As I sat down to write this I was having trouble thinking something out, and by now my favourite strategy when this happens, assuming that I can’t trap someone at a pub table and thrash it out at them verbally, is to try and write about it. So this is the first of a number of posts messing with questions of agency and, well, credit or blame I suppose, in the creation of medieval society at the Muslim-Christian frontier in medieval Iberia. It comes out of reading a genuinely excellent account of that for Castile in the tenth century (the most important of European centuries, as I’m sure you realise) by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes.1 It gets right down into the mechanisms by which lords got themselves into positions of power on the frontier and then used those to make themselves more important wherever else they turned up, creating extensive lordships which would only be converted to intensive ones much later. This is a really clear chapter, informed by a lively and interesting new theoretical base, and is important not just for the tenth century and debates about state formation on frontiers anywhere, but also about the delay in what comes after, the intensification, which of course plays into the feudal transformation debate of which everyone is so tired and so on.2 It really made me think but one thing that it made me think was that it’s only about lords. This has made me write a great deal, and out of general mercy for the audience I put the rest behind a cut, but if you feel up to it I would be very interested in feedback and corrections, not least because I tread on several nationalisms in the course of it and need to know what bits may make people angry…
There’s good reason for this focus on lords, of course, and it’s not just about the evidence. I don’t know the Castilian evidence very well, and I will come to it here at some point but I think it’s more important to start by talking about historiography. Of course, many historians prefer not to allow peasants a lot of room to do anything of political importance. No less a person than Chris Wickham has very often been cited here for blaming most medieval social progress on avaricious aristocrats pushing peasants to produce more surplus they could appropriate, without which pressure he has famously opined that the peasants would "eat more and work less".3 There’s also a certain basic sense to placing any motor of genuine social change higher up the social scale: a peasant’s range of political and economic options is very local, and what one peasant family does or doesn’t do hardly ever changes anything on any scale. It only starts to have a social impact when lots of peasants are doing something similar, and that tends not to happen without some over-arching structure orchestrating it. One needs such an explanation for large-scale activity by peasants, thus, and that does tend to be lordship. OK, that’s part one.
Part two, though, is that there is a very old tradition of Spanish scholarship in which it is of critical importance that the Christian kingdoms were able to expand slowly into Muslim-held territory. This is not least because they did actually do this and therefore it must be explained, but also because control of that process became one of the strongest tools in the relevant kings’ and lords’ kits of domination; the number of ways this is important in the formation of those states is hard to count. But until Franco died and long after this was kind of politically framed, either as per Ramón Menéndez Pidal with a defiant reform Christianity driving the creation of an eventually-unified political entity fighting to reclaim an ancestral heritage from the Muslims whom God had briefly allowed to deprive the Christians of it, or as per Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz with a blend of Visigothic, Muslim and new political structures and techniques sucking in people from the frontier zones and beyond, forging them into a people somehow and then moving out and peopling the frontier in a slow-moving wave of conquest at real ground level.4
Either way this is an explicitly nationalist formation that leads to a unified, Castilian-speaking, Spain, and it’s had quite a reaction against it ever since the late sixties. In modern Castile itself, the principal form of this was Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil’s picture of ultra-long continuity of populations being affected by changing political structures of exploitation, and I’ve said enough about that here before that I shan’t do so again, but it too is a nationalist formation, it’s just that the nation is older than and may not relate to a modern Spanish state.5 The other tendency, in keeping with scholarship more widely, has been a small-scale rush to the margins, looking at the frontier zone especially but really anywhere that doesn’t fit into either Muslim or Christian power-blocs easily, and with this I associate especially the name of Eduardo Manzano Moreno but also that of Manuel Acién Almansa and anyone who’s ever worked on the Banū Qāsī, a mixed-ancestry noble lineage of the frontier whose most powerful member is said to have called himself “the third king of Spain”, raising of course the question of who the other two were supposed to be but never mind that now.6 I identify quite strongly with this scholarship, as it matches my personal investment in counter-cultures, but one way to read the Escalona and Reyes article is as an attempt to elevate itself beyond this political context and say, let’s just concentrate on the systems behind this change of spheres of government, without saying that it’s inevitable or good or bad or anything or that it leads anywhere particular, and take a neutral theoretical perspective that means we can simply be empirical about it.
I’m not sure how well this works, not least because of the missing peasants, but I think it’s important to realise that really none of the schools of thought they’re avoiding dealt with peasant initiative in any depth either, Sánchez-Albornoz to a degree excepted. Instead, we have this messy formation “local élites”, aristocrats by any normal definition and certainly by Chris Wickham’s all-inclusive one but somehow less conceptually ugly because of their strong identification with a given community. For Barbero and Vigil these guys were essentially tribal chieftains, and Escalona and Reyes also use that noun though they avoid Barbero and Vigil’s ideological hot-spot about ancient and quasi-sacral social structures (and just as well, because it was rubbish as we’ve discussed).7
(I’m leaving aside here another strand which basically focuses on monasteries as agents of organisation of rural society, where perhaps the biggest name (in two senses) would be José Ángel García de Cortázar y Ruiz de Aguirre. I do so partly because the historiography’s absolutely huge, partly because even if one accepts that this is an important process, which I do, there’s still a link to be made between monastic estates and their relevant kingdoms, and mainly because I’m not sure there’s any good way to separate monasteries from lords or ‘local élites’ in terms of their agency here, for all that the permanence and indivisibility of Church landholding and the sacrality of contributing to it means that it accumulates faster and in different ways. Basically, from the point of view of these posts a church or monastery is a ‘local élite’ figure or a lord who lives a very long time first and foremost.)
Part three, however, is the Catalan one. I have come to think that this is no less politicised by Spanish nationalism, it’s just politicised against it; since the rise of Franco and even since his fall, it has been very important that Catalan historical scholarship do the job of justifying the slogan, “Catalunya no es Espanya”, and so it is probably not surprising that the scholarship here looks at things differently. [Edit: Joan Vilaseca points out in comments below that this is only the most modern version of a process of acculturation driven by the wider state and Catalan cultural defence that can be charted back for centuries, and arguably I should not have implied any less. I would like to keep my historical opinions and my political ones separate here, not least because as a member by birth of a state that could be accused of all the things Catalans accuse Spain of and more, I am in a troublesome place to have political opinions on the situation on Catalonia. Nonetheless, as Joan also points out, neutrality is itself a political choice, and not one that people in the area can easily make.] All the same,
it does [Edit: I see a difference in the scholarly emphasis], and there are kind of three schools. There is, just about, an equivalent to the Reconquista scholarship in which the noble Catalan counts and their subordinate nobles lead their people to freedom, but that’s always been tricky because of the way those Catalan counts basically squabbled among themselves until only the biggest was left, which they largely funded by not conquering Muslims but by soaking them for cash, and were largely provoked into taking Muslim territory because their Christian neighbours were getting ahead. It also has to deal with the fact that following the counts leads you ineluctably first to union with Aragón in 1137 and then with Castile in 1492, so that going too far down this line actually subsumes Catalonia in Spain. So this school of thought now tends to focus on Guifré the Hairy and go no further, looking instead for the origins of Catalan nationhood in culture not politics, even if that is also political culture, and this is where you find the limited stuff claiming Catalonia as the cradle of a renascent Visigothic identity and so on.8 But there is also a large and lively scholarship, only lately dying down, which was based around the idea that it was the peasants, that the open frontier and the continual flow of heroic entrepreneurial settlers to it basically built a new society from the soil upwards, being organised only afterwards by the beneficent but essentially weak counts.9
You can see, perhaps, how this also fits well with both a Marxist or left-wing view generally, and is thus likely to be found in an anti-Franco camp, and also maybe how it finds a particular home in the most mercantilised part of the Iberian peninsula where individual intent to profit and make something of oneself is just more plausible as a historical force than, say, in the valleys of Galicia or the dried-up plains of the Algarve.10 But it is also nationalist, in as much as it disassociates Catalan development from its own lurking history as a principality of a distant empire that appointed its counts until 898, or its future as the rich but subordinate partner of Aragón, and puts the focus back on A People, and you can see this also playing out in the importance that’s placed on the various Catalan peasant revolts, especially the Remences and the Guerra dels Segadors. This area is just a good bit happier with making its national identity out of a bottom-up self-determination, because it’s basically the only way to avoid becoming part of a larger story of someone else’s control.
It is not that wider currents of European historiography have left this untouched, even the Castilian ones. Barbero and Vigil found some echo in Catalonia, perhaps not least because they’d had to publish there. Their ultra-continuity was particularly picked up by Manuel Riu i Riu; it now finds its echo with Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, and I suppose I line up with it in some ways in as much as I have been known to stress the existence of frontier populations more or less untouched by the ebb and flow of over-arching jurisdictions over the centuries.11
There’s also a variant of the lords-to-the-fore version that picks up on the idea that the frontier was never empty and basically turns the comital and noble endeavour into a story of increasing control and lordship over its inhabitants as well as the lords’ other subjects, and this varies somewhat over where the important zones of cultural production are but not over the essential process, which is more or less feudalisation as per wider European templates. This doesn’t actually conflict with the peasant-settlers-start-everything idea, as you just have to get the lords to their `natural’ position of screwing over the peasantry and then you can carry on with the process, and this combination is pretty much the dominant model, associated especially with Pierre Bonnassie and, from inside Catalonia and with almost-infinite variations, Josep María Salrach i Marés.12 Nonetheless, those works are already getting old, and although a new model doesn’t seem to be emerging as a whole there is a move of sorts to stop bothering about the peasant settlement role and just focus on how the lords organised things, and here I might invoke Flocel Sabaté, who certainly does give a big role to populations on the ground but essentially sees them as continuous à la Riu, or, of course, Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, whose gloomy view of continuity in peasant subjection necessitates the conclusion that whatever they may or may not have been doing, the lords made them do it.13 Both of these tend towards a story of social organisation that is essentially a management exercise carried out with the threat of violence one way or another, and neither of them leave much room for peasants’ actions to be important.
So, then. In the course of running this blog I have, more or less respectfully, disagreed with pretty much every single scholar I’ve mentioned above, and in many cases about more or less these issues. Also I have a good pedigree in insisting that there is scope for peasant initiative to make a difference, but that it doesn’t mean we have to buy into a model of massive migration and bold pioneers-oh, because the peasants in question were probably already where they acted or else only moving a short way. Obviously I have views on all this and the Escalona and Reyes article makes me very keen to express them, but this requires me working out better than I have the rest of the process and how this joins up with the state formation process and the creation of an organised society under government, and also whether whatever view I come up with might have any traction in the rather different political circumstances of Castile and points west. This post has gone on for long enough already but in the next one in this series I want to talk about land clearance, and who controls it, essentially reprising my published work but with a coherent focus on this issue, and then I want to follow that one with a post on the organisation of territory, and for that I’ll have to read stuff so it may take longer. There may then be a need for a fourth one talking about how the ruled and rulers interact, over what and why, but by that point, seriously, we’re heading for a rewrite of my book, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet! By the end of this, however, I’ll have something that I hope can make for a proper article, but this thrashing out, and of course any feedback you have which will be much valued, are a necessary part of the process of getting that far I fear. Thankyou for reading, if you have!
1. J. Escalona & F. Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border: the county of Castile in the tenth century” in Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 153-183.
2. J. Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Reynolds, Scale and Scale Change, pp. 9-29.
3. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint; cf. also his “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008) pp. 18-31, esp. pp. 20-24.
4. R. Menéndez Pidal, La España del Cid (Madrid 1929), 2 vols, repr. as one (1969); Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz y Menduiña, En torno del feudalismo hispánico (Mendoza 1942, repr. Buenos Aires 1974), 3 vols; cf. En Torno al feudalismo hispánico: I Congreso de Estudios Medievales, León, 1987 (Avila 1989); María José Hidalgo, Dionisio Pérez & Manuel J. R. Gervás (edd.), "Romanización" y "reconquista" en la Península Ibérica. Nuevas perspectivas (Salamanca 1998); José María Mínguez Fernández, La España de los siglos VI al XIII: guerra, expansión y transformaciones. En busca de una frágil unidad (San Sebástian 2004).
5. Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista: cantábros y vascones desde fines del impero romano hasta la invasión musulmana” in Boletín de le Real Academia de Historia Vol. 156 (Madrid 1965), pp. 271-339; eidem, Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista, Ariel quincenal 91 (Barcelona 1974, repr. 1979 & 1984); eidem, La formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1978).
6. E. Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and idem, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading 1994), pp. 83-96; Manuel Pedro Acién Almansa, Entre el feudalismo y el Islam: ‘Umar Ibn Hafsun en los historiadores, en las fuentes y en la historia (Jaén 1997) (cf. Miquel Barceló, El sol que salió por Occidente (estudios sobre el estado omeya en al-Andalus) (Jaén 1997)); Alberto Cañada Juste, “Los Banu Qasi (714-924)” in Príncipe de Viana Vol. 41 (Pamplona 1980), pp. 5-96.
7. Sánchez-Albornoz’s interest in the peasantry’s own decisions is defended in J. J. Larrea, “Villa Matanza” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.) Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 223-228; on the problems of defining aristocracy versus entrenched local influence see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 153-155; Barbero & Vigil, “Orígens”; Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, pp. 164-173. Cf. the less worked-out invocations in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado & Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, “Early Medieval Rural Societies in North-Western Spain: archaeological reflections of fragmentation and convergence” in Escalona & Reynolds, Scale and Scale Change, pp. 33-60 at pp. 53-57 (churches the tools of domination by local élites) or Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West”, ibid., pp. 87-117, esp. pp. 95-104 (emergence of local élites into the post-Roman political vacuum). On the problem of defining this term in the works in this volume see my review of it in Historia Agraria: revista de agricultura e historia rural Vol. 59 (Valencia 2013), pp. 193-197 at p. 194.
8. The counts-as-founders perspective best evidenced in Prosper Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), as the title suggests, but see more recently Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: serie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980) and Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Els grans comtes de Barcelona, Biografies catalanes: serie històrica 2 (Barcelona 1961); the most patriotically-useful bits of Michel Zimmermann’s work have been gathered in a translated collecion that showcases the more social perspective, En els orígens de Catalunya: emancipació política i afirmació cultural, transl. Antoni Bentué, Llibres a l’abast 248 (Barcelona 1989); cf. Albert Benet i Clarà, El procés d’independència de Catalunya (897-989) (Sallent 1989) or Federico Udina i Martorell, “El llegat i la consciència romano-gòtica. El nom d’hispània” in idem (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 171-200.
9. Here the best example (in both senses) is Josep Iglésies, La reconquesta a les valls de Anoia i el Gaià, Episodis de la història 67 (Barcelona 1963), but see also Paul H. Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991) and Benet, Procés d’independència; there is now also Josep María Salrach i Marés, La formación del campesinado en el occidente antiguo y medieval: análisis de los cambios en las condiciones de trabajo desde la Roma clásica al feudalismo (Barcelona 1997), which I haven’t read but which ought to be very important.
10. The classic study of a ‘self-made’ merchant notable is Pierre Bonnassie, “Une famille de la campagne barcelonaise et ses activités économiques aux alentours de l’an mil” in Annales du Midi Vol. 76 (Toulouse 1964), pp. 261-297, transl. as “A Family of the Barcelona Countryside and Its Economic Activities Around the Year 1000” in Sylvia Thrupp (ed.), Early Medieval Society (New York City 1967), pp. 103-123, but it needs to to be treated with care as there’s at least three people called Vives in the relevant documents whom Bonnassie (in this his earliest work) counted as the same person, making his activities rather more impressive!
11. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208; Jordi Bolòs, “Onomàstica i poblament a la Catalunya septentrional a l’alta edat mitjana” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), Histoire et archéologie des terres catalanes au moyen âge (Perpignan 1995), pp. 49-69; J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127.
12. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le Mirail, Sèrie A 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, esp. I pp. 209-214. Milestones in Salrach’s evolving work include El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’abast 136-137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols; El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987); “Entre l’estat antic i feudal: mutacions socials i dinàmica político-militar a l’occident carolingi i als comtats catalans” in Udina, Symposium Internacional, I pp. 191-251; and “Introducció: canvi social, poder i identitat” in Borja de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història política, societat i cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. Salrach (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 15-67. There is more, too; I am behind-hand with his work, sadly, which is often hard to get in this country.
13. Flocel Sabaté’s work is something to which I must pay more attention as I take this forward: it includes, but I have not read, L’expansió territorial de Catalunya (segles IX-XII): ¿conquesta o repoblació? (Lleida 1996) and La feudalización de la sociedad catalana (Granada 2007), for a start; the work of Gaspar Feliu’s I mean, meanwhile, is most of all his “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, repr. in his La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2010), pp. 93-109, but the other papers reprinted there have much to add on the theme.