Another thing that Guy Bois’s book The Transformation of the Year 1000 has made me think about is the coherence of the village community in my area. For him, the villages of the area of the Mâconnais in Burgundy about which he wrote were quite discrete entities, outside of which hardly anyone lived, except in a few relatively-substantial grange-like affairs run by a small staff of slaves or other dependants.1 He gets some quite heavy theory out of this (and apparently only from this), that this is the natural state of a relatively flat social hierarchy in a time of light lordship, they will band together for mutual support whereas dispersal presupposes some kind of structure to which to connect.2
There is so much literature on the formation and structure of villages, most of which I haven’t read, that the only way I can really come at this idea, which you may guess sits wrongly with me, is to test it in the context of the society I know best, tenth-century Catalonia. Here, of course, there was a fairly strong political authority: it may not be exactly clear what the counts could actually do, but they turn up almost everywhere as landholders, transactors, or judgement-givers. Very occasionally, too, we see signs of their ability to coordinate military power, though when the main source is land charters that just doesn’t come up much. Nonetheless, most theories about the development of this area hang on the idea that this lordship was less burdensome than the more local castle-based one that would come to replace it by, say, 1050.3 I have also mentioned before that the tenth-century documents frequently mention what appears to be an allotment of public land near castles, probably dedicated to their upkeep, identifiable because of not having an owner, being referred to as just ‘the benefice’ or similar. In that case it’s hard to guess what exactly the local castle asked from its supposed subjects, and one has to wonder what exactly drew these communities together.
This is an issue because it is definitely my sense that these communities didn’t have very distinct boundaries. There were certain areas on the edges of castle jurisdictions where the scribes seem to have been uncertain in which jurisdiction to put it.4 If it were under obligations of some kind to that castle, I don’t see how this could happen, at least not if that were geographically determined which Jerusalem, as ever, reminds us it need not be.5 Nonetheless, this was not an intensely-divided zone, it seems to me. People usually knew where their estates and properties ended, but even that could be open-ended (“on the margin”, “on wasteland”).6
It’s also quite hard to point at centres of communities, in the tenth century at least. The church is an obvious one, but not everywhere had one; my favourite example from my territory is a village called Montells, which has at least two bits (Upper and Lower) and also some settlement in between. Their nearest church, as far as I can tell, was the cathedral at Vic or Sant Vicenç d’Orsal in the under-managed term of Malla, but they did not live in either of those places as far as the scribes who wrote their documents were concerned.7 Then, to the north in Vallfogona the unusually rich documentation shows us a community that got a church put in by the nunnery of Sant Joan de Ripoll over the ridge to the north, which was obviously therefore acting as a kind of focus in itself, and yes, that church is more or less in the middle of the valley, but the settlement wasn’t; the church went where it went because the main mover in the affair, a chap called Arigo, lived there. But there were about fifteen other hamlets in tenth-century Vallfogona and when the counts moved in on the area towards the end of the century one of the things that they did was to put another church up at the east end of the valley and scrounge half its parish away from the older one, showing us that those hamlets looked to a further centre, not one of their own. And the Vall de Sant Joan itself, as we know in almost-unique detail, had at least twenty-three settlements in by 913, of which some were groups of fifteen to twenty families but others basically a homestead.8 Their centre was obviously the nunnery, but that area was, as I’ve suggested, organised much more obviously in dependence. Does this mean that Bois is right and dispersal follows lordship, and that other areas should be more centred?
I certainly don’t think that there was ordinarily no village community as such, not least because we have reason to expect there to have been some common land in most places, which means a group that could decide who was entitled to use it and who wasn’t.9 There was also a reasonably distinct body of people who turn up in court hearings for a given area as boni homines, ‘worthy men’, a term only used in this context but often correlating to a certain landed importance in the transaction record.10 Such a status presupposes, I think, other fora in which it could be reckoned by the person’s fellows before it could be definite enough for a scribe to record; I don’t see how it could really be the scribe’s decision. But it does make one wonder, when if ever was this community together to make such decisions? If the hamlet is the basic unit, church is not the answer: we don’t, in any case, know how often people went to church in this period, but it seems that it would always have involved the people of many (small) settlements. Unless we imagine that each church meeting dissolved into a bunch of small board meetings, some more local setting seems likely. (Churches are more common than castles, so it wouldn’t be the castle either.)
Beyond imagining the local ‘big men’ having more or less formal meetings at each other homes, for which there is no evidence at all, I don’t have an answer to this, which is frustrating because, Guy Bois or no Guy Bois, this is the level at which change would have been recognised, discussed, met and contended with, and it is invisible even though it must have been there. The invisibility of the informal is probably the biggest single problem with which the early medieval social historian reckons, and though I may not like the way Guy Bois imagines it (for an area that he knows vastly better than do I, of course; I merely don’t like it for my area) it’s very hard to do better than imagination.11
1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992), p. 117-120.
2. Ibid., pp. 119-120:
“Peasant dispersal was no doubt a possibility wherever a strong political authority, inherited from Rome, had been maintained. Where this was lacking, the hamlet became the structural framework which no peasant would think of leaving. The basic reality consisted of a network of hamlets, each binding the conjugal units into a cohesive group. The more society lost any central power, the stronger the knots in the mesh became….”
3. Most obviously 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; Josep María Salrach i Marés, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987).
4. See J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 90-91, for the example of l’Esquerda.
5. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there borders and borderlines in the Middle Ages? The example of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105-118.
6. In 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 158, 496, 941, 1111, 1128, 1184, 1218, 1236, 1243, 1367, 1595 & 1870 feature boundaries “in ipsa limite” or some other form of the word limes, whereas nos 760, 910, 960, 1128, 1381, 1402, 1428, 1435, 1504, 1547, 1664, 1683, 1710, 1821, 1852 & 1854 have “in ipsa margine” or similar. This seems to suggest either some shift in fashion from the former to the latter, or else that the limes was fixed somehow and that the edge of settlement had moved beyond it after the 970s. Interesting, isn’t it?
7. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 75-77.
8. Ibid., pp. 30-42.
9. Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in J. Farré and Flocel Sabaté (edd.), Els grans espais baronials a l’edat mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica: I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40.
10. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 35-36 & n. 55 with ref.; more widely, see Karin Nehlsen-von Stryck, Die boni homines des frühen Mittelalters unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der fränkischen Quellen, Freiburger rechtsgeschichtliche Abhandlungen Neue Fassung 2 (Berlin 1981).
11. One person who may do better than me (or Bois) on this is Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, whose Masters thesis, “Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: la Plana de Vic, 872-936”, unpublished Master’s thesis (Universitat de Lleida 2011), for a copy of which to read I must thank her, touches on such issues and whose doctoral work now completing may carry it further. She looks at the documents in a different way from mine and this is one enquiry where that probably helps!