Tag Archives: al-Mansur

Leeds IMC Report for 2015, part 4 and final

The last of these posts, though not the last of the 2015 conference reporting I fear, sees me up bright and early on the 9th July 2015. Why? Well, partly so as not to miss breakfast but also because as you may recall, the previous day had almost all been sessions in honour of Ian Wood to mark his retirement. In fact those sessions continued all the rest of the conference, but for reasons that will shortly become clear, I could only go to the first one, and that meant going to hear one of my undergraduate teachers for whom I long ago developed a practice of being good and prompt. What am I talking about? Witness!

1514. The Early Medieval Church: history and hagiography – sessions in honour of Ian Wood, V

  • Rosamond McKitterick, “Reflections on the Manuscript Transmission of Eusebius-Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Barbara Rosenwein, “Feeling Saints in Gregory of Tours”
  • Wendy Davies, “Unpicking the Early Strands of Becerro Gallicano of San Millán de Cogolla: the monasteries of old Castile”
  • Thomas F. X. Noble, “Response”
  • As a line-up of people whose work has influenced me this is hard to beat. Rosamond, furthermore, opened all our eyes, I think, by picking up on something that I at least knew but knew very little about, that Eusebius’s famous History of the Church, written in Greek around 312-24, was largely known to the West only in the form of the Latin translation of Rufinus, who made it in 401, he says as a distraction from the depradations of the Goths! Rosamond pointed out that he did not leave Eusebius’s text alone, but combined much of the last two books and added two more of his own, and this involved inserting the Nicene Creed, no less, where Eusebius’s report of the Council of Nicæa had only had the council canons. And this was basically the West’s most stable source for the Creed that is the centrepost of Christian worship. Rosamond had counted ten versions in circulation by the Carolingian era, but Rufinus’s was the most common. You can see why some people felt like a reform was needed, can’t you? Professor Rosenwein, meanwhile, reminded us that despite technically being in Heaven and above such concerns, saints as conceived in the Middle Ages still got angry and upset, lamenting and so forth, in much the ways that their followers on Earth did but for better reasons and with better outcomes; they were to an extent emotional guides for the faithful on how to use one’s feelings for the good. This paper was hampered somewhat by relying solely on Gregory, who may well have had his own emotional spectrum (I would centre it on crotchety entitlement, myself), and in questions Albrecht Diem mischeviously raised the prospect that Gregory had two or more different ideals of sanctity in which case, as Professor Rosenwein said in answer, all generalisation would become impossible. Lastly Wendy, taking advantage of the brand new digital version of the Aragonese monastery of San Millán’s oldest surviving cartulary, had dug into it to detect an initial compilation of geographically-focused dossiers, of which one, but only one, went much back before 1000, that dealing with one valley whose materials were, unlike the rest, not in standard diplomatic form; she characterised this as the diplomatic of breakdown, when the practice of charter-writing continued but no authority was left to require how. This is quite powerful as a tool for me and I need to go and look at those charters, not least because I have observed the same myself at Leire and Obarra without thinking about what it meant.1

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, none other, closed that session by remarking that the frontier had its own characteristics that were worth seeing from a frontier perspective; little did he know how much of a choir he was speaking to… You see, the reason I couldn’t come to any more of the sessions for Ian Wood, be they never so luminaried, was that my own sessions got going after coffee this day. They were but two, and I could have wished they weren’t so late in the conference since the audience dropped with each one as people went home, but they were still fun and they went like this.

1630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: beyond the Reconquista

  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “A Kingdom with no Frontier: on the political identity of the Astur-Leonese monarchy, 9th-11th centuries”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “De administrandis marcis: the 10th-century frontier with Islam seen from Barcelona and Byantium”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Place, Fringe, Society or Process? Rulers and Ruled at the Iberian Frontier through the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población, c. 1050-1150″
  • Remains of the church of San Benito de Sahagún, on the site of the earlier monastery

    Remains of the church of San Benito de Sahagún, on the site of the earlier monastery. Photo by Davidh820Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 3.0 es, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21717489


    All three of us entered this session with historiographical beasts to slay, I think. For Álvaro it was the frontier itself: he focused on the Tierra de Campos around the monastery of Sahagún and noted that after it was notionally fully incorporated into the kingdom of Asturias at the end of the ninth century, with royal donations indicating a considerable scale of property in the general area, the kings could still effectively lose control to local strongmen after a while, and the monastery had first to become the kings’ chosen strongman and then, after a further while, to give up on the kings and focus on the counts of Castile for support. This was less a frontier zone than just an ineffectively-governed one (though I might still argue for that as a frontier space, like mountains2). This theme that frontier politics were maybe just like politics elsewhere came up a lot in discussion, and it was fellow contributor Nicholas Paul who drew us back on track by reminding us that what made it different was the possibility of and for warfare, and Rob Portass had already raised this possibility by reminding us that Sahagún suffered sacking by the armies of al-Mansur in the late tenth century, enough as we know to detach many an area from its notional protectors!
    Rodrigo’s chosen beast, which has withstood a lot of slaying so far, was the Reconquista. Despite doing the particularly difficult thing of giving a first paper before one’s old supervisor (I taught Rodrigo in Oxford, which was why I had gathered him into this effort), he made an eloquent and even impassioned attempt to use the five-hundred-plus local law codes known as fueros to argue for a fragmented, discontinuous and locally-negotiated process of incorporation of new territories into the Navarrese and Aragonese crowns, a process which military presence and the award of these codes only began, rather than concluding. The results remained at the mercy of local strongmen and contrary offers (meaning, for example, that Tudela, Rodrigo’s particular focus, actually switched from Aragón to Navarre after a while) for a long time after the supposed frontier had moved beyond them. This of course meant that the very processes that Rodrigo here thought defined the frontier were those which Álvaro had used to refute such a definition for Sahagún, so it is perhaps no wonder that the discussion was agnostic about whether we were really looking at a distinct phenomenon, but trying to put some definitional flesh on the skeletal concept of ‘frontier’ was what we were all doing there so that was OK by me.
    Archivo Municipal de Tudela, Pergamins A.0002.3

    One manuscript of the fuero of Tudela, Archivo Municipal de Tudela, Pergamins A.0002.3 I think, due to be published by Rodrigo García-Velasco whose image this is


    Speaking of me, I was of course the middle one here, and my beast was incomparability. Despite the apparent incongruities of culture, size, resource and agency I was determined to put my year of necessary Byzantinism to use here, which was where all the digging into Constantine VII‘s De Administrando Imperii had come from. Looking at Constantine VII and Borrell II of Barcelona, of course, who just about overlapped but who in the former case were writing of an earlier time, I gave due attention to the disparities but then argued that both leaders seemed to realise that their best strategy for asserting themselves beyond the borders of what they securely controlled was to locate and enlist a subordinate in whom they could really trust and then let them have their head. Borrell laid more conditions down on some of his chosen subordinates (some of whom, like those of the kings of Asturias, were monasteries) and arguably got less out of them, but the attraction and retention of somebody who could actually achieve things for you was apparently worth the price of their working for themselves. This is the kind of ‘rule’ I want this frontiers project to derive and test; how well has this worked when people have done it and are there context-specific factors that explain that? And so on. This was by way of a first try at what I want this project to be.
    Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

    The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), populated for Borrell II by a monastic subsidiary

But, necessarily, such a project cannot be all about the Iberian Peninsula even if that’s where my personal networks are strongest. So there was lunch, and various people fading away and finally, the determined hold-out cohort reconvened for the last session of both conference and strand, as follows.

1730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, II: Eastern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean

  • Jakub Kabala, “Concepts of the Border in Early Medieval Central Europe”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Islands – Not the Last Frontier: Insular Models in the Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, ca. 650-ca. 850
  • Nicholas Paul, “The Lord’s Tournament Ground: the performance of nobility in Crusader Outremer”
  • I was sorry about the small audience for this session, not just because I’d invited these people to speak from far away in all cases and could in the end offer them only a few hearers, but also because there were three quite different and testing conceptions of frontier space in operation, the discussion such as it was was very thought-provoking and I just wish there could have been more people in it. Kuba was dealing with early medieval ecclesiastical language for borders, which, unsurprisingly, was Biblical, coming from Exodus and Proverbs. While these were usually interpreted in commentaries as describing the boundaries of correct belief, beyond which only heretics would go, Kuba had many examples of churchmen invoking them to complain of more basically territorial infractions, Carolingian clerics writing of Brittany and Thuringia, Methodius of Bavarian infiltration of the province of Moravia, and so on. Clearly the Church had a sense of bounded space here, even if a Biblically-phrased one. Predictably, I therefore asked in questions how that space was bounded, given that it didn’t need to be politically controlled or defended and frequently wasn’t, and Kuba wisely said that the key question was who ordained its clerics.

    Fresco illustration from San Clemente di Roma, showing the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, before the pope

    Fresco illustration from San Clemente di Roma, showing the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, before the pope. By anonymous artistUnknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2303590


    This got me thinking. It is that nodal concept of territory with which early medievalists now like to play instead of lines on a map, and it could be represented almost fractally, as each individual cleric answering or not answering the claimant authority himself had a congregation composed of villages or even households who might go to him but might instead go to the priest next-door. In some sense, at this lowest level, if you could go back there and ask people which fields and streams were in which farm and so on you could build a map up from these tiny tiles, as indeed people did for the term of Santa Maria de Manresa in 978 in a way that Jordi Bolòs hs since mapped (my example not Kuba’s obviously), but it would be sort of missing the point: the resource demarcated by such lines was the hearts and minds of those behind them, not the stuff up to the edge.3 If such a person crossed that line to go and visit someone, and then died, would the priest he ordinarily confessed to still get to claim him for burial? Somehow these questions did not come to me at the time, and I don’t know if they could be answered, but I think I will probably be asking them of Kuba when next we meet…4
    The Byzantine-built castle of Saint Hilarion, Girne, Northern Cyprus

    The Byzantine-built castle of Saint Hilarion, Girne, Northern Cyprus. By Richard – originally posted to Flickr as Saint Hilarion Castle, Girne, Northern Cyprus, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7030408


    Luca, meanwhile, had and has a manifesto. A decent part of the Byzantine Empire was made up of large islands: if you count Sicily, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and the Balearics together you are looking at quite a lot of land-mass, yet they are almost always considered peripheral to the mainland’s interests, Sicily sometimes excepted. Luca argued instead that these are a third sort of space to range between the plains of the landward empire and the mess of islands that is the Ægean, places to which the sea is very important but which can function autonomously. They are also more than fortresses and defences, often being trade hubs and even—and this is the bit that catches me particularly—becoming sort of betweennesses once technically lost to the empire, with connections still visible in the form of ceramics, seals and coins after their conquest by or loss to opposing or local powers. Cyprus, indeed, was subject to something like a formal power-sharing agreement between the Empire and the Caliphate during the seventh century, and it’s persistently difficult to say whether it was really in the Empire or not thereafter; its officials used Byzantine titles and honours, but we’ve seen how that can work… Much of what seems problematic here stops being so if we start to see Luca’s islands as frontiers in the Islamic sense, as thughr, that is as passages from one space to another rather than barriers between them, and maybe that’s where we take it next.
    Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin

    Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin (N. B. this never actually happened)


    Similar reflections on a between-space came finally from Professor Paul, who pitched us a picture of Crusader Outremer as its visitors seem to have seen it by the twelfth century, not as a warzone but really more as a holiday camp where you came from the West to get your chivalry good and bronzed. An analysis of chronicles and literature both was behind this, from which emerged a picture of the lords of the Crusader kingdoms as the ultimate hosts and arbiters of chivalric conduct, rich and homed in exotic spaces where, yes, you might go fight Muslims but you might equally fight each other or hey, go hunting lions with trained cheetahs and go back home with a whole cluster of prestige stories whose attainment, rather than expanding Christendom, was really the point in going.6 Presumably not very many Crusaders’ journey was really like this but it was the story people wanted told, and for the audience raised questions about whether anyone saw this as the frontier of Christianity that we now see in it. Professor Paul’s answer was that the frontier became less visible the closer to it you got, and he linked this back to Kuba’s mission grounds with, I now suppose, that same sense of the reductive optic by which you could keep going down a level and define the boundary slightly differently each time you zoomed in. Of course, in Crusader Jerusalem there would be about five cross-cutting ways in which you could define it, which was exactly why I had been so keen to get a Crusader specialist in on this whole thing. Professor Paul did not disappoint.

So that was the end, and accordingly those of us still left went with one accord to the bar, and I can’t remember what eventually made us leave it but we must have done, because I have stuff to report from elsewhere on the next day as well. But to that, we will come next post! [Edit: I forgot the ending… !] Finally, to end with, proof that I will go on needing more shelves and more reading time as long as I keep going to this conference…

Books bought at the 2015 International Medieval Congress, Leeds

The book haul from 2015, assembled shortly after my return to Birmingham


1. In Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in idem & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89-128, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679.

2. I’m thinking here mainly of Chris Wickham, The Mountains and the City: the Tuscan Appennines in the early middle ages (Oxford 1988), esp. pp. 357-365.

3. The Bull is printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1245, and how long it seems since I’ve cited that work! I must have been teaching… The mapping is done in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles dels comtat de Manresa (798-993) (Barcelona 2004), p. 53.

4. The question about burial rights mainly occurs to me because they were significant in the demarcation of early English parishes: see John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 433-471 with particular disputes at pp. 450 & 463.

Dates and battles: the sack of Manresa, maybe-997

It’s not just me that’s remarked on the absence of narrative sources from the south-west of Europe around the turn of the year 1000, and for some way either side, but obviously it is something that affects my work a lot.1 It seems paradoxical that in an area that preserves so many thousands of documents the basic political narrative of history in this period is rather difficult to reconstruct, but it is, and it largely has to be done from Arabic sources from further south and from much later, which has a set of problems all of its own.2 But readers here may be aware that I like to point out every now and then that actually the charters themselves often offer small narratives that relate to the bigger picture and show that these events did touch people. The most obvious one of these is the sack of Barcelona in 985, which has been blamed by none other than Michel Zimmermann for actually starting a national historical consciousness in this area, and here he may not be wrong.3 But though Barcelona was the big one, there were other attacks by Muslim forces on Catalonia in the peculiar final storm of activity after which the Caliphate of Córdoba would finally collapse.4

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

Map of the Catalan counties c.950, by Philip Judge and myself, Manresa low down in the middle

One of these is supposed to have hit the frontier town of Manresa somewhen around the year 1000, but the texts are quite tricky to deal with. Several Arabic sources record an attack by the Muslim leader al-Mansur, who had sacked Barcelona, against the Basque capital at Pamplona, and one says that the army went via Pallars, one of the western counties of Pyrenean Catalonia. Several scholars therefore put the sack of Manresa here too, but the date is not clear: Ibn Idharī, writing around 1312, puts it at 989/990, two anonymous ones (of 1323 and 1344×1489!) at 999/1000 and another (from somewhen before 1118 when we find it quoted) post-1000.5 Then, there were campaigns into the area under al-Mansur’s son ‘Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar, who succeeded his father in 1002 and who attacked the Barcelona area in 1003, and we have various charters that record people’s deaths in that campaign in areas along the Manresa frontier too.6 That seems to me to have a more substantial documentary trace and to have been more destructive, but this is not when the scholarship seems to think Manresa got hit. And one of the anonymous sources for al-Mansur’s campaign says that al-Muzaffar was also present on it (the latest one), whereas another (the one from only 1323) says he was busy in Africa at the time. Which one of these is confused? Especially if you, like me, don’t have access to these texts in the original, it’s very hard to feel as if you have any extra information here.

Romanesque bridge across Riu Llobregat at Manresa

The trouble with illustrating posts about destruction is that the evidence has usually been rebuilt… Here is Manresa’s lovely, but rather late, Romanesque bridge

At the end of this, though, we are reasonably sure that a Muslim army under al-Mansur went though the area or close by some time between 997 and 1002, but not what that time was, nor how much damage was done, and that another then went through under al-Muzaffar in 1003 which actually had lowland frontier Catalonia as its target, and that for some reason the scholarship places the sack of Manresa in the former bracket, not the latter. It must be said straight away that there’s nothing in the copious documents from the Manresa area pre-1000, mostly preserved via the monastery of Sant Benet de Bages (at least until the Spanish Civil War), to match the records of destruction from Barcelona post-985: the document that talks of ‘the day Barcelona died’, die quod Barcinona interiit, has no parallel here.7 In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to know anything had happened at all: transactions continue at more or less the same rate, and no-one writes about terrible awful losses of documents or whatever. (There is one very interesting replacement of burnt documents from around here from the year 1000 itself, but they say nothing about how the documents were burnt and I’d like to hope that if it had been a ravaging Muslim army they’d have said so, not least because as I’ve argued elsewhere these stories were meant to help with these moments when things had to be renegotiated.8) So I might have begun to wonder whether we really had any evidence at all that Manresa had been sacked. And then I found something while working through the documents in Catalunya Carolíngia IV. That something is a donation to Sant Benet de Bages from 997 which had some quite interesting circumstances. I’ll just translate the key bit, which is the opening narratio:9

In the name of the Lord. I Guiscafred, priest, and Adroer and Gauzfred, who are executors of the late Hugh, by this document of alms make a charter to the monastic house of Saint Benedict, of his own alod, since when the already-said Hugh was going out from the city of Girona and was heading for the battle, he then enjoined upon us that, if he were to die unexpectedly in that same battle, as indeed came to pass, we would undertake to give to the monastic house of Saint Benedict, and so indeed we do, for God and for the remedy of the soul of Hugh…

Now, I wish they told us where this battle was, but this is still a pretty big piece of evidence. It might not appear such without the context; after all, this is a rough time and it may be that men rode out to battle quite often for business entirely their own. But this is something different. Girona is a long way from Manresa, and while this Hugh character is difficult to place in these charters and may have been local to it, the three almsmen (a close translation of the word I’ve rendered above as ‘executors’) are Manresa men through and through, and appear in a great many documents from around Sant Benet.10 So if they too were miles away in Girona at the same time, and they can assume that everyone knows what battle they’re talking about, we can probably safely say that this was a call-out of the armed forces in a time of special need. I would hazard that only a threat from outside would cause this kind of mobilisation, especially if (as the text seems to imply, but what might not be the case) the battle was so close by that no other place-name becomes more relevant. We do have some evidence for such call-outs: in the wake of the sack of Barcelona in 985 there exists at the cathedral of Vic a bequest from the will of someone who had died ‘on the public expedition to defend Barcelona’, and I think we must be looking at another of those public expeditions with this 997 document.11 But the threat that it ought to have been going to meet is not thought to have arrived for another two to five years… Whatever it was got Hugh killed all the same, though, and so whether it means that there was more endemic frontier warfare going on in this period than Cordoban sources usually liked to recall or that the late Arabic sources all have their chronology screwy, I’m not sure, but something was going on in Catalonia in 997 that someone fought and died in, and that is information that we wouldn’t necessarily have if it wasn’t for this one charter. And this, at least, is contemporary…


1. There’s a neat article on this problem by Thomas N. Bisson, “Unheroed Pasts: history and commemoration in South Frankland before the Albigensian Crusade” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge 1990), pp. 281-308.

2. For Spain this probably best discussed by Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en Época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 13-20, but Anglophones can also profit from Ann Christys, “Christian-Muslim Frontiers in Early Medieval Spain” in Bulletin of International Medieval Research Vol. 5 (Leeds 1999), pp. 1-19 at pp. 11-13. There is a much wider debate about the historical utility of late medieval Arabic sources for the early Middle Ages, which is maybe best accessed via F. .M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic origins: the beginnings of Islamic historical writing, Studies in late antiquity and early Islam 14 (Princeton 1998).

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, doi: 10.3406/shmes.1977.1300.

4. Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in conflict (Leiden 1994), offers the most considered narrative, though his interpretations have been contested.

5. Dolors Bramon (transl.) De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1000. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa (Vic 2000), pp. 341-342, using the al-Bayān al-mughrib of Ibn Idharī, the Mafāhir al-Barbar (1323) and the Dhikr bilād al-Andalus (1344×1489), and citing a poem of Ibn Darrāg al-Qastallī, whose work she gives no date to but which was used in the Al-Dahīra fi Mahāsin ahli ‘l’asr of Ibn Bassām, who wrote around 1118 and tells us he was using the work of contemporaries (thus A. R. Nykll, Hispano-Arabic Poetry and its Relations with the Old Provençal Troubadours (Baltimore 1946), pp. 219-220). Historians placing the sack here are numerous and cited by Bramon, Musulmans, p. 342 n. 310, but include Albert Benet i Clarà, whose other work using such reconstructed dating I have had, well, problems with; see J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 115-119.

6. Bramon, Musulmans, pp. 343-348 citing Benet, El procés d’indepèndencia de Catalunya (897-989) (Barcelona 1988), quite a lot but also José Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés Vol. II (Barcelona 1946), online here, last modified 11th March 2008 as of 25th March 2013, doc. no. 381, which is the will of one Odesèn dead at Castellolí at the right time.

7. An expression found in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos XVIII (Madrid 1951), doc. nos 212 & 232.

8. The document in question is printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològico LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. [hereafter CC4] 1840; see on its production Rius, “Reparatio Scriptura” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 5 (Madrid 1928), pp. 246-253; my discussion is in “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, paper presented to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Oxford, 18th October 2010, which I have hopes will make an article some day soon.

9. CC4 1771: “In nomine Domini. Ego Giscafredus sacer et Adroarius et Gocifredus, qui sumus manumissores de condam Ugoni, per ista scriptura elemosinaria facimus carta ad domum Sancti Benedicti cenobii de alaudem suum proprium, quia quando exiebat iamdicto Ugoni de civitate Gerunde et pergebat ad ipsum prelium, tunc iniuncxit nobis quia si in histum prelium ipsum repentine mortuus fuisset, sicuti et fuit, donare fecissemus ad domum Sancti Benedicti cenobii, sicut et facimus, propter Deum et remedium anima de Ugoni…”

10. The problems noted here before about titles dog all these identifications, but I think it is plausible to see Guiscafred in at least CC4 1537, 1538, 1622, 1631, 1680, 1686, 1688, 1714, 1780bis, 1791, 1809, 1835 & 1839, Adroer (especially problematic!) in CC4 1030, 1129, 1202, 1204, 1287, 1345, 1352, 1372, 1436, 1444, 1465, 1488, 1545, 1553, 1555, 1583, 1609, 1615, 1625, 1658, 1678, 1679, 1713, 1765 & 1815 (of which 1436, 1488, 1553, 1555, 1609, 1658, 1679, 1713 & this document are my additions to a list compiled by Adam Kosto in 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 at p. 61 n. 69) and Gauzfred, the most ephemeral, also in CC4 1727.

11. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X) (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 524.

Unmillennial issues

Despite the day-job, it’s been a while since I put any numismatic content here apart from that exhibition notice. I don’t usually have much dealing with the medieval parts of the collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but this record had a mistake in it that needed fixing and the coin just struck me.

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

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


Reverse of the same coin

Reverse of the same coin

Quite apart from the fact that it’s rather splendid (though in its 22mm-wide, 4 gram actual size maybe less so than it looks here), this coin is an unwitting anchor point for a whole range of historical changes. For us, perhaps, the first thing that sticks out is the date: it’s a coin of the Millennium, about which we are sometimes asked to believe most of Western Christianity was in a ferment at the time when this coin was struck. But that piece of chronology is of course only a Christian fixation and this is a Muslim coin, struck in the name of one of the various claimants of the time to the succession to Muhammad’s leadership of all Muslims. Nonetheless, that claimant, Hishām ibn al-Hakām al-Mucayad, is something of a millennial figure in the colloquial sense, because it was under him that the Caliphate of al-Andalus, in whose name the coin is struck (al-Andalus, Spain itself, which we believe to have been the signature of the Córdoba mint but which may have been used in several places), shattered, never to recover.

Hishām, though the grandson of perhaps the most powerful Spanish Muslim ruler of all, ruled as a puppet, the real government being in the hands of his hājib (roughly, first minister), Abu Āmir Muhammad ibn Abdullah Ibn Abi Āmir, better known as al-Mansur. For twenty years or more al-Mansur had most of Northern Spain cowering in fear of his armies, and of course it was in Hishām’s name that Barcelona was sacked by those armies in 985, but by the time this coin was struck he was facing an alliance of the northern principalities under King García Sanches II of Navarre, and by 1002 he was dead. His son cAbd al-Malik proved less able, and anyway died in 1008. He managed before that to get Hishām, who had no children (having never been provided with a wife), to make his son cAbd al-Rahmān (‘Sanchuelo’, because he was son of García Sanches’s sister Sancha) the recognised heir. So recognised, however, Sanchuelo mounted a coup and took over, having his father killed; the populace of Córdoba then rose against him and the caliph under one Muhammad II al-Mahdi, who was not only of the blood royal but as you can see from his byname claimed to be the Mahdi, the mythical figure who is prophesied to redeem Islam. Muhammad was not the first person to make such a claim by any means, and he will surely not be the last, but it’s that Millennial theme again all the same.

By then, al-Andalus was in full-scale civil war between military commanders of slave troops or mercenary contingents, with the old nobility and their private, dare I say, feudal, levies getting involved in various ways too. So despite his Messianic claims al-Mahdi was deposed within the year by Sulaiman V al-Mustacīn, another royal claimant backed by the Berber factions. Al-Mahdi therefore got fled to Toledo and got help, from none other than Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona and his brother Count Ermengol I of Urgell, the two sons of my pet count Borrell II, and they gathered a very large army, negotiated a very large pay contract and marched on Córdoba itself. Sulaiman had meanwhile enlisted help from Castile (why no, the Catalans weren’t part of that Northern alliance I mentioned, now that you ask) and the two armies met outside the Andalusi capital, at the time perhaps the largest city in Europe, and although the Catalans took very heavy losses (including Ermengol and two bishops, another dying on the way back) Sulaiman broke first, leaving the Catalans to plunder the city in pursuit of their defaulted pay (and simple looting of course). Almost as soon as they were gone however the Slavic troops of the Caliphate broke good old Hishām out of prison in what was left of Córdoba and put him back on the throne again, perhaps eager for his first real chance at power albeit under the protection of the Slav general al-Wahdid. Sulaiman didn’t give in, however, and in 1013 his Berber troops followed the Catalan suit and plundered the capital; Hishām was killed in the sack, and Sulaiman succeeded again, but to a state whose integrity was already ruined, the various leaders having been joined by a host of local princes setting up on their own, to become what we now call the Taifas, the `party’ kings. So ended mighty al-Andalus.

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra, during the rule of Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra', during the rule of 'Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

The coin doesn’t really have much of all that in it. When it was struck Hishām was a respected if powerless figure, and his coinage would continue to circulate through not just Islamic but Christian Spain; from the 970s onwards Barcelona documents are increasingly full of mentions of “mancuses” which are nothing more than Arabic dinars substituting in high-value transactions for the low-value silver deniers of the day. This is one of those coins, and it’s entirely traditional in design, weight and fabric. Coins like this had been being made in Spain for probably forty years and in the Middle East, to a slightly heavier and older weight standard, for centuries. Islamic Spain, now plugged into Saharan Africa and its gold trade, was an economic powerhouse, not least because of having one of the few functional tax systems of early medieval Europe which made these coins and their silver counterparts a necessity. It was a military power greatly to be feared, too, but it was also a state where top-down power was crystallised around a very few people and large armies served them as they saw fit. whether its fall was inevitable or really can be blamed on a few bad rulers, or somewhere between the two, is a question for someone else; I just like the way that the date on this splendid gold coin unwittingly prefigures the collapse soon to follow it, but only to a Western Christian (yet Arabic-reading) mind. It’s little straws of paradox like this that make the human disaster implicit in such events navigable don’t you think?


There isn’t really reading you can do that would cover this all in one go. Not the smallest reason for this is that the Catalan-Castilian battle at Córdoba gets elided from one side or the other in almost all historical writing about it, the Catalans omitting the Castilians and the Castilians the Catalans so as to better preserve their own myth of triumphant reconquest from the rather sordid tang of mercenary fratricide. This in turn affects English-language writing about it, which tends to have been raised in one or other school; for example, Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), pp. 49-51, omits the Catalans, and you won’t find any mentions of the Castilians in any of the places where Paul Freedman’s work touches 1010 as far as I know. You also get pro-Muslim work from the Arabists that tries to miss out the sack entirely. It’s crazy. On the coin, however, some day you’ll be able to see Anna M. Balaguer & Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge forthcoming), Chapter 3, and given the partisan state of the historical discourse, that may even be the best guide in English to these events outside of Wikipedia. Sometimes we historians could really do better…

Seminary XLIV: sieges and trebuchets, east to west

Sketch of a traction trebuchet recreated from a wall painting in the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania

Sketch of a traction trebuchet recreated from a wall painting in the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania

I’ve been missing too many seminars lately, including Mayke de Jong, may she forgive me, at CLANS simply because I was snowed under at work and forgot to leave in a sensible time to make it. However, I did make a point of getting to somewhere I haven’t been before, the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar, on 9th March, and I did so largely with this blog in mind as the presenter, Leif Petersen, was talking about “Siege warfare in the seventh century” and emphasising in particular the spread of the traction trebuchet, and I know how popular trebuchets are as a subject among the readership…

The actual paper was somewhat disappointing, although the visuals were a great compensation. (They would have been still more of one if somehow I hadn’t been the only person in the room who could work the computer. Why do people ask for Powerpoint and write the presentations if they then don’t know how to actually present them?) It came over as something of a long list of sieges, which Mr Petersen was easily able to convince us were numerous; I wasn’t aware we thought otherwise, as any reading of the materials I’m familiar with makes most military action a question of retreat to or building of fortresses. In between the lists were assertions of long continuity as per Bernard Bachrach, who was or is Mr Petersen’s advisor and was acknowledged as such several times. (This is probably why Guy Halsall’s recent book was never mentioned.1) The argument was therefore that because the Romans could do this orchestration of elaborate campaigns with heavy machinery, and could get this stuff built, we should not assume that the successor states could not, especially and obviously the Byzantine Empire but also the Western states. The people who knew how to build such things were at work in other places, as architects, house-builders, tradesmen in cities and so on, and the people to man them were available because when they’re under threat, he said. I suppose I can cope with this where there are cities, and Petersen argued quite convincingly that it’s not that this disappears between, say, the clear involvement of the locals in urban defence in Gregory of Tours, who kept the pauperes back from a royal levy in 576 because he wanted to keep them defending his city (along with the iuvenes of the cathedral of whom more in a moment), and the utterly bald write-ups of ‘Fredegar’, but merely that ‘Fredegar’ barely writes anything about almost everything, as can be told by looking at what ‘he’ leaves behind of Gregory where ‘he’ epitomises him. And this knowledge does show up, when kings want truly impressive things built, especially even later, they know whom to call on. It’s simply that because these experts didn’t do handy things like leave copies of Vitruvius covered in glosses lying around monasteries for us, we don’t know how. Some day in the future I’d really like to research this question of the transmission of technical knowledge. Petersen’s work will probably be part of the evidence then, but I’d like him to finish before I hear it again, and one of the things I’d like him to include is areas where there aren’t many or any cities, which, by coincidence, are those whose heroic literatures about pitched battles (like the Gododdin) are most famous, to me at least.

The other thing that became clear is that Petersen thinks of medieval warfare, or at least early medieval warfare, as a much more ‘total’ affair than the Hundred Years’ War’s élite chevauchées might make us think if that was all we knew. He sees states with the relics of a professional army, where most people, even the peasants, will in times of crisis pile into the cities and turn up at the garrison where they’re handing out the pole-arms, with a smith or five busily making more. This works a lot better in siege situations, of course, and I thought that élite-only warfare looked a lot more likely in actual pitched battle contexts, though I’m quite prepared to acknowledge that those were probably very unusual and, obviously, quite small.

In the end we have to debate, in this virtual sphere, just how many men-at-arms there could be in the early Middle Ages. Petersen was drawing distinctions between semi-professionals who owed military service through the fisc to its leaders, between the personal retinues and so on of large-scale landowners (even in Byzantium, where the emperors realised that banning them in the late Empire had failed and tried instead to demand state service from them), that including ecclesiastic landowners like Gregory of Tours (here his iuvenes again, you see) and between the general peasantry who will turn to on the walls of their local civitas once they’ve run there. But are those peasants really handy warriors? How formidable is a force of men who spend most of their time doing something else? The trouble is that the evidence of later periods, of trained pikemen, of the English laws about longbow practice, gets at historians of medieval warfare because it’s probably what got them into this. It can’t usually be the early medieval stuff because the sources have so very little of it and a lot of what there is is champions in literature impugning each others’ morals and then hacking lumps off each other in brief alternation. Few fields can be so dangerously populated with transported assumptions and we have so little from this period to check those assumptions against. It is not just me who thinks that there is a serious need for a more critical appraisal of the sources for early medieval warfare. I don’t think this paper was it.

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

I mean, I will accept peasants manning city walls in time of siege, but it sticks in my craw. In 985 the armies of the Caliphate of Córdoba sacked Barcelona (although it has been recently argued that the citadel and some of the walls never fell, only the city interior2) and various petulant charters record the processes that people went through to try and restore their claims to lands whose titles had been lost in the sack. One complains that Count Borrell II, in what would not be his finest hour, ordered the locals of the area to take refuge in the city where Viscount Udalard was coordinating the defence and take all their valuables too, while he came round the flank of the enemy force with an army that in the event doesn’t seem to have ever engaged the Muslims. (The guy records this because among the valuables he took in under these orders were, he claimed, all his land charters.)3 If you’ve seen Barcelona’s walls even as they stand today, you might think it was fair enough to expect it never to fall, after all it took the Franks eight months.4 But as recorded, the 985 response seems to me panicky and ad hoc, and the fact that it wasn’t adequate is a kind of proof that though Udalard gave his best (he was taken prisoner and returned only three years later, what suggests he was probably down with the people rather than in the citadel), this kind of resistance wasn’t something the people really knew how to do. So was 985 just too late? Is the reason that Barcelona had hardly ever fallen before that because in centuries past everyone had been better trained? Or is it more that Borrell fumbled it, al-Mansur’s armies were experienced and hardcore, and God was feeling more like Allah than Yahweh that day? (Of course the Jews get blamed later—don’t they always?—but since they were allowed to transact quite happily in the following decades and the texts blaming them are much later, I don’t think anyone was saying that at the time.5) Behind all this idea of lost expertise there seems to lurk a very very old-fashioned narrative that belongs to Gibbon, really, about how those damn kids barbarians spoilt our Empire, and I can’t help feeling suspicious when evidence that it is true is paraded quickly and superficially.

I seem to have forgotten to mention trebuchets much. The deal appeared basically to be that there are four of five mentions of them from this early and they come from all over. I didn’t think that really went anywhere, whereas as you can tell I was concerned by where the rest of it was going…


1. Referring to Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West (London 2003), as opposed, you see, to Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: prelude to Empire (Philadelphia 2001), which it very much is, opposed that is, as any old habitué of Mediev-L will know well.

2. 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), online at http://www.iecat.net/butlleti/pdf/116_butlleti_feliu.pdf. Have a go and see if you can manage academic Catalan: it’s easier than you think and Prof. Feliu is very much worth reading.

3. P. de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniae, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. É. Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), ap. CXXXIV.

4. Josep M. Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX). 1: El Domini Carolingi, Llibres a l’Abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), pp. 14-24.

5. For example, Josep M. Salrach & Gaspar Feliu (edd.), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 46, which has all kinds of interesting features but most importantly here, as with several others of the same time, an endorsement in Hebrew on the back and a Jewish transactor, albeit represented by a Christian. For more on the issues hanging round that you can see David Romano, “Els jueus de Barcelona i Girona fins a la mort de Ramon Borrell (1018)” in Federico Udina i Martorell, (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 123-130.