Widow warlords

A couple of days ago I found myself engaged once again in one of the arguments about medieval society it’s just impossible to resolve, that of how possible it was for women to wield political power as men did. It’s impossible to resolve because it obviously wasn’t usual for women to do so, so every case of a woman who did is exceptional and thus probably unsafe to generalise from. There’s a whole argument’s room in that ‘probably’ of course, but on this occasion the argument focussed on Jeffrey Bowman‘s article on countesses in Catalonia and the Midi in the tenth and eleventh centuries that I mentioned a few posts ago, and there you may remember me promising a post about how I thought his case could be deepened. So, this is it.

Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona as portrayed in Televisió de Catalunya's series Ermessenda

There are no contemporary or even medieval depictions of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, but that’s OK because TV has since provided

Professor Bowman, you may remember, developed a fivefold set of acts of power that he thought women would need to do to hold power like men, and then argued that they did, at least in this area and time.1 These were fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’, and of these perhaps the toughest to show is fighting. His best example, and everybody’s for female power in this area, is Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, who wound up running her son’s and initially her grandson’s governments and had to be forced to let go by said grandson making open war on her. One of the issues about her rule was that she didn’t send campaigns into Spain to keep the castellans rich, but she certainly directed armies when necessary, though whether she was actually ever in battle herself is harder to show. Her three-generation coregency and final reduction to ignominious and short-lived dowagerhood is about as extreme an example as it’s possible to get, however, even if she was followed by another countess of almost as much ability and independence of whom we have already heard (but who also got murdered).2 And besides, she was at the head of her state. There is only room for one such person at a time; like Margaret Thatcher, she did not necessarily leave the ladder down behind her. So what were the possibilities like a few rungs down?

Now, I could tell you about viscountesses (and in a future post I will) but viscounts were not really very different from counts by the late-tenth century; they too were rulers of their areas, even if some notional comital superiority was occasionally acknowledged.3 So how much further down the ladder can we get? Well, in my famous book I mention a lady called Adelaide (as so many were) who ran a castle. This is admittedly Bowman’s third act of power, not necessarily his first, but it’s worth looking at how she got it. The castle was the Castell d’Orsal, south of Vic, and it enters our record in the hands of the viscounts of Girona. They sold it, however, to a man called Radulf, and he then sold it to Adelaide.4

Remains of the alleged Castell de Malla

This is on Wikimedia Commons as the Castell de Malla, but to the best of my knowledge that should be the just-visible remains on top of the hill (what you can see is basically what there is).5 What this building is, therefore, I’m not at all sure… By Elmoianes (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-es], via Wikimedia Commons

Now straight away we hit the problem of exceptionality, although for once not about the woman but about the castle. Orsal’s initial owners must have been holding it privately rather than in their official capacity, since though they were viscounts they were not viscounts here, so it’s not entirely clear that the castle had military obligations to fulfil, although there was a ‘beneficium’ in its territory which suggests fiscal land-stocks dedicated to its upkeep.6 The comital family also held land nearby, both Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell and his sister Godregilda Countess of Pallars, and had clients here, of whom one, Riculf, may have been Adelaide’s husband.7 Also, it doesn’t seem that the castle was worth keeping – all these powerful men selling it very quickly – so it may not have been very well-equipped or repaired. It was apparently OK for Adelaide to be a castellan, in other words, but that may be because there was nothing that really came with the castle. And for castellans, she is the best case I can find.

But, surprisingly, we can get lower down and much more certain at the same time. Rather earlier in the century and higher up in the Pyrenees, we have the will of a woman called Oliba (usually a man’s name but here specified ‘femina’).8 She was old enough to have two sons, one of whom was a deacon and the other dead, and she was reassigning the inheritance to take account of that latter fact. And, in the course of rewarding the surviving son Ludiric because he had “remained in my obedience and desired so to do”, she gave him an alod big enough to have an island in it, in the territory of the castle of Bar, and it came with various revenues including those “de predam et de ostem”. I cannot think of any way to translate that but “from plunder and from campaigning”, and with that seems to follow ineluctably the implication that this land supported a warband, and neither the fact that she was an ageing widow nor that he was a churchman were apparently going to stop that.

Obviously it's only a guess, but here's a farm in Bar with an island in the Riu Segre on its likely property; it could be where theirs was...

So, OK, again, we have the obvious cavil: there’s nothing here that proves she herself was fighting, even less that proves that he was. In fact, he can’t have been expected to, if he owned the land, since if he was receiving revenues from some venture he was presumably not bringing them in himself or he could just have kept them— with Ma dead, who else could claim? Nonetheless, they were running soldiers. Whether they told those soldiers where to go or just sent them out for pigs (another of the revenue sources mentioned), no questions asked, they controlled men of war enough to take some of their booty off them. And this, apparently, like Adelaide’s control of a castle, was, if not usual, at least by no means so odd that it needed explaining in the charter.

When I bring these examples up, and others of women witnessing or signing documents, people who work on other early medieval areas where they get none of this stuff often ask me why tenth-century Catalonia should have been so well-disposed to women’s rights, justifiably enough. I have tended to suggest that if they had my evidence density maybe they’d see this too, because these are—here it comes again—probably not usual cases. But they were possible cases, and that in itself merits more explanation than I’m usually willing to give it. That doesn’t mean I have one, but I will suggest two interlinked factors that must have played a part. One, both Adelaide and Oliba were widows, which is to say, there had once been a man with whom they shared these rights, and second, as often said here, in Catalonia the law of resort was still the Visigothic Judges’ Book.9 These connect because the Visigothic Law was fairly generous to wives and widows: while their husband was alive, they held ten per cent of his property with him, and after he died, they got to keep that tenth for their support, until or unless they married again, in which case it devolved to the children of the first marriage since she would now have a new tenth.10 How often that was actually done is not clear, but it was often enough that “from my tenth” is a way that widows disposing of property by charter explained how they came to own it.11 Now, unless we are to suppose that people deliberately chose that tenth to exclude any land they held with a military duty or whatever being done from it, which would often have been quite hard to do I’d guess, widows of men who ran soldiers must sometimes have wound up with a warband’s base on their hands when he died, in perfect legal right. Actually, this land of Oliba’s came from her parents and Adelaide just bought her castle, but my point is that women running soldiers must have come up enough that if it was acceptable one way, it might be acceptable in others.

We expect, of course, based on later primogeniture and despite any number of romances in which women get knights in to defend their castles and don’t even always marry them, that this would have seemed so unnatural that it had to be altered. There are enough female litigants in the record here, though, including castellans’ widows who defeated the Church in court, that I suspect women being so shunted out of control would have generated a record.12 I also think we probably expect that particular sense of the unnatural too much. We might, realistically, be beyond the law in Oliba’s case, with frontier pig-raiding a bankable source of cash, but she still had a charter written and in any case, pioneer pragmatism surely ought to have seen an old woman elbowed out of place in favour of an able-bodied man sooner, don’t you think? If it was weird out here, it should have been fightin’ weird not legal weird. So perhaps it wasn’t weird at all, just unusual. We still have the philosophical wrangle about what to do with an unusual thing that perhaps still happened a lot, of course, but if we’re not happy making rules out of it at least we can also avoid making rules out of its more common opposite.

1. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. The standard book on Ermessenda is Antoni Pladevall, Ermessenda de Carcassona, comtessa de Barcelona, Girona i d’Osona: esbós biogràfic en el mil·lenari del seu naixement (Barcelona 1975), but you can find him reprising it more recently for an audience of Romanesque fans in “La Comtessa de Barcelona Ermessenda de Carcassona” in Amics de l’Art Romànic de Sabadell no. 109 (Sabadell 2011), pp. 519-538, online here as PDF.

3. On viscounts and their power see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141; cf. cf. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngi 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), 2 vols, I pp. 181-226.

4. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 82-83; the documents in question are printed as 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 1774 & 1805.

5. Jordi Vigué i Viñas, Albert Benet i Clarà and Antoni Pladevall i Font, “Castell de Malla” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya romànica, II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 292–294.

6. The beneficium is in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 350; see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 84.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 661, 1542 & 1730 show Borrell’s lands here; the first of these shows Goldregilda as neighbour. For Riculf, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 84-86.

7. My reference here is Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 7–143, doc. no. 70. Now, it’s a while since I saw the text of this document. I’ve been citing this charter for this fact ever since my doctoral upgrade in 2001, but my viva revealed that I’d read one other thing in this document quite wrong, and now that I go back to my notes I find that they say nothing of this, which is a little disturbing. It’s on open shelves in Cambridge University Library, P582.b.1, probably North Front 5 still; if any of my readership happen to be passing, and wouldn’t mind photocopying or scanning a text, I would be quite grateful for it…

8. See Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

9. Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), online here, III.1.6 sets the tenth, though note that III.1.7 says that the bride’s father inherits it when she dies, presumably not a usual occurrence and not something I can document.

10. This, however, is common: some examples are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 95 (where the woman had kept the tenth from her previous husband despite remarrying), 560, 579, 596, 636, 726 (consenting to its alienation), 919, 1040, 1263 (a couple who weren’t even legally married, Unifred and Sesnanda), 1299, 1404, 1548, 1727 (Ermessenda!) & 1822 (citing the Law for it), and these are just the ones in that collection where I made a note of it.

11. Ajó, widow of the Vicar and judge Guifré de Néspola and perhaps daughter of the Vicar Sal·la, founder of Sant Benet de Bages. Again we see the problem: she was certainly unusually privileged, and the result is almost unique in terms of preservation, but how much more could we nonetheless expect this unusual thing to have happened… ?

20 responses to “Widow warlords

  1. It seems to me that if you add to those high society powerful catalan women of the c10-11th the earlier evidence (C9-10th) of more gothic femenine landowners than from surrounding areas (evidence density discounted), plus local tradition of matrilneal heritage, you end up with a sociological difference. Maybe not an idiosyncratic one, true, but to me, the question is to find/understand contacs, parallels, with the other contemporary european cultures.

    • Matriliny sounds a number of warning bells for me, but of course the Visigothic Law was old and ran north of the Pyrenees too. Whether it’s expressing or creating that sociological difference, what you’ve seen in northern Gothia is at least consistent with my suggestions here, isn’t it?

      • In the ratio on single vs married femenine landowners, Septimania behaves like Iberia (a clear surplus), yet it has some similarities with evidence from Burgundy (less femenine neighboring).
        I am not sure on the role of visigothic law on this, I did not find specific evidence of some 1/10 ratio, have you? It seems to me a too small proportion to explain the available evidence (I was thinking more on the the line of ‘germanic’ or ‘jewish’ influence…?).
        And, yes matriliny is not matriarchy, of course. ;)

        • Ah, now we’re into the category of things that interest me strangely, the female neighbours. I would want to pair that up with the evidence of female transactors and suggest that probably most of these people are also widows, but in that case we are looking either at an unusual male mortality (the frontier? few enough mentions of death in battle) or else an unusual persistence of female rights in property. And if that is also a frontier phenomenon, it would tend to suggest to me that people had moved from some distance, so that there’s no local kindred for the widow to go back to. But you also know that I don’t think many people *did* come from a distance, so it all has loose ends I want to pull at…

          As for specific evidence of the tenth, if what you mean is specific evidence of the division between husband and wife being a tenth, well, the law I’ve cited is explicit, though not so clear about to whom this applies. It is harder to find it in practice except the widows referring to it as a decima, but there are just one or two marriage agreements (including your D00008 that specify it… I think it was really done, though how the measurement was made is another question!

          • No, my bad, I was talking about married / single, only in a documentary sense (if they appear or not with a husband). I don’t think they all were widows (too many examples, a total recount of 212 not married female identities shows only 12 explicit cases of mothers or widows). It’s easier to think that the marital status does not extinguished her property rights.

            As for the tenth, some marriage agreements cite the law, true, but only in a generic way (ie, this one (afaics): secundum constitucionem legis),and note that dotalias were not the only source of women’s wealth.

            And there’s even also a small amount of (hard to explain?) evidence of groups of femenine landowners.

            The global image seems to be of a society where women had individual (and even gender based) property rights and played active social roles…

            If no external influence can be found to explain those idiosincracies, then the local factor must be considered (ie: it seems that some of the roots of the femenine unique heir tradition (pubilla) is to be found on the early medieval Pallars zone ( I say ‘it seems’ as I’ve been unable by now to confirm the evidence) it’s not a zone of intense intercultural contact as is the coast, so it can be the case that some ancient local tradition is going on here…?

            Anyway, your post about those noble women just makes a lot of sense to me.

            • Sorry, the jump to widows was my own fault, thinking of many many Manresa charters where neighbours are women “et filiis suis”, from which I presume that there was once a father… I need to make the Pallars charters a priority, though, as it seems clear to me that both diplomatically and, probably, socially, they are different in important ways from the lowlands, and, of course, start much earlier. I would have to admit, however, that where I see groups of owners without much explanation, I tend to assume siblings or cousins, and it could be the case that sometimes the only heirs are a group of female siblings or cousins… But if there genuinely is a quantitative difference in how often female ownership occurs, then that may not be explanation enough, I agree.

              I suppose that explanations might be of several sorts: social practice (i. e. law or custom, either externally or internally maintained), demographic circumstance (for some reason there are just fewer men of landholding age) or preservation (our documents are such as to see the unusual more often than elsewhere). In some ways your answer, in terms of practice, is the simplest, but our documentary sample in Catalonia is already very unusual—quantitatively large and qualitatively dominated by original single-sheet documents to a degree matched almost nowhere else—so Occam’s Razor almost always compels me to admit that if this one thing is already weird, other things may look weird because of it.

              Or, we could take the other known weird factor here of course, just as has been done so often with the Picts in Britain, and point to a known or suspected pre-Indo-European population (in this case, the Basques, whose language was once spoken so much more widely in the Pyrenees) and apply the same argument, I suppose :-) Either of these things could perhaps too easily become dei ex machinis

              • Yes, the sources are so biased that is quite probable that we are only sensing mirages, that’s for sure, but, and that’s not a small but, the smaller the evidence the greater the chance of error, so I’ts somehow amusing to get worried for a (relative) excess of evidence! :)

                In any case it must be noted that, by now, only a small window of 20 years has been sistematically processed, so caution must be the norm. But on a global level, I am with you on that, computer aided prosopography (CAP?) can make a difference, is just that we are still on an initial stage with poor tools to think with, yet.
                In fact, my personal take is that history has to be approached from two orthogonal directions: 1) an effort to try to quantify / objectivate evidence and methodologies, and 2) a not less serious effort to try to understand those ancient societies from his own set of values, and that means deeper understanding of locality (magistra also touched upon the local vs global tension from a different pow not long ago). Imbalance on those directions, rich data with poor understanding, or great insight without proper evidence, is what makes poor historiography.

                On weird factors and deus ex machina. I would rather prefer the Iberian side, you know, in the original greek sense, the north-western mediterranean coast, a culture with a yet to decipher written language socialized long before our current era… (i guess, it must be my catalan/mediterranean biass)…

  2. highlyeccentric

    I reckon situations such as Odila’s were perhaps less uncommon than even your record ends up suggesting. Particularly in frontier areas – what we know of modern frontier patterns suggests that 1. women getting roles that go against the script for better-established or more regulated societies is a thing that happens and 2. it’s often unlikely to make it as far as secondary record. I’m thinking of Historiann’s work on the American West, for instance. That example also points to a relevant pattern: a culture can hold a meta-narrative about male power and yet be completely unsurprised that a little old matriarch ends up running the family farm. And then fail to incorporate that into the meta-narrative.

    IDK, you’re the frontier specialist. But anything theoretical you’ve got about negotiated power, local improvisations on the ‘official’ pattern, what have you – wrench it sideways from the vaguely marxist class/power focus you’re using and it’ll adapt to a gender narrative if you tweak it a bit.

    • I think that is all very much to the point and plausible, yes. There is a sense I have, which some day I should check with actual figures, that lone female landholding (with children or heirs or without) is more common out in Manresa than elsewhere that I’ve seen (though not where Oliba was). That would be part of that frontier difference, then. But still, yes, the class narrative can also be a gender narrative. I think my natural take might be that where lordship is weak or only developing, systems of power are often overwhelmed by convenience, though. (I also ought to look up Historiann’s stuff: since my frontiers are plagued with old stuff about the American West, it would be interesting to catch up a bit with the new stuff!)

      • highlyeccentric

        I admit to skimming most of Historiann’s discipline-specific posts. But i gather there’s been something big going on re: revising perceptions of mormon women in the frontier migration, lately.

        And properly done class analysis should filter for gender and vice-verse, anyway, acos of we do (lip service to?) intersectionality now.

  3. highlyeccentric

    P.S. i still love stories about women not named Adelaide. More please!

  4. The 11th century Isabel de Montfort was “armed as a knight among the knights”, which Orderic Vitalis enthused about, comparing her to Camilla and the Amazons.

    Empress Maud took an arrow in the chest on the field of battle, so whether she wielded weapons or not, she was at least not hiding behind a castle wall.

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  8. Funny, but Isabella de Montfort was the first person I thought of when reading this. Apropos of neighbors, don’t forget that they may be female relatives as well. I seem to recall mentioning at one point more than a few female neighbors (some of whom were also witnesses) in my docs: in at least some of these cases, they seem to be part of a larger kin-group that has relatively few men of the same generation. :-)

    • Yes, I could probably substantiate similar guesses if I did the Manresa documents’ prosopography properly. I suppose it makes sense in a fairly basic way: the marriage pool in such areas is going to be fairly small…

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