Digging normality in the 11th-century Pyrenees

Hullo again! It’s been quite the festive season, and hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging, but I did have some subjects lined up and here is one of them, arising as I foretold from Marta Sancho i Planas‘s paper at the 2018 International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. That was, as I said in the post where I covered the congress, entitled, “The Underground Memory: 25 Years of Medieval Archaeological Research in Catalan Pyrenees“, and used a series of sites to talk the audience through the developments that society up in the south side of the eastern end of the Pyrenees underwent as the Roman system receded and broke up and was slowly turned into something that I would not, but Marta was happy to, call feudalism. Basically, we mean a situation in which the settlement was overdriven by the demands of a taxing state to one where it was more locally driven by the demands of aristocratic landowners with some connections to a state, via a situation in the middle where the economy was more subdued and the state and government only really present, in these areas at least, in the form of the Church, visible largely as monasteries or very tiny village buildings. The social paradigm, therefore, was really nothing we haven’t heard before—and if the results fit that paradigm then that’s hardly a reason to abandon it—but the sites covered for me raised another question, which was one of typicality or normality.1

The Castell de Mur, in Castell de Mur, Pallars Jussà, Catalonia

The Castell de Mur, centre of an eponymous jurisdiction in lower Pallars. Image by Ainhoa from Catalunya – Castell de Mur, licensed under CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

That question could basically be phrased as: what did normal settlement look like up here? For example we can be pretty sure it wasn’t this, Castell de Mur having begun as a round tower on my normal side of the year 1000, when it was still under Islamic control, then developing a curtain wall that didn’t stop it getting taken over in 1048, grabbed by the counts of Pallars in the 12th century and becoming home to a canonry at its nearby church, then the castle being abandoned in the 14th century and the area resettled as a hill village in the 15th. There are aristocratic burials at the church and it was obviously a rather singular settlement socially as well as visually.2 So not this, sure, but then what?

1994 picture of settlement at Vilavella de Castellet, Pallars Jussà, Catalonia

Joaquim Parcerisas Civit, Albert Parpal i Tamburini, Teresa Reyes i Bellmunt & J. Sánchez, “Vilavella de Castellet”, licensed for reproduction from Calaix, online here and photographed before digging began

At first I would have assumed that this place, Vilavella de Castellet, was more like a normal operation, being a sheep-farming settlement that seems to have collected itself into being in the 11th century, and which at its greatest extent was seven houses and a small church, probably 40 people all told.3 This chimed with my then-recent study of Ardèvol and my expectation of dispersed settlement in the mountains but even then, apparently, I was asking this question because my notes have in square brackets, “Typical? Evocative…” And it is the latter, but indeed, is it the former?

The Coll de Fabregada, in Sant Esteve de la Sarga, Pallars Jussà, Catalunya

The Coll de Fabregada, in Sant Esteve de la Sarga, image by Gustau Erill i Pinyot – own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The reason this seemed worth asking in so structured a way as a blog post is that the next place that was looked at, this one or at least in the vicinity, seemed to show a different and unusual pattern but one of which Professor Sancho had a lot more examples. ‘Fabregar’, as you may not know, is the Catalan word for ‘to make’ and more specifically ‘to forge’, and indeed, Fabregada was an iron-working site at a crossroads with charcoal furnaces and water power. It was active from around 1000, and abandoned in the late fourteenth century again (the common factor in these abandonments around that time probably being the major civil war into which Catalonia and its appendages then descended).4 Now, there aren’t many specialised iron-working sites like this in the record; but at Gerri de la Sal, otherwise known for an important monastery, there was salt production of a similar scale, and nearby Vilamolera made millstones. By this time, therefore, I was beginning to wonder if a bit of specialised craft or industrial production was actually what made it worth gathering people together, because sheep-farming obviously doesn’t necessitate that all the sheep farmers live together; in fact, it is kind of hampered by nucleation of settlement.

So although Professor Sancho’s analysis was primarily in terms of changes in power structures, which I would ordinarily default to myself, by the end of this paper what I had begun to see was a settlement structure that was really best explained by the growth of enough of a market economy that specialised production made sense, whoever controlled the means of it. Power is part of the picture, for sure – for example, searching up the images has taught me that once the counts of Pallars owned the iron-works of Fabregada, and gave it to a follower, which is probably exactly the kind of privatisation of fiscal interests that Bonnassie saw and others since him have seen as the feudalisation of Catalonia.5 Nevertheless, I’m not seeing growing feudalisation in this evidence, but rather growing economic connection and complexity. There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg question that then follows about which causes which, and that is an old debate here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. But evidence like this makes it worth asking the question again – at least, if the specialised production villages were actually more normal than the tiny sheep-farming hamlets…


1. Thinking most directly here of Pierre Bonnassie, “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)”, transl. Jean Birrell in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 288–313.

2. The definitive write-up appears to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, Marta Sancho i Planas (ed.), Mur: la historia d’un castell feudal a la llum de la recerca històrica-arqueològica (Tremp 2009).

3. Here the write-up is more recent, being Xavier Badia, Walter Alegría Tejedor, Júlia Coso Alvarez and Sabina Batlle Baró, “Vilavella del Castellet (Tremp, el Pallars Jussà): Resultats de les intervencions arqueològiques realitzades en el període 2015-2018” in Segones Jornades d’arqueologia i paleontologia del Pirineu i Aran (Barcelona 2020), online here, pp. 156–165, but Xavier Costa at least was one of Marta’s students when the digging was happening.

4. Here see Marta Sancho, “Ipsa Fabricata”: Estudi arqueològic d’un establiment siderúrgic medieval (Barcelona 1997).

5. As well as Bonnassie, I’m thinking mainly of Josep M. Salrach, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), but cf. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Arqueologia de la Catalunya feudal i prefeudal: Poblament i territori. El model teòric de la Comarca d’Osona” in Jordi Bolòs (ed.), La caracterització del paisatge històric, Territori i societat: el paisatge històric. Història, arqueologia, documentació 5 (Lleida 2010), pp. 399–465, which reads similar settlement changes differently.

4 responses to “Digging normality in the 11th-century Pyrenees

  1. Allan McKinley

    My default assumption in any medieval society, at least where the landscape wasn’t basically communal fields surrounding relatively closely-located villages, is that a fair proportion of the population lived in dispersed settlements, although this is hard to actually see in documents (which tended to present an imaginary world of clearly identifiable and discrete communities with a named central point) or archaeology (outside of places where dispersal was an almost total norm anyway). So this chimes well with my expectations. I would note though that if we are imagining villages as centres of production, then this can include the presence of a church, which was a specialised production centre par excellence, or of arable production, which would generally benefit from a concentrated workforce up to a certain scale. Whilst some villages may have formed around other productive nodes, there’s presumably a case that all nucleation of settlement reflected centralisation of production, even if this wasn’t always driven by markets.

  2. There is also mutual protection as a factor in many theories, I think. Centralisation of production would only be worth doing if it enabled some specialisation, one would think, unless the communal advantage of centralised distribution outweighs the individual want to hang on to what one’s grown rather than give it to the needier (and now we’re into rational peasant economic strategies, which rarely ends well). But another factor is also the social level of entry to the documentary record; unless you have a hierarchy in which someone has at least more property than they need to live on, and so can dispose of it, or enough resource with which to acquire more, then you have no transactional record in production. Places like that would only be archæologically visible; and if one wasn’t nucleated, you’d have to have dug quite widely to pick up the associated homesteads and then manage to associate them somehow. If there was any shared material culture then you’re already up to trading surplus and limited specialisation… I’m wittering, sorry, but I suppose what I’m saying is that production needn’t be centralised to be distributed, but that if it wasn’t centralised, it might need to be at least somewhat specialised to be visibly associated across multiple dwellings in the archæology, and it would also need to be somewhat specialised to generate documentation, so there’s a problem with instancing the case for dispersed autarky either way.

  3. ‘Medieval peasants don’t act rationally’ probably means ‘I have misunderstood the premises from which they have reasoned’.

    What’s the best expressed historical thought of the twentieth century? Perhaps “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

    • Well, indeed, but if you follow back to the linked post you’ll see that was my problem with the article I was critiquing: I felt that the scholars in question had probably missed quite a lot of the peasant premises (as well as the background social and economic structures). My particular target with the phrase is not the medieval peasantry and their rationality-or-not; it’s a school of economic modelling that assumes that economic actors all have perfect knowledge and act only for their own net material gain. To my mind, there’s usually more going on than that, and less ability to foresee outcomes from within it.

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