higher areas, either alone or accompanied by an adjective or by a medieval name expressed as a genitive (Bustofreán < *busto Froilani 'Froila's busto', Bustiguillade < *busto Uilliati 'Willihad's busto'). On the data of the document, I just know of a bishop Froaringus -a rather uncommon Germanic name- active during the first quarter of the 10th century, so, either the medieval copyist did misread the data of the original, or this is the only document referring to this 9th century Froaringus.

    I know of some more other documents from Celanova, also in Galicia, where homosexual and heterosexual intercourses (monk and family's young male heir, in one case; male son and cousin in other…) led to a family losing (lot of) properties to the monastery as punishment. Mhhhh… Not a bad business for the churchmen…

    Nice post :-) Thank you.

    • Well, obviously the Tombo de Celanova has now climbed a few places up my reading list :-) (It was already quite high.) After all, I can make a lot of people angry just by considering Andrade’s edition usable… Thankyou for the comments, and also the deeper root of busto, which my source had thought was Latin, as I mentioned.

  13. “After all, I can make a lot of people angry just by considering Andrade’s edition usable…” :-D

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  16. Pingback: It’s not adultery, but… | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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