Category Archives: Catalonia

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.

Digging normality in the 11th-century Pyrenees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

What to remember from the 2018 International Medieval Congress?

Although I feel that it probably is a sign that I am catching up on my blogged past, I have to admit that I face the fact that the next thing in my blog pile is the International Medieval Congress of three-and-a-half years ago with a certain unwillingness. I mean, I’ve spent much of the last two years either trying to stay off or being told I can’t go onto the campus where it happened, for a start, so there is definitely a sense that this is deep past which doesn’t have so much to do with time as experience. But I’ve done all the rest and the format for them seems pretty well worked out now, and so I will give it a go.

Postcard advertisement for the International Medieval Congress 2018

Postcard advertisement from the IMC website

This was, I am reminded as I fish the programme off the shelf, the 25th International Medieval Congress, and the programme is the fattest of all the ones on that shelf. I can’t actually work out how many sessions there were: it says that there were 392 sessions on the conference theme of Memory, 9 keynote lectures and 394 further sessions, plus 4 lectures, so I think it’s 799, but firstly I’m not sure if that was everything and secondly, that was the programme as initially published, not the result of all the subsequent changes you find in the also-thick booklet of changes when you register. And in any case, however many sessions there are, you still can’t go to more than 17 because that’s how many slots there are in the programme, which is massively parallel, and most delegates won’t manage that because of their feeble needs for food and sleep or because of wisely placing socialising with people you otherwise never see over more direct forms of academic engagement. I do like, however, how this means that it’s probably mathematically possible for more paths through the Congress to exist than there are attendees, since there were this year 2,545 attendees and, if my GCSE maths does not fail me, 1 x 53 x 1 x 54 x 54 x 13 = 2,009,124 possible combinations of sessions just on the Monday not including any of the receptions. How would we know if it got too big? Anyway, this just means that what I have done the last few times, just listing my own path and then offering a few remarks where things still stand out for me, seems like the best approach still, because I can’t give an impression of 2 million plus possible other Congress experiences in one blog post, now can I? So mine is below the cut, day by day with brief commentary on each day to lighten the data dump. As ever, I’m happy to try and answer questions about the papers if people have them, but I will try and stay short unless you do. Here we go! Continue reading

Gallery

Flying Visit to Montserrat, III: Manresa by night

This gallery contains 17 photos.

The last of these photo posts from my rush April 2018 trip to Catalonia covers the evening of the day covered in the previous one. With the later part of the day still free after my climb nearly to the … Continue reading

Gallery

Flying Visit to Montserrat II: the place itself

This gallery contains 16 photos.

As you may recall from the last post, in late April 2018 I was very briefly at the Catalan mountain shrine site of Montserrat, which is one of the places I wish everyone could see at least once; I think … Continue reading

Gallery

Flying Visit to Montserrat I: Santa Cecília

This gallery contains 21 photos.

There was a time, just a few years ago, when one could, if one wanted, hop on an aeroplane from the north of England to Barcelona at only a few days’ notice for somewhat less money than it cost to … Continue reading

Link

Different sorts of rulers on the edges

View over the Universitat de Girona

View over the Universitat de Girona taken earlier today by your author

Hullo again! I actually write this from a hotel in Girona, where I was kindly invited to give a guest lecture, because when I would ordinarily write the week’s post I’ll be travelling back by the dubious offices of Ryanair, so things are going on to which, let’s be optimistic, I will some day soon catch up. Right now, however, the post I promised you was about the culmination, for now, in 2018, of my network project for ‘rethinking the medieval frontier’. Now, I was more or less set last week for the need this week to write up a report on that conference, and then while writing last week’s, I was reminded as I linked to the project blog that I actually already did so, there rather than here, within literal months of the conference actually happening. So the first point of this post is to point you at that account, which is here:

Report on 1st Conference


There are photos and everything, and also links to others’ reports should you (rightly) think that something I put on a project blog might seek to emphasise the positive out of all proportion. But what, of course, that post has fairly little of, except in phrasing, is me, and what, as I have often said is the point of a blog except to give the Internet more of yourself? So secondarily in this post I want to talk a bit more about where my paper came from, where it was and is intended to lead, and why, in fact, I was even reading up on ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī. Since that is kind of gratuitous, though hopefully interesting, I’ll stick it behind a cut even though it’s not very long, and encourage you to go read about other interesting people and their thoughts via that link first. Continue reading

From the Sources XVI: a document that nearly wrecked some of my work

Since I wrote my last post, about something I found in the last stage of work on an article about Sant Pere de Casserres, that article has come back to me in proof, so even though I laid down that stub in 2018, it is evidently exactly now that I was meant to be writing about it! So, here is another post about that final stage of work on it, and it relates to that great fear of the historian, new data.

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above, just to remind you

You might think, of course, that most historians, especially medievalists with our paucity of sources, would always be glad to have new data become available, and to an extent that’s true. But, when you reach the point of having assimilated everything you know there to be of significance, and of having risked doing the pattern-tracing and generalisation that constitutes interpretation and you think and hope you might be right about the past in this one area, then honestly it is a person of the strongest of character who can with equanimity face the sudden realisation that actually, there is more. It’s bad enough if you’ve set out a conclusion based on the existence of evidence; whatever pattern you’ve drawn or progression you’re depicting, it could be ruined by an outlier or contradictory piece of data, but at least you can hope that your overall findings still look plausible even if once or twice something else happened. Much worse, however, if you’ve risked an argument from silence, constructing a pattern in which the fact that something is not in the evidence is important, because then at any point it could turn up and make you look a fool; and my article partly rests on the argument that a certain document we would expect to exist was in fact never written… All we historians, maybe all academics, live in fear of the hypothetical person at a conference or seminar who might in discussion begin, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but…” (which of course means, ‘Obviously you are not aware…’) and expose the vital, contradictory, piece of evidence which destroys one’s argument. And as already discussed both long ago and recently, this article was a project on which this happened to me twice, so I was already reading the edition of the charters of the viscounts of Cardona (explained last post) with some trepidation.1 As it happens, I escaped major embarrassment on anything to do with the actual article—that document still doesn’t exist!—but there is one other document there which was a complete surprise to me and nearly made several other things I’d already said or even published elsewhere fail.2 So I thought it was worth a post, and after a few minutes looking at it I decided the only way to do it was a proper ‘from the sources’ translation. It’s, um, not easy reading, so there is a summary below. But if you want the full flavour, here it goes.3

“In the name of the Holy, Eternal and Immanent Trinity. Let nothing be held by anyone on the basis of an unknown constitution, but rather let it be known and made open to all and everyone that I, Borrell, by Grace of God Count and Marquis, son of Count Sunyer, of good memory, and also of Countess Riquilda, whose memory may God keep, and my wife Countess Ledgarda, by the highest divine clemency providing some offering for love of the divine celestial kingdom and out of fear of the pains of horrible Gehenna, do consider the weight of my sins and become very frightened of the coming Day of Judgement, and so that I may hope to acquire pleasingness to God and may come before the tribunal of Christ so as to be acquitted of those sins of mine by God’s help, having considered in my heart, for the love of God and of the congregrated Christian people, in honour of Omnipotent God and all the Saints, and have by way of generosity made over all rent and service and the bearing of all servile yoke to all the people dwelling within the limits of the castle of Montdó, which they call Tallat, for all rights which devolve to me in the aforesaid castle, and just so do I, so that it ineluctably may be free.

Therefore I wish and order that the aforesaid castle be free, with all its bounds and limits, just as King Charles or his son Louis ordered the city of Barcelona to be free by their order and indeed precept or also by the donation which the counts or inhabitants of the already-said city received from them and as it thus dwells nearby in the precepts of the Holy Father.4 These royal powers carry forward the donation of royal power, which is by my right bestowed upon or awarded to whatever persons it may be, so that it remains in my name, by such a rationale that, by this royal means a benefaction awarded in his name who should promise it remains transferred, so that his may be the power to do or judge whatever he wishes with it.

Thus I order that the already-said castle be free with all its bounds and limits just as commemorated and confirmed below, such that no count, vicar, reeve, prior, officer or procurator, nor any person greater or lesser, may by custom there seek or require nor bear off any rental service in no way, except the selfsame tithe that he offer to God, and to him whom I or my successors will ordain; and they shall equally serve in the the army against the regions of Spania in the service of me the already-said count; and if there shall arise among them contempt or a quarrel shall exist between them, let no-one by custom distrain them except before me or my successors so that everything may be emended according to the order of the Law and the precepts of the Holy Father, and just as the law of the Goths contains.5

The hill of Castelltallat, including its castle, church and the observatory

By way of a break, here’s what is under discussion, or at least its centre, the Serra de Castelltallat, including eventual church, castle and modern-day observatory (because this is also still relatively speaking nowhere). Image by Victor M. Vicente Selvas, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The aforesaid castle in the county of Manresa, in the neighbourhoods of the Marches, whose bounds begin: from the east, on the slope, and thus it runs along the torrent and comes to the yard which was the late Guisard’s, and then it runs by the steading that was Eldrud’s, and thus it descends by the torrent and it comes to the settlement which they call Porques; and from the south clearly it ascends along the ridge which they call Centelyes and runs from the pass that was Ataulf’s and thus it runs to the ancient [sic] from the torrent of Bono and thus it ascends to the pass of Corregó and thus it runs by the pond and thus descends to the settlement which they call Luvosa and thus it runs to the stronghold; and from the west side indeed it begins at la Tuscela and climbs to the tower which was Nantovigi’s and thus it runs by the torrent of Matadeporos and reaches the dip that is called Sorba; from the part indeed around it descends by the peak of the ridge and runs by the pass that was Marwan’s and comes to the settlement that was Marwan’s and comes to the settlement that was Agela’s and thus it descends to the stronghold where that cross is which the already-said Count Sunyer of good memory had made, and it comes to the settlement which they call Mulnent and thus it reaches that stone which is at the bound of Salau and thus it descends to Fontfred and climbs by the summit of Puigros and comes to the settlement that was Daco’s and comes to the altar and thus it ends at the selfsame slope or at the pass of Figuera.

The aforesaid bounds of the already-said castle with all its neighbourhoods and with all the houses that have been built there or all those which can be built, I wish and order and hand over into the power of the inhabitants who live or shall live or shall come to live within the aforesaid bounds; let them hold this freely in their possession in quiet order, whoever God may let be able to have acquired or be going to acquire whatever it may be there or be able justly to have such things there, let them be allowed and able to have, except my own alod that I have there or may justly acquire there according to the order and precept that is described above. That none of the already-said persons shall presume to demand or bear off any rent and service and tribute from the aforesaid inhabitants or dwellers or their successors but let each one of them be free in his own power and if they choose lords let them have power to commend themselves to whomever they want of the men from my counties or other counties and not to another count.

For if I the already-said Count Borrell or any of my successors or whatever person it may be, greater or lesser, should presume to do anything or acquire any rent or bear off any tribute or to collect anything unlawful there, let this not avail but remain in all things and furthermore let him compound in bondage to the aforesaid inhabitants or dwellers five pounds of gold and furthermore let him be obliged to bear the sins of my soul and let the aforesaid castle with all its limits and bounds with all improvements remain by enough in the power of the inhabitants or dwellers intact and sound and let this scripture, pact or agreement remains firm and stable as before now and for all time.

This page, pact or agreement done in the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 982 in the 10th Indiction in the Era 1027 on the Kalends of October in the 29th year of King Lothar, son of a certain Louis.
Sig+ned Count Borrell. Sig+ned Countess Ledgarda, who have equally made this scripture of endowment or pact or agreement and asked for it to be confirmed. Sunifred SS. Sig+ned Amalric. Signed Guisad.
Sendred, judge, who wrote SS

Now, if you found that heavy going, believe me I have simplified and emended throughout to get it even into that state (and put in the paragraph breaks). The scribe, the judge Sendred, seems to have thought that ad was the only preposition of relation left in Latin, and used it for all of ab, ad, de, ex and probably others, and also blurs it with aut, at, ac and maybe more things too. This may tell us a lot about how he actually pronounced the language, but it’s not easy to follow him through it. His care about inflection and number of nouns and their agreeing adjectives is also highly variable, and his spelling is awfully inconsistent. Furthermore, he went back over the charter and corrected it even to get that far: quite a few words are added in superscript between the lines. (Features like this at least mean it is definitely an original.) So to get that translation, I have throughout had to do the exercise I sometimes advise to my students, of taking a step back from the actual grammar, deducing what it must mean to say, and then going back to see what words the scribe thought would mean that. Then there are some words I would rather not have translated: cens and its cognates, for example, which I’ve given here as ‘rent’ or ‘rental’ but which is halfway between there and ‘tax’ really, and villa which I’ve given as ‘settlement’… In short, it’s a right pain to understand, but if I have done so, then the below is a summary, from paragraph to sentence, of what’s being said:

  1. Count Borrell, and perhaps his wife Countess Ledgarda, are very afraid that he may go to Hell. So—and why this is supposed to help with that is not clear—they are conferring all the rights they hold in the castle at Montd´, known as Castelltallat, upon the inhabitants of its district.
  2. This is possible for him to do because once Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, apparently with papal backing, did the same for the inhabitants of Barcelona and that royal power now sort of falls to Borrell and a royal grant of that kind frees people utterly of obligations.
  3. That means that no public officer of any kind may henceforth make any demands on the inhabitants except tithe, which will go wherever Borrell and his successors demand, and the inhabitants must still serve in the army against al-Andalus; also, any disputes involving them must come before the count.
  4. Just to be clear where we’re talking about, here’s its boundary [about which I will say more in a moment].
  5. So everything within that is now the inhabitants’, including whatever they already have and whatever they or those who may come to live there shall have in future, which by the way still includes Count Borrell who has his own land there too, thankyou; and they can set up a lord or take whatever person they like as a lord, in Borrell’s counties or anyone else’s, but it mustn’t be a count.
  6. If anyone tries to mess with this, firstly that shouldn’t work and secondly they must also pay five pounds of gold to the inhabitants who can then go on exactly as before.
  7. And lastly the date and signatures.

Now, there is so much I could say here. It may be worth starting with the circumstances. The Muslim first minister al-Mansur had just begun making serious raids on the north of the Iberian Peninsula. The Barcelona area had already been lightly pillaged in 977, so defensive measures were by now very much on Borrell’s mind.6 The people here may have been extra aware of that, because it is very noticeable how few of the people named as neighbours of the property were in fact alive, just one of the seven named individual neighbours, it seems to me. One of the dead guys had had a tower, though, and there were two strongholds (archae) here too, so this was already a defensive landscape; maybe it just hadn’t been defensive enough… (It’s also interesting to see an Arabic name, Marwan (Marvano) among the dead estate-holders, isn’t it?) So the overall context was a need to move settlers in on attractive terms, and the terms offered were basically total indemnity from any requirements of the state except military service and loyalty to the count.

In short, this document is what would later be called a franchise. Now, there is a big collection of these from Catalonia but the editor didn’t know about this one, and if he had I think he might have needed to think again about some of his early inclusions.7 The first unimpeachably original franchise, other than this, is Borrell’s massive grant to the townsmen of Cardona of 986, very similar in some ways; it refers to earlier grants, but we don’t have them separately.8 We do have a few other things which purport to be earlier franchises, and even use that term, but they are dead dodgy, only surviving in late copies and conferring rights which we otherwise have no basis to believe even had their own names before the early eleventh century.9 Now, you may have noticed this already, but the word franchise (franchitatum), or even ‘frank’ (franca, basically tax-free), doesn’t occur here. In fact, the scribe and/or count seem to have been quite unclear as to what sort of document this actually was, using four different nouns in sets of three to cover it. I think this is because this was their first franchise, and they didn’t yet have a stable idea of what that actually meant. Borrell was trying something new here. I think this is also why we have the almost spurious pious preamble about the pains of Hell for what is not, actually, a donation to the Church; I guess that all the documents like this that Borrell or Sendred might have seen were royal ones to churches and so they thought that’s how this one needed to begin. They definitely had something like a royal precept before them, because the phrase ‘no count or vicar etc.’ comes straight from that formula-book; you can find it in many such royal documents.10

That, then, is what the weird paragraph about royal power is doing. Those who know my work well will know that this was not the only place Borrell made such claims; there is one dodgy charter of 972 which also refers to a grant of royal rights in waste lands made to one of Borrell’s ancestors, and then two of 986 in which he uses the same phrase (written by different scribes) to describe the general transfer of royal power in the area to his ancestors by some kind of grant.11 It’s bubbling up here because Borrell was effectively granting an immunity, a grant which removed an area from public jurisdiction and tied it only to the sovereign, but that was something which up till now only kings had done here; so he felt that there had to be some kind of explanation of how come that was all right for him, not a king himself, to do, and the fudge about royal rights devolving on him is what is trying to do that, made more complex by the later emergent fact that he himself was immune from this immunity and kept his property there—by which we presumably mean not that he had a holiday chalet there he sometimes popped in on, but that in this island of freedom there would still be some people who worked his land as tenants and jolly well did still pay cens and do service if demanded.12 The grant to Barcelona by Charlemagne and Louis the Pious which he mentions is unknown, meanwhile, but it’s not impossible that Borrell knew about one of Charles the Bald’s ones (and Charles also had a son called Louis, who had a son called Charles who also had a son called Louis, for heaven’s sake, so maybe I’m just wrong that it’s Charlemagne and the conqueror of Barcelona who are meant). At this point Borrell just needed a plausible legal precedent, because there wasn’t one; this had never been done by a count here before! (We could also say things similar to those I’ve said before about the clause requiring no commendation to another count; in sixty years that would be called ‘solid’ or liege homage, but at this point those concepts just didn’t exist, so other ways had to be found to say this thing.)

So, I don’t think anything I’ve said in my early work is wrong because of this document; but I wish I could have written that work with knowledge of it, because it would have deepened and made more convincing my claims there that Borrell was trying to find new ways to assert power in and manage his territories, and that when he did this he looked for ways to justify them as being old.13 He wasn’t the first person to fortify or develop these frontier areas: his grandfather and brother had made grants to Cardona before him, and we see here the cross put up by Borrell’s father Sunyer which tells us, probably, who also put those strongholds on the ridges in one of which that cross apparently stood. But for whatever reason, Borrell needed a better reason than that and wanted to make arrangements which would stick, as indeed, evidently, his predecessors’ had not. And it’s this almost-unnecessary ingenuity about how to do this, here filtered and fragmented by the good but grammatically dubious offices of the judge Sendred, that makes me so interested in Borrell as a ruler. I may not have known about this document when I first needed to; but it’s going to be part of my thinking from now on.


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

2. It should be noted how much worse this could have gone, because it has done for at least one other. The editor’s introduction to Rodríguez, Col·lecció, describes at pp. 58-59 how he only found out about this archive just as he was finishing his thesis on, of course it would have to be, the viscounts of Cardona, and it more or less invalidated everything he’d done and meant he took three years longer to finish after a complete rewrite. It’s every Ph.D. student’s nightmare and he actually had to live it. The edition may not be enough recompense…

3. Rodríguez, Col·lecció, doc. no. 15.

4. I honestly don’t know what’s going on here, and if you can do better than I have with, “et vel ita comine morat in praecepciones Sancti Patris” then, please, offer it up! (Full Latin ibid. p. 94, and it’s online as said in n. 1 above.)

5. Actually “sicut lex gothorum continet”, just like Roger Collins’s title of yore (Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (Oxford 1985), pp. 489–512), but Collins can’t have known this document. It matters only in so far as the phrase in Collins’s title doesn’t actually occur anywhere else in his article, so I’ve always wondered what charter he got it from…

6. I can immediately cite only Philippe Sénac, Almanzor: el azote del año mil, transl. Antoni Furió (Valencia 2011), pp. 88-93. I realise it may not be on everyone’s shelves, but (thanks to the translator) it is on mine.

7. Josep M. Font Rius (ed.), Cartas de población y franquicia de Cataluna, Textos 36 (Barcelona 1969-1983), 2 vols.

8. Ibid. no. 9, but better edited as 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, and see also Rodríguez, Col·lecció, doc. no. 18. On it see Victor Farías, “Guerra, llibertat i igualitarisme a la frontera” in Josep Maria Salrach (ed.), La formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1998), pp. 112–113.

9. Especially Àngel Fàbrega i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260, Fonts documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), 1 vol only, doc. nos 108 & 123 (= Font Rius, Cartas, nos 7 & 8), clearly related and both purportedly given by Bishop Vives of Barcelona in 974 and 977. Fàbrega was inclined to accept the latter one, but I’m not sure why!

10. Those are of course all edited in Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 1 & 2 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, repr. in facsimile as Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 75 (Barcelona 2007), 2 vols, and examples therein would be Ripoll I, Sant Pere de Rodes I and Urgell III, spanning 835 to 935, and a similar formula not mentioning counts specifically in Albanya I (the very first document in it), Amer II, Amer V, Arles II, Arles IV, Banyoles II, Barcelona II, Camprodon I, Cuixà I, Elna III, Girona II, Girona VII & Sant Genís les Fonts I, in other words almost everywhere for a century, well into Borrell’s own times.

11. Esp. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22 at pp. 9-11.

12. It is worth mentioning here that removing everyone from power relations with the recipient of such a grant except yourself was not necessarily a strategy of weakness, and may indeed have been what immunities were usually about—see Barbara H. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space: Power, Restraint, and Privileges of Immunity in Early Medieval Europe (Ithaca NY 1999), with appropriate consideration—but Borrell was levering off everyone above him as well as below him, which might have been a bit different. But it’s the whole sovereign paradox thing, isn’t it, that the granter of an immunity could choose to immunise people even to his own authority by which they held their immunity…

13. It’s yet another slight blow to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), for example, where pp. 117-118 & 130 would now look a bit different, not least because I think I’d have now to admit that the first bit is arguing from a charter that’s at least part forgery.

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.

The Three Orders’ Houses: a model on the ground

Somehow I was out doing things yesterday and forgot to write a blog post, sorry, but for once I do have time in the week, so I will make it up now.

The yard at Embsay station on 27th June 2021

What your blogger was looking at yesterday instead of his computer

Here is something about as delayed as even my various crazy backlogs can make something. This was prompted by reading something in the British Library in 2012, back when we could do that thing, and in my notes on it I even then made a note to blog about it; but I didn’t in the end process those notes until late 2017. At that point I laid down a stub to complete later, and now, four years on, here we go. All of this is ironic, because in 2012 I was for once reading something pretty new from Catalonia, an intriguing piece of settlement archaeology discussion by the medieval archaeologist to whom perhaps I owe the most favours in the world, Professora Imma Ollich i Castanyer, about the Catalan monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes.1

Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes

Sant Pere de Rodes from its most impressive side, which is to say, the one that’s mostly there; image by Pixel – own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, that is an inaccurate over-simplification that I should immediately correct. The article, like much of Professor Ollich’s work, is mostly about my favourite study area, the comarc of Osona, and it is a fairly major argument with a basic paradigm of the social history of the tenth and eleventh centuries. This holds that, however you like to explain it, rural settlement in Catalonia was mostly dispersed and only loosely territorialised in the tenth century but by the end of the eleventh had nucleated into reasonably-defined villages. The favourite explanation hitherto has been feudalism, of course, working either through violence compelling people to group together for safety or through aggressive lordship pressing people together to intensify their farming, around either churches or castles depending on the agency, and no, neither of those are completely logical chains of events as I’ve laid them out but for some people they make sense, even now the proponents of those ideas are dead.2 This process is usually referred to as incastellamento, as coined by Pierre Toubert who first observed it in Lazio, is not yet dead and has in recent years suggested that he was probably partly wrong, or encellulement, as coined by Robert Fossier so as to get away from a dependence on castles, and it has been very widely played with, debated, contested and challenged, at least outside Catalonia.3

But this is the scenario on which Professor Ollich’s observations land like a series of well-mannered munitions. She argues that, once you have a decent picture of this area’s, and therefore quite possibly any nearby area’s, settlement patterns, it’s way more diverse than just dispersed or nucleated. She winds up developing a typology that has seven categories, including settlements around churches, settlements around castles, settlements with both (like Tona, where I have of course been and been photographed) and settlements around neither, the first three of which can be split into ones where the settlement predated the supposed focal point or points and ones where it didn’t. Only two or three of these seven types conform to the dominant paradigm, so even if it turns out still to have been numerically dominant, which Professor Ollich doesn’t think it was in Osona, that paradigm at least needs to give up some room to alternatives. It’s one of those arguments that makes such clear sense that once you’ve read it it’s hard to go back, and is a welcome attempt to provide something in place of the theory one’s out to demolish.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

But, despite its importance, that isn’t the thing that I thought, nine years ago, I should blog about. That was Professor Ollich’s final example, which is, as promised, Sant Pere de Rodes, out in coastal Empúries way to the north-east. She picks on Sant Pere because it gives her several of her types of settlement in close proximity and shows how an obvious focal point doesn’t necessarily do what the paradigm expects to settlement development. The monastery was first here, and its tangled history is more than we can go into here; suffice to say that there is an argument about whether, as its documents claim, it was founded in a wasteland location or if it was deliberately sited on Roman remains instead, and of course it could probably be both and curious treasures have allegedly been found there that might provide more esoteric explanations and we could go on. But right now I shan’t; you just need to know that in the ninth century someone started a monastery there, in the tenth century some of the local counts decided to make it their pet monastery and by the eleventh century it was, as they say ‘kind of a big deal’.4 But it didn’t ever pull a village round itself. Instead, a village that was almost certainly related grew up somewhere quite close by, at Santa Creu. It was then fortified in the eleventh century, so looks like an independent effort, but its major market and lord must still have been the monastery. Furthermore, there was also a local castle, eventually, at Verders, and that had its own church so could in theory also have gone it alone. But because they were all here they perhaps prevented each other from becoming the major force in the locality. The Google Map below sows them in relation to each other. In the end, the monastery, the oldest, was also the longest lasting, but then it was also way rich, at least for a while, so perhaps that isn’t surprising.

Now, apart from the neat demonstration that the basic model just isn’t complex enough to handle the actual variation of human activity, and the encouraging thought that nonetheless we might still be able to build an adequate one (this is a big mantra of mine these days), the obvious thing that struck me here is that it’s a settlement archaeology demonstration of that old eleventh-century trope about medieval society being divided into three orders, those who fight, those who work and those who pray. Because, look, here’s where they all lived: a castle, a village and a monastery! It should have been the perfect arrangement, at least for someone like Adalbero of Laon. As it is, I imagine they actually disputed with each other like cats and dogs, and that our records would (if Sant Pere’s charters hadn’t mostly been lost) show that the Church mostly won even if it actually didn’t, but the point is, here they all are, almost as if it was real. That is very definitely not the theory Professor Ollich set out to address, and I don’t mean to make any claim that my observation actually, you know, means anything, but once I’d thought it I had to say it, even if I do so nine years (and one day) late…


1. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Arqueologia de la Catalunya feudal i prefeudal: Poblament i territori. El model teòric de la Comarca d’Osona” in Jordi Bolòs (ed.), La caracterització del paisatge històric, Territori i societat: el paisatge històric. Història, arqueologia, documentació 5 (Lleida 2010), pp. 399–465.

2. The most obvious progenitors of this idea locally would be Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195–208, and, of course, 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. A fairly recent acceptance of it can be found in Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, “Early and High Medieval ‘Incastellamento’ in Northern Iberia: Fortified Settlements in the Basque Country and Upper Ebro Valley (9th–12th Centuries)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 192–204.

3. Some later takes on the idea, led indeed by Toubert, in Miguel Barceló and Pierre Toubert (edd.), L’incastellamento: actes des recontres de Gérone (26-27 novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 mai 1994), Collection de l’École française de Rome 241 (Rome 1998); Toubert’s most recent re-evaluation in “L’incastellamento: Problèmes de définition et d’actualisation du concept” in Sandra Pujadas i Mitjà (ed.), Actes del Congrés Els Castells Medievals a la Mediterrània Nord-Occidental celebrat a Arbúcies, els dies 5, 6, i 7 de març de 2003 (La Gabella 2003), pp. 21–35. For Fossier still doing his thing, see Robert Fossier, “The Rural Economy and Demographic Growth” in David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith (edd.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, volume IV, c. 1024–c. 1198 (Cambridge 2004), 2 vols, I, pp. 11–46. More recent demolition efforts in †Riccardo Francovich, “The Beginnings of Hilltop Villages in Early Medieval Tuscany” in Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick (edd.), The long morning of medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 55–82.

4. For the monastery’s early history, at least, see Montserrat Mataró i Pladelasala and Eduard Riu-Barrera, “Sant Pere de Rodes: un monasterio condal en la periferia del extinguido imperio carolingia (siglos X y XI)” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X): 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuïc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 236–242, transl. as “Sant Pere de Rodes: a large monastery under the countship on the edge of the Carolingian empire (10th – 11th centuries)”, ibid., pp. 536-539.