Seminar CCXLV: me judging judges in Sheffield

We are living in interesting times, and the last few weeks have been extremely busy for a whole bunch of reasons no-one wanted. I came back off strike, had one day in the office and then had to move all my teaching online, then reinvent it again for different patterns of online delivery as instructions changed, and I was also behind with quite a lot of other things but still on action short of strike, and in general it’s been a complex time and I couldn’t make blogging a priority. So far me and mine are still well, or at least, only ill with things other than the novel coronavirus, and I hope that you can all say as much or better, but please look after yourselves anyway. I did wonder whether it was really important to blog about old stuff already backdated at the moment, but if it’s ever important, I suppose that that hasn’t changed much, and it’s Sunday and I’m not legally allowed to work, so why not, eh?1

So we go back, then, to December 2016, when as you may recall I saw a paper that I’d promised to give becoming less and less possible to write under my workload, grimly ignored that workload for a weekend and wrote anyway, the result being called, “Judging the Judges in the Frankish March of Spain before the Year 1000” and presented at the Medieval and Renaissance Seminar in the University of Sheffield on the 7th of the 12th. I’d been meaning to do something about judges in Borrell II’s Barcelona for many years, it was now part of the work for the book I still thought I was writing, and although I had no time to do the kind of reading in the recent historiography that I’d have liked, really long-term readers may remember that Dr Theo Riches once kindly described me as being different from other historians because I can count, and so I sat down with the Catalunya Carolíngia and my notes and I counted judges until the numbers started telling me things. I will, some day, do something with this work, but at the moment it’s one of a number of things I’ve been told by my management not to pursue, so there seems not much more to do with it than to bank a couple of its conclusions here and hope some day for different instructions.

Signature of the judge Dacó, highlighted on Vic, Arxiu Capitular, calaix 6, núm. 882

Signature of the judge Dacó, highlighted on Vic, Arxiu Capitular, calaix 6, núm. 882, my photo

So what the paper did was firstly to introduce late-Carolingian Catalonia to the audience, and then to introduce within it the concept that the historiography has developed of a super-learned clerical judicial cadre working around tenth- and eleventh-century Barcelona making impartial judgements on the basis of written law, a picture that once caused Roger Collins, no less, to ask, “whether anything better could be found anywhere else in Europe in the earlier Middle Ages?”2 We’re talking people like the man I have often named here as Ervigi Marc the Wonder Judge, who wound up as a bishop without portfolio because of his great importance.3 So far my sole contribution to this scholarship has been a footnote pointing out that these people don’t really appear before the 970s, and wondering, of course, if they might be Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s fault. Jeffrey Bowman‘s work has done something to add variegation to that picture by suggesting that there were other judges not quite so impressively trained, more like the Carolingian (or Lombard) idea of people who know the law whom you get to come and hear disputes rather than professionals, and Josep María Salrach‘s recent book does a lot to show that even the ‘professional’ judges were sometimes fallible or corruptible, as indeed we’ve seen here too.4 There’s also now a good bit of prosopographical work on these super-judges to work out who they were, and I’m not as aware of that as I’d like to be, but by repeating some of that work with the indices of the Catalunya Carolíngia I did work out at least two things that I, at least, hadn’t previously noticed or read, and so I’ll tell you about them.5

Graph of judicial actions over time in Catalan charters pre-1000

Graph of judicial actions over time in Catalan charters pre-1000

So here’s a graph, because we know that works, and also because as Wendy Davies says in her own study of judges a bit west from here, “Firstly numbers.”6 The yellow background trace is the overall number of documents preserved over time, from about 880 up to 1000; it’s missing a lot, because I didn’t then have the Catalunya Carolíngia volumes covering Barcelona, and if I ever return to this adding them will be the first thing to do, but I hope it gives the overall trends, which is to say that we have a better chance of observing anything as time goes on because there’re more documents in which one might find it.7 The purple foreground signal is the number of dispute cases, which as you can see is neither very much of the evidence nor that continuous, at least until it gets late enough. Then the blue signal between the two is the total number of judges active in the documents for that year, counting each individual judge as many times as there are occasions when he appears.

There’s a lot one can take from this, but I choose two things: firstly, even when you have thousands of documents to work with, subsets of them can be so tiny that small numbers look more significant than maybe they are. The big spike in 842 is one case that generated lots of documents which were preserved; the 870s/880s peak is a lot of documents and meetings, but almost all coming from the hearings arranged by the monastic community of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada after their place was flooded and they had to reconstitute their holdings, so in some ways a single event.8 Even the spike in the 910s, while it is several events, is one person, Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll, suing a succession of people for rights over lands, and when she stopped the sample drops right off again, and only really picks up with the activity of our learned college of judges in the 970s.9 But there is another change over time visible here, all the same, which is that in the early documents there are lots of people called judges (iudices) per ceremony, eight or ten at once quite often, which is why those blue spikes are so high in the 840s, whereas by the 970s one to three is more usual, and one not unusual.

Ruins of Sant Pere d'Eixalada, Catalonia

Not Sant Andreu d’Eixalada, because obviously that was destroyed, but one of the churches the displaced monks claimed, Sant Pere d’Eixalada, or what is now left of it. Photo by Jack maTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other change I’ll point out now, which is only just evident from the graph, is that in the ninth century, you only get people called judges recorded in actual court hearings. There’s a formula that introduces them in the case records, ‘judges who were ordered to judge’, and then a list of people follows.10 But the people who are named there very often don’t use the word iudex or anything like it in their signatures, and they don’t show up with the title outside court. In this respect, the title ‘judge’ is like the title ‘worthy man’ (bonus homo) that also appears in these contexts, and I think it has something do with standing in the court, and so is contextual, not fixed; on this occasion, these people served as judges, with those people recognised as worthy men who could approve a judgement.11 Presumably the judges knew a bit of what the law was understood to be, but they might be a lot more like Frankish scabini than Ervigi Marc, people whose knowledge could be called on for judging but whose usual rôle was not that of judge.12 This changes in 943, when a guy called Sunyer the Judge is seen as a neighbour of some property out at Manresa, but it’s really not till the 970s that we start to see people who sign as judges even when they’re not actually judging, usually because they were being called upon to act as witnesses but sometimes in their own property dealings.13 These people must have had some independent standing as judges even when they were not actually doing it, and people other than them knew they were judges all the time. And, predictably, our special learned judges are in this group, although that group is a lot bigger than just the really flash ones who show up a lot quoting law, as if I ever write this up I will show.

That’s enough for a blog post, except only that I’ll say that I was obviously wrong about Borrell II being responsible for this new class of judge; all the ones I could track seem to have started in Besalú, in fact, and be associated at least for a short while with Count-Bishop Miró Bonfill and his family, though Borrell seems to have managed to poach some of them pretty quickly… I think other people must already have realised that, but I’m not so sure that the other trends above have been spotted before. It shows what even a Saturday spent frantically dumping data into a spreadsheet can produce by way of historical insight, and also that you don’t need a born-digital corpus to do that kind of work. It went well, too, and Sheffield were excellent hosts and I was glad that I had managed to remain a researcher and not pull out despite the difficulties. Still, it’s not ideal, is it? I hope for better.


1. Because it’s not in my contract that I have to, it has to be there if my employers want me to and I’m working to contract.

2. Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: Law and Charters in Ninth- and Tenth-Century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (Oxford 1985), pp. 489–512 at p. 512.

3. On Ervigi see now Josep Maria Font i Rius, “L’Escola jurídica de Barcelona” in Jesús Alturo, Joan Bellès, Font, Yolanda García & Anscarí M. Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis, ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona, Textos jurídics catalans: Lleis i costums I/1 (Barcelona 2003), pp. 67-100 at pp. 82-87, though I would now be sceptical about the idea of the ‘Barcelona school’ in which he is set.

4. My sally is in Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin J. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: A Symposium (London: Queen Mary University of London, 2010), pp. 89–128 at p. 105 n. 6. The other works just mentioned are Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca NY 2004) and Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013).

5. The prosopographical work I mean is in Font, “L’Escola jurídica”, and Anscarí M. Mundó, “El jutge Bonsom” in Alturo, Bellès, Font, Garcí & Mundó, Liber iudicum popularis, pp. 101-118.

6. Wendy Davies, “Judges and Judging: truth and justice in northern Iberia on the eve of the millennium” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 193–203 at p. 199.

7. The Barcelona volumes are now out, and I have them, which is a separate and bloggable story by itself, but their citation is Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (edd.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum VII: el comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols.

8. I think there is still no better study of this event than Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337, repr. without the documentary appendix in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484. Everyone I’ve found who’s written about Cuixà since has just pointed back to it, and not without justification.

9. On this see, of course, Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258.

10. For example, Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manuel Rovirà i Sola (edd), Catalunya carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, I, doc. no. 19: “iudices qui iussi sunt causas audire vel dirimere“, ‘judges who were ordered to hear and determine cases’.

11. On the ‘worthy men’ in this context, a quick reference is Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

12. On Carolingian practice I think we can still rely on Janet L. Nelson, “Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 45-63, reprinted in Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish World, 750-900 (London 1996), pp. 51-74. On the Lombard one, I admit that I’m thinking back as far as D. A. Bullough, “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and his achievement in the light of recent scholarship” in English Historical Review Vol. 85 (Oxford 1970), pp. 59–105 at pp. 91-96, but I suppose an update, perhaps in the form of Marios Costambeys, “Disputes and Courts in Lombard and Carolingian Central Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 265–289, would be wise to get.

13. The judge Sunyer turns up actually judging in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, I, doc. no. 443, but then again just as a neighbour ibid. doc. no. 532.

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