Where do viscounts come from, Mummy?

Being on strike, again, I have time to write. This post has a silly title but a serious question, as became clear to me late in 2018 when, at that point still working on the book of Borrell II, I decided that I needed to know more about the viscounts of Narbonne into whose family his elder niece, with whom he may have grown up, married.1 Looking for work on them turned up a fairly recent essay volume edited by Hélène Débax, who knows a thing or two about viscounts, and with grim determination I realised I’d have to read all of it, a luxury or necessity that modern-day academia rarely allows me.2 By the look of my Zotero files, that took place over October 2018 to January 2019 – because yes, by then I needed four months to read a book on work time – and revealed several things to me. For one, I’d assumed that pretty much everywhere had viscounts, while being aware that they basically don’t occur in England; but actually, the vicecomital dignity or office was pretty constrained in both space and time, in the former being largely confined to the peripheral areas of what became the kingdom of France, including most of the Midi, and in the latter to the ninth to twelfth centuries. Both of these things mean that the viscount is, like many things, a Carolingian and post-Carolingian phenomenon. But this is one of the ways in which Catalonia and its northern-neighbouring territories were Carolingian and its western neighbours were not. That is, however, not to say that Catalan viscounts were like other viscounts, and that’s where the stub for this post came from.

Cover of H&eacutelène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l'Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008)

The book and the colloquium that Débax put it together from both wisely distinguished viscounts and viscounties, “vicomtes et vicomtés”, the kind of distinction I use to point out to monolingual and xenophobic students why accents count as spelling. Not everywhere had both viscounts and viscounties; several sets of viscounts existed without developing an associated territory, either because their tenures were too discontinuous or because they worked under the shadows of counts, one or two places had viscounties from earlier on which were later run by other people who didn’t use the title, and several places developed viscounts first and then they developed viscounties later.3 Catalonia, interestingly, had viscounts from really quite early, albeit perhaps not continuously, and the eventually established families mostly did get themselves viscounties but these were almost always located outside their official jurisdictions, which remained counties with counts (apart from Conflent, which we’ve already discussed and is weird).4 So Catalonia may not exactly have fitted the pattern, but Débax and colleagues thought they had a pattern, albeit one not universal and open to variation. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of them except Henri Dolset, speaking for my patch alongside the already-discussed Élisabeth Bille, there is a different pattern in use in the Catalan scholarship to explain the emergence of these major nobles. And then there’s me. So it seems meet to set up the two competing patterns in the scholarship first and then comment with what I can bring to the question.

So what is the ‘vicomtes et vicomtés’ pattern? For Débax herself and most of her contributors, viscounts were a symptom of comital weakness. They popped up where there were no active counts, taking over unattended jurisdictions, and some of them effectively became counts under a lesser name, with no superior officers between them and a very distant king. This was what happened at Narbonne, where I started, and at Castillon in the Dordogne among other places.5. Some viscounts who set up in such a fashion even managed to become counts, by obscure processes in most cases; we see this at Millau, whose viscounts managed to inherit the comital dignity of Rouergue, and in la Marche, where there had never been a county as far as we know until the viscounts managed to upgrade.6 Even viscounts who had a count to whom they were notionally subordinate often managed to achieve quasi-independence in parts of their territories, unaffected for the most part by their relations with their bosses at bosses’ courts; such were the viscounts of Trencavel whom Débax has made her own, Auvergne, Thouars and Marseille in its third round of vicecomitogenesis, as well as in Béarn with some special conditions.7 A strong count, however, didn’t let this happen in his core territories (best shown in these studies by the viscounts of Tursan, just too close to the biggest counts in the south at Toulouse) and even where it had, once in the general revival of civil government in twelth-century France the counts were powerful enough again, they put a stop to it (as at Bruniquel, Marsan and indeed eventually Narbonne).8 This often followed on an equally-revived Church mobilising the force of Gregorian reform to push these upstart officers out of the Church properties and revenues which were often a major prop to their standing.9 Nonetheless, it was not a universal that wherever the counts couldn’t assert themselves, viscounts sprang up; some noble families occupied what was far as we can see were positions just as powerful (and some northern viscounts, especially, were not major players in their areas) and never took such a title, prime examples in the south being the Castelnau of Cahors.10 So there remains something unusual about the title which the pattern developed in these studies doesn’t overall explain.

Map of the Catalan counties c.950, by Philip Judge and Jonathan Jarrett

Map of the Catalan counties c. 950, by Philip Judge and myself. We’ve not seen this for a while, have we? But now it helps. Of these counties, Empúries and Roussillon were usually both ruled by one count, Barcelona, Girona and Osona by another (though only after 898), Urgell by a third and Besalú, and Cerdanya by a fourth family, usually providing plural counts. Pallars and Ribagorça started with one count for both and finished up with several for each. The rest of the areas never had named counts, but did sometimes have viscounts, most obviously Conflent. But so did the counties with counts!

The Catalan scholarship that I know best on these matters kind of comes at the question of origins from the other direction, which the more voluminous but also locally-specific evidence from the area partly explains, but not as much as the good old feudal transformation narrative does.11 Under that rubric, of course, we’re supposed to move from a fully-functional public system via a period of upheaval to an exploitative one of private jurisdiction which everyone’s happy to call ‘feudal’ that is slowly brought under control by the powers-that-were over the eleventh or twelfth centuries but which remains the new basis for power till the Age of Revolutions. Accordingly, the Catalan scholarship points at ninth-century viscounts who appear sporadically, but sometimes with counts, as being the public system working and the viscounts as official delegates of the counts, and mostly argues this for the tenth-century ones as well, though as we’ve seen I have my doubts.12 The delegation was necessary because there were more counties than counts: a count of Barcelona, Girona and Osona couldn’t be everywhere at once, so someone had to hold the fort or forts while he was elsewhere. This idea is echoed in the Débax volume in a few places, for Rouergue before the Millau swallowed it, for example, but in general they have too many viscounties springing up out of nowhere for the idea of delegation to look normal.13

That suits me fine, because I’ve never liked the delegation argument, which goes back to Ramon d’Abadal but wasn’t up to his usual standard of analysis.14 In the first place, the plurality of comital holdings really doesn’t reach back to the ninth century, when one county per count was much more normal, but there were viscounts already then. In the second place, a count couldn’t be everywhere in a county either, so what makes those quite big units the natural level at which jurisdiction does not need dividing or delegating? And in the third place, to which I’ll come in a bit, other than sometimes presiding over courts, which was a thing that many sorts of person could do, viscounts don’t seem to have done the same jobs as counts in many ways. The only place where we arguably do see viscounts behaving like delegates of the counts is in Osona, a county that was created ex novo by a count in the 880s; the best example is the rights given to Viscount Ermemir II over Cardona in its franchise of 986, but we see older members of the family doing things at comital bidding too.15 That’s harder to find where the jurisdiction was older; there, the counts don’t seem to have had this kind of systematic direction of their viscounts. There is also some echo of this in the Débax volume: in Marseille and the Limousin the counts of Toulouse acquired these areas as new concerns and then set up viscounts there, and in Poitou a different family did, because they had no immediate local basis of power themselves and other places they needed to be, so they had to. But it’s clearly not where the idea of viscounts comes from.

My own copy of my book, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available from at least some good booksellers!

For me, it’s actually that idea that is crucial. In 2010, in my so-far-only monograph, I had a section entitled ‘Power with a name’ that I think still bears some weight. The thing is, you see, if Duby and the other feudal transformationists demonstrated anything they demonstrated that a local magnate who was beyond the control of a higher authority did not need a title for his power; he (or indeed she) could just appropriate revenues and turn them into custom by means of threat and force.16 But to call yourself a ‘vicescomes’ was to emphasise that there was in fact an officer called a ‘comes’ who you weren’t; in fact, you stood in place of him in a way that uncomfortably suggested responsibility to him. ‘Vicarius’ was even worse, but essentially meant the same thing. As with the counts themselves, these were all claims to exercise power on behalf of someone else, not by your own hand. So there must have been substance to such a claim which made that potential liability worth
admitting.17 The old Carolingan legislation that people in all these areas, Catalan or not, occasionally copied up, give some ideas from what it forbids viscounts to do to those whom the kings had given immunities: it might have included demanding labour services from people on roads or fortifications, calling out militarily-liable people or charging them not to, taking fines and penalties at court, and a good few other things probably.18 But these rights can only have been restricted to such ‘public’ officials as long as the public power existed, so in that sense the very existence of viscounts tells us that there were rights that people still recognised as being restricted to people who had certain sorts of power only, and not others.

So in 2010 I suggested that the viscounts in Catalonia were best understood as powerful independents who had, for one reason or another, decided to engage with the effective takeover of royal powers by the counts, recognising perhaps that they could not, or could not yet, be counts themselves but could retain command in their key areas by pretending that they were comital delegates, and acting that part when required.19 Then their descendants were stuck with the legacies of that choice, which often allowed them room for powerful expansion but on someone else’s agenda. I’m not sure if that was true of all of them, but I think it works as an explanation for the ones I know best. And it also fits with some of the Débax team’s cases: Auvergne, predictably covered by Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, had viscounts whose origins he couldn’t explain as anything other than independents who coralled themselves a piece of the surviving public power, and André Constant, for all that his chapter floats what seems to me a quite unjustifiable theory that all his viscounts were also archdeacons in the Church by right till reform stopped that, sees the same thing in the bits of Catalonia I know less well.20

It seems clear that one size won’t fit all here. Even in Catalonia viscounts seem to have had diverse origins, with the Osona family who became the Cardonas presumably having some prominence that made them locally useful but then relying on comitally-driven expansion to turn that into anything substantial, whereas as far as we can see the family that emerged as viscounts of Conflent and sometimes Urgell owed nothing to the counts and were basically irremovable.21 No-one seems to be sure where the Girona viscounts who became the Cabrera developed, and the picture is complicated by the fact that it’s much easier to see them outside their county than within it because there are far fewer surviving documents from Girona than from the frontier counties where they show up as landowners.22 Barcelona has had much more work done on it, partly because it’s the capital but also because one viscount and his brother the bishop ended up besieging the count in his palace at one point, so there’s a story to explain; I haven’t read all that work yet, so I won’t try and guess how they fit.23 But if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases, and in that case the dignity has still to have meant something that wasn’t just ‘I’m in charge now’. It’s not clear to me how far this applies north of the Pyrenees, given the even greater variety of circumstances plotted by Débax and colleagues, but as so often I wonder what happens if rather than taking France as normal and wondering why Catalonia looks weird we start by looking at Catalonia and then seeing if it explains France.


1. Her name was Riquilda, and the relationship is made clear in her will, which is printed as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1, 5 fascs (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 346, and also in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I haven’t internalised that reference yet and this post is already late, so the old one will have to do.

2. Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval, Tempus 37 (Toulouse 2008), Freemium version online here.

3. Viscounts who never got viscounties in Bas-Quercy and the Toulousain, as described by Didier Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulousain, un kaléidoscope à vicomtes – IXe à XIIe siècles”, ibid., pp. 73–86; viscounty only developing after some time at Béziers, covered by Claudie Amado, “Les vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde : Deploiement lignager et bipolarité du pouvoir”, ibid., pp. 21–31.

4. A point made in Roland Viader, “Conclusions”, ibid. pp. 319-333 at pp. 326-327.

5. The overall pattern is asserted in Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction”, ibid. pp. 7-19; Narbonne is covered in Jacqueline Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté de Narbonne des origines au début du XIIIe siècle”, ibid. pp. 47–60, and Castillon by Frédéric Boutoulle, “Les vicomtes de Castillon et leur dominium (XIe–début XIIIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 103–113.

6. Millau: Jérome Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes de Millau (XIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 189–202; la Marche, whose viscounts began as castellans and finished up as counts, is covered by Didier Delhoume and Christian Remy, “Le phénomène vicomtal en Limousin, Xe – XVe siècles”, ibid. pp. 237–250 at Annexe p. 228.

7. For the Trencavel, see most obviously Hélène Débax, La feodalité languedocienne XI-XII siècles : serments, hommages et fiefs dans le Languedoc des Trencavel (Toulouse 2003), but if you have only the volume under discussion then an extremely brief summary is in Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes”, p. 15, and they also come into Amado, “Vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde” at pp. 26-30 and Pierre Chastaing, “La donation de la vicomté d’Agde (1187) ou les vicissitudes du vicecomitatus aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 33–45. Auvergne is covered by, who else, Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Auvergne et dans ses marges (IXe-XIe s.)”, ibid., pp. 213–222; Thouars is covered in Géraldine Damon, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le Poitou médiéval (IXe-XIIe siècle) : Genèse, modalités et transformations”, ibid. pp. 223–235 at pp. 224-235 and Annexe pp. 200-201; Marseille in Florian Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation » : vicomtes provençaux aux Xe–XIIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 251–264 at pp. 253-257 & 260. For Béarn see Bénoît Cursente, “Les Centulles de Béarn (fin Xe siècle-1134)”, ibid. pp. 129–142. Their special circumstances were the availability of the counts then kings of Aragón as an alternative source of patronage, culminating in one of the line dying at Fraga next to Alfonso I the Battler, but that didn’t stop them coming to the court of the Duke of Aquitaine when summoned, it seems.

8. On that revival of governmental strength see now most easily Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015), but it’s present in all the studies in the Débax volume whose viscounts survived long enough, and it’s really interesting how independent lords got squeezed between it and Church reform, without any necessary coincidence of interests between those two pressures. On the individual cases see Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 115–127, Tursan at pp. 122-127 and Marsan at pp. 115-118; Bruniquel in Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulosain”, pp. 75-79 & 83-84 and Laurent Macé, “Le nom de cire : Jalons pour une enquête sur les sceaux vicomtaux du Midi (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 305–317 at pp. 311-312; Narbonne in Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté”, pp. 56-59.

9. Reform as the enemy in Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation »”, pp. 258-261;, Jacques Péricard, “Les vicomtes de Bourges (IXsup>e-XIIe siècle) : une éphemère émancipation” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 279–289 at p. 288, and Viader, “Conclusions”, pp. 329-330, and also in André Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone : Essor des chapitres et stratégies vicomtales (IXe-XIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 169–187 at pp. 178-186, but that goes to heroically unsustainable lengths to associate the viscounts with Church office in the first place, which for the period I know I’m pretty sure are faulty, and admits that the viscounts managed the Augustinian reform very well, so in general I have doubts about this as a case.

10. On viscounts in the north see Jean-François Nieus, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le nord de la France (XIe-XIIIe siècles) : Un monde d’officiers au service du pouvoir princier”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 291–303; on Castelnau see Florent Hautefeuille, “Une vicomté sans vicomte : les Gausbert de Castelnau”, ibid. pp. 61–72.

11. The people who’ve been following me a while will know the classic references by now, but they are Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : Croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, and Josep M. Salrach, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), now updated somewhat by the lighter but no less interesting Salrach, Catalunya a la fi del primer mil·lenni, Biblioteca de Història de Catalunya 4 (Lleida 2005).

12. Here I principally mean Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngia en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29–75, reprinted in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13 & 14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I pp. 181–226, and reprised and updated in Abadal and José María Font i Rius, “El regímen político carolingio” in José Manuel Jover Zamora (ed.), La España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II: Los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Manuel Riu i Riu, Historia de España Menéndez Pidal 7 (Madrid 1999), pp. 427–577. The Catalan perspective in the Débax volume comes from Henri Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière aux Xe-XIIe siècles (Barcelone, Gérone, Osona, Tarragone) : territoire et pouvoir” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 157–168 and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”, as well as Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 143–155, which was discussed in a previous post.

13. Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes”, Annexe pp. 179-181.

14. Abadal, “La institució comtal carolíngia”.

15. The Cardona franchise is printed in Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la Vila de Cardona (anys 966-1276): Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Històric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les Masies Garriga de Bergús, Palà de Coma i Pinell, Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7 – again, it’s in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I don’t right now have the space to look it up. On the creation of the county see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, La Plana de Vich en els segles VIII i IX (717 – 886), Estudis d’història vigatana (Vich 1954), reprinted as “La reconquesta d’una regió interior de Catalunya: la plana de Vic (717-886)” in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans (Barcelona 1969), I pp. 309–321. An earlier instance of the family’s cooperation with the counts is Viscount Ermemir I’s attendance at Count Sunyer’s marriage, seen in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: Estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951), doc. no. 9; again, it will be in the Catalunya Carolíngia too but I haven’t looked on this occasion.

16. The locus classicus here obviously Georges Duby, La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le région mâconnais, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, VIe Section (Paris 1971), but, as with the Nestorians, the founder of the doctrine has been surpassed by his followers, by whom in this instance I mainly mean Jean-Pierre Poly and Éric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation: 900-1200, trans. Caroline Higgitt, Europe Past and Present (New York City NY 1991). In both cases I cite the editions I’ve used, but there are updated ones.

17. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 129-133.

18. For example, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 1 & 2 (Barcelona 1926-1952, repr. 2007), 2 vols, Particulars VII: “Et nullus comes, nec vicarius, nec juniores eorum, nec ullus iudex publicus illorum homines, qui super illorum aprisione habitant, distringere nec iudicare presumant.” Thus spoke Emperor Louis the Pious to Joan of Fontjoncouse in 815. It doesn’t specifically mention viscounts, I admit – in fact none of the royal legislation for the area does even though they were sporadically there – but it would be hard for one to argue they weren’t included in the ban, I reckon.

19. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 133-135.

20. See nn. 7 and 9 above respectively.

21. M. Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249–260, online here, covers both families, and I add some details on Conflent in Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 136-141; cf. Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”.

22. Three pretty much incompatible views of the membership and relationships of this family can be found between Jaume Coll i Castanyer, “Els vescomtes de Girona” in Annals de l’Institut d’Estudis Gironins Vol. 30 (Girona 1989), pp. 39–98, online here, Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”.

23. Obviously I have read Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, but behind him there’re Francesc Carreras y Candi, “Lo Montjuích de Barcelona” in Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vol. 8 (Barcelona 1902), pp. 195–451, and now José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec, Quan els vescomtes de Barcelona eren: història, crònica i documents d'una familia catalana dels segles X, XI i XII, Textos y documents 39 (Barcelona 2006), both of which have had exciting differences from my views wherever I’ve dipped into them and so need proper treatment some time in a mythical future.

19 responses to “Where do viscounts come from, Mummy?

  1. “vicecomitogenesis”: what a cracker! Yours?

    On the other hand has the distinction between vicomtes et vicomtés been suppressed in that coinage?

  2. Allan McKinley

    I think it’s wrong to say England didn’t have viscounts, or at least people who seemed to other people more familiar with viscounts to be viscounts (remember England didn’t have counts either, unless you asked a French speaker…). Post-Norman Conquest sources written in Latin, presumably by people trained in a continental tradition, use vicecomes as the translation for sherrif, probably reasonably enough considering they were the next level of authority after the territorial earls (Latin comes).

    This might even be more than just a sensible adaption of continental terminology to describe the English social-political system. Sherrifs were locally powerful figures, who in the late-eleventh century at least, when we have the wonderful spotlight of Domesday Book, were not just royal officials but were themselves local landowners and often (especially in Worcestershire) were major players in property disputes. Whilst this sort of independent shirereval power seems to have disappeared as far as I can tell in the twelfth century, it should be noted that England too had a class of recognisable figures with established bases (each had their own shire, which is probably best not interpreted as county in this context) operating under and around the count-equivalent earls, with their own links to king. We may even have one early-eleventh-century example of a powerful earl eliminating a shire, Winchcombeshire, and presumably therefore the standing of its sherrif. I don’t think anyone has explained the origins of sherrifs, other than assuming they were part of a top-down scheme to manage the country. It seems equally plausible to suggest that their appearance reflects the rise of locally-powerful figures outside the court circles, and the need for the generally distant kings and ealdormen/earls to recognise this. In this way England’s viscounts could be considered in the same way as Catalan ones, albeit as Patrick Wormald and James Campbell would have wantef to stress, England apparently regularised this system (so long as you don’t look at the north, Cornwall etc – as ever English exceptionalism becomes ever more exceptional if you study it in action).

    And this may suggest something else: whatever their origins, recognition of someone as a viscount/sherrif may have itself been a reward offered to those who complied with the recognising authority, and like all such things may be an attempt to tie others into existing political systems.

    • That is a really good point, and I may be convinced. I don’t know of any substantive work on the origins of sheriffs newer than Chadwick’s Anglo-Saxon Institutions, but I haven’t been able to keep up with the field for seven or eight years now, really, and if George Molyneaux or Tom Lambert had changed that picture in their books, as either of them might have, I wouldn’t know. But the basic question of what sort of person became a sheriff, I don’t think anyone has looked at, and if they did I wonder if we might find exactly the kind of élite-recruitment-and-binding you’re talking about here but which I recognise mainly as a Matthew-Innes-style take on the Carolingian world, not (normally) the Anglo-Saxon one.

      • Chelsea Shields-Más has a book coming out soon on reeves in early medieval England. And I agree with Alan’s point: especially if one adopts a more elastic definition of what a viscount was (as the Débax book contributions seem to do), it’s certainly viable to see them in England.

        • Thankyou, Rory, that is another book that I fear I shall know about but not have read until it embarrasses me… But still better to know about than not to know at all!

      • Allan McKinley

        In terms of Innes-style élite recruitment and binding, there’s a decent historiography on this for Alfred and Athelstan at least; it’s just based round literary studies more than diplomatic (which I assume is more to do with relatively low volumes of charter evidence and less to do with having to cope with the prose of ‘Athelstan A’). Quite a lot of the festschrift for Simon Keynes is also exploring the success and failure of these measures in Æthelred’s reign.

        I have two further considerations about Anglo-Saxon sherrifs as viscounts, which may be useful. Firstly, it should be noted that there’s a strong correlation between shire towns and earlier centres of political power, particularly in the Danelaw and south-west Midlands. It would therefore be easy to argue that sherrifs effectively represented the existing political order, or at least were those within that order best positioned to manage (and benefit from) the interface between the centralised court and the local political structures.

        Secondly, these positions were not necessarily heritable, as the only family of reeves I can identify over generations are the Bamburgh ones; interestingly though one scion of this line, one of the Gospatricks, can be fleetingly seen acting like a sherrif in mid-eleventh-century Cumberland without the titles. But outside the far north where England does seem to vary from the continent is the failure to create the equivalent of viscomital dynasties.

        • I’ve always figured the high-reeves of Bamburgh (and now I write that I wonder where I got that phrase…) were more ealdorman than sheriff, but seeing their names coming up reminds me that they had a spat with a Hold of York (called Carl, I think?) who might be more like the kind of officer we mean. That was a heritable position, or at least William Kapelle had candidates for a succession to it – but not a very long one. And there are lots of those in the Débax book…

  3. Joseph Brown

    “but as so often I wonder what happens if rather than taking France as normal and wondering why Catalonia looks weird we start by looking at Catalonia and then seeing if it explains France.”

    I love that last bit, and the late Timothy Reuter, if he were still with us, would be mightily pleased – obviously you can’t bring Germany into this because viscounts simply didn’t exist there, and in Norman and Angevin England vicomes was just a Latin synonym for sheriff, but not treating France as the incarnation of the natural course of development in medieval European history and everywhere else in Latin Europe as the weird aberrations that have to explained and instead doing the reverse is a real compliment to his legacy.

    • I am right with Reuter’s plea to stop letting France be normative for medieval history, and was when I first read it when it was still fairly new. In the case of Catalonia, though, it is France which must normally at least be the comparator, not least because the one stops and the other starts is at times fairly unclear, and Catalonia did derive its special status from being part of (West) Francia for a while. It just doesn’t have to be the experiment and France the control sample every time! And I could say the same to some of my colleagues about comparing it with Asturias-León, as well…

  4. They come from the clan, darling, they are family. (said the countess) :)

    • It seems likely, doesn’t it? But apparently not very frequent! Never in Catalonia that I know of (though one – just one – of Borrell II’s daughters marries into the vicecomital line of Barcelona once they are viscounts, and there are several other Meridional cases of such ‘marrying up’), but otherwise the only example of cadet counts becoming viscounts seems to be Tulle. Counts’ sons became counts or churchmen or nothing, it seems.

      • I don’t think so. The evidence is really scarce below count/bishop level but not null. Take for example the case of Riquilda the daughter of Wilfred the Hairy who married the viscount of Narbonne. There’s also some evidence of rank shifting (ie: the viscount Wilfred of 841, was surely the count of Girona of 850, or the Sunifred of Barcelona 858, ‘first after the count’, according to Aimo, who should be the previous marquis Sunifred of 840s, or the vasso Audgarius in the trial of 841 who is a viable (the only?) candidate to be the count of Girona of 860). The case of ‘viscounts’ seems also specially complicated by the fact that they show a double geographical sense: as confidence men’s of counts they should be devoted to their counties, but at the same time they present a clear association with cities (like a bishop’s layman counterpart?). In any case it’s an evolving scenario, and the evidence is so little in the 9th century that we have to speculate, that’s true, but reading the clan only as the sons of counts, is just too narrow, or taking ‘viscount’ as a well defined category is probably also misleading. I think there was a set of related families managing the country, most of them (if not all) interrelated at some level. An almost continuous pool of candidates to cope the available intermediate positions, and also a endless source of disputes.

        • Riquilda is a certain case, and mentioned in the post indeed, but comital daughters marrying into established vicecomital lines (even very newly established) isn’t an origin of viscounts except in the most biological sense. With the two Guifrés, we’re dealing with maybe the third most common male name in the area after Miro and Sunifred. Sunifred I do not buy at all, because the Sunifred of the 840s was killed in William of Septimania’s revolt in 848! and again, it is a really common name. Otger is a more plausible equation but there’s still no positive evidence for it, though I actually find it possible just because it might still then have been a royal appointment, thus given to a royal vassal. And actually, all your cases here are within the reigns of Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald. So if you are right, we may know where the kings thought viscounts should come from; but once the kings no longer appointed, was it the same people, or was comital status more closely protected? My impression is that, with the exception of Ermengarda daughter of Borrell II who married Viscount Geribert of Barcelona, the counts and their children, of either gender, married well down the scale, probably to avoid anyone reaching parallel status with them. But I quite agree with you that there were families with importance nearly as long-term: the one that included Sal· of Bages and the viscounts of Conflent is the most obvious one for me, but not the only one, and these produced a great many of the area’s viscounts. But they never became counts (excepting, I suppose, the Cabrera, much much later), and I think that’s important.

          • We agree on the whole picture, but not on the details. 1) Guifré is not a very common name in the 9th century, sorry (in fact, it has a very interesting distribution). 2) I’ve already wrote about the impossible (and undocumented) death of Sunifred in 848 (you already have the book, I think).

            • I do, but oh dear, that shows how little time I’ve had to read it. I will not say that thing again until I have been able to. What should I know about the distribution of the name Guifré, meanwhile; or have you also written about that and I not yet got to it? Sorry…

              • Well, yes, but not (yet?) in paper. You can find-it all from the blog, just search for ‘Historicitat’ and ‘Escriptural’ and pick the first matching entry of each search.

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