Tag Archives: Bernard Bachrach

A Jewish garrison town in Carolingian Catalonia?

Please forgive a gap in posting. On the 4th started the biggest conference in a medievalist’s calendar, and I was running sessions on the first day; 29th and 30th also had a different conference in them, and a family house-move needing my driving fell between the two events. The week before that had been the finalists’ marking deadline, so I’d got very little ready for either conference till then, and by the third day of the conference this week I felt ill and, when tested, turned out to have caught Covid-19. Since then I’ve mainly been asleep, sweating feverishly or otherwise useless in our spare room. So it’s not been full of blogging opportunities. But all this time I have been trying, now and then, to finish this for you, refreshed over many weeks now from an old draft. The title of the post is a conscious riff off Arthur Zuckerman’s infamous and, erm, let’s say ‘disputed’ book A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, but I am actually reacting here to a reaction to it, published in 1980, by Bernard Bachrach of whom we were lately talking.1 I write here because although I can deconstruct Bachrach’s paper and see many things wrong with it as argument, I can’t actually dismiss it all out of hand without better access to the evidence than I have, and that frustrates me. So when I read it in 2019, I wrote the beginnings of this to try and work it out. Since then I made the effort to get hold of some important extra evidence that allowed me to write the closing section, and now at last I inflict it all upon you.

Spine of Arthur Zuckerman's A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY: Columbia University Press 1973)

Spine of Arthur Zuckerman’s A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY: Columbia University Press 1973), image by Dranoel26own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons, because this is a work which has its own Wikipedia page

So, for those unaware of it, Zuckerman’s book is a tour de force of medievalist imagination from 1965, in which some fourteenth-century references to a ‘king of the Jews’ in Narbonne are built up, with the aid of anything that could possibly be used as evidence even when it’s really not, into a concession agreed by Charlemagne and the Caliph of Baghdad to establish an autonomous Ashkenazi principality on Narbonne that was eventually shut down by various interests colluding with the pope in 900. Everything in the area gets wrapped into this theory, to the extent of the line of Saint Guilhem being figured as Jewish because of the reported size of one of their noses (says Bachrach, anyway).2 The most generous reviews of this book thought it might, just, have shown that the Jewish ‘king’ of Narbonne was a real dignity, of rather uncertain nature, in what certainly was a city with a big Jewish community in it.3 Bachrach didn’t even accept that much, but in this chapter he performs a clever move and, using the credibility gained from the fact that he is critical of Zuckerman, proposes a different understanding of Jewish presence in the Midi that has nearly as many problems, even if it’s less ambitious. The logic is quite complex, however, and needs expounding (and exploding) step by step. It goes like this:

  1. Among the considerable evidence for a Jewish presence in Narbonne, we find in the Visigothic-period Historia Wambae a reference to the Jews of that city expelling the local authorities in support of the rebellion of Duke Paul of the Tarraconensis in 673. For Bachrach, that shows they could muster armed force. Admittedly, that rebellion was unsuccessful, but though the Jews were expelled they were subsequently allowed to return.4
  2. When King Pippin III of the Franks took Narbonne in 759, the populace were induced to surrender by a guarantee that they would be allowed to retain their own law. Bachrach argues that this concession would have thus reinforced the Jews in their local position.5
  3. A letter of a Pope Stephen is recorded complaining to Archbishop Aribert of Narbonne about all the concessions Pippin and then Charlemagne made to the Jews in Narbonne and saying that Aribert needs to roll them back as soon as he can. Since there is no other record of this archbishop, or anyone of that rank in the see of Narbonne until the tenth century, this has usually been taken to be a forgery; Zuckerman, indeed, connected it to the end of his ‘princedom’ in 900. Bachrach rehearses these arguments, agrees the letter probably can’t be accepted, but somehow it remains in his argument as support for a Carolingian generosity to Narbonne’s Jews.6
  4. Since we have militarised Jews at Narbonne in 673 (at least per Bachrach) and an assurance that in 759 the Jewish importance in Narbonne would have been protected (per Bachrach), we can now introduce a third element, the service of all free men in the Carolingian army that is demanded by various Carolingian capitularies. From that we can, or at least Bachrach can, conclude that the still-militarised Jews of Narbonne would have been among the troops subsequently deployed in campaigns on the Spanish March.7
  5. In one of these campaigns, in 798, as readers of this blog will know, the old fortresses of Casserres de Berguedà, Ausona and Cardona were reactivated by a Count Borrell. Ausona is the odd one out here as it had been a city, as it would again become. However, Bachrach observes, by 900 (recte 906), the newly emplaced bishop of Osona could complain that there were no Christians in his diocese, and there is also apparently a Hebrew responsum from a rabbi in the Middle East to an Iberian-peninsula contact of his of c. 850 saying that there are ‘no gentiles’ in Ausona. The explanation is of course obvious, to Bachrach: no gentiles, no Christians, because the town had been settled by the Jews of Narbonne as a regular Carolingian garrison.8

Now, you can probably tell already that I don’t buy this. I’m not against the idea of Jewish settlement in the Spanish March, at all: it explains a few place-names, like Judaigues in Besalú where the comital family of Barcelona later had land.9 Moreover, there is fairly solid evidence of Jewish landholding in the south of France in this period, including someone Jewish whose lands had been encroached upon appealing directly to Emperor Louis the Pious and having his case upheld, as well as the various rather earlier or later evidence for a Jewish presence in Narbonne, in Barcelona and in Girona.10 My credulity runs out, however, before being able to accept a Jewish military garrison town that no source describes as such.

View over Barcelona looking towards Montjuïc

The most obvious place-name mentioning Jews on the Spanish March is however probably the crown of Barcelona, Montjuïc! Image by Fabio Alessandro Locatiown work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Basic lack of positive evidence isn’t the only issue here, either. Every one of those steps above has its own problems, which I should set out.

  1. The Historia Wambae, of course, reports the suppression of autonomy at Narbonne, and says nothing about the terms on which the Jews were allowed to return; one might imagine that it was not swords in hand, although Bachrach just waves at the lack of evidence for Wamba having cared about Jews very much and assumes he’d have been cool with that.11 But also, importantly, the Historia was written by documented polemical anti-Semite Bishop Julian of Toledo, and so it’s not a given that these Jewish actions are even historical, rather than a way to blacken the name of the rebel Paul with people whom Julian would have seen as distasteful and unholy associates. Blaming the Jews for the fall of cities is a good strong tradition in this era, after all.12 So to get from that to an organised Jewish political faction in the city, with regularised military capacity, is what you might call an over-reading of this source. What Bachrach suggests is not impossible, but it’s a long way from being what the source says and there are reasons to mistrust what the source says on such matters. This will be a repeated theme in what follows…
  2. Next, whatever position the Jews held in Narbonne in 673 then needs to have been preserved eighty-six years until the Frankish conquest, and of course that period also contains the Muslim conquest of the city in 721 or so. It is likely that that materially improved the situation of the Jews in the city, but it is, I’d have thought, extremely unlikely that they would have been allowed to continue to bear arms, if that was actually something they had been doing!13 Bachrach simply doesn’t mention the Muslim conquest, which gets him round that particular problem, but doesn’t do anything to remove it.
  3. If, nonetheless, we somehow still wind up at 759 and the Carolingian capture of Narbonne with a powerful Jewish faction in the city with an old right to bear arms, the Visigothic Law that it seems reasonably safe to say that King Pippin III guaranteed at Narbonne in 759 actually pretty much denies Jews any civil rights whatsoever, in an accumulation of legislation from the final years of the Visigothic kingdom that has attracted a lot of scholarly attention.14 It may be easy enough to imagine that those laws were never enacted or had been repealed—Jews are still attested in these territories, after all, however thinly—but to guarantee or restore them and the old Jewish privileges they deny at the same time would take a level of double-think we don’t usually attribute to the Carolingians. It’s certainly not inherent in what the sources actually say, and in any case it requires an assumption of prior continuity that is hard to credit given the likely disruptions to it which Bachrach doesn’t mention.
  4. The council record of 906 in which Bishop Idalguer of Vic says there are no Christians in his diocese is clearly inaccurate; we have land-charters from people in his diocese going back to 880, and in fact we have Christian burials from the city that probably belong to this period.15 It is also, however, spurious as it stands, having been inserted into a record of 788! This becomes more comprehensible when one realises that the plea is made as part of an attempt to be rid of a levy up till then paid by the new bishopric to the metropolitan of Narbonne. What Idalguer was supposed to be saying, in other words, was, “I don’t get enough tithe to afford this.” A certain amount of exaggeration is therefore easy to understand. Less easy to understand is how he wouldn’t mention that his episcopal city was a Jewish military colony, however; I feel that also might have made a good part of such a case. Arguments from silence are always more difficult, but this is really quite a loud silence. The record does talk about the difficulties the area had faced because of ‘the infestation of pagans’, but that, pace Bachrach and Zuckerman both, seems much more likely to refer to the Muslim conquests, in the same basically fictive way that other tenth-century sources from this are wont to do when seeking to justify a land claim.16 These were educated Christian clergy to whom Jews cannot have been unfamiliar (though if they were, it wouldn’t do much for Bachrach’s argument that there was a town of them right next door). Christianity has been dealing with the Jewish religion since its birth out of it, and churchmen knew that Jews were not pagans, whereas Muslims remained in a rhetorical and intellectual space where that could still be alleged.16bis
  5. Last of all, but important, another thing that Bachrach doesn’t mention, like the Muslim conquest of Narbonne, is the 826–827 rebellion on the March under the mysterious Aizó, which took Ausona out of Carolingian control. We don’t in fact know that that control was ever regained, at least before the area was brought back under the authority of Count Guifré the Hairy of Urgell and Barcelona in the 870s; it has been suggested that the town was completely deserted and it has been suggested that it became a Muslim fortress allowing a series of raids into the Frankish interior that seem to have stopped in the 850s.17 Either of these cases might be a pretty good explanation for why a Hebrew letter of 850 might say there were no gentiles there, but Bachrach’s arguments rely on continuity, a long long continuity right the way from Narbonne 673 to Ausona 906, so unsurprisingly, as with the Muslim conquest of Narbonne, he doesn’t mention this rebellion. Frighteningly, Zuckerman’s case actually fits better here, as he saw a reimposition of Jewish rule in this area c. 852 under ‘Abbasid pressure on the Carolingians, but that would wreck Bachrach’s argument, so he ignores it and in this case, that’s probably fair enough!18

So at the end of this, we have a very long chain of over-read sources, which, if every one is accepted, can indeed be lashed together in some dreadful Heath-Robinson fashion that allows one to bridge the gap between 673 and 906, but whose lashings are rotten at every join, and which has to reach over some really quite serious discontinuities that Bachrach ignores. It’s perhaps not completely surprising that I only lately discovered this paper because I’ve only ever seen one citation of it despite working on the county that grew up around reoccupied Ausona; there really is no reason to take this theory seriously, and people mostly haven’t.

Cathedral of Sant Pere de vic seen from the Riu Gurri

The cathedral of Sant Pere de Vic, seen from the Riu Gurri, photo by Enfo (own work), licensed under [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

And yet, there is apparently this rabbinic letter… The letter is the one piece of this puzzle I can’t point at and show Bachrach doing bad history with it, simply because I can’t read Hebrew. There are so many things that could be wrong with it: its date, the identification of the place-name it uses, its basic authenticity… but if it is what Bachrach says it is then I can’t ignore it. So I reluctantly picked up Zuckerman and, actually, he gave a lot more information. Firstly, we learn the name of the relevant rabbi, Natronai Gaon of Sura. He was based in Qayrawān in what is now Tunisia, and was consulted on several occasions between 853 and 868 by Jews in what Zuckerman insisted on rendering as Ispamia, and one of his letters of advice went to, “the town Ausona (Al-Osona) bordering on Barcelona County”.19 Zuckerman explained that hitherto this had been rendered as Lucena by scholars of Natronai’s letters, but preferred Osona because of the other evidence Bachrach would later repeat. One thing that Bachrach does not repeat, however, is that the letter also advises the Jews of the town not to buy cattle, fish or flour if the market day falls on a Jewish holiday, which tells us pretty clearly that the Jews were not organising the market or it presumably wouldn’t ever have done that thing.

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 318

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 318 and nn. 5-6…

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 319

… and p. 319 & nn. 6-8.

Now, Zuckerman’s notes are not clear (as you see above). They are anchored to strange places in the text, too, making it less than easy to see what note is supposed to cover what assertions. But it seems that we’re dealing here with pp. 318-319 nn. 6-8, in which as you see he prints what I suppose is some of the relevant Hebrew and various references, including to one German translation. That, thankfully, is on the web, and from that I can render the German as follows (badly):20

“Non-Jews often bring in oxen and rams from outside the city on Sunday and Friday, and from time to time the market day falls on a Jewish holiday; should one then buy from the non-Jews? – We decide: One should not buy on a holiday, and not fish or flour either. – And what you have asked: ‘On what ground?’ – Answer: Because Lucena is a Jewish town and has a very great number of Israelites – may the Eternal, the God of our Fathers, multiply them!21 – There are there almost no non-Jewish inhabitants, so surely the objects for sale are brought chiefly for the use of the Israelites; if non-Jews sometimes also find themselves there on market day, surely their numbers are vanishingly small against the majority Israelite population. Were this even in Córdoba, where the seat of government is, but where the Israelites are in the majority over the Arabs, there would be fear that the Israelites would be attracted to market more than would otherwise be done; how much more in a city like Lucena!”

Now, from this lots of things arise. Firstly we see that the German translators, Winter and Wünsche, assumed that the place concerned was Lucena, but we’ve already seen how Zuckerman headed that off, and I have to say that if he was right about the Hebrew, of which of course I’m no judge, then Osona seems more likely. Let’s assume it is for now, but that doesn’t end the questions by any means. Winter and Wünsche also did not offer much help in finding this text; they reference only Warnheim’s edition, as given by Zuckerman in the notes above, and say nothing about where we have this letter, from when, what its transmission is and so on.22 Now, all of that stuff could be really quite crucial in the interpretation of this letter; did its copyist likely have an idea what it was really about, and if not, what might he or she have corrected it to? Further inspection reveals that Warnheim’s edition is actually in Hebrew, with a German subtitle, and that Zuckerman’s helpful transliteration of its main title is not what’s actually on the title page – and neither is Winter and Wünsche’s, so even finding it may be beyond me, let alone reading it. I don’t suppose anyone else is able to help here? Manchester apparently have a copy…

All the same, if the text in question is what either of these writers say it is, i. e. a letter from a near-contemporary well-informed about Andalusi matters, I have at least to consider it. But even from the German, some important things emerge which neither Bachrach cares nor Zuckerman cared to mention (though the former Zuckerman at least implied).

  1. It’s clear that wherever this town was, the Jews were a majority there, a substantial one indeed, but not the only people present. At least, the market provision makes it seem otherwise, and Winter and Wünsch translated the Hebrew that Zuckerman renders, “Al-Osona is a Jewish place without gentiles” with an all-important qualifier, “gar”. The line that both Bachrach and Zuckerman also quote, “there are no gentiles in Osona”, is not actually in this source, and Zuckerman’s notes, once gleaned, say it’s “perhaps by the same author” (p. 319 n. 6) but cites it from a different edition with no further details.23 Again, help getting at this would be lovely!
  2. Much more important, though, is the reference to Córdoba, because that shows that Rabbi Natronai Gaon believed this place ‘al-Usuna’ to be in al-Andalus, under Muslim rule. He must have done, because that was the government whose seat Córdoba was! And that changes the picture rather.

Wherefrom follows a rethink. Around 850 is actually a bad time to see Vic as having been in Carolingian hands, as already discussed; it had certainly been in pro-Muslim ones only 24 years before and is not recorded in Christian ones again till 885 (though late 870s is likely).24 And while we can ignore some of the Christian reports that Jews let enemies into Christian cities, so much more easy to bear than Christians actually having lost them, we maybe need to consider Arabic reports that sometimes local Jews were put in charge of recently conquered towns; the Egyptian historian Ibn al-Athir says that the conquering general Mūsa ibn Nusair did this in Seville, for example.25 What if Vic was such a place? That is, maybe when the Muslim army arrived in 827 they took the place over, but installed a Jewish colony there rather than settle it themselves. Then Vic would indeed be a Jewish garrison town, but for the Muslims, or, probably more likely, a Jewish town with a Muslim garrison. That might be what this source is actually reporting!

Now, I would want a lot of those vital details about source transmission and indeed identity in hand before I started seriously proposing that last thing. But both Bachrach and, before him, Zuckerman just left these details out because they didn’t fit their respective wild hypotheses. I hope I’ve shown that Bachrach’s hypothesis has to be discarded whatever the results of this enquiry should be; but there could be an almost equally surprising alternative to their ideas derived from the same sources, and more easily I’d say, which neither of them for some reason wanted to discover. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about the preoccupations which drive our enquiries…


1. Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965, repr. 1972); Bernard S. Bachrach, “On the Role of the Jews in the Establishment of the Spanish March (768–814)” in Josep M. Solà-Solé, S. G. Armistead & Joseph H. Silverman (edd.), Hispania Judaica: studies in the history, language and literature of the Jews in the Hispanic world, Estudios 2 (Barcelona 1980), 3 vols, I pp. 11-19, repr. in Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XV, online here from the reprint.

2. On inspection, this is less racist and more crazy than Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 12, makes it sound; Zuckerman notes the name Naso given to Bernard of Septimania as a pseudonym by Paschasius Radbertus, in his polemical diatribe the Epitaphium Arsenii (Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 263), which Calmette explained as being a reference to a big nose, but which Zuckerman in fact sees as the ancestral title Nasi born by his alleged Jewish princes. Even in his critique of others, therefore, Bachrach doesn’t really represent what his source says accurately.

3. Nahon Gérard, “Arthur J. ZUCKERMAN, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900” in Annales : Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations Vol. 30 (Paris 1975), pp. 363-364; for the wider background at Narbonne see with more safety Jean Régné, Étude sur la condition des juifs de Narbonne du Ve au XIVe siècle (Narbonne 1912), one of several secondary sources that Bachrach uses rather than cite actual evidence for Jewish presence. After the discoveries of the previous note, one may justly wonder whether checking these would actually back up his points at all or if these citations would also turn out to be misread.

4. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 14, citing two chapters of Régné and himself, “A Reassessment of Visigothic Jewish Policy 589-711” in American Historical Review Vol. 78 (Washington DC 1973), pp. 11-34, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, chapter XI, pp. 26-27, rather than the actual source, Hist. Wamb. c. 5 (he says there). This is now available as Joaquim Martínez Pizarro, The Story of Wamba: Julian of Toledo’s Historia Wambae regis (Washington DC 2005), on JSTOR here.

5. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, pp. 13-14; the source is the Annals of Aniane, which are printed in Claude Devic and Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives, ed. by Edouard Dulaurier, édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments (Toulouse 1875), 16 vols, vol. II, online here, col. 7.

6. Jacques-Paul Migne (ed.), Anastasii Abbatis, sanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ Presbyteri et Bibliothecarii, opera omnia: editio præ aliis omnibus insignis, ad fidem manuscriptorum codicum et juxta probatissimas editiones expressa, Blancsini nempe Romano-Vaticanam, quod Librum Pontificalem, Mabillonii, Cardinalis Maii, etc., etc. Accedunt Stephani V, Formosi, Stephani VI, Romani, Pontificum Romanorum; Erchemberti Cassinensis monachi, Angilberti Corbeiensis abbatis, S. Tutilonis Sangallensis monachi, Grimlaici presbyteri, Wolfardi presbyteri Hasenrietani, Anamodi Ratisbonensis subdiaconi, Scripta vel scriptorum fragmenta quæ exstant. Tomum claudit Appendix ad Sæculum IX, Patrologia cursus completus series latina CXXIX (Paris 1879), 3 vols, vol. I, online here, col. 857; Bachrach discusses this and its problems over “Role of the Jews”, pp. 12-13 n. 6, in which he both accepts and rejects the arguments for a tenth-century date before using it as straightforward evidence for Pippin’s granting of land to Jews p. 14 n. 9.

7. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 16, “The count of Narbonne, whose military contingent surely had a substantial proportion of Jewish allodial landholders among its members…”, with n. 16 there providing cites only for Jewish military service three centuries before or five centuries after, both in other countries.

8. For the refortification see ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris”, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, online here, cap. 8; for the council of complaint, see Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memoòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, vol. I no. 75; for the letter, see below.

9. Judaigues occurs in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader and Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, doc. nos 312 & 523 at least, and I think at least one more, but can’t check right now given my situation.

10. Jewish landholders appealing to Emperor Louis the Pious in Devic & Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc, II, Preuves: chartes et diplômes, no. 97; for wider context 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), 2 vols, vol. II , pp. 123–30, online here.

11. Bachrach, “Visigothic Policy”, p. 27, with only secondary references.

12. On Julian see Abdón Moreno García and Raúl Pozas Garza, “Una controversía judeo-cristiana del s. VII: Julián de Toledo” in Helmantica Vol. 53 nos 161–162 (Seville 2002), pp. 249–69, online here, and on Visigothic anti-Judaism more widely Rachel L. Stocking, “Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism: The Case of the Visigothic Kingdom” in Religion Compass Vol. 2 (Oxford 2008), pp. 642–658, DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.x; for the trope of Jews causing the fall of Christian cities to invaders, see among many other instances Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Ninth-Century Histories 1 (Manchester 1991), s. a. 852.

13. Norman Roth, “Dhimma: Jews and Muslims in the Early Medieval Period” in Ian Richard Netton (ed.), Studies in Honour of Clifford Edmund Bosworth (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2 vols, vol. I, pp. 238–266, on Academia.edu here.

14. S. P. Scott (transl.), The Visigothic Code (Forum Judicum), translated from the Original Latin, and Edited (Boston MA 1910), online here, XII.ii.3-18 & iii.1 & 3-28; for discussion, as well as the works in n. 12 above see Bat-Sheva Albert, “Les communautés juives vues à travers la législation royale et ecclésiastique visigothique et franque” in John Victor Tolan, Nicholas De Lange, Laurence Foschia & Capucine Nemo-Pekelman (edd.), Jews in Early Christian Law: Byzantium and the Latin West, 6th‒11th centuries, Religion and Law in Medieval Christian and Muslim Societies 2 (Turnhout 2014), pp. 179–193, online here.

15. Christians in Osona before 906 in any of Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia 4, doc. nos 1-74, really; for the burials see Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, “Dos exemples d’arqueologia medieval al nucli urbà de Vic: la casa de la Plaça de Dom Miquel i la necròpolis del Cloquer” in Ausa Vol. 10 nos 102–104 (Vic 1982), pp. 375–385, online here, and Joan Casas Blasi, Anna Gómez Bach, Raquel Masó Giralt, Imma Mestres Santacreu & Montserrat de Rocafiguera Espona, “Ciutat de Vic: darreres intervencions i línies de recerca” in I Jornades d’Arqueologia de la Catalunya Central: Actes. Homenatge a Miquel Cura, Publicacions d’Arqueologia i Paleontologia 14 (Barcelona 2012), pp. 220–224, online here.

16. The Church history background is set out in Élie Griffe, Histoire religieuse des anciens pays de l’Aude (Paris 1933), 1 vol completed, online here, pp. 246-250; even now this is a tremendously perceptive and thorough book and I wish he’d finished the rest. Bachrach cites it, “Role of the Jews”, p. 17 n. 22, because it establishes a 906 date for the council text, but otherwise ignores what Griffe says was going on. For the trope of Muslims as pagans here, see 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, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535, at pp. 15-16; cf. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 17 and Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 319.

16bis. On Christianity and Judaism, an interesting range of perspectives is to be found in Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (edd.), The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis MN 2007) , though goodness knows there are others. For Muslims as pagans, see John Victor Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York City NY 2002), pp. 105-134.

17. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X): 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuíc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 84–88, transl. as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town” ibid. pp. 461-463; cf. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Els orígens històrics de Vic (segles VIII-X), Osona a la butxaca 1 (Vic 1981), online here, pp. 22-26.

18. Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, pp. 316-319.

19. Ibid., ‘Ispamia’ p. 317 and thereafter, quote p. 318.

20. Jakob Winter and August Wünsche (edd.), Die jüdische Litteratur seit Abschluss des Kanons: eine prosaische und poetische Anthologie mit biographischen und litterargeschichtlichen Einleitungen (Trier 1894-1896), 3 vols, vol II, online here, pp. 23-24.

21. Identified by Winter and Wünsche as quotation of 5 Moses 1, 11.

22. Winter’s and Wünsche’s background information covers the author (vol. II pp. 22-23) without references, but of the actual text offered they say only, “Aus „Kebuzat Chachamim‟, Wien 1861, S. 110”, which from Zuckerman and Google it’s possible to decode as W. Warnheim (ed.), קבוצת חכמים: כולל דברי מדע פרי עשתנות חכמים שונים: Wissenschaftliche Aufsätze in hebräischtalmudischer Sprache (Wien 1861), p. 110, but as I say, that doesn’t get me personally much further.

23. As you can see above, Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 319 n. 6, gives this source as “J. Müller, Teshubhot geoné mizrah uma`arabe, no. 26, p. 9a”, but websearch for that string or variants produces nothing, so I guess that the actual title is again in Hebrew, and he transliterated it into Roman, an operation I cannot reverse.

24. The first possible evidence that the city’s church was up and running again comes with Archpriest Godmar, soon to become the first bishop, who turns up in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia 4, doc. no. 2, but we don’t know for sure that he was Archpriest of Vic; that association only becomes clear when he occurs as bishop ibid. doc. 7, in 885. Eduard Junyent, who first edited these documents, thought that the handwriting of the main scribe who worked with Godmar when he was archpriest, Athanagild, suggests that both had been brought in from Narbonne, which is a priori likely and would help make sense of the see’s later special subjection to the metropolitan one.

25. Accessible to me as Ibn el-Athir, Annales du Maghreb et de l’Espagne, transl. Edmond Fagnan (Alger 1901), which is no longer online whence I got it, sadly, but where the relevant bit is on p. 47.

Y’are caught

(The following was written pretty much entirely in February 2019, when I was reading for a now-stalled project that I hope to reactivate next year. I’ve edited for clarity and added the images and notes but otherwise it’s as it was then.)

I do hope some day to move away from what I think of my destructive mode of scholarship, where what I’m primarily doing is showing what I think people have got wrong. Still, one does find people getting things wrong, and even more occasionally one finds them apparently just inventing things, and when one finds those things it’s maybe important just to make a note. The perpetrator in this instance is also famous for scholarship in the destructive mode, in any case, so I feel they can take it.

Cover of Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot 1993)

Cover of Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot 1993)

Y’see, I’ve been reading Bernard Bachrach’s first Variorum volume of reprinted papers as I work towards revising my article on military service in Catalonia.1 I expected this to be far more egregious in terms of special practice and special pleading than in fact it largely has been, except about Alans, and in that respect it’s a lesson in humility to me; whatever his reputation may now be and the problems of his contributions may still be, there is sound and important scholarship in the Bachrach corpus of the early 1970s.2 Problems began to creep in, however, when he got to the point of being able to rest new work on his old work, at which point the actual sources on which his conclusions rest started to disappear from view and, perhaps inevitably, the occasional slip of memory occurred. And I just found one.

‘Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality’ is a fairly short and densely-referenced article in which Bachrach renewed his attack on a then-partly-established thesis that Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandsonfather [Edit: oops], by taking emergency measures to raise a mounted cavalry arm for his wars against the Muslims, established the foundations of Frankish feudalism. Here Bachrach, who had already written a couple of pieces against this idea, brought his conclusions to a more general stage.3 I’m utterly sympathetic to that as an aim; there’s no point working this stuff out if it never gets to where the people who write textbooks, and thus command the attention of the general audience, notice it. But your practice should be as rigorous there as, in this case, in Speculum, no? So I sat up when, describing early Carolingian campaigns into Spain, Bachrach says on p. 5, “The fortified civitas of Vich (Ausona) was occupied and garrisoned as were the castra of Casserres and Cardona. The latter fell only after a siege.” This is, of course, my patch and if there was evidence that Cardona was held and defended against the Carolingians in that campaign (which happened in 798), I really ought to have seen it. It’s certainly not in the only text I know that describes these fortifications, the anonymous biography of Emperor Louis the Pious whose author we call ‘Astronomer’.4 This matters a little bit because if it existed, it would be pretty much the only evidence going that the Frankish take-over in Catalonia was a conquest imposed from outside, as some have argued, rather than a consensual secession from Muslim rule to Christian as the Carolingian sources, perhaps naturally, paint it.4bis

The castle of Cardona

The castle of Cardona, tenth-century at platform level, fourteenth-century in most of its visible fabric, and now a quite expensive hotel; but it might still be quite hard to take by siege…

So what’s the source? Well, the endnote for the paragraph reads: “Bachrach, ‘The Spanish March’, 16, and Bachrach, ‘Aquitaine under the Early Carolingians’, 24, 25-26. J. E. Ruiz Doménce, ‘El Asedio de Barcelona, según Ermoldo el Negro’, Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, 37 (1978-1979), 149-168, provides nothing from a military point of view.”5 Good to know. But this being a reprint volume, those references to earlier work are really easy to check, and in them there is no reference to that resistance at Cardona; indeed, where referenced in the former he admits, “Contemporary and near contemporary sources tell us nothing of Cardona and Casserres”.6 Neither does the piece by Ruiz Doménec (as he’s actually spelt) have any such information. So where had this come from? Nowhere, I guess. It’s not a big deal, in the overall scheme of his argument, which I still find basically convincing. But we’re not supposed to make stuff up, are we? So I just point it out.


1. Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993). If you’ve never met a Variorum volume before, they can be quite confusing: they are a 1980s creation, reprints of articles and essays by a single author, done photographically with the original pagination and mise-en-page preserved intact. Their look and feel thus jumps erratically from chapter to chapter and the only way to cite the works within is by chapter number, as the original page ranges tend to overlap in many places. Occasionally people put new work in them alongside the old, which just complicates matters further. They’re kind of crazy, but if they weren’t so very expensive I’d have many of them.

2. I thought especially highly of Bernard S. Bachrach, “Procopius, Agathias and the Frankish Military” in Speculum Vol. 45 (Cambridge MA 1970), pp. 435–41, DOI: 10.2307/2853502, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, VIII, and idem, “Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History Vol. 7 (New York City NY 1970), pp. 49-75, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, XII, though perhaps it should be noted that these are both articles whose work is largely to show that others are wrong, at which Professor Bachrach was and remains frighteningly able.

3. Idem, “Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality” in Military Affairs Vol. 47 (Washington DC 1983), pp. 181-187; this is derived largely from idem, “Charles Martel”, and idem, “Military Organization in Aquitaine under the Early Carolingians” in American Historical Review Vol. 78 (Washington DC 1973), pp. 11-34, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, XIII. This latter is more typical Bachrach in that I have to agree with about a third of it, find a third of it quite difficult to agree with but have to think about it, and think one third of it gets meanings out of the sources that aren’t there; but also, and with no discredit to the author rather than the press, it is riddled with typos. The American Historical Association were obviously having a bad year, editorially speaking.

4. ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris”, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, online here, cap. 8: “Ordinavit autem illo in tempore in finibus Aquitanorum circumquaque firmissimam tutelam; nam civitatem Ausonam, castrum Cardonam, Castaserram et reliqua oppida olim deserta munivit, habitari fecit et Burello comiti cum congruis auxiliis tuenda commitit“, which I english roughly as: “Moreover, at the same time he [Louis the Pious, then King of Aquitaine] ordered the firmest possible guard placed at the Aquitainian borders and thereabouts, for he fortified the city of Ausona, the castle of Cardona, Casserres [de Berguedà] and other once-deserted hillforts, had them settled and committed them to the protection of Count Borrell [I of Urgell and Cerdanya], with suitable support.”

4bis. For example, cf. Ramon Martí, “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X), 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuïc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 59–63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451.

5. Bachrach, “Charlemagne’s Cavalry”, p. 5 n. 24 (p. 16).

6. The former reference is Bernard S. Bachrach, “On the Role of the Jews in the Establishment of the Spanish March (768–814)” in Josep M. Solà-Solé, S. G. Armistead & Joseph H. Silverman, Hispania Judaica: studies in the history, language and literature of the Jews in the Hispanic world, Estudios 2 (Barcelona 1980), 3 vols, I pp. 11-19, and that paper deserves a whole separate post for which I need help with Hebrew and which may therefore take a while; the latter is of course Bachrach, “Aquitaine”. The third one is online here.

A Theory under Siege

You may recall that some time ago I recorded that I had been reading David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany as part of my ongoing reworking of my paper about military service in tenth-century Catalonia.1 There are ways in which that was really useful and ways in which we are just talking about different things, but a thing that we both talk about but take quite different views on is the normal size of early medieval armed forces. Now, this is an old controversy, which goes back far beyond this book and involves names like Halsall, Sawyer and not least, Bernard S. Bachrach, and in some ways I would prefer not to get into it, not least as several of these people including Professor Bachrach (the younger) have been known to read this blog, but I can’t avoid it.2 I would confine myself to an argument that the situation I see in Catalonia, of guardposts and border-raiding and no serious armies except when an Andalusi one comes calling, is just very different from the full-on imperial warfare of Ottonian Germany, and in the article I expect that I will. But still, there are premises to the large army argument, as set up in this book at least, that I find hard to accept, and this post is an attempt at a critical examination of one of them. Where most openly stated, it goes like this:

“Ottonian military operations were consistent with warfare throughout the medieval millennium, which was dominated by sieges, particularly in the context of campaigns that were intended to conquer territory. Contrary to the long-established narrative that the Ottonian kings fielded small armies of a few hundred to a few thousand heavily armed mounted fighters (Ritterkrieger) led by warrior aristocrats, the siege operations that dominated warfare in the tenth century required very large armies, composed predominantly of foot-soldiers.3

One is, initially at least, left to assume the premises behind this. It’s easy enough to come up with some: walled cities are naturally quite large, and need a lot of defenders to keep a whole perimeter secure. If you’re attacking them, you must need more attackers than defenders, right? As it turns out, in fact, you allegedly need quite a lot more: once you get through to p. 226 you learn that, “in order to storm a strongly held enemy fortress an attacker required four to five men for every defender.” The justification for that, however, is farmed out to an article by Bernard Bachrach and Rutherford Aris.4 Now, if you actually get hold of that article, that doesn’t seem to me to be what it says: instead, by virtue of some extremely hypothetical probablity mathematics, it says that a charge by a Viking warband at a typical Anglo-Saxon burh defended by archers of the number implied by the Burghal Hidage (1 to every 1.3 m of wall) would probably have resulted in one to two attackers in every four being hit before they reached the wall.5 Even if that mathematics were somehow realistic, it’s quite a specific situation and one calculated on the basis that Vikings attacking a fortress would only have ladders to deploy so needed to make that approach.6 I don’t see how it can be transportable to a large-scale military operation with siege engines such as (David) Bachrach thinks the Ottonians were able to mount.7 Moreover, it doesn’t actually provide the numbers that he employs, only an implication that if you were to outnumber your opposing force once atop the walls you needed to allow for a fifty per cent casualty rate when planning your attack. That seems like awful odds that no commander would have risked to me, but it’s obviously not what an Ottonian planner would have been facing.

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms, one of the fortress cities Bachrach considers and possibly not too much unlike this in the Ottonian period? CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=167751.

But let’s take one step further back. These are figures based on the idea that victory at a siege is achieved by storming and carrying the enemy’s defences, and indeed so is Bachrach’s account of Ottonian warfare against fortifications more generally.8 But this is, surely, not the only way. More conventional, if much slower, would be simply to starve the defenders out. Now, in that case, your army requirements drop radically. Whereas before you perhaps had to have men all round the fortification, now you really only need to guard the points of access. Possibly someone could resupply a city by hauling sacks up the walls in the dead of night but not, you might think, in any real quantity, especially if you as attacker are sending patrols around every twenty minutes or so, which I assume you, as a thinking tactician, probably would be. Their supply will still not be equal to their demand. This makes siege warfare a much less demanding effort in terms of numbers; one must still be able to supply the besiegers for a prolonged period of time, but that’s easier if there’s fewer of them needed.

Illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Even more anachronistic, but far too good a picture not to use, an illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Of course, you still need to have more men than the defenders do, otherwise they could just sortie out and squash your forces. But wait a minute. How many more men than you do they have to have to do that before it would mean leaving the walls partly undefended, giving your troops access to the city and thus losing the war for the sake of a battle? There’s more balance here than might immediately appear, because both sides need their forces at least partly dispersed to hold their positions. The various ways that concentration of force could play out here seem to me to be very hard to calculate with and I’m not at all sure it reduces to any simple arithmetic beyond the basic logic that the more troops whom you can feed you have available, the more tactical options you have. But in a siege situation, that proviso about feeding is quite important, often for both sides.

Crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

A different (and more usual?) scale of opponent, crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

I should say that I am not, a priori, against the idea that the Ottonians could sometimes field quite large armies, meaning in the double figures of thousands of men, although whether such were necessary for all their campaigns I rather doubt. When they were, though, they had a whole empire to draw upon and Bachrach has here a whole book full of details about how such things might have been organised, resourced, supplied and led which almost make his argument for him; one can reasonably assume that the Ottonians would have wanted to raise large armies and Bachrach shows us how they could have. But he argues it the other way around, from the necessary existence of large armies, through a reading of the sources which illustrates that, to the techniques for their provision and operation, and if these are the starting premises, they seem very shaky to me.


1. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014).

2. In reverse chronological order, more or less, Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003); Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization 481-751 (Minneapolis 1972), what I think of as the wellspring of the maximalist argument, and Peter H. Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings (London 1962, 2nd edn. 1971), which is the place where I first met a sustained attack on the numbers which early medieval sources used for army size. In all these cases, albeit Sawyer least and Bachrach most, references could be proliferated; a lot of Bachrach’s most relevant works are collected in his Warfare and Military Organization in Pre-Crusade Europe, Variorum Collected Studies 720 (Aldershot 2002).

3. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 1, which is a good place to state your axioms after all.

4. B. S. Bachrach & R. Aris, “Military Technology and Garrison Organization: some observations on Anglo-Saxon military thinking in light of the Burghal Hidage” in Technology and Culture Vol. 31 (Baltimore 1990), pp. 1-17, on JSTOR here, repr. in B. S. Bachrach, Warfare and Military Organization, III, cit. D. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 226 n. 2. A much fuller version of the argument here is however to be found in B. S. Bachrach & David Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare: Henry I, Otto I and Carolingian Military Institutions” in Journal of Medieval Military History Vol. 10 (Woodbridge 2012), pp. 17-60, which was presumably not available to cite in D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and would have made that a much longer book to reprise there. I engage with the version in the book here, which I assume to be self-standing.

5. B. S. Bachrach & Aris, “Military Technology”, pp. 5-10 with an appendix for the mathematics pp. 14-18.

6. Ibid., pp. 3-5, on the not unreasonable basis that the Burghal Hidage uses the same ratio for number of defenders required for places with eight-foot thick Roman stone walls (Winchester) and earthen ramparts with wooden palisades (Wareham), so the writers obviously weren’t thinking in terms of attacks actually upon the defences.

7. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 151-167, covers Ottonian siege equipment, including ladders but also mantlets, rams, ballistas, catapults and mobile towers, largely by providing detail from Vegetius and anchoring it in less-detailed reports from Ottonian sources.

8. Ibid., pp. 12-13 and repeatedly exemplified in his narrative of Henry I’s and Otto I’s campaigns provided pp. 14-69; see also Bachrach & Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare” for a fuller statement of the position.

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.