It’s seminar report time again, and this time it was back down to London for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research where, on 7th May 2014, Professor Ross Balzaretti was presenting with the title, “Early Medieval Charters and Landscapes: Genoa and Milan compared“. This is of course meat and drink to me as if there’s anywhere that has nearly as many charters left from the early Middle Ages as does Catalonia it’s Italy and the Mediterranean climate and mountainous landscapes the areas share made a lot of what Ross was saying seem comfortingly familiar.1 Insofar as Ross was out to make converts, therefore, he was not preaching to me, but I can at least join in with the hymns.
The basic contention of the paper was that we can use charters as sources for landscape use and economic activity in a north Italian context, which is just as well as we don’t have a lot else left with which to do it given how intensely those landscapes have mostly been worked since the Middle Ages.2 The argument against such use of charter evidence has usually been that the documents are so formulaic that their detail can’t be trusted, to which the counter is that they vary a very great deal, and Ross was able by his comparison to show that the formulae, if that’s what they are, vary so much between Milan and Genoa that even if they’re formulae they must reflect considerable local differences in what formulae apply, so that in fact the level of choice would have to be such that it’s simpler to assume that what is making the variation is the actual landscapes concerned.3
As to that variation, it is quite marked. Genoese charters make much more of trees and Milanese ones more of fields for cereals. Both were producing in a specialised fashion, implying a market presumably dominated by the big towns whose hinterlands we were hearing about, but in Genoa the specialist product was olive oil and Milan it was much less focused (though that may be not least that at this point Milan was rather bigger). But the specialisation was also partly geographic: there are more mentions of terracing around Genoa not just because the charter scribess round there liked that formula but because the land requires it, being much more sloped than around Milan. Around Genoa the work to make the land yield food is very evident in terms of work contracted or expected and boundaries revealing it already done. Milan looks more domestic, as if less co-dependence was necessary to make a living here. And so on.
All of this rang very familiar with me because of the similar, if lesser, variations I’d been seeing between the lands owned by San Salvatore di Brescia in the Santa Giulia polyptych, so much discussed a little while ago. Here as there, of course, another way to see the variation is as between people, making different decisions about how to make their living, and charters do have that advantage that the polyptych does not, that you can usually put names to these individuals. But that doesn’t mean at all that I thought Ross’s focus on the landscape was misplaced; the countryside these people worked was the silent partner in all their actions, and the charters let you get at something of that too.