Managing without an archive in c. 1000 Barcelona

There’s a story I’m fond of and that I’ve told you here before, in which a woman came to the court of Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona in 1005 claiming that the monks of Sant Cugat del Vallès were moving in on her land.1 There’s all kinds of strange things going on in the background of this case, and I do urge you to read the older post, but the bit that interests me on this occasion is the basis on which the plaintiff lost her land, which is that Ramon Borrell and his tame judge decided that the land was in fact the count’s, by virtue of having recently been wasteland, “just as other waste lands belong to the right of the prince”.2 It’s a pretty mean claim given that most people got to hold onto lands they’d cleared, and if the monastery hadn’t also had a claim I doubt very much this bit of casuistry would have been perpetrated upon her. When I’ve looked at this case before, therefore, I’ve either seen it as an instance of the importance of back-story in this legal environment when one was fixing a verdict, or else as an instance of the fact that these rights the counts were claiming over waste lands were not in fact regular and were probably therefore new, which bears heavily on the theory that this was an ancient and long-respected right of the public power.3 Y’see, it’s a very rich case. But what I want to focus on today is the appearance that the document gives that the count didn’t realise, until the problem arose, that this could be claimed as his land. Up till now I have always figured this was simple exigency, that ordinarily he’d never have pressed such a claim unless it was of immediate political use, and I would still think that if what I was reading when I wrote this hadn’t just presented me with another case.4

Cover of Josep María Salrach's Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l'any mil (Vic 2013)

Cover of Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013), which is what I had in fact been reading when this post got written

This one’s from 1013, and it’s Ramon Borrell again, at court with his good lady wife when a delegation arrived from a placee called Villalba near Cardedeu, complaining that the count had some time ago been persuaded by one Rigoald to sell him a meadow next-door to Villalba in what the document has the count call “an innocent and unreflexive manner”, and that Rigoald and his wife and son had started making encroachments into the villagers’ common land.5 Rigoald now being dead, the villagers dared at last come to the count, and he and Countess Ermessenda apparently called the widow and son, Quixol and Ramon, to court, had their charter examined and found it, “made in a fraudulent and deceptive manner, alien to right and to all justice.” Therefore the charter was destroyed in court, and Quixol and Ramon fined thirty sheep, which by a coincidence is exactly what the villagers gave the count in gratitude for the justice he had done them.

Chapel of SS Corneli & Cebrià de Cardedéu

It turns out in searching that Cardedéu has a rather nice Romanesque chapel sitting in its midst, so although I can’t make any direct connection between it and the post I think it will do for illustration anyway don’t you? I’m so glad. By Miquel vico (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to see how anyone but the count and countess won here. Quixol and Ramon presumably felt they were secure enough with their charter, even if they had maybe overstepped its bounds; instead they lost all title to their lands, and what happened to them is not clear, and they lost thirty sheep as well, while the villagers had to pay the same just to get what they had argued was rightfully theirs. What good sixty sheep did the count and countess of Barcelona is less easy to see, but it is reasonably clear, as Josep María Salrach says in his discussion of this case, that Ramon Borrell got a considerable height of moral high ground, defending the loyal peasantry against oppressors even when those oppressors were in fact himself, correctly broadcasting an adherence to right over advantage, even if that right was best paid for. I’m more interested in the thread that seems to me to tie these two cases together, however, which is that Ramon Borrell apparently had only the sketchiest idea of what property he actually controlled.

Arxiu Fidel Fita d'Arenys de Mar, Mas Gelat de Santa Susanna, Mas Bellvehí de Vidreres 91.0.1

This isn’t from the comital archive, but it is a charter of Ramon Borrell, with Ermessenda, Arxiu Fidel Fita d’Arenys de Mar, Mas Gelat de Santa Susanna, Mas Bellvehí de Vidreres, 91.0.1 of 1001. Their signatures, done by the scribe I think, are dead centre of the last full line of text.

In some senses this may not surprise anyone who’s spent much time with the documents from this area, because one of the noticeable things about them is the scale of comital property, which is, tiny and widespread. It is at least arguable that the counts held some really big estates and, because they kept them, we have no transaction evidence in which to see them—there’s a huge complex at Palau de Gurb that we only ever see because it was slowly and reluctantly given to Santa Maria de Ripoll, but it would never have got there had it not originally been part of a comital son’s entry-gift, for example6—but they certainly also held an immense variety of tiny stuff. There’s almost no castle term in which some comital property doesn’t show up, even if it’s just a couple of meadows or similar, and of course they presumably considered the actual castles theirs in some way, too, but that’s not what I mean. Keeping track of this mess of busy little farms and smallholdings would have been beyond most administrations, and yet on the other hand the reason we know about this land is because people near it knew it was the counts’ and said so when called on to detail property boundaries. We know here not to underestimate the ability of tenth-century lords to take inventories and make lists, I think, so there seems little question that the counts could, just about, have known what they owned. So why does Ramon Borrell seem not to have?

Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó, Cancilleria, Pergamins Ramon Borrell 2

This, on the other hand, is from the comital archive, is in fact Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, Cancilleria, Pergamins Ramon Borrell 2, but is nothing to do with the counts and doesn’t feature the man under whom it’s indexed! Funny old world, archives.

Well, there is one fairly obvious excuse in the form of the sack of Barcelona by a Muslim army in 985.7 Lots of documents got lost in that, and because preservation from the Barcelona comital archive is so patchy for the early period, it has been assumed that the counts were among the losers that day.8 I’ve always struggled with this, however, because while it is patchy it is very far from non-existent, so either they didn’t lose it all, or some of the documents that later came to the archive were held elsewhere in 985 despite being about comital property, in which case we’re already looking at a rather less centralised administration than the kind of property tracking we’re looking for might have needed.9

Besides, it’s not just Ramon Borrell who seems to have had this problem: a remarkable case from the reign of his father Borrell II, which Salrach also explores, shows the same issues coming up. This is a hearing from a place in Manresa called Vallformosa, in 977 so that the “day Barcelona died” can’t yet have affected things.10 Borrell was presiding over this court, which makes it all the more surprising what happened: his agent summoned the men of Vallformosa (some of whom were women, but fairly few, so probably the communty’s heads of houses) and claimed that their land was comital property because it had been so in the times of Borrell’s father Count Sunyer. The villagers however claimed that no claim had been made on them for more than thirty years, which under the Visigothic Law was the limit of any outstanding property claims, and so the lands were now theirs whatever the past situation might have been. The judge asked Borrell’s man Bonhom if he had any evidence to refute this, he had none, and so he had to make a quitclaim in front of his boss admitting the collapse of the comital claim, and that document then went into the comital archive.

Sant Salvador de Servitge de Vallformosa

Sant Salvador de Servitge de Vallformosa, which though much modified is possibly the oldest building standing in the village as far as websearching can tell me. Photograph by Antonio Mora Vergés.

Speculation about this has tended to go two ways, and Salrach covers both of them.11 Firstly, it can be seen as proof that the counts could lose, and that they did not have the will or resources always to force a verdict in their favour against determined opposition. Point against this view: why would you have the trail? Bonhom must have known he had no evidence to present, yet he sued the villagers anyway. It would have looked better for his side not to bother. Thus, a second point of view has been that the comital side must have intended to lose, the point being to establish publically the villagers’ rights; that is, that this was what is known in the scholarship of Italy and Germany as a Scheinprozess, a show trial. Point against this view: why must the count lose to do this? Why could he not just grant them a franchise or immunity? These documents were made by others, and indeed by Borrell himself before long, so this seems a very odd way to do it.

So I wonder if in fact they did all know what the outcome must be, or whether in fact no-one was really sure whether Vallformosa’s inhabitants would be able to raise a group of oath-swearers or that Bonhom would not be able to until too close to the trial to call it off. I wonder if, in fact, a trial like this was how both sides settled a question of ownership that beforehand they could not answer. A point for this idea, unlikely though it may seem, and a point against both the other two theories, is that the Vallformosa and Villalba documents survive in the comital archive. What I have called ‘Winner’s preservation’ here before ought to militate against this: why would the counts be keeping records of what they had not been able to claim? These documents ought to have gone to the villagers, so that they could be produced if the matter was ever raised again. The fact that what we have is the counts’ copies suggests to me an archive that barely existed, that was being assembled by chancing this kind of case and filing the results so that if, in the future, someone in Barcelona went, “That place Vallformosa, up north-west of Manresa, that’s ours isn’t it? Bishop says it’s not his…” someone checking would then be able to say, “Ah. No.”

ACA Cancilleria Pergamins Borrell II 63

I seem not to have images of anything from the comital archive from before the sack of 985 that doesn’t hail from Sant Joan de les Abadesses, whose stuff got added in later. There are some, all the same, but this is ACA Cancilleria Pergamins Borrell II 63, a Barcelona sale of 992 that, again, doesn’t feature the count and presumably arrived in the comital archive for some other reason

I admit that there is a nastier possibility, that the counts might lose the case but claim the right to keep the record, far away in Barcelona where no-one from Vallformosa could easily get at it. I would have to admit the possibility of that: but a comital administration with that kind of plan surely wouldn’t be as confused about its rights as it in fact seems to have been. I don’t want to let go of my older idea that Borrell and his son were actually trying to push for new rights under old legal cladding, and that what they attempted to get was sometimes unobtainable precisely because no-one had asked before. (This chapter of Salrach’s book is really good at adding texture to this idea, for a start.) However, I do now think that we probably ought to realise that a governmentalising apparatus with all kinds of strategies for power still doesn’t have to have been very good at them or well-equipped to carry them out…

1. J. Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés vol. II (Barcelona 1946), online here, doc. no. 464.

2. Ibid.: “Propterea iudicatum est in ipso iudicio melius et verius esse hec terra iuris principalis, sicut et cetera spacia heremarum terrarum…”.

3. J. Jarrett, “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, paper presented to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Oxford, 18th October 2010; idem, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x.

4. Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Refeències 55 (Vic 2013), here pp. 114-118.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort and Josep María Salrach (edd.), Els pergamins de l’arxiu comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I: estudi i edició, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 105. I’m working off Salrach’s account cited in the previous note here, which only quotes the document in Catalan translation, but he did edit the thing so I’m guessing it’s OK.

6. 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 419 & 420, show the dissection of the Palau de Gurb estate.

7. On which see Gaspar Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008.

8. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos XVIII (Barcelona 1951), pp. xxxii-xxxiv.

9. Ibid., doc. nos 9, 12, etc.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1229 (or Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 181, because it too is in the comital archive of before).

11. Salrach, Justícia i poder, pp. 109-111.

22 responses to “Managing without an archive in c. 1000 Barcelona

  1. I don’t buy the idea of a catalan comital archive at the end of C10th being something just ‘personal’ or ‘familiar’. De res publica concept was not unknow, and local administration had a role in it. May it be partial, not constant or arbitrarily exercised, but existing anyway.
    Imo, is just that the remaining evidence is too limited to grasp how the whole system worked, so we have plenty of alternative explanations for this fragmentary snapshots.

    • Allan McKinley

      You’re into the dangerous territory of continuation of here. The most recent arguments I’ve seen (Alice Rio’s and Arkady Hodges’) imply that churches took on this public role as far as can be seen, but neither seem to use much Catalan material (which is an achievement in itself considering how wide-ranging Hodge’s paper manages to be). Is it possible to argue from the Catalan material that comital archives did perform a public role as a depository of others’ documents?

      • Well, I certainly think there is a much better case to be made that churches performed such a role, and also (a post coming up shortly) I think that Salrach shows that we can in fact demonstrate that landholders in general kept the charters relating to their property, even by previous owners, where possible. The comital archive has so much stuff dumped in it later, however, often very much later as with the Sant Joan material that arrived during the Spanish Civil War but even beforehand, and of course presumably did lose a lot in 985, that assessing what it was actually for and whose stuff went in it is very difficult to do. Its purpose may have changed! The amalgamation of the counties that takes place over the eleventh and twelfth centuries here sort of has to have achieved that…

    • Oh, I’m not sure I’m arguing for a family archive instead of a ‘state’ one; I just think that it’s looking harder to maintain that that state one was rigorously assembled and maintained, rather than created as opportunity arose like these cases! I think what I’m trying to show with these cases is that it can’t just be an issue of survival; the counts clearly lacked documentation at the time these charters were made.

      • Ok, no to an unified amb metodic ‘state’ archive notion, of course, but yes to the notion of comital/nobility pubic service duties one (mostly justice and defense). You can be unaware of your own properties, because you have more than you can remember (rich men don’t need to know or remember each piece the properties they control).

        • I also think that works. Lots of these places are not worth remembering on a comital scale. What use are sixty sheep to the Count of Barcelona? What use is a farmstead in Gaià? What use is that defunct castle at Casserres? The counts don’t get anything from them, they won’t go in the list. And then when someone comes along wanting it, of course, it’s not in the list…

  2. Allan McKinley

    Has anyone actually proven that a single claimed scheinprozess is plausible, rather than just a historian’s explanation for a document that doesn’t fit their theories of what happened at the time?

    As you might guess this is a class of documents I doubt exist at all. How was setting yourself up to loose a case publically good for your authority, when making a donation or mediating the dispute (clear statements of power) were also options? So I doubt this is a real option here.

    • I would say that Chris Wickham’s examples in the Settlement of Disputes volume are fairly inarguable, and I think I’ve shown that’s what must like behind the Vall de Sant Joan hearing (see me in EME 12 etc.), so, I’m going to take the unusual position of straightforward disagreement with you for once, Allan :-) But I would agree that when one side is of distinctly higher social standing something weird is going on. In the Vall de Sant Joan case it’s explicable because both sides are really the same side, the comital family, and what they get there is a very public demonstration and a big document that justifies something new (again) and unusual, to wit an abbess holding fiscal rights including military service, and anyone wishing to protest that now knows that he or she will have no help from the counts. The cases here are harder to figure out, I admit, especially Vallformosa. It’s so far out, however, that I wonder if the deal behind it isn’t that by conceding this claim the count is admitted to have authority where he beforehand would have struggled to assert it. That would fit with arguments I and others have made about government expands into frontier zones when it’s not by conquest.

  3. Borrell II vs Vallformosa could it be possible that two copies of the verdict were made? One for the count’s records and one for the Village?

    • Oh yes, quite possible! We have cases elsewhere where both copies of such a transaction are preserved. But the question is really why would the counts keep it? What use is it to them to have a record of a case where they were denied any rights?

      • Maybe counts, bishops and other authorities of the time were not sistemantic egotic maniacs, and have some sense of justice and public service after all (just kidding…).
        Written words had a value per se, that’s why documents have to be destroyed if found to be false. I think it’s not a imple question of private interests, society was more interconected than that, a legal process (faked or not) generated lots of witness, if the count for whaterever the reason lose a trial, everybody knows-it anyway…

        • Well, one of the other things that’s great about Salrach’s book is that he does have some examples of cases being swung in favour of the weak as well as of the powerful, so I agree that actually we should not assume that no sense of ethics drove the officers of power. We could of course, be cynical about it, as is Salrach, and say that they profit from the belief that they give justice so much that it’s worth losing a case here and there to show that it can happen… I have some views about that and they will make for another future post! This has been a very provocative book for me.

          As for your second paragraph here, I wonder in fact how much people had to know about the Vallformosa case. It really does depend where it was held, and that was probably somewhere central rather than on site, but we don’t know. I suppose that it would have been impossible to stop news reaching Manresa, and thereafter who knows where? So that is probably right. All the same, something extra is going in with this case, even if not then; it was copied into the Liber Feudorum Maior, the comital cartulary, along with franchises and grants of fiefs, so that in some way it was by then being grouped with concessions that the counts had made. There was some kind of benefit for the counts in losing this case that was apparent even in the 1150s, but which we can’t see…

          • If you’ve got legal proof that you don’t own something, or that you used to own it but you don’t now, nobody can blame you for something that happens there. Or tax you for it.

            • True, but the counts are the people who take tax, not those who pay it, and their responsibilities are public, so go beyond their property. The principle is worth keeping in mind, though, for sure.

  4. There’s also a missing factor. Most of those trials (except Vallfogona’s one) are being examinated wihout proper identificaction of the parts involved, ie: Quixol and Ramon are comital family names. who were they? how they related to the other plaintiffs? Are we getting a clear enough description with only the trial’s documents?
    Probably making a full prosopographical approach we could locate some of those ‘anonymous’ actors in a wider network of interests and relations and have a deeper understanding of what was going on (or maybe worse, who konws?)…

    • That’s also a reasonable point. I’m not sure the names are significant—there are many many Quixols and Ramons in the documents and Ramon Borrell was the first count to bear the latter name—but if we could get at their connections we might well find things that explained some of this. The story I linked to at the beginning about Hisnabert and his tower show how that kind of context can be vital and of course we rarely have it. I think it’s Rigoald I would like to place most, but he is the sort of person I think most important in how government worked in this day and age, the comital trustee or follower. I could even be provoking enough to suggest that his level, rather than the centre, is where the documents of what the counts owned might have been most useful. Maybe the Vallformosa trial is the result of an awful miscommunication between the count and one of his local bailiffs about what documentation they had and on the day they had to go through with it all…

  5. Is it possible that by outlining and confirming in this case the old law about not giving notice for 30 years, the count may have been setting things up for his own future land grab somewhere?
    I agree with Joan’s first post.There is simply not enough information available to know how exactly the courts worked (or should work) so countless explanations could be offered. We also don’t know the reason behind the trial. Again countless explanations are possible with no way to know anything more than speculation.

    • Well, the thirty-year rule seems to have been fairly widely known. It is cited a lot and, as Jeffrey Bowman points out in his book, not usually by the side of a dispute that is quoting the law but by the peasant opposition. He seems to see this as Carolingian influence, which I don’t fully understand, but in either case I don’t think it would be a good part of a secret stratagem. I agree that there isn’t enough here to be sure about anything very much, though!

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