Long-term readers here will know the term ‘protochronism’, which I stole from an anthropologist friend of mine to cover the practice that so many historians have of finding something famously developed in a period or area more famous than one’s own, and then pointing out that one’s own actually did it first or better. I don’t like to pass these chances up when they occur, and back in early 2020 I found one while reading an ancient article about royal-aristocratic relations in tenth- to twelfth-century Navarra. I’ve been saving it up till my blog clock rolled round to 2020 since then. The phenomenon in question here would be the ancient right of habeas corpus, enshrined in English law and explained by that always-useful textbook, 1066 and All That, as follows:1
[This right] “meant it was wrong if people were put in prison except for some reason, and that people who had been mutilated by the King… should always be allowed to keep their bodies.”
A more serious definition can be found on Wikipedia, where else, which at the time of writing explained it as follows:
“Habeas corpus is a recourse in law through which a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment to a court and request that the court order the custodian of the person, usually a prison official, to bring the prisoner to court, to determine whether the detention is lawful.”
Either way, you see where the notion attaches to the Latin; fundamentally, you have the right to your own body, so constraint of it by imprisonment needs to have a justification. This is canonically supposed to go back to the great concession of rights to the baronage of England by King John in 1215 that we know as Magna Carta, which does indeed contain a clause to roughly this effect, although the actual term Habeas corpus took a few more years to arise.2 Since John was a bit of a one for unjustified imprisonment, among the hundred other civil abuses that Magna Carta tries to prohibit, you can see why it was on people’s minds. I don’t suppose the baronage of England meant to establish a fundamental human right so much as keep themselves out of the clink, but there you go. Humans rarely mean to make their history, I figure. But wait! What is this here clause I see before me?
“Et nullo homine in terra de illo Rege, in priso non sedeat, si directo ibi facere non potest, donec tornet ad suam casam.”
I render that roughly as:
“And let no man in the land of that King stay in prison, if his case cannot be dealt with directly, but rather let him return to his home.”
You have to admit, the core idea is the same.3 The context is an odd one, however. The document was apparently put together in Saragossa in 1134, straight after the death of King Alfonso I the Battler of Aragón. Now, I haven’t read everything about Alfonso I I’d like to have, and myabe this is all well-known to his scholars, but he had run his kingdom pretty hard, as this article explains it, cutting in on many a noble privilege by hiring in foreign soldiery and setting them up in newly-conquered lands so that they threatened the influence of the old Aragonese noble families. Also, and highly inconveniently, he left no male heir and tried to will his kingdoms to the Military Orders.4 The collected élites of Aragón, new or old, could all agree that that was a bad idea, so this gathering at Saragossa had a pretty open opportunity to reshape the kingdom as they wanted it, firstly by choosing a successor and then, presumably, by getting him to swear to this document of which the clause above is the fourteenth and final. The document, I should say, claims to be the privileges that the infanzones (basically, gentlemen) and barons of Aragón had had in the time of King Pedro I, Alfonso I’s immediate predecessor. In other words, as depicted here they were claiming to be turning back the clock on Alfonso’s abuses, but there’s no trace that such rights were ever declared in Pedro’s time, so you have to see this more as a sort of Aragonese noble wish-list, to bind a king who had yet to be chosen.5
To give themselves some chance of this sticking, the assembled gathering got pretty much every surrounding major figure to come and witness, including the Count of Barcelona (then Ramon Berenguer IV), the Count of Urgell, the Count of Pallars (all in Catalonia) and the Count of Foix (in Provence), plus two Aragonese counts but also, and most impressively, Alfonso I’s step-son, Emperor Alfonso VII of León (as he signs himself).6 I imagine all were fairly happy to see whoever actually succeeded here thus trammelled by his nobility. But still, what the nobles had done included inventing the right to no imprisonment without charge.
Now, it should be said, I don’t think they got to have this concession. In the end, the succession problem was solved by hauling Alfonso’s brother Ramiro out of the monastery where he was, crowning him and marrying him to someone post haste (that being Agnes, daughter of Duke William IX of Aquitaine and herself already widow of Viscount Aimery of Thouars). They then had a daughter, who was betrothed almost forthwith to that same Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona, who thus became ‘Lord of Aragón’, and its active ruler, while Ramiro returned, still as king, to the monastery (and Agnes went to the nunnery of Fontevraud).7 As far as I know, there’s no sign that either Ramiro or Ramon Berenguer accepted these terms as part of their succession. But then, John repudiated Magna Carta within months as well; it was his son Henry III who had to concede it again.8 The idea was out there, though, and if all this shows is that it was also out there in Aragón eighty years before John was forced to concede it, I’m happy with that!
1. Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (London 1930), p. 65.
2. Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta through the Ages (Harlow 2003), 69-73, and see pp. 161, 194-196 and 208-218 on the afterlife of the idea in law.
3. José-Maria Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon (XIe siècle)”, transl. Pierre Bonnassie and Y. Bonnassie in Annales du Midi Vol. 80 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 485–528, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4454, Ap. III.
4. See Elena Lourie, “The Will of Alfonso I, ‘El Batallador,’ King of Aragon and Navarre: A Reassessment” in Speculum Vol. 50 (Cambridge MA 1975), pp. 635–651, DOI: 10.2307/2855471, repr. in Lourie, Crusade and Colonisation: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Aragon, Variorum Collected Studies 317 (Aldershot 1990), chapter III, and for a more recent take on Alfonso I see Clay Stalls, Possessing the Land: Aragon’s Expansion into Islam’s Ebro Frontier under Alfonso the Battler (1104-1134), The Medieval Mediterranean 7 (Leiden 1995).
5. Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon”, p. 520.
6. I glean these details from the text of the document itself, ibid. pp. 518-519.
7. Thomas N. Bisson, The Medieval Crown of Aragon: a short history (Oxford 2000), pp. 14-19.
8. Turner, Magna Carta, pp. 77-100.