Seminar CXCII: fewer soldiers than you think

The seminar report backlog now reaches this year! And, fittingly, or because I am too ready to say yes to things, the first seminar I attended in 2014 was one that I was giving, before the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages in Birmingham on 20th January with the title Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”. The seminar was only publicised the same day, so I was lucky to get an audience at all, but there were some and I’d like to thank those who came mainly because it was me, since what I do only really crosses the research interests of two people in Birmingham, neither of whom could attend. Anyway: my basic thesis was that there were not many soldiers in tenth-century Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

I know I over-use this but it is at least more or less contemporary, a depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. I hope, though, that no-one would try using the number of troops an artist can squeeze onto a full-page drawing as indicative of the actual scale of military service in his area…

If you know the field a bit this may strike you as strange.* In the classic feudal transformation argument this was then an area of quite extensive public military service whose use of force is rapidly privatised in the course of the events of 1020-1050. But before that, in 1010 and 1013, the Catalan army’s raiding Córdoba. To which I say, yes, indeed, there are undeniable references to three ‘public expeditions’—but only three, one of those is the 1010 raid and I discovered the third one a few years ago. Other than that it’s the attempt to defend Barcelona in 985, which of course failed. The few references to military action otherwise—and they are very few—are or could be to very small forces, sometimes extremely few like Oliba’s band of pig-rustlers we mentioned here a few posts back. The only reason you’d suppose, if you came to this evidence for the first time, that there was a lot of military action here is because it’s a frontier and there just must have been, or because it’s a Carolingian polity and we know that the Carolingians demanded large-scale military service and we even have legislation exempting people here from it, which is at least negative evidence, or because you just think that early medieval polities fielded large armies. I don’t want to deny any of those things, but the tenth century was not the high Carolingian era here, and the evidence you would want to prove that such things continued (or, in fact, had ever been demanded) here is very thin, and this in an area that is as we know not short of evidence, even if not really for this.

eleventh-century sword found near Schleswig

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image of an early medeval sword when you want one, and when you do it’s always a Viking one. This is a late eleventh-century one found near Schleswig. For the Museu d’Art Nacional de Catalunya’s Cataluña Carolíngia exhibition of 1999 they had to borrow one from Paderborn. I don’t mean to try and use that fact as part of the argument but nonetheless I think swords were not common here before 1000.

By way of exploring this further, I then acted like the Anglo-Saxonist I was supposed to be in that rôle and went through wills looking for weapons. Who, if anyone, held the sword in early medieval Catalonia? And the answer seemed to be, again, that while the part of evidentiary silence is always hard to assess, very few people can be shown owning swords, and they were all top-rank castellans or churchmen, these often providing their dependents with weaponry in their wills but not usually swords, of which even they had at most two. Lances and hauberks show up a little bit more often, but not much, and still in the hands of people who also bequeathed quite substantial estates. (Though one of the bishops, Guisad II of Urgell, bequeathed a spata ignea and if anyone has any ideas what that might have been, I’d love to hear them…)

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007. I am not a big man, and that is really not a big ‘castle’.

Lastly I looked at fortifications, because this is after all a country probably named after castellans, and there are certainly a few of those. But, especially if you’re looking for the few that remain from the tenth century, they are firstly not very big, and secondly usually extremely far up sharply pointy hills. If you remember my efforts to climb up to Gurb, you may also remember my wondering how its owners could ever have got horses up there. But if they had, there’d have been hardly any room in which to stable them. And with no horses it would take you two hours or so to reach even the nearest settlement, and far longer the nearest road. Gurb was not placed to control a routeway. I think all of these places were probably more watch-towers and refuges than any kind of offensive base. So where does this all lead us? I give you the conclusion:

This would obviously change. Bonnassie’s picture of an eleventh century busy with cabalarii selling horses and weapons is well-evidenced and helps explain how there could emerge from the sack of Barcelona a polity capable of raiding Córdoba in opposition to Castilian troops and the best armies left to al-Andalus. There is very little evidence of the class of mounted knightly warriors who would make this possible before the year 1000, however; neither is there really any evidence of the relict militarised peasantry supposed to precede it, nor even normative reasons to expect one beyond the 840s. In between these two points we seem, as far as the evidence can carry us, to have a much less militarised society. This in turn implies that the rise of violence and feudalised warfare was indeed sudden and thorough, that the transformation was in this respect real. It was perhaps the new possibilities created by the collapse of the caliphate that made this large-scale militarisation possible, and it may be that by equipping to exploit them the counts gave power to a dynamic they could not, eventually, control. But whether this be so or not, it was not a tenth-century development. Frontier or not, tenth-century Catalonia briefly became a military backwater, or so the evidence and its lack suggest. Military service was possibly still general but extremely occasional, and might often have amounted to no more than a few days’ standing guard on a fighting top high above any potential action. The more normally beweaponed whom we can see seem more like thugs and their bosses, dependants rather than honourable servicemen, but even these are few. This is not what we have been taught to expect from this area and time, but what we have been taught to expect seems not in fact to have very much foundation in the actual surviving evidence, inappropriate though that evidence perhaps be for such questions. The conclusions that can be based on the evidence here, therefore, deserve testing against other areas whence the models that fail here were derived.

* Since this is intended for publication, and even now inches towards submission, I won’t give full references here, but rest assured I do have them and some day soon I hope you can enjoy them…

23 responses to “Seminar CXCII: fewer soldiers than you think

  1. Many armies were quite small even in the 9th century: in 874, a Breton Count named Wrhwant (Gurvand) mustered 200 men to fight a resurgence in Viking attacks. Apparently this was enough, because Regino of Prüm records that Wrhwant spent next two years in conflict with Pascweten and in 976 they agreed to partition Brittany, with Wrhwant receiving the larger share.

    If 200 was a typical size for a Breton warband into the 11th century, then there must have been quite a lot of warbands looking for Norsemen to pick off, for William of Poitiers to be alarmed at the number of armed men there and for King William I to scarper every time they came in sight.

    • One factor here is size of competition, isn’t it? These numbers would be laughably small in the Byzantine world, or as some would have it the Ottonian one, but when your opposition is either lords of roughly that importance or seaborne warbands of maybe 120 men (three big boats), then with 200 men you’re a major player. I think the trouble the Catalan counts had was that normally that was their scale, but the other possibility was the armies of al-Andalus, who probably outweighed them fifty-fold. At that point, how much more use is a big castle going to be? Barcelona isn’t big enough. Run to the hills!

  2. This Catalonian watchtower of yours reminds me of the towers that were strung across the Scottish Borders in the latter middle ages and manned by the men of clans such as the Frasers and Tweedies.

    • Very much that sort of thing, I think, except that some of those tower-houses could have been quite respectable residences. Of course, in time, so were many of the Catalan ones…

      • Allan McKinley

        The border peel towers were not residencies but refuges, often however built next to a hall (has anyone checked the archaeology outside the Catalonia towers?). As I remember these were brought up (possibly by me considering I think I was the only neo-borderer present) in the original seminar because of this similarity. Probably they are an apposite reference though, as the border lords could muster only small warbands, enough for local purposes but totally unable to affect the kings of Scots and English, and individually probably not able to directly challenge the nearby burghs (Roxburgh, Carlisle, Dumfries etc), although a leader with a wide following could be someone you’d need to take into account if you wanted open roads or an unmolested rearguard.

        • A very few of the castles have had their surrounding areas at least sampled: Tona, shown in the post, shares its hilltop with a now-twelfth-century church with a known ninth-century precursor and, as it turns out, what seems to be a late antique burial ground. Most of them expand to take up the limited space available, though; Gurb filled its hilltop by the fourteenth century (which probably gave it maybe four ground-floor rooms).

          As to the Borderers, absolutely an apposite reference, and as I check my reference I realise that it was similar Irish buildings that actually got lived in, not the peel towers, and much later. So I stand corrected!

  3. On the ‘spata ignea’: I know almost nothing about swords or the history of their creation /but/ might that possibly be a sword with a wavy edge, the ‘flamberge’, or a precursor to it? I have no idea what kind of metallurgical know-how would be required to make one, and to be honest the flame-edged sword strikes me as one of those ideas with only a limited medieval history which are now thrown around by Dungeons and Dragons players. So it’s probably not a useful thought. But it is a thought.

    • It’s probably a more plausible thought than the other explanation I’ve had offered, that it was a sword made of meteoric iron! I hadn’t met the proper term for those weapons, and it does make it a slightly more convincing case… Thankyou.

  4. Years ago I saw a Dark Ages translator: up to six men = thieves; seven to thirty = a band; more than thirty = an army.

  5. Anyway it gives the lie to those who say that politicians are thieves: clearly the Cabinet is a band and the House of Commons an army.

  6. Come to think of it, at the election perhaps the Liberal Democrats in the Commons may be reduced to thieves.

  7. Heinrich Fichtenau thought the bishop of Urgel’s bequest was a ‘fire-tempered sword’ (alongside his spear, three helmets and a shield). I can’t find a parallel for that usage of igneus, but the adj. can also be used in an extended sense to describe things or people that are bright or sharp, so I wonder if this might just be a nice epithet rather than a technical description. It’d be especially fitting for a bishop’s sword. Figurative gladii ignei crop up all over the place in ecclesiastical writings, but in his commentary on Matthew 26:52 (‘whoever shall take up the sword shall die with the sword’), Jerome writes ‘What what sword? With that fiery one that turns before Paradise (Illo nempne qui igneus vertitur ante paradisum), the Sword of the Spirit, which is ascribed to the armament of God.’

    • Oh, that last is extremely nice. Guisad does not otherwise come through in his documents as much of a theologian—his membership of a family of frontier land-grabbers is what mainly brings him to the surface in any case—but there were in his chapter those who were happier expressing such points in documents, not least his eventual successor Sal·la, so I must go back to the charter and see who the scribe is, it might actually be knowing use of Jerome. If so, thankyou, that’s brilliant, but even if not, where did Fichtenau write about the Catalan documents? I haven’t read half as much of his stuff as I ought to have and that might prioritise his extensive œuvre for me somewhat…

  8. Whoops. What what sword > With what sword…

  9. The Fichtenau reference is in his _Living in the Tenth Century_, at p. 207.

  10. Of course, Jerome’s flaming sword is the one that God set up to keep fallen man from the tree of life in Gen.3:23-24. I’m sure the spiritual interpretation of this weapon needn’t have been limited to Jerome. And I’d have thought an armed bishop needn’t have been much of a theologian to find it helpful to identify his physical weaponry with the spiritual arms of scripture in order to sidestep the problematic text in Matthew (not to mention other equally problematic biblical texts).

    • I wish that there were any sign of Catalan bishops thinking that hard about carrying weapons… But actually again one of the ones who might is Sal·la of Urgell, who does say in one letter communicating an excommunication (er, if you see what I mean) to his colleagues that he is fighting the weapons of the world with the weapons of the Church. Sal·la gets a bad deal from people who don’t look too closely at his record, because he died in 1010, but unlike the other two Catalan bishops who died that year, he did not do so on campaign to Córdoba…

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