Tag Archives: Adam Kosto

Seminar CXI: hostage to vocabulary

With something of a shock to the system, my seminar reports are now only a bit more than a term behind as I hit the beginning of 2012, when Adam Kosto presented to the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford on the 16th January with the title, “Free men made bond: finding hostages in the medieval sources”. Adam is another of those people who could obviously have done my thesis – there seem to be more than you’d think – and indeed has come a lot closer than some,1 but he has been busy for the last few years partly with Lay Archives stuff, even now in production with CUP I understand, and mostly with investigating the ways that hostage-taking in the medieval West worked, and that, as you can see, was what he brought to us in a whirlwind trip to this side of the Atlantic. This was good, as despite our overlap of interests, we’d never managed more before than to wave at each other, so the chance to actually talk with him was very welcome. On, however, to the paper!

Richard the Lionheart, in a twelfth-century illustration

Richard the Lionheart – Not A Hostage

The first problem was definitions; the potential from taking someone as a hostage, in terms of aims and outcomes, varies a lot depending who it is and whose behaviour you’re trying to coerce, and a lot of the categories one might apply prevent certain uses of the term applying. Adam opted for a restricted definition of a hostage taken by a second party who was in some way a guarantor of behaviour by a third party; that hostage was not to be ransomed, which is something different, was physically constrained, and was given not taken, albeit under duress. There’s a lot of people conventionally thought of as medieval hostages, from Richard the Lionheart to Galla Placidia, whom this excludes but one can see that there is a difference. Whether it’s a difference the writers, from all over Europe, of documents and narratives both, from whom Adam was trying to glean sense from saw, however, is harder to discover: the word obses covers basically any meaning for ‘hostage’ you might want and then some, including some who would only become hostages in Adam’s sense if something went wrong, and meanwhile fideiussor, usually ‘surety’, has some semantic overlap, if that surety has to hand themselves over to be confined.2 Adam excluded fideiussores, but these criteria of inclusion and exclusion were what generated most of the discussion in questions.

Harold Godwineson in the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold Godwineson in the Bayeux Tapestry – Hostage Or Not? At Least Brother and Uncle of Hostages

Adam’s findings, other than that much to his chagrin the first reference to a conditional hostage as described above comes from the year 1000, was that this sort rose to mostly replace other sorts over the course of the following century, although never to exclusion. Ultimately, he figured that the thing that made all these cases the same in some way was the sense of guarantee, and that it was legal guarantee, and ways that you could do that where the parties didn’t share a legal system, a superior arbitrator, or just much trust, that formed the framework in which medieval hostages (in his sense) should be seen. One of the other things that was raised in questions was whether this wasn’t so desperate as to be marginal, given how often it could go wrong, but of course that didn’t stop people resorting to trial by ordeal, and just as there, there’s a possibility that the proposal might be made as part of a game strategy in negotiations, and that one may not necessarily have been making a proposal that was meant to be useful to both parties. Sometimes, however, it seemed to me, it must have been the best way to build a bridge between two parties in a dispute separated by more than they were united by, whether they liked the option or (as Adam stressed was often the case) not. In that respect, though Adam has greatly widened his spread, he’s still interested in how people make agreements, and that’s always a good thing to look for.


1. True story: when I was in the closing stages of writing up my Ph. D., my supervisor, a collaborator of Adam’s, said at one meeting that I’d probably better have a look at Adam’s newest paper, his “Laymen, Clerics, and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: The Example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, as it probably touched on my stuff to an extent that needed to be taken into account. That was putting it mildly: we’d started with the same example charter! (That charter deserves a blog post of its own really, but I have no image of it, and besides, Adam’s kind of covered it…) Happily for me Adam usually works the other side of the year 1000 from me and his excellent Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001) really only crosses with me a little bit, where we mostly agree.

2. For sureties, I at least am used to resorting to the work of Wendy Davies, most obviously her “Suretyship in the Cartulaire de Redon” in Thomas Charles-Edwards, Morfydd Owen & D. B. Walters (edd.), Lawyers and Laymen. Studies in the History of Law presented to Professor Dafydd Jenkins on his seventy-fifth birthday, Gwyl Ddewi 1986 (Cardiff 1986), pp. 72-91, repr. in Davies, Brittany in the Early Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies Series 924 (Aldershot 2009), VIII, but now also her “On Suretyship in Tenth-Century Northern Iberia” in Julio Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 133-152, but obviously that only covers early and one of the interesting things about Adam’s work is that it will carry this idea later, where I know of no literature except on Old Norse material.

Seminary LXIX: me telling stories

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20, source of one of the stories

I said below that I had a good reason for missing Gabor Thomas’s paper on Lyminge, at least, and that I would explain what it was. Duly, therefore, it was that I was presenting a paper approximately an hour later at the Oxford Medieval History seminar, and though I now know that in theory I could have made it to both, the possibility didn’t actually occur to me that day and I think this is just as well, really. I was talking to the title, “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, and it went fairly well, really.

The title came about through a combination of two factors. For a long long time now I’ve had work in draft about why charters are a tricky source that need reading critically as well as just for data, because the people creating them were not above misrepresenting stuff, leaving important details out and so on and because the form itself encourages such elisions and illusions. I’ve spoken about this before at Leeds briefly, it’s touched on in my thesis, I’ve had many a conversation about it, but one thing I haven’t really explored, except here where I use it as post fodder, is the fact that quite a number of charters actually contain quite lengthy stories to establish the set-up that leads to the transaction that’s being recorded.

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes, subject of one of the stories

The second factor was that the seminar convenors are both people who work on themes close to my own, they thought it would be good for my scholarly profile here and, flatteringly, for their seminar or so they said, for me to show up in it as soon as possible, and would that be possible? And I said, more or less, if you want something that contains research, then not till next term, but I can pull you something together out of bits and string sooner; one organiser then said, roughly, “hurrah, bits and string it is then, see you in second week” and I went, “oh what seriously? but now I have to write the thing” and started panicking. So, the actual paper contained two stories from an earlier Leeds paper later sort-of-published as a thesis appendix and here as this blog post, one that I never got round to using because Adam Kosto beat me to it in his excellent (if tactically peculiar) 2005 Speculum article, several about the 985 sack of Barcelona that have been collected by Michel Zimmermann and Gaspar Feliu to name but two, two that you all saw here first in two other blog posts, one that Pierre Bonnassie told in his 1975-6 book that I’m not entirely sure I believe, the classic one that gave me my first (and prize-winning, I might add) paper and which you’ve heard about here endlessly (because I’m sure I haven’t finished yet) and one from a paper given only a few months before here in Oxford that will have been familiar to at least some people in the audience, not least because it had also appeared in the part of this year’s Leeds paper of which that paper was an expansion…1 This is what happens beyond a certain level of academic busyness, I guess, you either learn to say no or you start recycling…

So, in other words, the only new material in this at all was constituted in the facts that I compared Count Guifré the Hairy to Batman, and that in pulling all these things together as examples of a single phenomenon, stories in charters, I was forced not just to ask but also to answer the question of why this happened, and also why it didn’t always happen, and that was something I hadn’t done before. Now, it appears to my considerable later chagrin that the tools I took to answer this question may ultimately have been acquired from Hayden White, via who knows what intermediaries, which would be horribly ironic (and not unparalleled alas).2 I should really know more about where my theory is coming from… But ultimately, my conclusion was as follows:

Some of the tales we’ve seen here apparently had holes in big enough to get an extra arm through, but the requirement was not to convince by argument, but to establish an acceptable version on the basis of which events could now proceed as required. These were after all transaction documents; they existed only because two or more persons had found terms on which they could do business already. Sometimes those terms were usual and the formulas would suffice, though even that is a narrative assertion of a kind, stating that the transaction was normal enough that that was sufficient. When, however, the transaction was evidently not usual, because of having been agreed while chained to a prison wall or glared down by the local viscount, because of being completely fabricated or deliberately incomplete, or because, in the case of Count-Bishop Miró Bonfill and his cousins, because to get this lot to agree on anything needed something really special, the best strategy was, apparently, to tell a story. These are not micro-histories as we usually understand the term; they are very small macro-histories, frames of collectively agreed reference that enabled new actions.

I don’t know how much use that is going to have been to anyone else listening, but it will be very useful to me, so one of the things this experience also proves, I guess, is how the best way to find out more about what you know is to explain it to someone, in this case about forty-five people I’d mostly never met before in a place I’m going to be visible for the next two-and-a-bit years. There were some useful questions and comments, to, about the moments monumentalised in these memorials (I exaggerate the alliteration of the original comment only slightly) and the multiple uses of a document at the transaction and, separately, thereafter, and that’s all good stuff. But mainly I’m just startled at how sometimes, I can pull something useful out of almost nothing merely by framing something anew under the pressure of immediacy. Tutorials are really good for this too, I may well be learning more than the students. Anyway, there it goes. And I should tell you the story Bonnassie told, too, because as he read it at least it’s a good one, but that can wait for a further post. Quite enough to do here meanwhile!


1. Phew, referring to, er:

  1. J. Jarrett, “Sales, swindles and sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What To Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, printed in idem, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005), pp. 290-308;
  2. Adam Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics, and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: The Example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, which is odd mainly because in order to make a sound and important point it erects a whacking great straw man that is then destroyed with only the point left standing in the hay-strewn wreckage;
  3. M. Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par al-Mansûr et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’Historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Société des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur. Tours, 10-12 juin 1977, Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218;
  4. Gaspar Feliu, 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), online here, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008;
  5. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975, 1976), I p. 127;
  6. J. 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;
  7. and idem, “Dilettante or Politician: Count-Bishop Miró of Girona (970-984) and his intellectual cosmos”, paper presented at conference The Clerical Cosmos: ecclesiastical power, culture, and society, c. 900 to c. 1075, Faculty of History, University of Oxford, 4 September 2010 and “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III”, paper presented in session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 12 July 2010.

2. I found this out by asking about it on Academia.edu, which would make that seem like quite the resource that it claims to be were it not that, shortly afterwards, I got a message from its founder, saluting me as one of the most prolific contributors in the history research area and asking if I would like to test their new questions feature. I had been on it about two months at this point and was (and am) logging in maybe once a week, but had of course, already tested the new questions feature. I’ve no idea what he was measuring but I faintly wanted to wash after seeing it had been measured.

Seminary LIV: excellent Spanish charter workshop in Oxford

View of Balliol College, Oxford, from the sky

View of Balliol College, Oxford, from the sky

Given the length of the previous post I will try to keep this one brief and not froth too much, but it is very rare to get to talk specialised shop with so many interested people as I did the other day. There are in the University of Oxford a variety of lively postgraduate seminars, including six, count them, six medieval ones—I’m told good things especially of the mainline Medieval History one—and among them is one called Approaches to Medieval Spain. This runs at a time when I could never plausibly attend, but the last one in the term was sufficiently important that I took time off and travelled over in the sunshine to see what happened. Wendy Davies had organised it, you see, and the title was “The Language of Iberian Charters of the Tenth Century”. So the result was that as well as a range of people I didn’t know we got (in order only of their speaking) Wendy, Roger Wright, Alice Rio, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Adam Kosto, David Howlett, me, Chris Wickham and Michael Clanchy, all dealing with the question of how to read and what significances to take from the language of these documents.

Now, you may be wondering what it is about the language of these documents that is worth this many clever people’s attention, and the answer may lie partly in the fact that one of the questions we were asking is, “what language are they in fact in?” Let me give you a bit of transcript:

Zipriano, qui est mandatore de domna Goldregodo et adabatissa, et Belito et Kalendo, suas pesonas, et per sagionem Froilla. Gongnobimus nos in ueritatem quem aramus terra ic, Busti Gogiti, de testamento de Sancta Marina et de abatissa, de domna Goldregodo, per insapienia…1

Which translates as, more or less:

To Cipriano, who is the representative of the lady and Abbess Goldregoda, both Velito and Kalendo, her men, by means of the Saió Froila. We do acknowledge in truth that we sowed this land, Busto Gogiti, which belongs to the testament of Santa Marina and to the Abbess, the lady Goldregoda, through ignorance…

Now, you may be saying, “if you can translate it, Jon, you must know what language it is” or even, “it’s Latin, Jon, wake up”. But is it? Cicero would barely have recognised this. The agreement and use of cases is all over the place, spelling is already quite Spanish, and some words seem misspelt in the direction of a Romance pronunciation. Is this in fact just what written legal Romance looks like, using a lot of grand old words that they spell old style even though they don’t pronounce them that way (as with the Old French terms in modern heraldry, or the Anglo-Latin terms that lawyers still like today)? And if so, can we get at the spoken language through these documents? Did they think they were speaking Latin, or something different? How different was the written language to the spoken, and why was it kept so if it was? And who trained the people who wrote it, and what with?

This was the sort of thing that we were discussing. The way that the day worked was that Wendy had assembled a cache of particularly good example charters, and she gave a short introduction, then Roger spoke briefly about the language, whereafter we discussed them all together in order.2 Roger’s take is roughly the second given above, that this is what Romance looks like written down, though there was disagreement with this, including some from me on the basis of the Catalan feudal oaths that Adam has studied so well which contain what seems to be actual spoken language transcribed and which looks very different.3 Roger did admit that although he would call this Romance the writers would have called it Latin, and probably would their spoken language as well. So there’s room for a lot of debate over terms here but a more useful approach is to just treat it as one language in long-term flux and study the changes more closely.

I won’t attempt to replicate the following discussion, but some points that have been asterisked in my notes are:

  • some of the changes to Latin we noticed were regular usage in the Visigothic period, so by the time of our documents already 300 years old or more;
  • one or two of the documents showed signs of spoken language’s influence, including in one case an apparent speech defect, that implied very strongly that they’d been written at dictation by someone who didn’t know the written language very well, implying some odd edge cases or perhaps specialisations in documentary literacy; we can never have too much proof of this;
  • people might well have deliberately added in obscure Latinisms for effect; Roger’s stock phrase was, “not ignorance, but educated ingenuity misapplied”
  • scribes did do things differently just for fun, they were not robots in a wider regulating system of literacy;
  • and that working on this sort of thing gets a lot harder when editors don’t indicate where they’ve expanded abbreviations.

If any of that gets you thinking, feel free to discuss below. It has me, but I intend to write about it where people can hold it in their hands, hopefully before too very long.


1.J. A. Fernández Flórez & M. Herrero de la Fuente (edd.), Colección Documental de Otero de las Dueñas, doc. no. 43.

2. The documents in question being, if you want to have a go yourself, José María Mínguez Fernández (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Monastero de Sahagún (857-1300) I: siglos IX y X, Coleccion Fuentes y Estudios de Historia Leonesa (León 1976), doc. 151; José Miguel Andrade Cernadas (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova: estudio introductorio, edición e índices (ss. IX-XII) (Santiago de Compostela 1995), 2 vols, doc. no. 221; Emilio Sáez & Carlos Sáez (edd.), Colección documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230) Vol. II (953-985) Coleccion Fuentes y Estudios de Historia Leonesa 42 (León 1987), doc. 442; Mínguez, Sahagún, doc. 329; Sáez & Sáez, León docs 310, 388 & 448; Mínguez, Sahagún doc. 205; Fernández & Herrero, Otero doc. 43 as above; and Alexandre Herculano de Carvalho & Joachim Jose de Silva Mendes Leal (edd.), Portugaliae Monumenta Historica, a sæculo octavo post Christum usque ad quintumdecimum, I: Diplomata et chartae, fasc. 1. Ante sæculum XII exaratae et ad origines antiquitatesque potugaliae utcumque spectantes (Lisboa 1856), doc. CLXIII (though we had a newer transcript for this one supplied by Roger).

3. For Roger’s case in detail you would be well-advised to consult his Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France, ARCA, Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs 8 (Liverpool 1982); Adam’s work referred to is Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: Power, Order, and the Written Word 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001).