Burning the Law in Tenth-Century Castile

In today’s post I want to enlist the readership’s help in tracing a factoid. [Edit: and you have helped me find it! Thankyou to Psellos, whose help is now clear in comments. I've left the post as was otherwise, though.] This is something I came across in the book by Eugene Mendonsa I wrote about a few posts ago, which seemed to me most unlikely, and for which I then spent a little effort trying to trace to a source. I failed, but it’s not just my fault; I’ve run into many citational dead ends that shouldn’t be such, and since the effective source seems to be popular tradition, I wondered if anyone out there knows about it? Here is the quote from Mendonsa:1

“Reliance on written documentation to confirm repression was unique to Catalonia in Iberia. For instance, in neighboring Castile, Count Fernán González was so adamant in retaining traditional oral customs that he had all copies of the Liber Iudicum he could find in his country burned in the Cathedral of Burgos.”

As usual with Mendonsa’s book, as I said last time, there is no clear source for this,. The most likely thing in his chapter bibliography looks to be E. N. van Kleffens, Hispanic Law until the end of the Middle Ages, with a note on Continued Validity after the Fifteenth Century of Medieval Hispanic Legislation in Spain, the Americas, Asia, and Africa (Edinburgh 1968), but I don’t have access to that and Hathitrust’s search gives no instances of ‘burn’, so I’m not sure. There are obvious reasons to doubt such a claim, anyway. Here are the ones I could quickly think of:

  1. The Liber Iudicum, otherwise known as the Visigothic Law, was very much still in use in Castile in the thirteenth century, when it was translated by royal order into the text we now know as the Fuero Juzgo, so Fernán González’s Fahrenheit 451 episode couldn’t have been very effective.
  2. Almost anything written later on about things Fernán González did are shot through with legend, but those legends usually include him issuing a fuero of his own for Castile, the point being to separate it from royal legislation, not to reinforce orality.2
  3. The Forum Iudicum would have been older than any oral customs in Castile, since it predated the Muslim conquest of the Visigothic kingdom.
  4. The bishopric of Burgos was only revived in 1075, Castile was a county not a country, and we could go on, but I did this for Mendonsa once already and don’t need to again.

So instead I did some searching, and what I found can be grouped under two headings, writing that you’d think would mention this episode but significantly doesn’t, which is to say pretty much anything I could quickly open that mentions Fernán González in an actual tenth-century context but also works on actual law in medieval Castile, and then very venerable works that do mention this episode but only in passing. (There’s also an unreferenced mention in an almost unconnected Wikipedia article in Spanish whose English version omits it, just to complete the picture.) The most obvious of the first sort of works I’ve already referenced, but first of the second is nothing less than Amerigo Castro’s The Spaniards: An Introduction to their History, part of his side of the long-running polemic with that unfriendly but impressive figure, Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, about what the real nature of Spanishness was.3 In its English version, on p. 512, Castro was made to say:

“Whether it is based on actual tradition or mere legend, it is a significant fact that those Visigothic laws were burned in Burgos by the Castilians as a sign of protest against the kingdom of León to which they were subject.”

This is exactly the kind of statement that means I tend to prefer Sánchez-Albornoz to Castro despite the former’s own particular problems – “whether it is based on… tradition or… legend, it is a significant fact”! – but the main thing of relevance here is that there is no citation. But it didn’t entirely surprise me when I picked it up again in the work of those two’s mutual senior, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who in 1943 and 1944 wrote, in the same words both times:4

“Una tradición muy respetable cuenta que, al conseguir su autonomía los castellanos, reunieron todas las copias de ese Fuero Juzgo que pudieron hallar por su tierra y las quemaron en Burgos.”

As ever, my Castilian isn’t my strongest language, but I make that more or less:

“A very respectable tradition records that, in order to secure their autonomy, the Castilians gathered all the copies of this Fuero Juzgo that could be found in their land and burnt them in Burgos.”

Pretty much a match! So I guess that, while Menéndez Pidal wasn’t Mendonsa’s source, he was probably quoted by whatever that source actually was. But what was Menéndez Pidal’s source? “Una tradición muy respetable”, without reference, isn’t a lot to go on, and Menéndez Pidal is as far back I can trace it. So, over to you folks: does anyone else know this tradition, and if so, where it might have started?


1. Eugene L. Mendonsa, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham, NC, 2008), p. 130.

2. Two fairly modern examples: Michael P. McGlynn, “The Seven Laws of Fernán González: Castile’s Tenth-Century Legislative Beginnings” in Confluencia Vol. 25 (Greely 2009), pp. 93–100, where it would have been relevant almost anywhere, and María Angustias Alba Bueno and Manuel Rodríguez García, “La muerte en el Fuero Juzgo y tipos de enterramientos en el Reino Visigodo de Toledo” in Estudios sobre patrimonio, cultura y ciencias medievales Vol. 18 (Granada 2016), pp. 81–106, online here, where p. 82 runs quickly through the afterlife of the code with no mention of this.

3. Amerigo Castro, The Spaniards: an introduction to their history, transl. Willard F. King & Selma Margaretten (Berkeley, CA, 1971), translation of his España en su historia or La realidad histórica de España as it became in later editions. On the debate between him and Sáanchez-Albornoz a still-useful guide is Jocelyn N. Hillgarth, “Spanish Historiography and Iberian Reality” in History and Theory Vol. 24 (Oxford 1985), pp. 23-43.

4. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, “La Castilla de Fernán González” in Boletín de la Commisión Provincial de Monumentos de Burgos Vol. 22 (Burgos 1943), pp. 237-254, online here, at p. 242, and idem, “Caracter originario de Castilla” in Revista de estudios políticos Vol. 13-14 (Madrid 1944), pp. 383-408, online here, at p. 390, as I say in more or less the same words; I guess when you’re effectively writing for a Fascist dictator about how his province of birth was historically destined to provide the future rulers of Spain, you maybe cut a few editorial corners in favour of speed of production…

4 responses to “Burning the Law in Tenth-Century Castile

  1. I can’t help you regarding this “factoid” (most likely a myth or some sort of later legend), but I can give some helpful hints. First of all, the “Liber Iudicum” was not applied in medieval Castile, which is known in medievalist Spanish historiography as “un reino sin leyes”, i.e., “a kingdom without laws”. That only started to change in the 13th century precisely with Alfonso X as far as I know. Even further West, in other territories of the early medieval Kingdom of León, this law code was rarely applied and customs, penitential books and private vengeance were far more powerful as law sources, as Abel Rodríguez is currently finding out (check this: https://ler.letras.up.pt/uploads/ficheiros/16706.pdf).

    In the end, whatever this legend’s origin, it surely relates to this “reino sin leyes” reality.

    • Aha, thankyou. That is the key I needed! I had gained an impression of the situation that you describe from the very old scholarship while I was looking at this, but I wasn’t sure how much it would stand up to looking through the charters for citations of the Law. As it turns out, this prompted me to try a different search which found me Igor Santos Salazar, “Ruling through Court: The Political Meanings of the Settlement of Disputes in Castile and Álava (ca. 900–1038)” in al-Masāq Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2017), pp. 133–150, who finds such a citation in San Millán de Cogolla no. 27 (his n. 51), but also refers me to Ernesto Pastor Díaz de Garayo, Castilla en el tránsito de la Antigüedad al Feudalismo: Poblamiento, poder político y estructura social, del Arlanza al Duero (ss. VII-XI) (Valladolid 1996), which that excellent man has put up entirely on Academia.edu here, which discusses this very legend at pp. 193-195. Not only does he trace it back to a C14th legal collection (which, frustratingly, was also quoted at length in McGlynn, “Seven Laws”, which I used above, but not quite as far as the relevant bit!) but he also provides a slightly larger list of uses of the Liber in Castile (collected largely by Sánchez-Albornoz) and a cite for a manuscript of it from Silos, both at p. 195 n. 38. I will look at the Rodríguez article you mention as well, but at least I have the answers I was immediately after. Thankyou again!

  2. I think I’ve found-it. According to Zamacola (Historia de las naciones bascas de una y otra parte del Pirineo septentrional p.188) the episode is related in Fuero de las Fazañas de Burgos (1255) that was in his time in Real Biblioteca de Madrid nn.4 y 47 fazaña 1ª fol.174.

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