Category Archives: Currently reading…

Scribes who knew more

Moving forward definitively at last into 2019 in my backlog, in February of that year I was mainly reading Wendy Davies‘s then relatively new book Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia 800–1000. I got two posts out of this, but it turns out on reviewing the drafts now that the first one I had kind of already written in two places. Therefore, here is just the second one, on the second part of the book, which is substantially about scribes and what they knew, especially in terms of formulae. It is great, obviously, because Wendy Davies. But there is one conclusion she has that stuck out at me and now that I look at it I have objections, but I also have examples that may mean I have to swallow those objections. Tricky, huh? So I invite you to read on…

Cover of Wendy Davies's Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000

Cover of Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016)

Wendy starts by categorising her documentary sample, and while I suspect she goes too far with this—I always suspect this with efforts of categorisation, I guess—there is a distinctive category she sets apart, which is big documents that narrate a judicial dispute and then have the outcome confirmed by important people.1 This is, she thinks, basically a monastic habit (um, as it were; I don’t appear to have meant the pun when I drafted this) and with her favourite example it’s clear firstly that other documents from earlier in the process were used (and reported slightly differently each time they were used), and secondly that there were several distinct episodes of confirmation some years apart, as if San Vicente de Oviedo‘s monks had a ceremony every now and then when the king was hosted at their place and got him to sign things (or, I suppose, when they solemnly trooped to the palace chanting and got him to do so, or whatever).2 There are a few documents in my sample with extra, later, confirmations on so I can imagine that happening in my world too.3

However, the bit that I baulked at was towards the end where she suggests that these documents required special knowledge to write, and that unlike the average sale or dispute document, whose structures the local priest of wherever knew and could write you more or less as per standard—and Wendy’s sense of the variations in that standard is acute and fascinating4—these ones have language in that would have been the preserve of only a few highly-educated clerics.5 Something socialist in me doesn’t like that; I think a number of local priests came from cathedral chapters and might have been as highly trained as the next man, but they didn’t get to write one of these big things every day, or possibly at all unless they happened to work for a monastery. The hearing over the abbacy of Sant Benet de Bages that I wrote about years ago might even be an example of someone we otherwise think was a local priest finding himself in that context and having to step up to the formulaic plate.6 But then I thought back and remembered my best example of such a document from Catalonia, which is of course the Sant Joan de Ripoll hearing of 913.7

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Now I’ve written a lot about this document here and elsewhere and I won’t trouble you with it all again, but thre are several things about this huge hearing that gel with Wendy’s analysis here. Firstly, it’s a substantially fictive narrative designed to represent only one side of a dispute.8 Secondly, it is confirmed or at least witnessed anew on two occasions at least, though not by anyone much as far as I could discern; Sant Joan seems quickly to have lacked powerful supporters in its area.9 But thirdly, I have repeatedly observed that its scribe, one Garsies, is not attested anywhere else ever. I have in the past suggested that that was because he was needed to mobilise or silence the otherwise scarcely visible community of old settlers who predated Sant Joan’s tenure of the area under dispute.10 I sort of picture him as being in charge of some crumbling church from long before far out in the wilds, or possibly I suppose even at Santa Leocàdia in Vic, the once-and-by-then-replaced cathedral, in general being an older authority not necessarily well integrated into the new church structure, and that because of this he was who was needed to write this document, as a person everybody could accept would be trustworthy.11 The other possibility I’ve never been able to rule out, of course, is that he was a scribe of Count Sunyer who came along for the day, but I’ll ignore that for now. Wendy now opens up a third possibility, which is that he was just called upon because he had some sense how this should be done that other less experienced or learned priests might not have had. We don’t have another such document, at least not for twenty years or so not very close by, so we don’t see Garsies again. She could be right. In which case I don’t have as many frontiersmen, but I wonder where on earth he would have learnt this stuff? Santa Leocàdia might just still be the answer, but I will have to rethink…12


1. Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 35-39.

2. Her specific worked example, of many, is Pedro Floriano Llorente (ed.), Colección diplomática del monasterio de San Vicente de Oviedo (años 781-1200): Estudio y transcripción (Oviedo 1968), doc. no. 26, discussed Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 1-5 & 146-147, with text pp. 60-3 and photo p. 2.

3. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs, doc. no. 594, also printed as 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, doc. no. 1712, actually tells us that this happened to it, which is nice but of course raises questions of which bits were written when. In some ways more interesting is Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 995A, because there are two copies, the former of which was already witnessed by Count Borrell II but the later of which us confirmed additionally by Viscount Guadall II of Osona. More would not be hard to find.

4. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 95-120, which is kind of a kingdom-wide application of my technique in Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett and Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89–126, DOI:10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679, which is rather flattering.

5. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 141-143.

6. Jaime Villanueva, Viage literario a las Iglesias de España, tomo VII: Viage á la Iglesia de Vique, año 1806 (Valencia 1821), online here, ap. XIII.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 119.

8. 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 at pp. 241-248 and Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-42.

9. Ibid., pp. 46-49.

10. Ibid., pp. 42-46.

11. The identification is argued in Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “Santa Eulàlia i Santa Leocàdia, una església altmedieval de Vic” in Ausa Vol. 25 no. 168 (Vic 2011), pp. 323–332. .

12. It is arguable, of course, that I should have maybe done that rethinking in the three years since writing this post. One thing that should have occurred to me then but didn’t, and does now, is that the possible link to Santa Leocàdia has the additional strength that by 913 the church was actually held by Sant Joan de Ripoll, having been granted to them in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carol&iacutelngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), repr. in facsimile as Memòries… 75 (Barcelona 2007), Sant Joan de les Abadesses I. So I might still think that the most plausible answer. An outside possibility might be that Garsies had come from some Andalusi intellectual centre such as Toledo which might be thought to have given him special knowledge of charters and the like; but if that were the case, I’d expect him to have been widely sought out as scribe, and in any case Toledo diplomatic wouldn’t necessarily have been what was wanted in Osona (see my “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture” as in n. 8 above). Maybe he just refused any lesser client than two counts, a viscount and an abbess, but still, I think more or less on-site but normally disregarded is a more plausible and interesting possibility…

Murder of a factoid about Mallorca

My backlogged blog chronology is getting a bit out of step here, as I find this in my drafts folder from November 2018 referring to an unusual luxury I’d been able to permit myself that summer, which was a trip to Cambridge University Library. I was privileged enough to do most of my undergraduate and doctoral work out of that library (even though my doctorate’s from London) and there are still times when it’s invaluable to get there, for the simple reason that unlike most big research libraries a good proportion of its stock is on open shelves. The speed factor this adds to checking references is hard to exaggerate; when ordinarily you might have to wait an hour or two for your books to arrive, being able to go straight to not just the things you already knew you needed, but also then the things which they reveal you also need to check, which otherwise might normally mean a second trip at some future point, is invaluable. I was at that point up against a tight deadline to finish my article “Nests of Pirates” and, among other things, I was able to check the thing I want to tell you about now, and because of the open shelves track it to its root rather than just the next layer down. It’s about the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, I think by the definition offered some time ago by frequent commentator dearieme it counts as a ‘factoid’, and I think I killed it.1

The Balearic Islands had a rough Late Antiquity.2 Taking part fairly fully, as far as patchy archaeological evidence and a few textual anecdata can so far reveal, in both the third-century crisis (during which Mallorca’s then-capital, Pollentia, burned down) and then the general shrinkage of economy and settlement suffered by the western half of the Roman Empire over the fifth century, they fell in the course of that century into the maritime empire of the Vandal kings of Carthage, where they remained until returned to imperial control during the Byzantine conquest of that kingdom. They then remained under at least some kind of Byzantine obedience into the eighth century, to judge by seals found at the hilltop fort of Santueri in Mallorca, and perhaps even later, but that’s where the trouble begins, because the terminus post quem non is of course Islamic conquest, and we don’t really know when that happened.3

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Now, first of all some important preconditions. There are five major islands in the Balearic archipelago, as you see above, in descending order of size Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera, of which Ibiza and Formentera sit apart as part of a separate group called the Pityuses, all over an area of about 150 square miles. There is much more evidence about what happened to Mallorca than any of the others; indeed, archaeologically and documentarily, we don’t actually have any proof so far identified that Cabrera, Formentara, Ibiza or even Menorca were actually occupied between the seventh (or for Menorca, eighth) and tenth centuries (mid-ninth for Menorca, as we’ll see), though it’s probably more likely that they were than they weren’t.4 Nonetheless, people who write about this area always seem to do so as if what happened in one island can be generalised to all the others, apparently believing that because they are governed as a unit now, and have been since, well, mumble mumble mumble, they must always have behaved as one. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, off Menorca

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, its own separate islet off Menorca, by Pytxyown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

So what we’re actually able to discuss is the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, not the Balearics, and we just have to live with that. Now, currently the archaeology can really only tell us that at some point people started using Islamic-style ceramics and burying like Muslims, not when or why.5 For when or why the answers must for now come from texts. The terminus ante quem this time is 933 CE, by which time there was an Andalusī (i e. from al-Andalus, Muslim Iberia) fleet using Mallorca as a base for raiding Christian Francia, according at least to the chronicler Ibn Ḥayyān, who had access to some of the caliphal archives of Córdoba somehow and thus had reason to know.6 So the conquest was before that, but when? Excitingly, there are four different dates recorded, all in different sources, none of which seem to know the others’ stories. For dramatic reasons it’s most fun for me to go through them from latest date to earliest, which means that the first entrant is fourteenth-century CE polymath, bureaucrat, lawyer and underrated sociologist, but questionable historian, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn.

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria, image by Reda Kerbushown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldūn, who had excellent sources for the most part, including Ibn Ḥayyān, but notoriously scrambled them in his own work, offers the latest date for the conquest, placing it in 902/903 and explaining it as the result of an Andalusī pilgrim to the East having been stranded in the islands for a while and having thus learned their weak spots, and then offering to lead a conquest of them for the Emir of Córdoba, which succeeded.7 Opinions vary among the people who know this report as to whether the islands could possibly still have been Byzantine at so late a stage, or had been assimilated into the Carolingian sphere after an appeal to Charlemagne for help against pirates in 798, which was answered.8 That appeal is documented in the Carolingian court chronicle, the Royal Frankish Annals, but only in its early version, not its revision of 829, as if by then it was no longer a working claim. So if the Balearics did swing Carolingian, it may not have lasted long.9 Nonetheless, after 903, says Ibn Khaldūn, they were Islamic territory.

Approach to Puig d'Alaró, Mallorca

Approach to Puig d’Alaró, Mallorca

But! The twelfth-century Granadan geographer Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri has a different story. According to him, the conquest took place in the reign of “Muḥammad, son of the fifth Emir of al-Andalus”, and although it was mostly successful, the “Rūm” held out in one particular fort, Ḥisn Alarūn, almost certainly modern Alaró seen above, for a further eight years and five months before finally running out of supplies and surrendering.10 So for him Mallorca was definitely still Byzantine territory, but when? Muḥammad I ruled 852-886 CE, but the trouble is that he was the fifth Emir, and his son was called al-Mundhir (r. 886-888 CE). Professor Juan Signes Codoñer has suggested that the peculiar way in which the ruler is identified might be explained if the name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II had dropped out, supposing a correct text saying “Muḥammad son of [‘Abd al-Raḥmān], the fifth Emir…” and that looks like a good solution to me, but it’s still a 30-year window.11 Also, al-Zuhri said that he had heard this story told, not that it was a matter of record, and while he was nearer in time to the events than was Ibn Khaldūn, that distance was still four hundred years, so it’s not the best evidence.

But! Maybe we need neither of these, because the somewhat later Marrakech historian Abū al-ʽAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʽIḏārī has a different report again. He, frustratingly, doesn’t tell us when the conquest actually was, but notes that in 848/849, none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II sent a punitive naval expedition against Mallorca because its inhabitants had “broken their pact” and were harassing Islamic shipping in their waters. Some kind of blockade seems to have been imposed and next year Mallorca and Menorca both sent envoys begging for the renewal of the pact, though Ibn ʽIḏārī doesn’t say that they got it.12 Nonetheless, as far as he was concerned, subjection of the islands to Islam, even if not conquest by it, had happened by then.

Romantic modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Now it’s possible to reconcile that with either, but not both, of the previous two, and maybe even the Royal Frankish Annals, by saying that the Balearics, or at least Mallorca, had maybe been under a pact to the Muslim rulers in the Peninsula for some time but not actually conquered by them – this was also the case with Basque Pamplona, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented – and had perhaps flirted with a Carolingian alternative before being brought back into line by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.13 But! Now we reach the meat. Our earliest source for the conquest also gives the earliest date, or at least so it seems. If you look in the work of Juan Signes which I already mentioned, or that of Josep Amengual i Batle on which it often rests, you will find a report there that the tenth-century Sevillano lawyer and historian Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya dated the conquest of the islands to 707/708 CE, when ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the then-governor of Muslim North Africa, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, mounted a naval raid on Mallorca and Menorca and captured the “kings” (mulūk) who ruled there and sent them off to Damascus.14 I grant you that’s not quite the same as actual conquest, and it might even have led to the kind of pact subsequently reported by Ibn ʽIḏārī, but it is still quite surprising, not least because it’s a full four years before the actual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which Mūsā carried out in 711-712 CE. Now, that may just be presentism talking and it might have made more sense, before their permanent attachment (so far) to governments in the Peninsula in the thirteenth century, to see the islands as prone to African dependency, as under the Vandals and Byzantines, and not Iberian rule. But, this is also our factoid.

You see, when I first saw this report, in Signes I think, I was immediately struck by two things. One was how early it was, as I just said; but the other was that I really ought to have known about it because I own an English translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s History of the Conquest of al-Andalus.15 I’m not saying I’ve ever sat down and read it all through and made notes, but I have gone into it quite a lot for gobbets for my Special Subject at Leeds, and if I’d seen this bit I would have grabbed it because of what it implies about the conquest of the Peninsula following on naval raiding rather than being a spontaneous event.16 So I went and got my copy off the shelf, and this bit isn’t there.

Well, how odd, I thought. It seemed unlikely that Professor Signes had just made this up, so I looked up his reference, which was as I might have expected to the old Castilian translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya by Julián Ribera. And that was online then, so it was pretty easy to check that too and find that it’s not there either.17 But he gave a reference also to Josep Amengual’s two-volume history of the late Antique Balearics, and it was that which I arrived in Cambridge needing to check. And from that it became clear that the reference in question is in the Ribera volume after all.18 So for a moment it looked as if either David James had missed it out of his English translation, or it wasn’t in the manuscript of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that he’d used. BUT! Not so! There are actually two texts translated in that volume of Ribera’s, Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and a similar history under the name of Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba, and our factoid is in the latter, not the former. Well, at least I now had the source. And in some ways it should be a better source, because although based in Iraq, Ibn Qutayba was writing even earlier than Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and brings the gap between source and event, otherwise so large in this saga, down to a mere 150-odd years.

But.

Shamefully, I knew nothing about this Ibn Qutayba, so I did some rapid research. That told me that Reinhart Dozy had written about this very text in the 1880s.19 And this is the great virtue of the Cambridge UL: having found this out, within ten minutes I could sit down again with Dozy’s work before me, and it gave me pause. Dozy had spent some time with this Ahādith al-Imāma wa’l-siyāsa of Ibn Qutayba and in the end concluded that it was actually nothing of the kind, partly because no such work seemed to be attributed to that author by medieval biographers, partly because it claims to have had the Mallorca report from eye-witnesses but it had supposedly happened 134 years before, and mainly because there is a reference in it to Maroc, a city not founded until 1062 CE, difficult for a ninth-century CE author to have added. Dozy’s conclusion was that the whole thing is an Andalusī “romancing” of the work of Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb, with some extra Iberian material from who knows where, and that its unique content – of which the notice with which we’re concerned is part – is late eleventh-century at the earliest and probably without earlier basis. So, let’s stack all this up.

  1. Some time after 1062 CE, someone decided to write a history of Muslim Iberia, which they based on an earlier work but to which they added some of their own material, including our notice about a 707/708 Muslim attack on Mallorca, and put the whole thing out under a respectable, plausible, but false name. Well, goodness knows they weren’t the last to do that, but then what?
  2. In the 1870s, Reinhart Dozy, having got curious about this, went into it and discovered the forgery, and wrote the discovery up as one of about a dozen unconnected little studies in one of his less well-known works. Not many people seem to have noticed.
  3. Juan Ribera had noticed, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear thought that an earlier thought of Pascual de Gayangos that maybe this was more of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya still deserved to be taken seriously enough that the known text of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and this one should be translated together, and so he did that.
  4. Several people, including Josep Amengual, presumably searching quite rapidly for all references to Mallorca they could find, then found this one, but apparently did not realise that it was not actually within Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s text.
  5. Signes then presumably got the cite from Amengual, and repeated it even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to find it himself. And that paper, unlike Amengual’s book, went online and thus other people started to ‘know’ this thing as well. But unfortunately, it’s a dud…

Now, of course, this does not leave us with any kind of definitive answer. As I said in my article, you can even just about have it all: it could be that there was a 707/708 raid which sent the poor Mallorcan mulūk off to Syria, possibly even resulting in a pact to the then-governor of Ifrīqiya, which the islands then, finding that not keeping them safe, repudiated in favour of an approach to the Carolingians that didn’t last long, then went independent and possibly piratical for a bit before being reigned back in by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, but were not finally conquered till either the 850s-880s or 902/903.20 Or maybe those two dates are even for different islands in the archipelago and both true! It would be a bit weird that not one of our writers seems to have known other stories if they were all true, but they’re not actually incompatible, and even if the 707/708 story is from three hundred years later, that’s still closer to the supposed facts than Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn ʽIḏārī. But what that story is not is the work of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya. And that is a dead factoid, thankyou very much.


1. What that means, of course, is that if you’ve read Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, at pp. 199-209 and esp. 206-209, none of what follows is going to be new to you, sorry. But given firewalls and time, I’m betting that mostly you haven’t, and I can forgive you.

2. Covered ibid. pp. 198-212, but see also Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit, “The Early Byzantine Period in the Balearic Islands” in Demetrios Michaelides, Philippa Pergola and Enrico Zanini (eds), The Insular System of the Early Byzantine Mediterranean: Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2523 (Oxford 2013), pp. 31–45.

3. On the Santueri seals see Juan Nadal Cañellas, “Las bulas de plomo bizantinas del Castillo de Santueri” in Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lul·liana Vol. 72 (La Palma 2006), pp. 325–340; they are the only part of the evidence from an extensive archæological dig that has been made public.

4. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 199-204.

5. This is changing as radiocarbon dating begins to make a difference, as witness Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, M. Van Strondyck, M. Boudin, C. Mas Florit, J. S. Mestres, F. Cardona, E. Chávez-Álvarez & M. Orfila, “Christians in a Muslim World? Radiocarbon dating of the cemetery overlaying the forum of Pollentia (Mallorca, Balearic Islands)” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 9 (Cham 2017), pp. 1529–1538, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-016-0325-0, but as the title notes they had found Christian burials, not Islamic ones. The real problem is non-differentiation of pre- and post-conquest coarse-ware ceramics, which absent Islamic fine-wares makes it very hard to tell when a site stopped being used. Once this changes, it will probably no longer be viable to hypothesize non-occupation of any of the islands.

6. Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), &section;374; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207.

7. Juan Signes Codoñer, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares en los siglos VIII y IX” in Rafael Durán Tapia (ed.), Mallorca y Bizancio (Palma de Mallorca 2005), pp. 45–99 at pp. 84-85; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 208-209. The opinion of Ibn Khaldūn is mine, not Signes’s!

8. Basically, the Byzantinists see it as Byzantine till the last possible moment (as witness Signes), the Islamicists see it conquered as early as possible, and the Catalans see it as taken over by the Carolingians and thus effectively gathered into the future Catalonia with some unfortunate Islamic interludes that however serve to justify Aragonese ‘reconquest’. There are, admittedly, exceptions to this in every group except the Byzantinists.

9. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 205-206; the text is in English in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor 1972), online here, pp. 1-128, s a. 798.

10. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208.

11. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 85.

12. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208, accessible to me from Ibn Idari, Historias de al-Andalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n. d.), pp. 81-82.

13. On the situation of Pamplona see Juan José Larrea & Jesús Lorenzo, “Barbarians of Dâr al-Islâm: The Upper March of al-Andalus and the Pyrenees in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Guido Vannini & Michele Nucciotti (edd.), La Transgiordania nei secoli XII-XIII e le ‘frontiere’ del Mediterraneo medievale. Trans-Jordan in the 12th and 13th Centuries and the ‘Frontiers’ of the Medieval Mediterranean, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2386 (Oxford 2012), pp. 277–288.

14. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, pp. 46-54; Josep Amengual i Batle, Els orígens del cristianisme a les Balears i el seu desenvolupament fins a l’època musulmana, Els Trebals i els dies 36 & 37 (Palma de Mallorca 1991), 2 vols, vol. I pp. 441-453; there are other people I could cite, as well, but these notes are crowded enough and anyway I do at Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207 n. 64.

15. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

16. I have, in fact, sat down and read all of it, while in bed in Venice in fact, and it has many excellent stories in it one of which will be a future blog post; but I don’t have notes. Anyway, while I’m trailing future blog posts we might note that if this thing were in there it would not be the only evidence for early raiding preceding the invasion of Iberia, as I will later disclose, and that was why I didn’t initially think anything need be wrong with the idea.

17. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 93 n. 5, cites Julián Ribera (ed./transl.), Historia de la Conquista de España de Abenalcotía el Cordobés, seguida de fragmentos históricos de Abencotaiba, etc., Colección de obras arábigas de historia y geografía que publica el Real Academia de Historia 2 (Madrid 1926), online here as of 10th July 2016 but sadly no longer, but he gives no page reference, I suspect because he could not find the passage in question either.

18. Amengual, Orígens del cristianisme, vol. I pp. 442-443, citing Ribera, Historia de la Conquista de España, p. 122, which is correct.

19. R. Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3ème ed. (Paris 1881), 2 vols, vol. I, online here, pp. 21-40.

20. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 210.

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.

Mistakes about Catalan viscounts

(In October 2018, somehow, I seem to have managed to claw back some reading time; I think this may have been the point at which I decided to read for research on the train to and from work on the grounds that at least that way I was reading something. One of the things I picked was a French volume about viscounts, which was germane to what I then thought I was working on, and it occasioned me to stub several posts for the blog. The following one, though, I originally wrote in one go on 17th October, apparently mainly out of outrage. I’ve now defanged it somewhat and post it in the spirit of 2022 as far as I can, rather than that of 2018.)

This is a post of reflection, prompted by my having read a piece of someone else’s work that made me cross. Long-term readers will remember this happening more in my younger days; I said some angry things in print or indeed here, feelings were hurt, and I now try not to do the destructive-mode thing for the most part. After all, it’s not as if my own work is magically free of all error. But sometimes, what gets me is that I can see how it could have been done better because I know the stuff too, and this is one of those cases.

The piece that prompts this is a short chapter about the viscounts of Cerdanya.1 I have been learning a lot about viscounts lately. I began looking for stuff about the viscounts of Narbonne, because a cousin of Borrell II, with whom he may have grown up, married into their family. (We know this because she left something in her will to him and his brother.2) But the book in which that chapter lay contained studies of many another area’s viscounts, and also the reflection that actually it was only fringe areas of France that developed semi-independent viscounts, really, mainly from the very late tenth century until the twelfth, when either the Albigensian Crusade or the Plantagenets rather shook them out of their trees.3 And among these things are two articles by French scholars on Catalan viscounts, one by Dr Élisabeth Bille.

Now, my reason to care is that there is a chapter in my book which has a section on the viscounts of Conflent, and despite the title of Dr Bille’s chapter, that is effectively who it is about: the two families conjoined in the mid-11th century and she doesn’t trace the Cerdanya side back before that, while the viscount of Cerdanya whom she does mention, Unifred, discussed below, is problematic. My chapter was based on a larger part of my thesis, but my thesis was finished in 2005, didn’t go online till 2007, this book came out in 2008 and seems to have been based on a conference that must have happened earlier, and I only submitted the text of my actual book to the press in 2008… So neither of us could have known about the other’s work, and indeed I only find hers now.4 But of course we’re working off the same sources, so ideally our work would find the same things. This is not what has happened. My quibbles, enumerated, are these.

  1. In passing, Bille refers to Count Ermengol I of Osona dying in battle in one of several engagements with his cousins the counts of Cerdanya, in 942.5 This has been said by several people, but there’s no actual basis for it; a twelfth-century text from the place where he was buried says he died at Baltarga, and people have deduced that it should have been a fight with Cerdanya because that’s where the place is, but firstly no other source says this, secondly that source doesn’t say whom he was fighting and thirdly for that reason someone else has argued that he died defending his country from Hungarian raiders, which also could have happened but for which there is no more proof.6 So while this doesn’t really affect the overall conclusion much it made me suspect that trouble lay ahead.
  2. It becomes clear where when Viscount Unifred of Cerdanya first turns up. This man is very little attested, but he appears between 913 and 928 as a fidelis of Count Miró II of Cerdanya; then the next (and last) mention we have of him is in 954, when the Counts of Cerdanya and Besalú, Miró’s sons, wrote to King Louis IV asking for permission to seize Unifred’s property because he had rebelled against them.7 For Bille this shows that the counts could still depose viscounts at this stage and disinherit their heirs, but for me it shows the absolute opposite: not only did they need royal permission, leading to them contacting a king for the first time in their or their father’s lives that we know of, but also given that this was forty years after Unifred’s first adult appearance, he was almost certainly dead by now. And, as it turns out, his children actually did inherit a decent chunk of his property.8 Bille knows the charter that shows that, but doesn’t read it my way, or know of other Catalan work that did.9 In fact, she doesn’t use much current Catalan work on Catalonia at all. And this does all matter, because her overall argument is that viscounts changed from being biddable subordinates of the count to territorially-entrenched independents over the eleventh century, whereas I’d say Unifred shows that they were already independents in the tenth and had probably always been, so the change must be otherwise described.9bis
  3. A further example of this is Viscount Bernat of Conflent, Unifred’s grandson as it happens, though Bille does not know this. He ruled Conflent between 971 and 1001, in which as far as Bille is concerned the viscounts were still the counts’ assistants. Actually, as she must know, having read the same documents I have, Bernat never appeared with a count in his lifetime. He must have known them – he even shared care of a castle with Borrell II at one point – but he ran things entirely separately from them as far as we can see, something which was made much more possible by the fact that first his brother then his son were successive bishops of Urgell, meaning that the family had someone else who could represent them to the counts.10 As it is, Bille mentions Bernat once and moves on without discussion of either his ancestry or how his career sits at complete variance to her discussion. She moves onto Bernat Sunifred of Cerdanya, from the next century, so quickly that it’s easy to think that the two were the same man.11
  4. Another part of Bille’s argument is that the viscounts did not have assigned property or territories before about the mid-11th century; for her, they were essentially floating officers of the count. How they were maintained she never discusses, but to support her basic contention she says that none of her viscounts are named as viscounts of a particular place or territory before 1050.12 To which I say, Bernat of Conflent was so named at the consecration of the new church of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 974, and the reason clearly is that two viscounts called Bernat were present so had to be distinguished, this one and one of Cerdanya (the latter, as far as we can tell, not a descendant of Unifred).13 It could be done, therefore; it just didn’t normally need to be said. Everyone at the time knew who the viscount was, after all. Now, when one goes and looks at the references Bille provides here (which is not easy, as they’re given on CD-ROM!14), she doesn’t know that document; but actually, she knows three others I didn’t in which viscounts of this family are named with territories prior to 1035!15 Yet in the chapter body she says that never happened, even though her reference is three cases where it did!
  5. Lastly and less importantly, Bille notes that this family managed to dominate the bishopric of Urgell for fifty years or so, till Bishop Ermengol, Bernat’s son, progressed himself to sainthood by falling off a bridge in 1035.16 After Bishop Eribau, who succeeded him, the counts managed to corner that see for themselves.17 Well, fair enough actually, except that unbeknownst to her Eribau was also a member of the same family, if not the exact same branch of it. Again, if she knew the relevant Catalan work she’d have known that.18

Now, with all that on one side of the balance, on the other I do understand how this sort of thing can happen. After all, if I go back and look at my thesis now I cringe in places at what I didn’t know and thought I did, and while this article was published four years after Dr Bille’s thesis it was presumably written much closer to it.19 If I were guessing what had happened here, it’s that by the time the editors got proofs back to her, she had perhaps found this extra stuff but they would only let her make changes to the digital section, not the print text, so correcting the references was all she could do. It’s also just hard to be up to date with literature in a country not your own. I’m always massively behind with the Catalan scholarship, because it’s so hard for me to find out what is being published and then get hold of it; the tricks I can perform in a UK environment of being present at enough events and conferences that I hear from active people and can use what they tell me to learn what I need to be aware of, I can’t do somewhere I don’t live (insert: as you can tell, a pre-Covid-19 perspective here). One winds up patching one’s ignorance with Google, and in 2005 that didn’t work as well as it does now. I’m acutely conscious of this just now because I am currently trying to work out how to do revisions on an article I unwisely wrote out of my normal area. Predictably, it has come back with reviewers’ comments indicating my ignorance, and setting me reading I will have to go to Cambridge, London and ideally Barcelona to do, because some of it isn’t available in the UK at all.20 In term-time, that is very difficult, and I will probably have cut some corners to answer these critiques by the time this post goes up.20bis Given that when that article comes out, someone could probably be just as cross about it, perhaps I should just recognise that sometimes this happens to people, forgive it and move on.

Except that… My mistakes have got caught by peer review; that is what’s supposed to happen. Bille’s got published. Moreover, however it happened, she ignores, sidelines or just plain misreads several documents that damage her argument seriously. Peer reviewers ought to have caught that—I would have caught it, even in 2006—but I don’t see how she cannot have known that the evidence conflicted with her argument. We’re supposed to do this right, after all; even if historians don’t believe we can actually know what happened, we have to be as careful as possible in trying to find out and as honest as possible about what we find. Without that, we have no claim to being experts, as opposed to opinion columnists, and without expertise there’s no justification for the profession at all. So I still think this needs pointing out. Probably it’s partly that it’s stuff I have written about, and therefore want to believe I got right, and she doesn’t agree. But I also think this shouldn’t have been published without being checked and fixed. So, this is the check. I cannot find any sign that Dr Bille has continued in the profession, so I guess that there will not be a fix; but at least if someone else is using the chapter, they can now see the problems too.


1. Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe) siècle” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008), pp. 143–155.

2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 346. The two brothers are the only distant kin or nobility mentioned, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that this implies some special memory of them from before she was packed off to Narbonne; such memories wpuld have to be childhood ones, when they would have been even younger than her. One could make a more realpolitikal argument that she was maintaining links with the counts beyond her neighbours, but if so this is the only one she tried doing like this, and I think that suggests that the personal link was determinative.

3. Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction” in eadem, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 7–19; for shaking from trees, see Mireille Mousnier, “Vicomtes de Gimois et de Terride : une difficile polarisation”, ibid., pp. 87–102, and Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, ibid., pp. 115–127.

4. The relevant bits of mine are Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141, developed from Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, London, 2005), online here, pp. 219-221.

5. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 144-145, referring to plural “heurts” between the kingroups; only one is known, and that was with Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. On it, see for now Josep Maria Salrach i Marès, “Política i moral: els comtes de Cerdanya-Besalú i la comunitat de monges benedictines de Sant Joan (segles IX-XI)” in Irene Brugués, Xavier Costa and Coloma Boada (eds), El monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019), pp. 225–257 at pp. 229-231, developing earlier work of Salrach’s which could have been available to Bille.

6. Salrach, “Política i moral”, p. 228; Albert Benet i Clarà, “La batalla de Balltarga. Epíleg de la incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals no. 9 (Barcelona 1983), pp. 639–640. The source is the Gesta Comitum Barcionensium, now best edited in Stefano Maria Cingolani (ed.), Les Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium (versió primitiva), la Brevis Historia i altres textos de Ripoll, Monuments d’Història de la Corona d’Aragó 4 (València 2012), pp. 9-160 at VI.2: “Ermengaudus vero frater eius, apud Baltargam bello interfectus, sine filio obiit.” And that’s all it says, in this single mention two hundred years later! So you’d think that as an idea it would have failed already, but since writing this post’s first version I have found Oliver Vergés Pons, “La batalla de Baltarga en el joc de la política comtal del segle X: la mort d’Ermengol d’Osona i la successió del comtat d’Urgell” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 48 (Barcelona 2018), pp. 901–923, online here, which returns to the Barcelona-Cerdanya theory and needs examination separately. The shortest version of my protest would be that none of the contemporary sources for his death mention the battle, but they do mention illness, and I think the battle was fictitious.

7. With Miró 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, doc. no. 119; overseeing Miró’s will in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum 8: Els comtats d’Urgell, Cerdanya i Berga, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 111 (Barcelona 2020), 2 vols, doc. no. 229 (but published elsewhere as long ago as 1838); having his lands confiscated in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2-3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, Particulars XL.

8. Pere Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum VI: Els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 70, (Barcelona 2006), 2 vols, doc. no. 490, first published in 1981; for the prosopography the relevant work needed here is Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Osona 1981), pp. 249–260, online here.

9. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe no. 43. On the complications of following up references in this volume, see n. 14 below.

9bis. In Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 144-147, indeed, I suggested that titles like ‘viscount’, ‘vicar’ and the like might indicate rewards issued to powerful independents for engagement with the comital power structure, rather than any actual office and responsibility, and I still think that was true in some cases, but one of the other posts I stub wrestles with this question separately.

10. Ibid., pp. 136-141.

11. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 149-150.

12. Ibid. p. 154.

13. Ordeig, Catalunya carolíngia 8, doc. no. 718, first published in 1979; Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 135 n. 31.

14. I do, sort of, understand why some supporting material for academic work is best viewed online. There are things that won’t fit on a page’s format, interactive datasets that can’t be rendered in print, images that need to be in colour or scaled in ways that the print book didn’t allow for, and all these might, just, justify the peculiar awkwardness of needing a computer to read your print book usefully. But this is just a PDF, effectively another 220 pages of the book, and while I see how they might have been expensive to add, in the first place not so many computers even have CD-ROM drives any more, especially not laptops, so you may not even be able to read this book on your own computer, and in the second place a lot of it is just footnotes that any normal press process would expect in academic work anyway. It’s hard to see why they didn’t just publish it digital-only, given how awkward this mish-mash of technologies is…

15. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe p. 133 n. 21.

16. On Bishop Ermengol, the beginning of whose career we have documented here in the past, see for now Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1–16.

17. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 150-151

18. Rovira, “Noves dades”.

19. My worst mistake in that was picked up in the viva, thankfully, and didn’t get to the version of record. There is a charter I’ve mentioned here before, in which a frontierswoman bequeaths some stuff to her deacon son, including what seem to be revenues from border-raiding. The Latin terms for these are ‘praedis et peccoribus’, and I had trouble translating the second term. William Whitaker’s invaluable Words program came up with the fairly hypothetical ‘little sins’, deriving it from ‘peccata’, and I ran with that and developed an argument that the scribe was imposing his moral view of this raiding onto the charter even though the transactors presumably thought it was cool. One of my markers pointed out, though, that ‘peccores’ would be a perfectly normal Latin word for ‘pigs’. That whole argument came out of the thesis as soon as I could bear to look at it again…

20. You may ask why I don’t inter-library loan it all. The answer is threefold: firstly, it would cost me ten pounds an item that I can’t charge to expenses, an ongoing argument; secondly, inter-library loan from Spain is really erratic and can take months to turn up if it comes at all; thirdly, it’s term-time, so if something does turn up quickly, and is restricted to the Library, and I also have marking due, I simply won’t be able to open it before it’s due back. Thus, I wind up taking the much more expensive option of going where it is at a time I choose, not least because that, I can charge to expenses without argument. But I’d rather be at home a few more weekends than this will all permit me, and of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to work in my own time to fulfil the requirements of a paid job, right? It just always, always is in academia. (Note: this whole note was written in 2018, but it does help explain why people might by now be frustrated enough to strike.)

20bis. Actually, in 2022, I haven’t, because I couldn’t get permission from work to go to the relevant library enough. I will finish the article when my managers care to make it possible for me to do so. Again, this is why we’re on strike.

Al-Mansur’s failure to conquer the north of Iberia

This is the second of the reaction posts I promised following my much-backlogged report on the 2018 International Medieval Congress. One of the papers I’d been to see was by one Josep Suñé Arce, and was called "Was the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba as Strong as Arab Chroniclers Claimed?" I wanted to see this mainly because I couldn’t see how the question could be answered as framed, on the one hand because it’s two different grades of subjectivity – imagine an answer like, “Well, the chroniclers give it a clear 5 across the board but I score it B-!” – but on the other because the evidence from which the chroniclers would have to be falsified is, well, their chronicles. The only way I could intellectually conceive of the question being answered was as some version of ‘can we tell if the chroniclers were making stuff up?’, but if they were, then how would we know what was really the case?

Now, if he ever reads this I hope that Dr Suñé will forgive me that scepticism, because actually his paper was way more interesting than I’d unjustly feared. But, additionally, in early 2019 a fuller version of it came out in print.1 But because my first reactions were to the 20-minute conference paper, not the final article, I think it’s interesting to start with what I thought of the paper, and to see how the article differs. The argument of the paper fell into three parts, as follows:

  1. The sources are biased: they are based on official records which had no interest in a neutral viewpoint; and they are, especially in the case of the eleventh-century chronicler Ibn Hayyān, tinged by a nostalgia for the strong caliphate born of living through the subsequent taifa era in which Christian raids helped break up the Andalusī state and Ibn Hayyān’s own family were ruined and he had to flee to Morocco.
  2. The sources report victory much more than defeat, even when the Christian sources of the time tell the opposite story; but these victories didn’t lead to conquest or elimination of any of the targets.
  3. From other sources we can even see that the Catalans and Navarrese gained ground against Islam in the period; we also see that the Caliphate expended a lot of gold to try and keep the Christians from banding together, so they were actually making their enemies stronger.

So the answer to my methodological objection was, obviously, use other sources, and fair enough, that’s me told. But I now had further questions, as the saying goes. The question I actually raised was whether this was even what Ibn Hayyān cared about, because at this stage I had a different dissertation pupil with whom I was coming to the conclusion that what Ibn Hayyān’s overall historical argument was that Islam has struggled with internal divisions pretty much from the death of the Prophet onwards, but that wherever they were involved the Berbers made things worse. But now I’d want to ask, most obviously, surely the Christian sources have exactly the same biases; can we really use them as a check on later Arabic sources when they’re just as interested in presenting their own side as ever-victorious and righteous, especially since the most relevant chronicles were actually written for rulers prosecuting campaigns against Islam whereas at least Ibn Hayyān wrote after the fall of the Umayyads and so out of reach of the distorting effect of their patronage (though admittedly, his main sources did not).2

On the other hand, and the reason I flagged this paper as one I needed to think about more, Dr Suñé was not wrong that despite everything that al-Mansur inflicted upon the Christian kingdoms, their territory did expand in this time. In the case of Catalonia, I think I can explain it as the filling-up (by government, rather than by people) of a substantial unclaimed space between the two polities; it wasn’t that the Muslims were losing ground, it’s more that since about 827 no-one beyond it had really ruled the space between, say, Lleida and Barcelona, and now, by creeping settlement and governmentalising processes I’ve written much too much about here already, the Christians partly did. I don’t know enough about Navarra but there it seems to be more complex: a land which had been notionally under the pact, and thus inside the dar al-Islam, but was really only controlled by the intercession of our favourite frontier warlord clan, the Banū Qāsī, was lost when they rebelled and were crushed, and so the edge of direct control actually expanded under the caliphate, as their territory was taken over, but its notional extent shrank because Navarra was now lost.3 Navarra then expanded somewhat during the reign of al-Mansur, sure, but mainly with respect to its Christian neighbours and, as I’ve pointed out, was by 1030 or so pretty much in charge of the north under Sancho the Great.4 But was that anything to do with the Caliphate? Perhaps only because its raids had diverted and weakened Navarra’s more exposed competitors, I’d say. So here I would have had counter-arguments, and it was presumably some sense of what these were that made me flag the paper.

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.PG.1192

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.PG.1192

Reverse of the same coin

Reverse of the same coin

But the bit I can’t contradict, or even explain, is the flow of gold, because it is very evident in the charters I know so well. I was by no means the first person to spot that over the course of the 970s and 980s the main operating currency around the city of Barcelona became Muslim gold – that was Gaspar Feliu, whom all praise – but I could see what he’d seen very easily. Even in the years after the sack of Barcelona in 985, a decent part of the payments that were made to sort out land tenure and endow repaired foundations were in mancuses.5 If they were at intermittent but perpetual war with the Caliphate, where was all the gold coming from? Both Feliu and after him Pierre Bonnassie opted for trade that we can’t really see as an explanation; we see the foreign goods people could acquire with this money and we see the money but we don’t see anyone actually doing the trade, and no-one is able to explain what the people of Barcelona had to sell that was bringing in so much gold except for waving their hands at the idea of slavery, which is fine except that again there’s no positive evidence; Arabic sources don’t talk about buying slaves in Barcelona and Christian ones don’t talk about importing slaves to Barcelona or enslaving people, or even really feature slaves in any number.6 Of course the goods were, in Graham Swift’s immortal wording, ‘perishable’, and therefore so might be the record, but it’s still a big silence.7 Maybe, therefore, diplomatic pay-offs are part of the answer (though I have to say that, prior to the succession Ramon Borrell in 993 at least, the counts did not pay for things they bought in mancuses, something that I’ve only just really realised this moment, so how those payments got into the market I don’t know).8

So there matters could have rested, except that firstly Dr Suñé published the article, in a journal I was about to turn up in myself indeed, and secondly I had a dissertation student who was essentially asking the same question, so I grabbed it down. But did I read it? Well, got to admit, no, I just never got to it. But because I care about you, my readership, and also about not looking badly underinformed when I write this blog, I have read it now, and it is a serious piece of work that I’ve had to think hard with. The basic contention Dr Suñé wants to make is that the Umayyad Caliphate was never really strong enough reliably to dominate all its Christian neighbours, that even at its most militarised it was unable to prevent them overall gaining territory from it, and that we should not see its fall as internally caused, but as the result of it having had to feed gold steadily to its enemies for some decades when what turned out to be a fatal civil war broke out in 1009 and both sides did what the government had been doing for ages and enlisted Christian help. Of course the chronicles don’t say this like this, but they wouldn’t, would they, and you can see it in the whole source complex even so. Such, anyway, is the argument. It’s quite a complex thesis, and it rests on a knowledge of both Christian and Arabic materials I’m not sure anyone’s brought to it before, and in particular a deep knowledge of the works of Ibn Idhārī, a thirteenth-century African chronicler with a very detailed account of the events in question.9 I have found about at least two Catalan border skirmishes I’d no idea were recorded by reading this article. I also don’t find the basic argument implausible in this fuller version. That being said, there are still a couple of things I think aren’t fully proven, and one of them prompts me to wonder if there isn’t another, slightly different way to read what was going on in the Iberian Peninsula over about 970 to 1010.

So, the first question I have is over the amount of ground the Christian principalities supposedly gained over the Caliphate during its purportedly dominant phase. To start with, there is the argument I raised above, about incursions into no-man’s land rather than conquest from an enemy. It’s not that Suñé has no evidence for this happening, but a lot of it is either very early, as in, dating to before the Caliphate proper and therefore during the period of Andalusī civil war around or just after 900, when to be honest it’s not really clear who owns these places even when they’re lost; or it’s very late, as in during or after that civil war of 1009-1013 we already mentioned; or it’s a bit weird.10 What do I mean, weird? Well, one reference, which is supposedly to prove Catalan gains in Anoià and Penedès, in Manresa and Barcelona respectively, cites a charter covering Castell Cornil in more northerly and easterly Osona instead, and not the earliest one from there either; I don’t understand what the point of this is, and it certainly doesn’t establish that these had previously been Muslim territories, rather than unclaimed.11 Another cite is la Garde-Freinet, the Muslim coastal fortress site in Provence that I’ve written about, which was indeed lost to the Christians in 972/73, but which was not clearly an Umayyad possession and which in any case hardly reflects on the situation in the Iberian Peninsula.12 I’m left thinking that there may not be that much good evidence for what Suñé argues here, as opposed to the governmental creep I know we can see in the charters.

La Garde-Freinet, seen from the fort on Massif des Maures

La Garde-Freinet, seen from the fort ruins on Massif des Maures, unquestionably a Muslim possession lost to the Christians but, importantly, not in the Iberian Peninsula… Photo by Patrick RouzetOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

But there is also the question of the gold, as mentioned above. This is a problem that Dr Suñé faces head-on, because he sees the flow of wealth northwards even during the belligerent phase of the caliphate’s existence as crucial to the way it undermined itself. To his credit, he does not say it was trade or slaving that brought this money northwards, but his explanation still isn’t very convincing. Firstly he notes that Berber troops recruited from Africa were usually paid; then he notes that al-Mansur’s armies (but not those of his caliphal predecessors) had Christian contingents; so he assumes they must have been paid too. To this he adds the infamous tribute payments, the parías, which Anna Balaguer has shown funnelled huge amounts of wealth into Catalonia and Aragón. But the thing is, she shows it for later, because the parías, again, didn’t start till the civil war of 1009-1013. Suñé’s citation of her work says that it demonstrates, “the inflow of Andalusian gold into the Catalan counties during the period 941–1180”, but that date range is really misleading, because actually Anna notes a single raid of 945 (not 941), which is itself much debated, and then there’s nothing in her tables till the civil war.13 And this makes sense, because you’d hardly expect the Andalusī state to be paying tributes to the same people it was cyclically raiding at the same time. So that only leaves payment for military service, which worryingly is not actually attested, again, until the civil war. The only good example Suñé has before that is of exactly the thing he thinks didn’t normally happen, conquest and then subject military service, as some Leonese frontier counts around Astorga were apparently so subdued by al-Mansur’s attacks in 997 that they agreed to pay the Muslim tax on Christians and serve in the army when summoned, and were thus part of the infamous sack of Santiago de Compostela later that year, on the Muslim side.14 To me, this just doesn’t look like the kind of flow of money northwards that could fund a military recovery.

And yet, as said above, the gold did go north, whether we can explain it or not. So perhas a better question is whether Suñé is right about what the Umayyads, and their ‘Āmirid quasi-deputies, were actually trying to do. He reproaches them for not achieving the conquest of the places they attacked despite three or four or more goes, and says that without definitive military victory it’s clear that the Christians would always return to being a threat.15 I’m not sure what kind of victory would be definitive enough for him here; was such a victory achieved at any point in the history of Islamic Iberia? Maybe las Navas de Tolosa, supposedly the last hope of a unified Muslim resistance to the Christian conquests, but even that’s a debate.16 But it seems that Dr Suñé thinks that the natural aim should have been conquest and direct political takeover. To that I say that it just doesn’t seem to be what the rulers of al-Andalus set out to do, at least not since around 720 or so. Rather, their aim appears to have been to pillage, burn and terrorise, with the hope of two quite separate results: one, of immediate importance, booty with which to satisfy the military when they went off duty, and two, less important, possible submission from the enemy, thus guaranteeing safety of Muslims near the frontiers and, if there were any of those, beyond. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, that submission might one way or another technically bring the Christians into direct political subjection, at least for a while, but if they recognised the caliphate’s authority long enough not to interfere with it, that was often enough, as the caliphate usually had its own problems to sort out anyway. At any rate, this is how I see it after a few years teaching it.

Soldiers of al-Mansur, depicted in the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria

Al-Mansur’s army, as depicted in the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X of Castile, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 970s, however, this shifted as al-Mansur realised that he could to a large extent solve those problems by recruiting soldiery from many more sources, so as to cut down on the ability of any one military power-base to defy him, and by paying for that by raiding the Christians much more often.17 Now, I think al-Mansur was smart enough to realise what many historians have said since, that the problem with a polity based on conquest is that it has to keep conquering, or else change its power-base. Any change to the power-base would probably have toppled al-Mansur from power, though; the continual, successful jihad he waged was critical to his importance. So conquest was not his aim; instead, the Christian principalities were, I think, a flock of metaphorical geese who, if killed, would stop laying the golden eggs of booty with which he paid his troops and celebrated his triumphs. Even removing their productive capacity would have made it harder for him to stay in control in Córdoba. So if gold got north, by trade, slavery, diplomatic payment, whatever, I think that was good for him, not least because he probably expected to take a decent tithe of it back southwards again every six or seven years. It might even have been a stable and reproducible system for a while. Now, I think Suñé may well be right that what went wrong with the system is that the Christians got too big to quell, and that al-Mansur’s less successful sons either couldn’t win so easily or picked their targets less well, lost the assurance of success and became vulnerable to internal opposition. But I think he may be missing the point of the ‘Āmirid strategy to say that they failed to conquer their opponents when they should have; to do so would probably have been the end of them. Instead, I think, like other rulers of many different sizes at the same sort of time, they found themselves facing the problem of what to do when enough people around you are getting rich that they no longer need to pay you as much attention as before to keep them important.

There isn’t really a good account of the history of the Iberian Peninsula either side of the year 1000 in English. Roger Collins’s is good, but is only twenty pages; Peter Scales’s old book gets at many of the important issues, but essentially does so by silently transcribing Ibn Hayyān; and I find myself usually recommending the first chapter of David Wasserstein’s book on the taifa kings even though it’s even older and principally about something else.18 This article by Suñé is a big step towards one, but it’s necessarily involved in debates which would completely swamp someone who was new to the era. There’s still no adequate account. Maybe I have to write one, some day. Or maybe Dr Suñé should, because I would definitely read it if he did!


1. Josep Suñé Arce, “Was the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba as Strong as Arab Chroniclers Claimed?” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 35–49, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2018.1553376.

2. Ibn Hayyān’s principal sources were, supposedly, mostly-lost chronicles by two father-and-son historians, ‘Isā and Ahmad al-Razī, who wrote under the Caliphate. For more on Ibn Hayyān’s chronicle and its problems for us, see Manuela Marín, “El «Halcón Maltés» del arabismo español: el volume II/1 de al-Muqtabis de Ibn Ḥayyān” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 20 (Madrid 1999), pp. 543–549. There’s nothing in English, which is going to be a bit of a theme for this post.

3. I covered this in an IMC paper of my own long ago, but it’s no closer to being in print so instead I have to refer you to Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), on which it was heavily based, because there’s (yes) nothing in English.

4. Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia 718 to 1031” in Javier Muñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40, DOI: 10.4324/9781315709895.ch3, at pp. 29-30. There’s nothing (else) in English on Sancho the Great, except as patron of sculpture, and I really wish there was.

5. Gaspar Feliu y Montfort, “El condado de Barcelona en los siglos IX y X: organización territorial y económico-social” in Cuadernos de Historia Económica de Cataluña Vol. 7 (Barcelona 1972), pp. 9-31, translated as Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “El comtat de Barcelona als segles IX i X: Organització territorial i econòmico-social” in Feliu, La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2011), pp. 63–91. Such work as there is in English just refers to this, including my own, Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243.

6. The best recent attempt to put together what evidence there is for this trade is Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: Frühmittelalterlicher Karawanenhandel zwischen dem Westfrankenreich und Al-Andalus” in Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte Vol. 105 (Stuttgart 2018), pp. 391–406. There is nothing in English…

7. Graham Swift, Last Orders (London 1986), p. 285.

8. This’d be a long footnote if I gave all the references, but the short version is that in all of Borrell II’s sales he pays in solidi, or at least the price is given in them. Since there were no coins of that denomination in Catalonia, what the prices were actually paid in is another question, but since Borrell did run his own coinage—see Jarrett, “Currency Change”—you’d expect him to use that, really.

9. Very little of Ibn Idhārī is available to me, at least until and unless I actually learn Arabic. The bit I know is Giorgio Levi della Vida, “Córdoba de la primera a la segunda conquista de la ciudad por los berberiscos (Nov. 1009–May. 1013) seg&uuacute;n al-Bayān al-Mugrib de Ibn ‘Idārī”, ed. Claudio Sánchez Albornoz & trans. I. Arias in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 5 (Buenos Aires 1946), pp. 148–169, which is fascinating but not the whole text by any means! It does, however, include the bit that Dr Suñé uses as a worked example (“Umayyad Caliphate”, pp. 4-5) of how, when faced with multiple accounts, the Arabic chroniclers choose the highest numbers for Christian casualties they can find. Now, this is actually an odd bit to choose, as though the sources do say what Dr Suñé says they say, on this occasion the victorious Muslims were Berber troops actually opposing the Catalan mercenaries bought in by one of the Ummayad claimants in the civil war of 1009-1013. This can’t really be pro-Umayyad bias, therefore, and I think this is an agenda that Dr Suñé misses. Ibn Idhārī seems to me, indeed, to have been writing at least partly to argue against Ibn Hayyān, who seems to have blamed Berbers for almost everything that went wrong in al-Andalus. Throughout his account of the civil war, therefore, Ibn Idhārī argues that the Berbers were always the staunch and righteous defenders of al-Andalus, but the corrosive fear and mistrust that they met from their supposedly fellow Muslims undid all their good attempts. What this means for the argument here is that we need to consider that the chroniclers had specific as well as general biases…

10. Referring especially to Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, pp. 11-12, with conquests of 907-918 (p. 11) or of lands which we simply don’t know were ever Muslim ruled, because the evidence cited is the work of the team led by Ramon Martí on place-names in palatio. You know my views on that theory, but in case you thought I was a lone voice in the wilderness see also Xavier Ballestín, “Consideraciones acerca del termino árabe balāṭ, su equivalencia con la voz latina palatium y su presencia en las fuentes andalusíes, magrebíes y orientales” in Ballestín and Ernesto Pastor (eds), Lo que vino de oriente: horizontes, praxis y dimensión material de los sistemas de dominacion fiscal en al-Andalus (ss. VII-IX), British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2525 (Oxford 2013), pp. 28–42.

11. 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, no. 654, cited by Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, p. 12 n. 74. The other primary source in the note takes a 1022 report of Islamic presence at Montserrat four generations earlier as true; but not only do we have documentation from Montserrat from nearly a century before (e. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I, no. 273, of 924) that makes no mention of this, there was an obvious value to the rhetoric of conquest (which I discuss in 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, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x), and here again I can’t but feel that Dr Suñé has not felt it necessary to subject his Christian sources to the same critique as he does his Arabic ones.

12. My piece is Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, but Suñé cites Kees Versteegh, “The Arab Presence in France and Switzerland in the 10th Century” in Arabica Vol. 37 (Leiden 1990), pp. 359–388, which to be honest is a better starting point, as I had other points to make in mine.

13. Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, pp. 13-14, citing p. 13 n. 84 Anna M. Balaguer, Del Mancús a la dobla: Or i paries d’Hispània, Col·lecció J. Botet i Siso 2 (Barcelona 1993), pp. 42 & 53, the table in question being on the latter.

14. Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, p. 10, mentioned again p. 13.

15. Ibid. pp. 10-12.

16. For example, compare Martín Alvira Cabrer, “Las Navas de Tolosa: the beginning of the end of the ‘Reconquista’? The battle and its consequences according to the Christian sources of the thirteenth century” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 14 (Abingdon 2012), pp. 45–51, and Bernard F. Reilly, “Las Navas de Tolosa and the changing balance of power”, ibid., pp. 83–87, part of a special issue of nine short articles about the significance of the battle.

17. For al-Mansur I tend to use Philippe Sénac, Almanzor: el azote del año mil, trans. Antoni Furió (Valencia 2011), simply because I own it, but there is also Xavier Ballestín, Al-Mansur y la dawla amiriya: una dinámica de poder y legitimidad en el occidente musulmán medieval, UB 78 (Barcelona 2004), which must also be worth a look, and at least an introduction in English can be found in Roger Collins, Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031, A History of Spain 5 (Chichester 2014), pp. 185-198.

18. Ibid., pp. 185-204; Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in conflict, Medieval Iberian Peninsula 9 (Leiden 1994); David Wasserstein, The Rise and Fall of the Party-Kings: politics and society in Islamic Spain 1002-1086 (Princeton NJ 1985), pp. 55-82.

Welcome to Ardèvol, Cardona, pop. [not very many]

Those of you still reading this blog from a long time back will remember, perhaps, that for a good while I was working on an article about a Catalan monastery called Sant Pere de Casserres (in Osona, that’s important), which seemed to get more complicated every time I looked at it; some new source or problem became apparent which was itself difficult to get or to incorporate and so on… It got me several blog posts, but the actual article I was only able to finish and send out in early 2018, and even that was a bit of a surprise. (It should be coming out later this year, for those of you who may be interested.1) But between about 2014 and 2018, the blockage was that I had discovered that there were probably relevant documents in the Archivo Ducal de Cardona, which resides in Toledo, and to which I could not easily get. The person who had told me this was editing them, however, and in late 2017 his edition actually emerged.2 So as soon as the chance arose I dived into it, and I will tell you next post about how much difference that made, but while I was gathering the information, I became briefly quite interested in a little place called Ardèvol.

Aerial view of the centre of Ardèvol, Catalonia

Aerial view of the centre of Ardèvol, including the watch-tower that the village webpage thinks is 10th-century but which I, partly because of the work done for this post, suspect is mid-11th at the earliest. Photo by De Celsona – http://picasaweb.google.com/Celsona/ArdVol#5171644339944900722, licensed under CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ardèvol appears in nine documents in the Archivo Ducal, and as far as I know it doesn’t appear in any other archive, though I haven’t gone looking; I’ve just never seen the name anywhere else. The first of the nine is from 979 CE; three more follow from 980, two from the same day; one from 982; one from 984; it’s mentioned as a boundary in one from 998; and then, nothing more till 1130, by which time it had a castle, and I’ll come back to that.3 But our basic window on this place is 979 to 984, in six documents, and all of them are sales of land to the elderly Viscountess Ermetruit of Osona. That caught my attention because that is also the pattern around Sant Pere de Casserres, which she tried to set up by much the same means, buying up everything she could get and then (probably—but see the article) bestowing it on the monastery. That probably didn’t mean anyone even moving, just changing to whom they paid their rents. But out here in Ardèvol, there was no monastery; rather, she seems to have been setting up a family stronghold at Rocafort. But apparently not in her plans, the family managed to get themselves a controlling interest in the frontier town of Cardona, which Count-Marquis Borrell II reestablished in 986 with Viscount Ermemir II as its patronus (because Borrell has to be in this story somehow). Rocafort remained a family fortress, but the lineage effectively ran out of Cardona thereafter and had, before long, even changed their family name to that of the city.4 So this is probably why we stop seeing anything of Ardèvol; it just ceased to be part of the plans of those who generated our record of it.

That said, it is surprising it was part of any plan, because it was out in the back of absolutely nowhere. To be honest, as the above shows you, this is still true, but even if you couldn’t check a map, you would know from the documents and the descriptions of the property that Ermetruit was buying. One estate is surrounded on all sides by forest, for example. That’s the most extreme, but of the six purchases four were entirely land which the sitting owners had themselves cleared from wasteland and the other two were partly so; in fact, in the case of the last they hadn’t even finished and part of the property was still wasteland as sold.5 So this was the colonisation frontier in a completely real way, and it might be suggested that it just didn’t get any further.

Now, that same Google map makes it clear that it got at least some further development, because as you will see if you zoom out by one click on that map, it’s bifocal, with two churches perched a few miles from each other. One of them, Sant Just, is high up, with maybe six other buildings round it that could, from the satellite view, all possibly now be part of the same farm complex. The other church, Santa Maria, seems to sit bang opposite a tower which must be part of the the Castell that shows up in 1130; there were apparently 114 people living in the whole settlement as of about 2011 (when the village webpage was last updated), but I suspect that we’d have seen more going on here if we could have focused on our Google Map on, say, 1830 than since the post-war move to the cities that has emptied a lot of the Catalan countryside.6 Nonetheless, this is mountainous land and probably no-one ever got rich farming it. So what would we have seen if we could have focused the Google Map on 984?

This is a question worth asking because Viscountess Ermetruit obviously thought she could do something by owning this little patch of nowhere. Its proximity to Rocafort, which is not the only castle nearby either, must be part of the answer, but the area was also not absolutely empty. Not many people had neighbours, as we’ve seen, and where they did it was often often already Viscountess Ermetruit and her sons (suggesting other purchases we don’t have). Nonetheless, almost no-one recurs in these documents; it’s almost a different set of people every time. There is also a recurrent priest who wrote four of these charters, also called Ermemir, but I suspect he wasn’t actually from the area because he seems to have been very unsure how any of the locals’ names were spelt.7 It is, in any case, quite unlikely that there was a church yet for him to minister in (and there is no mention of a castle either, which along with the quite severe and Crusaderish architecture is why I think that tower is not tenth-century, though an older cylindrical one which apparently fell down in 1932 might have given me second thoughts). But there are fourteen households named all told, though admittedly three are said all or some to be dead, suggesting that some lands had already fallen unoccupied. At that rate, the settlement was clearly already some kind of focus, just a rather scattered one. Each family was presumably breaking into their own separate plot of wilderness in the hope that this would be the happy future of things, and that some day they, or their children, would have that church and square and some of them would go out into the world, perhaps in the viscounts’ retinues, and some of them would stay and carry on making their homes as best they could. (They may not have anticipated the public swimming pool which this village of 114 people now boasts, but to be honest who would have done?)

Torre d'Ardèvol

I admit, the masonry admits of other views as well. Photograph by PMRMaeyaert – Treball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 es, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, a sequence of documents that ends abruptly just before the year 985 has ominous implications in this area, because that was of course the year of the attack by the Muslim first minister al-Mansur, what local documents called ‘the day Barcelona died’; but I don’t think that’s the answer here, because it’s a long way north of any route anyone normally supposed that army took.8 I think, instead, that the resultant refortification of Cardona, twenty or so miles to the east still, refocused the viscounts’ endeavours. Probably Alfons, Godmar and Ermemir and their six other neighbours were still there doing their stuff; but since the viscounts didn’t buy any more land there, we don’t know anything further. Later on the castellans of Rocafort seem to have claimed to hold a castle next door to Ardèvol, Matamargó (which still has a pretty little museum), but evidently Ardèvol did also get its own castle, because look, there it is, so maybe the fact that that document is forged should matter for this deduction.9 Eventually, anyway, there were clearly enough people around to justify not just one but two churches, but it was possibly never really part of anything bigger because first the frontier came dangerously close, close enough to magnetise investment away from here, and then it went away in the way that Paul Freedman long ago described for Vic, and the rest is for someone else to tell.10 But although this is in no way what I was looking for – for that see next post – the fact that in sorting through charter evidence you get these tiny stories of people trying to make a life is one of the things that keeps me hooked on doing this kind of work.


1. And that will be, I believe, as Jonathan Jarrett, “On Stone and Skin: Inscription of Communities at the Foundation of Sant Pere de Casserres” in Studia Monastica Vol. 63 (Barcelona forthcoming).

2. Francesc Rodríguez Bernal (ed.), Col·lecció diplomàtica de l’Archivo Ducal de Cardona (965‒1230), Diplomataris 71 (Barcelona 2016), online here.

3. Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, nos 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 19, 24, 360 & 378. Note that Rodríguez’s index (ibid. p. 772 s. v. ARDEVOL) omits no. 7, and that his date for no. 19 is wrong.

4. This is a story which Dr Rodríguez has now made his own, and you can access it via his works such as Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, “Els vescomtes d’Osona: Dades familiars i gènesi patrimonial d’un llinatge nobiliari pels volts de l’any 1000” in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el Seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r. mil·leni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 163–173, and indeed the introduction to Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, pp. 7-58.

5. Forest on all sides ibid. doc. no. 7; nos 7, 8, 9 & 19 all clearances by the current occupant; 10 & 16 partly so; 16 still partly waste.

6. I should admit that I know about that mainly from Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda, L’Entorn 30 (Vic 1995), pp. 177-254, and since Roda was or became a textile town of about a hundred times Ardèvol’s size, I would have to guess that their history may not be very similar.

7. The only definite recurrence is one Alfons, in Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, doc. nos 9 (as neighbour) and 16 (as seller); Godmar, one of the sellers in ibid. doc. no. 7, may also appear with land in Cardona ibid. 11, 13 & 14, but 14 makes it clear that there were at least two Godmars in the viscounts’ circles at this time; Ermemir, a seller ibid. doc. no. 8 may also recur in 11, 13 & 16. The priest Ermemir wrote ibid. doc. nos 8, 9, 10 & 11. Other named persons are Lanfred, Miró and Vivenda, part of the same team as Godmar in doc. no. 7; Ermemir’s wife Sesnanda, Miró and his wife Imol in no. 8; Fruilà, Franco and Arnulf as neighbours in no. 9; Altemir & Eiló in no. 10; Alfons’s wife Saruilda and a widow called Aió selling in no. 16, along with Usila, Fidela widow of Fadribert and the late Undila and his late children as neighbours there; and Guiscafred, Ansall, Alaric and Gostremir selling in no. 19, with Bermon and his wife Eiló and a dead guy called Domènec as their neighbours.

8. See on all this Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació: Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

9. The forged castle claim is Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, doc. no. 24.

10. Referring to Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here.

Image

Obviously not cricket

Bibliothèque national de France, MS Latin 10910, fo. 175r, showing a portrait of a female holy figure with a cross and book

Bibliothèque national de France, MS Latin 10910, fo. 75v, showing a portrait of a holy figure with a cross and book

I have another conference on which to report, but in case those are not your favourite posts, I thought that this week I’d first jump to the very end of 2017 in my backlog, when in a flurry of reading at the end of my first ever study leave, all intended to finish the article which became my “Nuns’ Signatures”, I was moving at speed through Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia, by Felice Lifshitz.1 It is an excellent and provocative book, but it also contains a reference to this image, which I then went and looked up, and then I became quite confused.2

I take comfort in the fact that it is apparently not just me whom this image has confused. The manuscript cataloguer for the Bibliothèque nationale de France, when needing to tag this image, has opted for ‘probablement le Christ’, probably Christ, so they apparently weren’t certain either. I mean, there is the nimbus around the figure’s head and there is the Cross, and the robes of the ancients, so I see how they got there, but this identification still leaves things unexplained. The first of these is what this portrait is doing in this manuscript, which is a text of the Chronicle attributed to ‘Fredegar’ from the late seventh century.3 The image, a full-page drawing, falls within the account of failing diplomacy between King Alaric II of the Visigoths and King Clovis of the Franks, failing because it didn’t stop Clovis invading Visigothic territory and killing Alaric a very short time later, nearly provoking a war between every power in the Continental West.4 It’s interesting history, but it doesn’t mention Christ or explain this portrait at all. And then the second and arguably more important question is, why is He wearing cricket pads?

Now as it happens, I think I can explain the cricket pads, but I’m not completely happy with my explanation. There is a particular depiction of Christ that is very common and has Him enthroned, with drapery over His knees which might, if you had only a poor version or a sketch of a sketch or something, be rendered in this fashion. Here’s a good manuscript example of the kind of image I mean.

Christ enthroned from Budapest, Orszägos Széchényi K&omul;nyvtár, MNY I

I. Berkovits, Illuminated Manuscripts in Hungary, XI-XVI Centuries, transl. Z. Horn and rev. A. West (Budapest 1969), plate IV, from Budapest, Országos Széchényi K&omul;nyvtár, MNY I; I have the cite from this page and that doesn’t give closer referencing, unfortunately

And here’s an Arab-Byzantine coin, where the same drapery technique for Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia have been rendered into something very like our cricket pads here.5

Obverse of a copper-alloy follis struck at Jerash in 636-698, Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, BZC.2004.34, showing an emperor and empress enthroned

Obverse of a copper-alloy follis struck at Jerash in 636-698, Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, BZC.2004.34, showing an emperor and empress enthroned

However, this only gets us so far. Firstly, I can’t quickly find any parallel for Christ enthroned so early which has Him carrying the Gospels; the usual pictures of Him with the Gospels don’t have the throne. That by itself doesn’t mean much: I’m not an art historian and someone with a better internal mental library could probably find an example (and hey, maybe that person is reading…). But I don’t think even they will find Him also carrying the Cross, or wearing a crown, both of which we have here. So I wonder if this is really what we see here, and as it happened, Professor Lifshitz didn’t believe it either.

Instead, as part of a larger argument that Carolingian nuns often sought out and either wrote about or had stories copied for them about great religious women, by way of gender-appropriate role models and inspirations, Lifshitz identifies this image as Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine I’s mother who is famous in Christian sacred history for relocating the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.6 She gives no justification or explanation for this, and it does fit her argument very snugly, but one can more or less reconstruct the argument that perhaps she would make: it is obviously a holy figure, because of the nimbus, but apparently also a royal or imperial one given the crown; it is distinguished by the Cross, which as an attribute belongs to Helena more than to anyone else; and it is pretty plausible, what with the unusually long hair and what one can read of the body shape, as well as the fact that any source depiction of Christ being used here would have been bearded, which has also been changed, that this is meant to be a woman. And if that’s the case, there is perhaps no other Christian candidate. But the book and the throne remain unexplained—I suppose except in so far as Helena was an empress, and in so far as she is supposed to have found the Cross by painstaking contemplation of the Gospels and prayer?7

So I can construct a road that gets me to the same reading of this image as has Professor Lifshitz, but I’m not sure if I can construct it far enough backwards from the image. For a start, I am struggling a bit to imagine the source. It seems likely to me that it was not another manuscript, because I think the cricket pads can only be the result of stylisation or simplification, and so I, perhaps inevitably, suspect that the source is coin imagery, not least because we can see one die-engraver doing something very similar with knee drapery on the Arab-Byzantine coin above. But the empress in such portraits is always accompanied and always crowned, plus which the Arab-Byzantine derivation can’t be the manuscript source because it’s too late, and one might expect the image to be rightly understood if the source was an original coin of Justin and Sophia. So actually I wonder if the archetype is Christian at all, rather than Christianized, because there’s also another possibility.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople 565-578, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1154, showing Victory seated half-right with long sceptre and cross on globe

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople 565-578, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1154, showing Victory seated half-right with long sceptre and cross on globe

The pagan deity Victoria, even if Christianized by association with the Cross—and thanks to Constantine Victory was the other female figure who regularly appeared with a cross—would perhaps explain the body shape in our manuscript, and perhaps the knee drapery. But, she’s only ever depicted in this half-stance, with only one metaphorical pad facing the metaphorical bowler, and she also always has one hand up on the long staff. And she doesn’t in any way explain the book. But I can see a path in which someone started with this as a prototype of an enthroned female figure with a cross and then altered it to more closely convey what they knew of Helena’s story. Unfortunately this still leaves us the question of why.

For Professor Lifshitz, the answer is obvious: a female scribe or artist, looking for a female holy figure for more relatable inspiration of devotion. And I can see how that might work, but is it what was happening here? My stumbling block is the text: with the best will in the world I cannot imagine anyone using the Chronicle of Fredegar for devotional inspiration, especially this bit. But some kind of illustration was always meant to go into this gap, because the text is continuous either side of it; the space was left clear at the time of writing. And the text doesn’t mention Helena, or Christ, or any saint or religious motif at all. (It is not the only image of a saint dropped into this text, I should say, but it is the only one which looks to be a woman.) So what were these nuns doing? And at that point, it is hard not to ask, how do we know they were nuns anyway? The manuscript’s provenance is not clear; it could have been made in a nunnery, but it could not’ve.8

The answer for Professor Lifshitz is simple: they were drawing a woman, so they were interested in women, so they were probably women. And this is not her only example.9 But this risks becoming circularity, where we use women’s drawing habits as evidence for women making manuscripts that we then analyse to deduce those drawing habits. It may be consciousness of difficulties like this that led Professor Lifshitz to say earlier in the book, “In the final analysis, a scholar’s own lens may be the determining factor in how the ambiguous evidence is interpreted,” and as long as that’s conscious, as here it evidently was, fair enough.10 But my lens may be differently focused, because while I am able to accept that whatever this picture is it is a female figure, and I can even probably explain the cricket pads, I don’t really think I understand why someone put this drawing there in the first place.


1. Felice Lifshitz, Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: a study of manuscript transmission and monastic culture (New York City NY 2014), p. 205 (with note p. 282 n. 86). My article to which I refer is of course Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152.

2. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 10910 fo. 75v (not 75r as per Lifshitz’s cite), online here.

3. The Chronicle is printed in its original Latin in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Fredegarii et aliorum chronica; Vitae Sanctorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) 2 (Hannover 1888), pp. 1-193, with the relevant bit here being p. 83. There is no translation of this early part of the text, I’m afraid. The text is not fully understood, but a serious attempt is made by Roger Collins, Die Fredegar-Chroniken, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Studien und Texte) 44 (Hanover 2007).

4. For context for this I went first of all to Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751 (London, 1994), but his discussion pp. 46-48 doesn’t use Fredegar’s evidence, and I actually can’t quickly find someone who does. I am probably missing something here.

5. There’s a much better example in Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), Plate 34, no. 612, which is apparently (p. 364) a British Museum coin, but I can’t make it fall out of the British Museum’s online catalogue with the available search tools, so can’t give you a picture.

6. See n. 1 above.

7. I should admit at this point that most of my grip on Helena’s career comes either from numismatic works or Cynewulf, Elene, transl. Charles W. Kennedy (Cambridge Ont. 2000), online here, which is not exactly historiography; I should probably read something like Andriani Georgiou, “Helena: The Subversive Persona of an Ideal Christian Empress in Early Byzantium” in Journal of Early Christian Studies Vol. 21 (Baltimore MD 2013), pp. 597–624, the better to understand what sources there are for Helena’s life.

8. There is a good argument that we have a lot more manuscripts copied by women, but not named, than people tend to consider: see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History 27 (Oxford 1990), pp 53–78, and Rosamond McKitterick, “Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century” in Francia Vol. 19 (Sigmaringen 1992), pp. 1–35, repr. in Rosamond McKitterick, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th to 9th Centuries (Aldershot 1994), chapter VII.

9. Lifshitz, Religious Women, pp. 196-206.

10. Ibid., p. 192.

A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?


1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.


1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

This is a post that arose from the 2017 International Medieval Congress, believe it or not, and it’s about a literary motif that crops up in a couple of my sources of resort. The basic shape of it is that someone said something in a paper at the Congress that made me trot out an old theory of mind in discussion and they had, kindly but clearly, to point out a reason that that theory was wrong. And then a week or two later, once back from Lleida, I did a tiny bit of looking into it, with that occasional luxury to follow threads that summers used sometimes to permit, and found that on the one hand was I considerably more wrong than I had thought, but on the other hand that maybe no-one has before combined the sources I now apparently know about. That last probably isn’t true, but at least I can perform putting the pieces together for you all.

Illustration of Notker the Stammerer

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

So, let’s start where I started, with the Gesta Karoli by the Frankish monk Notker. This supposed biography of Charlemagne was written for one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Fat about whom we have spoken here, and really contains very little factual information at all; it’s basically a set of kingship parables for the young Charles, using Charlemagne as its ideal monarch.1 One of these stories is about a Byzantine embassy to Charlemagne, and its basic thrust is this. Charlemagne was supposedly trying to make a point to the ‘other’ emperor about the mistreatment of some of his envoys, so had had the incoming delegation escorted by the longest possible route so that their money ran out, then brought them to Aachen.2

“When the envoys finally arrived, [Charlemagne’s masters of ceremonies] ordered the official in charge of the stables to sit on a lofty throne in the midts of his ostlers, in such pomp that it was impossible to believe that he was anyone else but the emperor. The moment the envoys saw him, they fell to the ground and wanted to worship him… Those who were present said: ‘That is not the emperor! That is not the emperor!’ and hit them to compel them to move on.’

This gimmick is replayed several times, with the Count of the Palace, then the Master of the King’s Table, then his steward, each one more splendidly caparisoned than the last, but eventually they finally get taken to the boss man:

“Charlemagne, of all kings the most glorious, was standing by a window through which the sun shone with dazzling brightness. He was clad in gold and precious stones and he glittered himself like the sun at its first rising.”

He is leaning on the originally mistreated envoy, and abject apologies and grovelling therefore ensue, moral victory for the Franks and the clear model to follow is established. As I say, there’s no real sign that this happened but the story is a good one.

Safavid miniature illustration of Ibn al-Arabī with students

16th-century Persian miniature illustration of the philosopher Ibn al-Arabī with some students, author unknown – http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/treasureofcompassion.html, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I must have read that story first as an undergraduate, but then I had nothing to connect it to and it wasn’t till I first taught the Carolingians some years later that I came across it again and by then it struck a chord in my memory because of my having since read, I think in the fundamental work about the first autonomous Catalan counts and how they got that way, Ramon d’Abadal’s Els primers comtes catalans, a very similar story.3 This story was, Abadal thought, about an embassy of the counts of Barcelona, my boys, to Córdoba in the reign of the first Andalusi caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III, perhaps around 950, and in the story the same trick is played on the ambassadors. This time, however, the punchline is different, because after falling on their faces before officials enough times they are finally brought to the presence of the caliph, who is seated on a wooden stool, ‘in a white robe worth less than four dirhams’, in a room otherwise empty apart from a copy of the Qu’rān on a stand, a sword on another, and a small brazier busily aflame, and he tells the terrfied envoys that they have a choice between the authority of the first or death by the second and consumption in the third.4 Result, abject grovelling and all caliphal terms gratefully accepted, moral victory for Islam and the model is established, and so on.

So when I first made this association I had to wonder if there was a connection, and once I speculated about the possibility that, in an earlier embassy which we know brought down a chronicle of the Frankish kings to Córdoba, either a copy of Notker travelled too or else that that chronicle, of which we only have the barest abstract, contained this story from Notker.5 I still think this was an ingenious solution, but as it turns out there is a much much simpler one which makes me very likely to be wrong, and this is what I found out about at the IMC, because it turns out the instances I knew of this story were not the only ones. In his paper, Professor Stefan Esders had made passing reference to another, and when I quizzed him about later he said that he’d got it from a conference paper by one Jacek Banaszkiewicz, whom he believed was publishing it.6 Actually, it turns out that paper was already out, but it’s in Polish and so I cannot claim to have fully absorbed it.7 Still, the basic thrust of it is possible for me to pick up by grabbing at recognisable terms and references. Professor Banaskiewicz is interested because another of the users of the story is the pseudonymous chronicler Gallus, who uses a slightly different version in which Emperor Otto I of the Germans comes to visit King Bolesław I of Poland and is so dazzled by the reception that he hands over his imperial diadem to the Polish ruler. The way this plays to validate the Polish kingship and its own wider claims is pretty obvious. However, Banaskiewicz also finds the story in the Chronicum Salernitanum, in which it’s Charlemagne visiting Duke Arechis II of Benevento, and this time the dance with a long diversion and officials set up to look like the ruler is in place. And there are further, later, instances too. At the very end of the paper he introduces Notker as an older version, but the underlying trope as he sees it is very much older, being the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in the Biblical book of Kings (Kings 1:10).

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from the 15th-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the Biblical story does not have the increasing levels of false identification thing going on, but the Ancient History Encyclopedia quickly tells me that it acquires them in some later Jewish and Islamic versions, and as Banaskiewicz is mainly concerned to show, it’s not an uncommon device, so the interesting question now perhaps becomes how Notker got hold of one of those versions, or what the common source is. In any case, though, it’s no longer necessary to draw the link from him to Córdoba; the Arabic writer in question, the Andalusī philosopher Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn al-ʿArabī, could obviously have picked up the trope more locally, though his inversion of it is still quite original and cute. However, my being wrong sadly didn’t end there…

You see, having got Professor Esders’s message and done my first bits of digging, I went to a book I hadn’t had when I previously made the connection between Notker and Ibn al-Arabī, the invaluable little anthology of Arabic sources which refer to Catalonia edited and translated by Dolors Bramon. The extract is there, of course, because she is a thorough scholar, but with it came several notes that forced me to rethink again.8 You see, no other Arabic source, let alone any Christian one, records this embassy; it doesn’t name the participants, like all of Ibn Hayyān’s records based on the work of people who had actual court archives do, and the outcome seems to imply the conversion of the ambassadors to Islam, which definitely wasn’t required of any of the Christian rulers in the Iberian Peninsula even at the height of the Umayyads’ aggressiveness there. For all of these reasons, in 1974 Fernando de la Granja had concluded that the whole thing was probably just a literary construction, placed in the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III because Ibn Hayyān and so on made that the obvious context for such a meeting.9 In other words, they think it’s fictive. Bother.

The very episode, depicted in Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer, ‘Abd al-Rahman III Receiving the Ambassador at the Court of Cordoba’, 1885, Universitat de Barcelona, image allegedly public domain via the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Now, there is actually some evidence to suggest that ‘Abd al-Rahmān did play court ceremonial like this, as something vaguely similar appears in the tale of another ambassador to the court, The Life of John of Gorze, which has the long-delayed ambassador finally meet the caliph alone in a space only adorned with fountains, but he has a reclining bench rather than a stool and John told his biographer that was the custom.10 For that reason, it doesn’t seem as if this tale is a clone of Notker or indeed of the Bible, and I’m inclined to think the caliph really did use such presentational tricks, but of course he and his advisors may also have known the story! This would then be life imitating art. All that said, however, there’s no really sound evidence for the actual embassy detailed, or rather left undetailed, by Ibn al-‘Arabī, and I probably have to delete it from my list of data about Count-Marquis Borrell II. That will only hurt my ego, rather than my arguments, so that’s fine.

However, there are a lot of pieces to this jigsaw now. Banaskiewicz knows Notker, Gallus, the Chronicon Salernitanum and some more stuff besides, but not the Arabic version of the story. He also doesn’t cover the Biblical story’s development as far as I can see, and the sources I can quickly find for that don’t realise that there are medieval tropes of it. Meanwhile, de la Granja seems not to have known and Bramon shows no sign of knowing that there is a Biblical tradition behind the story, and they don’t mention the Latin analogues. Right now, as far as I know, it is I, I alone, who have all the pieces of the puzzle! Well, and now you, of course. But we can keep a secret, right… ?


1. Here accessed from Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, L213 (Harmondsworth 1969); I know the newer translation by David Ganz is better, but right now this is the one I can reach…

2. Ibid., II.6.

3. Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalans: sèrie històrica 1, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1965), pp. 316-317.

4. Although I now have Abadal to hand, the account here is paraphrased from the version in Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §396.

5. The chronicle was carried by Bishop Godmar II of Girona, around 940, and is recorded for us in the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas’ūdī, which is accessible only in very abridged English as El-Mas’ūdī, Historical Encyclopedia, entitled ‘Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems;’ translated from the Arabic, transl. Aloys Sprenger, 1 vol (London 1841-), online here; the whole thing is in French, as Maçoudi, Les prairies d’or : Texte et traduction, edd. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet De Courtelle, 9 vols (Paris 1861-1877), all on the Internet Archive, but I admit I did not go look for this anecdote there and have it right now from Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §400.

6. Professor Esders’s paper, by the way, was S. Esders, “The Synod of Erfurt: Ottonian and Mediterranean Politics in 932”, paper presented at the International Medieval Congressm University of Leeds, 5th July 2017.

7. Jacek Banaszkiewicz-Pokorny, ‘„Na koronę mego cesarstwa! To, co widzę, większe jest, niż wieść niesie”. Mechanizm fabularny „wizyty Saby u Salomona” w średniowiecznych realizacjach kronikarsko-epickich (Kronika salernitańska, Kronika Galla, Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, Galien Restoré)’ in Agnieszka Teterycz-Puzio (ed.), Na szlakach dwóch światów: Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Jerzemu Hauzińskiemu (Słupsk 2016), pp. 365–382. I have to thank Professor Esders for sending me an English version of the paper he saw, without which I’d not have got far with this.

8. Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §396.

9. Fernando de la Granja, “A propósito de una embajada cristiana en la corte de ‘Abd al-Rahmān III” in al-Andalus Vol. 39 (Madrid 1974), pp. 391-406, cited in Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, p. 291 n. 111.

10. I’ve actually done my own translation of this text for my students, which may even some day be published, but until then there is most of the relevant bit in Colin Smith (ed.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: AD 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.