Three-pointed sales and the limits of comital power

While I was slogging through the documents in Catalunya Carolíngia IV I became aware that I was seeing a particular thing again and again, that being apparent deals in which a property was sold to one party and then immediately sold on to another. The first set-up like this that I met, and I’m now thinking perhaps the oddest, was the repeated sales of the castle of Carcolzes, which I mentioned here a long time ago. There, Count-Marquis Borrell II borrowed half of the Osona frontier castle of Clarà from Bishop Sal·la of Urgell, pledging the Urgell one of Carcolzes to the bishop in exchange, and then wouldn’t give Clarà back. Sal·la plainly didn’t want Carcolzes for keeps (er, no pun intended), and he complains about it at great length in a document in which he sold it to his sacristan Bonhom for 500 solidi‘s worth of produce. Bonhom doesn’t seem to have liked it either, though, and sold it on to Viscount Guillem of Urgell, which we know because the next year we find Guillem selling it back to Bishop Sal·la for an equivalent price, whereafter Sal·la gave up and gave it to the cathedral of Urgell for his archdeacon nephew to hold as castellan.1

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes, image from Wikimedia Commons. I suppose the fact that there had to be a new castle shows that the problems were irremediable…

In that case it seems more or less obvious what’s going on, to wit that the bishop got swindled and that there was something really wrong about Carcolzes that became apparent to each of its holders, though never so much as to make them accept a lower price. But the other case we’ve seen here, in which Borrell II (again) sold a substantial deal of land at el Buc in Manresa for 200 solidi to his wealthy follower and castellan Unifred Amat, who then the next day promptly sold it to someone called Guifré, with Borrell witnessing, it was obviously designed to wind up that way in the first place, and I speculated at length as to exactly what configuration of power would explain it.2 Now, I have three more cases that may make things a bit clearer.

The Castell de Gotmar at Callús, from Wikimedia Commons

The Castell de Gotmar at Callús, again from Wikimedia Commons

The first of these is basically the same set-up as the previous: Borrell II’s son Ramon Borrell, acting for his father in Osona in the last year of Borrell’s life, 992, sells an alod called Castellet to a priest by the name of Miró Marcuç for 100 solidi and Miró next day sells it on to Abbot Arnulf of Santa Maria de Ripoll. Arnulf witnessed the first transaction and the same scribe wrote both.3 Here, if I had nothing else, I’d think that for one reason or another Miró needed a big favour from Arnulf and used his apparent connection to the count to get it, though one would ideally still like to know what it was about Castellet that made it better than anything Miró already owned (which was a fair bit).4 The other two cases begin to suggest an answer to that dilemma, and thus to what may have been going on in the case at el Buc too.

The Castell d'Òdena, image from Wikimedia Commons

The Castell d’Òdena, image once more from Wikimedia Commons

Back a bit to 989 and some familiar participants. We are now at the castle of Òdena, founded by none other than Unifred Amat with his daddy Sal·la, and it is two more persons of the latter name who are dealing here, the first being an Òdena-based Sal·la who was clearly connected to the family to which Unifred belongs but whose relation to them is never stated and the second being the bishop (who was Unifred’s first cousin).5 On 10th May the first Sal·la sold the second Sal·la a substantial alod that he had “from my parents or from purchase or from aprisio“, for which the bishop paid him 2 pesatas in goods, probably equivalent to 480 solidi.6 Then, on 12th May, Count-Marquis Borrell II and his son Ramon Borrell, tous les deux, sold it back to the first Sal·la and his wife for two pesadas in goods as before, helpfully explaining that the bishop had sold it to them (presumably on the 11th).7 Why on earth go through all this in three days? The answer seems to be in the only difference between the two property descriptions: the counts sell the estate “sine ulla inquietudine vel sine ullo censu vel sine ulla funccione”, ‘without any disturbance or any rent or any service’, more or less, in other words tax-free. And this is also what happens in the other case, on 16th April 990, where a priest called Sunifred gives Ramon Borrell an estate in Sant Llorenç and gets it back the same day at the price of 100 solidi, but accompanied by “censum vel functionem qui exinde exiebat vel exire debebat”, ‘the render or service that used to come or should have come from it’.8 This case gives us some extra, as not only was it obviously worth 100 solidi for Sunifred to have those dues lifted off the estate, but we also have his purchase of the estate the previous year, and then he paid a pesa in goods, probably about 240 solidi‘s worth.9 So Ramon Borrell was not getting the estate’s worth in this deal: it really was a sale of tax revenue done in a rather roundabout way.

Castell de Sant Llorenç del Munt, Osona

Castell de Sant Llorenç del Munt, Osona

Might this then be what’s going on in the other cases? With Carcolzes, I think it cannot be; the castle went through fiscal hands twice and the people who should have had the advantage of that still got rid of it. In the other two cases, however, it’s more possible. Granted, the documents don’t say that the lands were sold tax-free, but on the other hand we don’t have any indication that they weren’t the counts’ to start with, and it might be that comital land didn’t pay tax (though that would raise more questions). I do think it’s significant that all these deals involve the same limited set of participants, Borrell, Ramon Borrell or Bishop Sal·la, and that they all take place so close together, all within three years of each other bar the case with Unifred Amat. (Carcolzes is trickier, as what we have is Sal·la giving up, rather than the original pledge, but to take him at his word he seems to have held the place for two Pentecosts and more before giving up on getting his own castle back, and he did that in 993, so this could still be in that group.)

The Castell de Clarà

The one that got away: Castell de Clarà, though when Bernat and Borrell had to share it I guess there was more than this!

Whether these are all the same thing or not, though, it tells us something interesting about the power the counts of this age could claim. Firstly, it tells us that they could actually demand enough revenue from privately-held land that it was worth paying quite a lot to be rid of those obligations, though I have my suspicions that the actual demanding of those obligations was fairly new and that if played right this could be less of a general system and more of a protection racket, in which the counts picked somebody whose tax liability they were willing to enforce in order to bind them closer into the structure of personal obligations created by these kinds of deals.10 But it also tells us about limits. The counts of Barcelona circa 990 would not, or could not, simply sell tax revenue; elaborate structures of transaction had to be mounted within which that was done. Later on there would be no problem with this, or even with making a personal obligation out of it: that’s what the money fief’s for, right?11 (Likewise, at Carcolzes, Borrell could apparently not simply compulsorily purchase a half-share of Clarà but had to extort it, though that may have more to do with the fact that the owner of the other half, Sal·la’s brother Viscount Bernat of Conflent, was not under his direct control.12) But at this stage they didn’t have the tools for it; while Borrell II was alive, at least, what would later be done with arrangements in fief had to be cloaked in traditional formulae. The question I have yet to answer is whether this is because what they are doing was actually new (which other things Bishop Sal·la did might support) or because Borrell was especially keen on making his governmentalist power-grabbing look old-fashioned and traditional (which other things he did would support).13 A further question is whether this was happening a lot more widely but is undetectable when we only have one of the documents in the chain. Plenty to do! But here’s one way I’m working this stuff out.

1. C. Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. nos 239 & 243.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 678-680.

3. Ibid., doc. nos 1635 & 1636.

4. I identify him in ibid., doc. nos 1189, 1364, 1391, 1411, 1537, 1538, 1539, 1592, 1602, 1609, 1620, 1635, 1636, 1734, 1747, 1768 & 1789, in all but two of which (1592 and 1636 as above) he was buying land, mostly in Castell Gotmar and often from the same people, which makes me wonder if we see a large family here consolidating as per Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 112-114.

5. The kindred relations here are worked out by Manuel Rovira, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260.

6. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1556.

7. Ibid., doc. no. 1557.

8. Ibid., doc. nos 1578 & 1579.

9. Ibid., doc. no. 1559.

10. Ideas about what comital power could demand here are very strongly based around templates from elsewhere and less around local evidence. The best such schematic treatment is probably still Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngia en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29-75, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), I pp. 181-226.

11. Best described in Marc Bloch, La Société féodale (Paris 1939), 2 vols, transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961), 2 vols, I pp. 173-175 of the translation.

12. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 136-141.

13. Sal·la for example issued lands in benefice with the prescription that its holders might seek no other lord and was the first ruler in his area to grant land by convenientia, the term that would later be used of grants in fief; see Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), online at, last modified 24th March 2011 as of 15th February 2014, pp. 305-307, and Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 54-59; for Borrell’s initiatives, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 141-166.

18 responses to “Three-pointed sales and the limits of comital power

  1. This is so similar to modern property transactions that I know I’ll have to refer back to it, often. The time frame is different but as an example there is a company which builds renewable energy projects for municipalities with its sole return being realization of tax credits. Love this post.

  2. My example wasn’t identical but I am very intrigued by this post and the complexity of property transactions and the variety of reasons for them even then.

  3. Another possible reason for some of those ‘intermediations’ (A->B->C) imo could be ideological. A wants to sell something to C, but there are sociologic constraints, ie: C is excomunicated, A is bounded by religious contracts, and, B, is a laic judge: or A is a bishop, C is a jew and B could be laic noble…

    • The latter case is a tricky one. By 1011 there are cases in the Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó in which Jews explicitly need Christian intermediaries to transact with other Christians; the documents have Hebrew endorsements, they’re great. But in the ninth and tenth centuries the few records we have with people who are specified as hebraeus show no such disenfranchisement. David Romano blames the sack of Barcelona in 985, for which Jews were later blamed, for this loss of enfranchisement, but it does seem to be much later that the Jews were blamed, so I don’t know.

      The former case, though, yes, that is something that could easily be and never be recorded. But with the cases where they’re present on the same day or very nearly, and with some of the same witnesses, it’s less plausible. And why then would it be only the counts (and, as far as I know so far, only this count) who deal with the problem this way?

      • Well, the ‘jew’ example was just hypothetical it could be ‘moor’ or any other sociologically ‘inconvenient’ cause (on a side note, Romano seems to limit jewish presence to explict mentions, something I can’t agree).

        On the former, I think you’r reasoning is sound, of course, but I was also thinking on the two steps sale of the year 908 between count Sunyer, Trasovadus and Guifre-Borrell (Cartulario de “Sant Cugat” del Vallés D. 3) that seems to be reasonable to interpret along with the next year’s absolution of count Sunyer (Catalunya Carolíngia. Els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada D. 129b).

        • Oh, good lord, it’s Palautordera, I have an interest… I’d always assumed that that Sunyer was the later Count of Barcelona, but of course it can’t be, his wife is wrong, it is indeed he of Empúries. Why on earth did he have land here? From brother Delà? Perhaps the uselessness of it to him now was why he was selling…

          However, in this case, isn’t the intermediary the wrong way round for your theory? Trasovad had no problem buying probably-fiscal property from the excommunicate count and he sold it on to another count, whereas you would see the public official acting as the bridge across the impassable divide, no?

          • Am afraid I have no answers, just questions.
            Maybe it was not completely impassable…? :) Or simply, we don’t know that much about those societies… (ie: was Travosad what we understand now as a ‘public official’? or…. ‘public officials’ really could not negotiate with excommunicated nobility?… and so on…
            About motivation: I am not sure also, but that’s a full intercomital aggreement, politics at his bests, I suppouse…

  4. Terrie L. Burrell

    How absolutely wonderful!! I just traced my lineage (Burrell) to Count-Marquis Borrell just a few minutes ago, put his name on date of death in my search and this came up first. You are a wonderful writer! I really think personality runs in the DNA because this is the kind of thing my father would have done! I’m still laughing! Now, I can put his son’s name in, too! Keep writing!

  5. Terrie L. Burrell

    Okay, I see what you mean! No wonder you doubted that claim! When I got to James the Conqueror I knew I was out of line (pun intended!). Why didn’t they carry the Borrell name down? So, I guess I have to check out the 1907 New York Tribune article in which she says they “give the lineal descent to Rolph Burrell in Cornwall”. I am enthralled by all the history I just read!!

  6. Terrie L. Burrell

    Sure enough. There it is in the New York Tribune claiming the lineage. So, to claim or not to claim that is the question. I will just list the Borrell’s and stop there. Perhaps an unmentioned line went to England in one of the wars. Here is the Tribune link if you’re interested: I like the title of the article, too “American Wife Generally Wins”. It’s page 7 if you aren’t linked directly to the page.

    • Aha! Now what that tells you, strictly, is that in 1907 the baronets who claimed descent from the thirteenth century soldier also claimed descent from the ninth-century Goth (who would in fact not be this one, Borrell II (lived c. 920 to 993) but Count Borrell I of Urgell and Cerdanya, fl. 798, probably no relation). I’m afraid my emphasis would be very strongly on the word “claimed” there. Perhaps once elevated to the baronetcy they decided they needed a forebear more noble than their pedigree so far contained and grabbed the highest-ranking instance of the name they could find… But yes, the article title’s great, especially when stuck next to the one about the world’s most brilliant men coming to some conference. The whole tone of the paper seems to be “we exist to record the superb and impressive!”

      • Terrie L. Burrell

        I have to agree! Because I have found documentation that these Sussex Burrells were in fact (I use that term loosely!) descended from the Northumberland Burrells who held an ancient family seat in Berwick-upon-Tweed before the 1066 Normandy invasion. Tough Scots warriors defending the English/Scottish border a dozen times over a 400 year period. (Why would anyone want to live on such a bloody border?!) A daughter of Walter de Woodland of Devon married Randulphus Burrell of Northumberland in the 1350s. That’s the Cornwall connection. So much fun! In any case, it was fun chatting with you and learning about the Borrells of Barcelona! I will be able to set others straight if they want to connect with that line. I’m gong to be a writing a book also. The Burrells and the history of their day. Let me know when you’ve written yours! All best! Terrie

  7. Pingback: Quick! To the palace! | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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