Tag Archives: al-Mansur

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.

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.

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.