From the Sources XI: wets and measures

This is a leftover from my reading of the Wendy Davies lecture that I already blogged about while just about still in Birmingham, but I felt it was worth a post of its own, because it is (as so often in this series) about something I thought was a really interesting charter. Without further ado, I’ll give you the translation (Latin is in the reference footnote) and then try and explain why I think so, if I haven’t already convinced you!

“In the name of the Lord. This is a charter of recognition that was written and corroborated by the order of the most serene lord Prince Ramiro and of all the bishops and the crowd of catholic persons about to corroborate below, so that it should have binding character throughout the ages. Therefore: a quarrel arose between Abbot Baldered and his brothers and men of the tithing of Saint John in Vega, Gondemar and his heirs, about the aqueduct whence the mills of the brothers were powered and which they were holding in lordship. And afterwards, downstream from their mills, they were holding lordship over the water for the mills belonging to the selfsame Gondemar and his heirs, as per what they were holding as heredity from long ago, since their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had taken over that stream and held lordship over it; and their milling mills a flood of the rivers Bernesga and Torio together removed, and they built other mills further down that stream, next to the aforesaid river. When they had completed that work, maliciously, the same Abbot Baldered and his brothers rose up against them. Wherefore, with both parties laying claims in our presence and that of the bishops and judges, we sent faithful men from our council, they being: Recemir Decembriz, Abbot Vidal, the priest Pelagio and the priest Apsidio and many others who were there. And they orderd collectors to be set up in the flow of that water to measure the height of it, and below they broke down that construction which the brothers said was impeding their mills and starving them of water. And afterwards, the water flowed until the ninth hour, standing at just the same level, so showed the markers, just as they had been set up, the same amount of water and not diminished a bit, wherefore we ordered Gundemar and his heirs to have those mills and that water as they were holding it previously. Truly, another year, the brothers again raised a plea against those men, maliciously, wherefore we again sent the following faithful men so that they might determine whether they were presenting any impediment to the mills of the brothers: the judges Abaiub, Leander, Maurello and many others. And the already-said faithful men found, just as on the first occasion, that the brothers were acting maliciously against those men, and that nothing was presenting an impediment to them. Now, in the third year in which this quarrel has arisen between those people, we, with all the gathering corroborated below, have assigned to Gundemar, with his heirs, the selfsame water from the mills of the brothers as far as their mills. Thus, when the brothers shall warn them about their restoration of that upper construction or their direction of the water, they may avoid it without any excuse of a survey; and let them together have that water, for their use, without any molestation. For if now or from now on anyone shall raise any quarrel or attempt to bring any accusation, just so much shall he pay to the royal purse 500 solidi, just as he shall lose his right and property in the selfsame water.
“Recorded on the 7th day of the Kalends of July, in the era 976 [25th June 938 A. D.]
“Under Christ’s name, Quixila, by the Grace of God bishop. Under Christ’s name, Bishop Frunimio. Under Christ’s name, Ovecco, by the Grace of God bishop. Recemir Decembriz.
“Abaiub, judge, confirms; Maurello, judge, confirms; Leander, judge, confirms. Monio Nuniz confirms; Vermudo Nuniz confirms; Diaz, archdeacon, confirms; Gundisalvo, deacon, confirms. Assur, deacon, confirms; Piloto, Abbot, confirms; Fredenando confirms; Olemundo confirms.
“Fortis, scribe, recorded. ()

This is a fairly tangly story, so it may be worth breaking it down a bit. If I read it right, these are the stages:

  1. In the distant past, Gundemaro’s ancestors cleared the land around a stretch of the river Bernesga in Vega and thus laid claim to the use of the water there, and set up mills on it.
  2. Either previously or later, the monastery of Valdevimbre (as it happens, the text doesn’t identify it) acquired rights to the water higher up the river and had mills of their own up there.2
  3. Next, a flood of the Bernesga and its tributary the Torio wiped out Gundemaro’s family’s mills, so they built more in a safer place downstream of the monastery’s mills, and put in an aqueduct that diverted water from the river to their mills.
  4. The monastery didn’t like this, and Abbot Baldered and his monks raised a suit against Gundemaro and family claiming that the new construction was interfering with the monastery’s mills, apparently despite the fact that those were above it on the river.
  5. So King Ramiro sent a team of enquiry who set up markers in the river, presumably near the monastery’s mills, and gauged the water level before and after destroying Gundemaro’s family’s new aqueduct, and they found that it changed not at all, as one might have expected, whereupon King Ramiro found in favour of Gundemaro and said that he and his heirs could carry on as before.
  6. So one assumes that they rebuilt, whereupon the monastery raised suit again, and another team, this time of judges, went out to Vega again and found that there was still no interference going on with the monastery’s mills and told them to shut up.
  7. The document we have dates from the third year in which the monastery had raised this claim, and this time King Ramiro has had enough, and says that there will be no further survey, that Gundemaro and co. are to have the river between the monastery’s mills and their own without any possibility of further dispute and that anyone who raises such a dispute will pay a 500-solidi fine and lose any claim they may have to the river.

There’s loads to interest me here, from the purely diplomatic to the deeply personal. In the former category, I like the way that the scribe Fortis makes the document refer to what will be written on it later; if that’s straightforward, it implies that he was drafting it at the gathering in response to the royal verdict, but it seems to have been a full formal document anyway; we only have it through Valdevimbre’s cartulary, now in the Archivo de la Catedral de León, but the fact that the witnesses are roughly, but not perfectly, divided into columns by category even in the copy implies that some such arrangement was also present in the original, otherwise I’d expect the first column to have four and the last three, not the other way around. I also note, just in passing, that one of the judges has an Arabic name, and that we know that another witness, Recemir Decembriz, was son of another such person, December iben Abolfeta, even though his own name is unfaultably Gothic.3 Read me an ethnicity from those if you dare!

The monastery of Valdevimbre's buildings seem to be long gone, but for orientation, I think we're here, not at the main confluence of the rivers but slightly further up the Bernesga where the artificial channels cross the fields from the Presa to drain into it. People are still doing the same thing here...

More interesting, perhaps, but less resolvable: why did the monastery keep raising this spurious suit? It seems clear that they thought that Gundemaro was a problem for their water rights, and in most of the medieval Iberian peninsula—not Catalonia so much, which is a lot wetter than the rest of the peninsula, Galicia excepted—rights to the use of water and irrigation are a big deal so this is understandable in principle.4 But even if there was initially some reason to believe that Gundemaro and co. were dipping into water in the monastery’s stretch of the river, they choose a stupid way to contest this, saying that their mills are affected by a structure that must, surely, have been below those mills in the river and so tapping only water that the monastery’s mills had already spent. But they manage to get this checked twice, and try again, so presumably they thought there was some chance that the royal inquest might find in their favour, despite the first one having used Science! to prove them wrong. (Because that is, is it not, testing of a hypothesis by experiment.) I don’t understand why.

But to me, given my habitual concerns, the most interesting question of all is: why do we have this document? The monastery lost, repeatedly. What good did preserving that fact in their archive, and indeed copying it up for the cartulary a few centuries later, do them? If they had ever produced this in court it could only have gone badly for them. The only thing I can think of is that they were genuinely concerned that Gundemaro’s family would start tapping the monastery’s water, protected by their apparent good standing with the royal court, and that even this document, which not only set but seemingly shrank the rights they could claim in the river, was better than having no record of their rights at all. In which case, where did they get those rights in the first place, and why was this a better document than nothing? The only answers to these questions I can think of all suggest that the monastery was in fact at a disadvantage here, that despite our usual assumption that he who keeps the record has the power and that the Church always held the whip hand in disputes, Valdevimbre was up against some fairly immovable local bigwigs here and was hoping, somehow, to get the court to stand up for them against their opponents. They seem to have picked a stupid way to do it, but maybe it was the only way they had. In short, though this looks like a rare case in which we have a record of a greedy and assertive ecclesiastical institution being defeated in court, I suspect that the way we have the record may actually imply that they were not the aggressors…

1. Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952), Fuentes de la Historia Leonesa 41 (León 1987), doc. no. 128:

In nomine Domini. Hec est kartula agnicionis quam iussu serenissma domni Ranimiri principis uel omnium episcoporum ac cetu catholicorum, subter roboraturis, conscripta ac roborata est, ut tenorem iugi abeat per secula. Igitur orta fuit intencio inter Balderedus abba et suis fratribus et homines de collacione Sancti Ihoannis, in Uega, Gondemaro cum suos heredes, propter aqueductum unde molendina fratrum molebant et dominata tenebant. Et post, sub ab eorum molendina, dominabant ipsa aqua ad suos molinis ipso Gondemaro cum suos heredes, secundum eam quam abebant hereditariam ab antiquo, ut abprehenderant eam aquam et dominauerunt eam suis auis et trysauis; et suos molinos molentes, amouit eos inundacio fluminis Uernesga cum Torio mixto, et super ipsam aquam edificauerunt alios molinos subtus, secus flumen predictum. Quum factum hac completum illum abuissent, maliciose, insurrexerunt aduersus eos idem Balderedus abba et sui fratres. Unde, in nostra presencia uel episcoporum et iudicum, asserentes utraque partes, misimus ex concilio fideles, hii sunt: Recemirus Decembri, Uitalis abba, Pelagius presbiter hac Aspidius presbiter et aliorum multorum que interfuerunt. Que preuiderunt in decursione ipsa aqua fieri papillos et metire ipsa altitudinis aqua ac ruperunt subtus illa presa que dicebant quia inpediebat et inaquabat molina fratrum; et postquam, decursa est aqua usque in oram nonam, stantem in ipsa mensura equaliter, sic apparuerunt ipsas stacas, sicut eas perxerant, equale aqua nec in modico minuante, unde iussimus abere ad ipso Gundemaro et suos heredes suos molinos et ipsa aqua ut primitus abebant. Equidem et in altero anno, iterum supposuerunt uocem contra eos homines fratres, maliciose, unde et alios fideles misimus que probarent si eis aliquid inpediebant ad molina fratrum: iudices Abaiub, Leander, Maurellus cum alios multos. Et inuenerunt, sicut et primi, iam dicti fideles, quia maliciosa agebant fratres aduersus eos homines, et nullum eis inferebant inpedimentum. Ad uero, nos, cum omni cetu subter roboratis, anno tercio ex quo orta fuerat inter ipsos ipsa intencio, ordinauimus abere ad ipso Gundemaro, cum suos heredes, ipsa aqua de molina fratrum usque ad suos molinos. Ita quando eos admonuerint fratres pro ipsa superiora presa restaurare uel aquam domare, sine aliqua excusacione mense auertant; et abeant cunctos ipsa aqua, pro sua utilitate, sine ulla molestia. Quod siquis amodo uel deinceps uocem subposuerit aut aliquam calumpniam temptauerit inferre, quomodo pariet post partem regis solidos D, velud kareat uocem et suam proprietatem in illa aqua.
Notum die VII kalendas iulii, era DCCCCa LXXa VIa.
Sub Christi nomine, Cixila Dei gratia episcopus-. Sub Christi nomine, Frunimius episcopus-. Sub Christi nomine, Ouecco, Dei gratia episcopo. Recemirus December.
Abaiub iudex conf. Monio Nuniz conf. Assuri diaconus conf.
Maurellus iudex conf. Vermudo Nuniz conf. Piloti abba conf.
Leander iudex conf. Didacus archidiaconus conf. Fredenandus conf.
Gundisaluus diaconus conf. Olemundus conf.
Fortis scriba NOTUIT (signum).

2. On Valdevimbre you can see César Álvarez Álvarez, “El monasterio de Valdevimbre (siglos IX-XII)” in Manuel Cecilio Díaz y Díaz, Mercedes Díaz de Bustamante & Manuela Domínguez García (edd.), Escritos dedicados a José María Fernández Catón (León 2004), 2 vols, I, pp. 41-64.

3. The December family are tracked in Victor Aguilar Sebastián & Francisco Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in Manuel Lucas Álvarez (ed.), El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media VI, Fuentes de la Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

4. See classically Thomas F. Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia (Cambridge MA 1970), still in print.

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