Tag Archives: Dominique Barthélemy

Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

To stay with charters for a moment, which I’m sure surprises you hardly at all, at Oxford the biggest survey courses are arranged so that British stuff is done in the winter term (‘Michaelmas’) and European in the spring (‘Hilary’). My post here is mainly concerned with the British, though I teach more widely, obviously, and this has meant a pleasant chance to reimmerse myself in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship that was, seriously, my first academic love.1 And last term this took the shape of me finally working all the way through Dorothy Whitelock’s incomparable source reader, English Historical Documents Vol. I.2 There is loads one could say about this volume, how careful its choices are, how everything chosen has something to tell you, how many things in it have been forgotten, and how little I could persuade the students to use it, but I wanted especially to focus on the charters of King Æthelred II, the Unready, who ruled England (and, if you believe some of his charters, the neighbouring kingdoms) from 978 till 1013, and then again 1014-1016. (I’m going to presume you know roughly how his reign went but if you don’t here’s a handy summary.)

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993; click through to Simon Keynes's site for more images and his notes about why this one is odd

It’s actually quite hard to find many charters in translation. This is a problem I’ve met when being asked questions at interview such as the common one, “How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?” or, worse, “How would you construct a course based on your research?” because the honest answer to the latter is, “unless your students can all be made to study medieval Latin intensively beforehand, I’m afraid I can’t”. I do have some other answers, of course, and they’re not even untrue, but the fact that my primary materials are off-limits to most students is a real problem.3 Now, thanks to Whitelock and also to one Agnes Jane Robertson, England is actually unusually well-served with translated charters, but the problem is that while I learn most from a charter sample that is dense and focussed on a single area, the English corpus is usually anything but. One of the few periods where that’s close to not being true is the reign of Æthelred, which has given rise to a lot of interesting work on his reign using the charters.4 There’s a fair few of them, 117 in fact, and of these Whitelock gave eight, as well as four more that feature the king. This is obviously extremely selective, and the question of this post is how much of a mess does that make of the way one sees the king and his times?

Thirteenth-century portrait of Æthelred the Unready from the Abingdon Chronicle

Abingdon remembered their patron kindly enough to paint this picture of him c. 1220 in the Abingdon Chronicle, here scrounged from Wikimedia Commons

Let me be clear: there is no denying that Æthelred’s times were pretty bad. A king who is thrown out of his kingdom and then returns, allegedly on a promise to ‘rule better than he had done before’,5 has not had a trouble-free time, but the question has ever been: was he to blame, or is being put on the throne as a teenager in questionable circumstances and then beset by vast Viking armies and irremovable but treacherous magnates something that no ruler could have triumphed through? Perhaps, as 1066 and All That had it of King John’s similar successes, “even his useless character cannot alone explain”. Well, reading the charters that Whitelock chose and her eruditely condemnatory commentary leaves one in little doubt of where she stood. We have, respectively:

  1. Sawyer 882, in which Æthelred allows land to be given to Bishop Æscwig of Dorchester in order to compensate him for having ransomed Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from the Vikings; a sign of the times, or of a lack of royal response?
  2. Sawyer 883, in which Æthelred intervenes to confirm some property to a sheriff who had accepted it from the family of a convicted felon so that that felon could be buried in consecrated ground, the king allowing this property to go to the sheriff and not the victims “because of the great love he has for him”.
  3. Sawyer 886, in which Æthelred, basileus grants land that had been forfeited to him after the exile of its owner for theft.
  4. Sawyer 877, in which Æthelred, ‘King of the English and Governor of the Orbit of Britain’, grants land in Kent to his mother that had eventually been forfeited after having been wrongfully seized by a man who was persistently summoned to court and wouldn’t go; after he died, but not before, enforcers were sent, and his widow and son, who had managed to add to the estate, killed 16 of them, effective action presumably being taken only after that.
  5. Sawyer 939, in which Æthelred confirms that he will allow the will of one Æthelric Bocking to stand, on the plea of and payment by his widow, despite the fact that he was accused, if not convicted, of complicity in a plot to welcome the King of Denmark into England, for which his lands were declared forfeit at his death.
  6. Sawyer 937, in which Æthelred grants various lands, including some forfeited from one of his ealdormen who’d stolen it from a widow, to the monastery of Abingdon, to make up for lands that had been granted to them by King Edgar but which Æthelred and his brother, King Edward the Martyr, had taken back as their own portion of the royal lands.
  7. Sawyer 905, a grant of land in Canterbury by Æthelred to a follower of his of the same name which Whitelock included because of it mentioning things about the town street layout.
  8. Sawyer 1536, the will of Ealdorman Wulfric Spott.
  9. Sawyer 1488, the will of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury (not the guy who was ransomed).
  10. Sawyer 909, best of the lot, in which Æthelred grants a substantial whack of lands, some of which I regularly cycle through as is made clear from the bounds, to St Frideswide’s Oxford, which needed them because when Æthelred previously ordered all the Danes in England “killed by a most just examination” [sic in the Latin; Whitelock assumed error and translated ‘execution’], those living in Oxford had taken refuge in the church, whereupon the loyal townsfolk had loyally burnt it with Danes inside (though it would seem from more recent archaeology that at least some of them got out, a little way).6

At the end of all this it’s very hard not to see Æthelred’s reign as corrupt, ineffective, favouritist and violent, and also weirdly ready to confess blame, on the last of which quite a lot has recently been done.7 But is this fair? It’s just 8 out of 117 charters, and is therefore obvious cherry-picking. One might say, well, all very well, but you can’t just explain away treasonous pacts with foreign kings and men condemned for them without a hearing, functionaries forgiven for taking bribes because of ‘great love’, villainous land-thieves who die with justice unexercised or expropriations of churches, even if all but the last of those should more properly be listed in the singular. If this were a working régime, which of course Whitelock was sure it was not, these things wouldn’t have happened, right?

Obverse of silver penny of Æthelred the Unready from the London mint, 997x1003, by the moneyer Eadpole

A slightly more contemporary, if perhaps somewhat idealised, portrait of Æthelred, struck in London between 997 and 1003 by the moneyer Eadpole

Well, the thing is it’s hard to tell because of a phenomenon that Dominique Barthélemy called the ‘mutation documentaire’.8 This is the idea that we see change when new things turn up in our documents, but what’s really happened is just that the documents are newly recording stuff their writers ignored before. This is a classic possible case, because if you look back at that, how much of our information by which we condemn Æthelred is coming from his scribes’ careful explanation of where the land came from? Really quite a lot, and the rest is coming from the explanations of why the grants were made. Now, if you look back in Whitelock at least, that kind of detail is extremely hard to find in charters from before Æthelred’s reign, there’s a new verbosity to these documents that means suddenly we have this information where we hardly ever do from before. (I will freely confess that I don’t know the early charter corpus at all well, but the new ‘verbose style’ is something one can easily find referenced.9) So, for example, in 804 when Kings Cœnwulf of Mercia and Cuthred of Kent together granted land to the Abbess of Lyminge ‘to serve as a refuge’, we would probably quite like to know what for as evidence for Viking attacks this early anywhere other than Northern coastal monasteries is a bit circumstantial, as of course we know.10 Were their enemies maybe more local? Is some less perilous sense of refuge meant, even? Æthelred’s scribes would probably have told us; Cœnwulf was less concerned about open government. And that’s a case where we even know what question we’d like to ask: motivations and histories of simple donations are just not available a lot of the time prior to the tenth century. You know? Maybe most Anglo-Saxon kings had favourites, couldn’t chase down violent local landowners, took bribes, dispossessed churches, slaughtered people to make a point and so on, and we just don’t see them doing it. Put in those terms, it seems less unlikely, doesn’t it?

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a. k. a. Sawyer 898, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

Now, I can’t myself get over the feeling that Æthelred’s charters exhibit a weird kind of desperation and paranoia, maybe even in this very wish to make it all clear, that bespeak something very wrong with the court,11 not least because I’ve heard people such as our esteemed occasional commentator Levi Roach telling me they do.12 Also, I do notice something in this corpus that seems genuinely comparable with the earlier material, which is the peculiarly static nature of Æthelred’s court, almost the same guys almost every time with minimum variation over time except that presumably caused by death and succession. This is a time of crisis, and you’d expect the king’s most trusted men to be out all over the place doing his bidding, but as it only Ealdorman Byrhtnoth seems to be intermittent and we know what happens to him. The rest of the in-crowd stay right next to the king. That doesn’t seem too political healthy to me, and it’s not easy to see much like it in, for example, the charters of King Offa of Mercia included by Whitelock, where a steady group nonetheless comes and goes.13 Now again, that’s cherry-picking by using only the EHD texts, but this wasn’t what Whitelock picked them for. All the same: it may not be accurate. Can we ever be? Who knows, but cases like this make it worth considering.

1. The first thing I studied as an undergraduate was Anglo-Saxon England, and the last piece of undergraduate work I did was a dissertation entitled, “Whose Was Authority in Anglo-Saxon London?” And now I teach it. Funny old world really!

2. D. Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents Vol. I: c. 500-1042 (London 1955; 2nd edn. 1979, repr. 1996). All my references here are to the second edition.

3. There are two groups of translated charter material actually published that I know of, apart from the English ones in Whitelock and in A. J. Robertson (transl.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1939, 2nd edn. 1956): I have been told but have not checked that there are a good number of papyri translated in Allan Chester Johnson & Louis C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies (Princeton 1949), though this handy list doesn’t give that but does give A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome 2 (Baltimore 1936), which may be correct. In the West, as far as I know, there is only Theodore Evergates (transl.), Feudal Society in Medieval France: documents from the county of Champagne, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia 1993); please tell me I’m wrong about that…

4. Almost all of this starts from Simon Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred “The Unready” (978-1016): a study in their use as historical evidence (Cambridge 1980), which is still the lodestone.

5. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it in the annal for 1014 in the ‘A’ manuscript, but it’s important to be aware that the section of the ‘A’ manuscript covering Æthelred’s reign was apparently only written up at the end, so that the author was already clear that it had gone wrong as he wrote the early portions; see Cecily Clark, “The narrative mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle before the Conquest” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1970), pp. 215-235.

6. The mysterious ‘Sawyer’ here, by the way, for those not used to this bit of the field, is a memorable list generated in the 1960s and now kept updated online, Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), 2nd edn. by Susan Kelly and Rebecca Rushforth and digitised by Sean Miller, all among others, online as The Electronic Sawyer here. The convention with Anglo-Saxon charters is thus to refer to them by Sawyer number even once edited elsewhere, or just as S887, etc.

7. Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203; Charles Insley, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in Paul Barnwell and Marco Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Brepols 2011), pages not available at time of writing (is it actually out at last?); Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 61 (London forthcoming), 14 pp., DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x; Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming). I saw versions of all these papers at conferences some years ago which is how I know to mention them; I’m trusting that the contents of the ones I can’t check haven’t changed too much.

8. Originally in his La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XVIe siècle (Paris 1993), I believe, but the argument is now more accessible for the Anglolexic via his The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Cornell 2009).

9. Keynes, Diplomas, pp. 115-120; Insley, “Rhetoric”.

10. Sawyer 160.

11. What was wrong with the tenor and discourse of Æthelred’s court of course might be answered by the cynics with one word: “Wulfstan”, the Bishop of Worcester and then Archbishop of York in Æthelred’s later years. The fact that one man, with a very rhetorical fire-and-brimstone view of English society, wrote or controlled the writing of a huge swathe of the material we have from the court is obviously a problem: see, not least, Dorothy Whitelock, “Wulfstan’s authorship of Cnut’s laws” in English Historical Review Vol. 70 (London 1955), pp. 72–78, but also Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan: eleventh-century state-builder” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference (Turnhout 2004), pp. 9-27.

12. Roach, “Public Rites” and “Penitential Discourse”.

Feudal Transformations XV: proving a negative with power relations in Catalonia

Will you permit me one another post dancing round the supposed feudal transformation? You will? So kind, I’ll try and make it interesting by including, as well as the duelling historians, good old Unifred Amat, the much-beloved castellan of previous posts, as well as the inevitable Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. Let’s first set up some background. As Chris Wickham teaches us, there are several ways one can read the word `feudal’ when you’re actually doing scholarship on this period: there’s the grand-scale Marc Bloch whole-society sense, in which feudalism is the defining ethic that pervades social conduct and organisation, as espoused these days by Poly and Bournazel; there’s the Marxist sense, in which it is an economic organisation in which production is controlled by the producers but a ruling class extracts surplus from the producing class in order to maintain their social and economic dominance, as opposed to various other forms I won’t discuss here, as espoused, well, mainly by Chris really; and there is a more restricted sense about the organisation of power, in which the resources for military power are farmed out to lesser lords by greater ones in exchange for the lesser lords doing various services to the greater. This can also be called `feudo-vassalitic’, which is a horrible word but avoids confusion with the other two senses, something that has otherwise happened a great deal leading for several scholars to argue for an end to the use of the term `feudal’ at all, since what happens is that people use evidence for one sense about another and so on and so on.1 (Like matriliny and matriarchy.) So here I am talking solely about the third, feudo-vassalitic, sense. Obviously there is some cross-over: a society where power is organised solely via military bonds of service is probably not going to have a capitalist economic set-up, because that would allow other means of power organisation to operate and would make a paid army far more effective and less dangerous to those in power. (There are probably exceptions, but stay with me.) Likewise such a society is likely to preach ethics of loyal service and heroism that get into the literature and help pass those ethics out more generally, and so on. This is kind of the Bloch argument by the back door, however, and I don’t want to go there with this post (not least because it took him a two-volume book). I just want to talk about organising military service in frontier Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

By, say, 1040, it was very simple how this was done here: a great lord, like the count, bestowed a certain property, usually a castle but potentially, at the very bottom of the scale, just a salary, on a lesser character, and that lesser character swore to return it on demand, not to deny the count use of or access to the castle, and generally not to prejudice his interests in any way. The obligations were almost always negative here, not to do things, rather than to actually do things, though the obligation to turn up with troops on demand is usually there. This comes out in undated oath documents that read like this:

I, Amat son of the woman Ermengarda, swear that from this hour in future I will be faithful to you, Elisabeth, countess, without fraud or evil intent and without any deception and without your trickery, just as a faithful man ought to be to his lord, as I know myself, by direct faith. And I the above-written Amat will not do you, the already-said Elisabeth, out of the New Castle of Barcelona that I hold, not I, [any] men or man, women or woman, by my counsel nor by my cunning, and through whatever means you shall ask it of me, by your yourself or by your messengers or messenger, I will put you in power over it without your trickery. And if there should be man or men, woman or women, who take from you, Elisabeth, the already-said castle or do you out of it, I Amat already-said will have neither [common] end nor truce nor society with them or with him or with them or her until you shall have the already-said castle returned; and just as much will I be your helper in this cause until it be returned, I will not do you any harm over it, but just as it is written above, thus I will carry it out in correct faith. Just as it is written above, so I will hold it and attend to it. By God and these relics of the saints.2

I freely admit that I give that in full solely because I need it for the Feudal Transformation course next year, but you get the idea. The bits I’ve thrown into bold were in the vernacular in the original, these documents containing the earliest written Catalan there is.3 So okay, there’s that. Now there’s an argument against the whole idea that Western European society goes through terrible spasms around the year 1000 (or, ya know, whenever) that runs that instead the documentary record does so, and starts recording things that have been going on for a long time already that we previously didn’t see because the documents were formulaic, and recorded Roman-derived ideals not actual practice.4 Leaving aside the obvious issue that if the documents are changing the demand for them must also be changing, implying changes in the constitution of society that are probably quite substantial, it is also possible to attack this idea in more direct ways by proving that the documents do respond to change.5 And then it’s possible just to haul up counter-examples where what seem to be contemporary details over the organisation of power are thrashed out in a completely different way, and that’s where I’m going here. So, Unifred Amat, right?

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Unifred was son of a major frontier nobleman called Sal·la, the kind of independent who doesn’t need a title and who owned all over the counties of Osona and Manresa, putting up castles, clearing lands, funding settlers and founding a monastery, which is just as well as otherwise I doubt we’d have any of the documents that tell us about this stuff. He is, in any case, the sort of person whom a scribe can have called “egregious prince” and it not immediately be assumed by scholars that the document was a forgery.6 Because he divided this importance between his sons, none of them are as irrepressible, but Sal·la also appears to have got them to take service with or hold lands from Count Borrell II, something that he himself did not do. I’ve never understood why he did this; times had presumably changed. In any case, one result was that in 951 Borrell was prevailed upon to give Unifred a substantial whack of land at Buc, on the Riu d’Or in Manresa. The document of this was unusually sonorous in phrasing, cursing any infringers with the recipient’s sins and a portion in Hell with Judas, which is unusual for non-ecclesiastical properties.7 I can’t explain that either, but I can tell you what happened next, or what is recorded anyway, which is that on the same day with most of the same people watching Unifred sold that same property straight on to one Guifré for 200 solidi.8 Obviously that put Guifré in his debt, but the only expression of a relation of subjection here is between Unifred and Borrell: Unifred was Borrell’s fidelis, whereas there’s no link specified between Guifré and anyone. So what was going on here? I see four possibilities:

  1. Unifred is hard up for cash and effectively mortgages a gift from the count to provide it. Guifré gets the land, Unifred the money, Borrell gets to push his old chief magnate’s family just a little bit further into subjection. Obvious problem: why doesn’t Unifred just ask for the money himself? Borrell may have more land than cash, but this is not a big amount for Borrell.9
  2. Guifré is a frontier settler, wanting a new project, and Unifred is his local lord; Unifred doesn’t have spare land so gets some from the count. Problem: why does Unifred do this? Guifré must be subject to him in some way that is not stated for this to work.
  3. the classic feudal answer: Unifred wishes to repay Guifré for various services or to enrol him for future ones (effectively enfeoffing him with land) and thus prevails upon his own lord to grant the land and then sells it. Guifré gets the land under terms of service that we don’t have, possibly entirely oral given the vernacular’s use in such oaths later, Unifred thus gets a client and the money, Borrell gets, well, nothing. Obvious problems: Borrell gets nothing while Unifred becomes more important, and then there is the money: Guifré pays through the nose for this land, can he really also be a feudal dependant? With that kind of spare money, why be dependent at all, or at least, why not get better terms than that?
  4. even more complex: Guifré is Unifred’s follower in some way or other and they wish, or Unifred wishes, to arrange a relationship of subjection for land in a quasi-feudo-vassalitic style for which as yet the documents do not exist; Unifred gets the land from Borrell and gives the money to Guifré so that Guifré has a counter-gift to make which expresses his obligation in some way; that is, the money is a token for the service that Unifred was really receiving. Advantage: pacifies Barthélemy. Problems: involves assuming that almost all the documents are misrepresenting things and that we know better. In particular, why use a sale formula that explicitly says that Guifré has paid all his dues for the land (“nichil de isto precio ad me comparatore remansit et est manifestum“)? A donation formula would have been more suitable; there are plenty of documents out there that do contain donations with conditions, using phrases like “in tale racione videlicet ut…” and then setting a rent or whatever.10 So the documents could have done this better, if this is what’s going on, and the money is still very hard to explain.

At the end of this, I at least am clear in my mind that this is not a feudal agreement. A fifth way of reading it is that a client of Borrell’s is here being set up with a local lord, or that Borrell is increasing his trusted castellan’s personal army to help him hold the frontier zone down; Borrell was keen on ensuring that sort of thing, ideally without paying for it himself.11 In that case, the initiative might have been the count’s, which would have its echoes in genuinely feudo-vassalitic documents but which is not here being arranged feudally. If the initiative was Guifré’s, however, then his terms were presumably advantageous to him; he wanted the land and was willing to pay. Why he approached Unifred is harder to say, but Unifred’s family was certainly important. If the initiative was Unifred’s, it makes slightly more sense, but one would expect the terms of subjection to be more explicit. It must be said that Borrell often did this, selling land to his men for large sums, but they were usually holding from him on other terms elsewhere beforehand.12 Maybe that’s the case here too and Unifred had already set up Guifré in this area and now wanted to let him do more; it’s odd that we don’t have the document but arguments from silence never hold much water round here. But it’s the money, the money that messes up any simple feudal equivalence here; Guifré obviously had means, he could have just bought land from someone else.

Buc is now known as Castellnou de Bages

On the other hand, it’s the gift from Borrell that messes up a simple sale hypothesis. Unifred was demonstrating a connection to the count here, and that implies patronage. But if it was straight feudalism, he’d have no need to do that; the need to demonstrate patronage implies competition with other possible patrons. And that gives agency to Guifré; presumably, he could choose from whom to get his land. (I mean, presumably he could have approached the count himself!) So in fine, I think what we have here is Borrell choosing to reinforce Unifred’s status as local domnus (not that that term is used), which might also explain the solemn curse and so on, and Unifred apparently needing comital help to hold on to that status when a wealthy local chooses to test this. I don’t see anything here to indicate that that local need have wound up as Unifred’s vassal, or that Unifred wound up with anything more than 200 solidi. If that was the aim of the game, this was a very strange way to organise it and, although much better ones would be available later, rather better ones were also available now.
Because of the implied competition for clients, however, it seems more likely to me that the local climate of lordship itself was not fully formed here, rather than that the means of record for it hadn’t yet been invented. I see here Carolingian, Matthew-Innes-style patronage, where the centre chooses to endorse one of a number of possible local interests who need that endorsement to achieve local dominance.13 We seem to be a long way here from the world of the convenientiae, and that’s in political as well as documentary terms. So there is still, for me, a transformation to explain here, and probably will be for a while.

1. It’s probably as well to give these references again I suppose: Chris sets out the three ideal types in “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51; opposition to the whole idea mounted classically by Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and more thoroughly and crossly by Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994). Bloch: M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1949), transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (New York City 1961); Poly & Bournazel, Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, La mutation féodale, Xe-XIIe siècles (Paris 1981), transl. Caroline Higgit as The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (New York City 1983), 2nd edn. in French 1991.

2. Here I’ve used F. Miquel Rosell (ed.), Liber feudorum maior: cartulario real que se conserva en la Archivo de la Corona de Aragón (Madrid 1945), 2 vols, I. doc. no. 418 of between 1039 and 1049; this must be reprinted in Gaspar Feliu & Josep María Salrach (eds), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 19-21 (Barcelona 1998), but I didn’t have time to order that up as well. If you want the Latin/Catalan, I can provide. For more on this kind of document you can see the very excellent Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001), though it doesn’t entirely supplant Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i expansió del feudalisme català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona Nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151, with English summary p. 557.

3. J. Bastardas, “El català vers l’any 1000” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 495-513 with French & Provencal résumés & English abstract p. 514.

4. This argument is of course forever associated with the name Dominique Barthélemy, who propounded it in “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, later expanded into La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Paris 1997) with the addition of other reprinted articles, the whole question reprised again in his L’An mil et la Paix de Dieu : la France chrétienne et féodale, 980-1060 (Paris 1999); in English, his thinking can be accessed in idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; Barthélemy, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein & rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein, Debating the Middle Ages, pp. 134-147 and now Barthélemy, The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Ithaca 2009).

5. The best counter-attacks so far mounted (of course) by Pierre Bonnassie, firstly in “Sur la genèse de la féodalité catalane : nouvelles approches” in Feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, pp. 569-606, and idem, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

6. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 144-151.

7. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 678. Like most of the documents relating to Sal·la and sons, this one only survives as a typescript copy of an original that someone took away for `safe-keeping’ during the Spanish Civil War. I live in hope that this cache will some day turn up. There is also ibid. no. 679, which does survive in the original and appears to be a variant copy of 678 by a different scribe allotting slightly different terms to the grant. I can't work out any way to make this part of solving the puzzle I deal with here, rather than just another complication, so I leave it aside in the argument.

8. Ibid., doc. no. 680.

9. Michel Zimmermann would have us believe that Borrell and his father were extremely short of money, which is why they kept selling castles (“La rôle de la frontière dans la formation de Catalogne (IX-XIIème siècle)” in Las Sociedades de Frontera en la España Medieval. Aragón en la Edad Media: sesiones de trabajo, II seminario de historia medieval (Zaragoza 1993), pp. 7-29 at pp.17-18), but for me at least the way that Borrell managed his resources doesn’t fit thus; he frequently gave stuff away, as here, which you might think he could have demanded payment for, and it’s not clear to me why his expenses should have been much higher than his forebears, who certainly went to war more often than he did. I don’t mean to say he didn’t want to keep those expenses down (see n. 11 below!) but that isn’t the same thing, necessarily.

10. If you’ve already got Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, out and in front of you by this point (as I’m sure you all have) you can find such a donation there as doc. no. 700, where a priest called Esperandéu gives a church to the cathedral at Sant Pere de Vic, “in tale racione, videlicet, ut” he gets the revenues from the estate for his life and he also gets to choose the next priest, who will be similarly funded by those revenues, and that priest the next one and so on, though all these priests will at least have to come from the cathedral chapter. Is this simony? I actually can’t work it out…

11. So, witness Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Diplomatari del monestir de Tavèrnoles (segles IX-XIII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 12 (Montserrat 1995), pp. 7-414, doc. no. 23 where Borrell gladly passes on to the eponymous monastery a frontier civitas and fortress that he has apparently been garrisoning with standing troops at his own expense, turning it into into a monastic development zone. This is, I think, the only clue we have that he did this and it also contains a fabulous lengthy description of what he expects that development to look like, so it’s well worth a look. In fact I should make it into a ‘From the Sources’ post.

12. The most obvious example is the family of the previous post, the castellans of Gurb, where Ansulf was Vicar of Sant Llorenç already when Borrell gave him a whack of land in Gurb but who then bought a church nearby from the count for a swingeing amount of gold (discussion and references Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 116-117) but he is far from the only example (more and general discussion ibid. pp. 151-154).

13. Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), more or less passim really.

Feudal Transformations X: Stephen White vs. Thomas Bisson, 2nd round

It’s both good and bad to come back to an older post and revise it: good because it means I’m learning something, bad because I was wrong about being up to speed with it. But, I’ve never claimed to have the feudal transformation worked out, only that I might be getting closer to it, so here is another step closer, a post which engages with two of the previous ones from the Spoleto series (whose seed articles the seed of this one cites) and maybe even gets us further on.

The article this time is by Stephen White, who has featured here before and is with Dominique Barthélemy one of the more implacable opponents of the ‘feudal revolution’ theory or theories. Here, in a short and pithy article, he takes on Thomas Bisson’s ideas about violence and the importance of feudo-vassalic relations in the rearrangement of society that is held by many to have taken place around the year 1000 in Western Europe.1 Many might think this is greedy, as Professor White had already had a go at that thesis in 1996 as part of a debate in which Bisson was given a fairly thorough historiographic kicking by a selection of people who usually work earlier than him, White being the signal traitor from his own period.2 However, as discussed here Bisson went on with his theory after that, contending perhaps that no-one had really taken his point, which I might manage some sympathy with as White doesn’t necessarily seem to have taken it here either.3 What he does do however is remove an awful lot of the stuff that Bisson built up from his basic point, so it’s worth discussing here very briefly and then giving my own impression of the debate.

By his work shall ye know him (I can't find a picture of Bisson)

By his work shall ye know him (I can't find a picture of Bisson)

Professor Stephen White

Professor Stephen White

The late Professor Georges Duby

The late Professor Georges Duby

(Those images won’t lay out as I want them, but it’s more fun than not trying at all.)

White points out that Georges Duby, who largely started this whole debate off, didn’t think that fiefs, and therefore agreements over them, feudal relations as most properly understood, were very important where he studied, whereas Bonnassie saw them all over Catalonia and thought their repurposing crucial to the changes in society that took place.4 Bisson, argues White, tries to have it both ways by stressing that society in the wake of the transformation is entirely based around such pacts, and that they are clearly a very poor and ineffective substitute for the public government through courts and officials that had gone before. This is why Bisson got a kicking, and White proceeds to repeat it by arming himself with the work of Jinty Nelson and pointing out that the Carolingian state absolutely operated in such bases of patronage, agreements of service, and most crucially of all oaths of fidelity, whose language, White argues, is repeated almost word-for-word in the texts that Bisson uses, chief among them the Conventum Hugonis about which we were talking here not so long ago, to demonstrate the new era.5 Neither old nor new orders actually existed as Bisson conceives them, White argues, and the feudo-vassalic agreements that Bisson sees as a novel symptom of a new kind of society are in fact traditional texts taken, in the instance of Hugh the Chiliarch’s plaint and the letters of Fulbert of Chartres, to previously unpreserved lengths of detailed application which could nonetheless all have been sourced from Cicero, Carolingian capitularies, and ordinary oaths of the previous centuries.

Fair? Well, only partly. I too see problems with Bisson’s arguments about fiefs, seeing them where others do not, and I’ve discussed that already. On the other hand, though, I don’t read Bisson’s 1994 article the way that White seems to. White sees Bisson as arguing for a crisis of fidelity c. 1000, whence his article’s title; I find that Bisson argues for a rather broader change of political culture, in which an élite previously trammelled by a royal system of regulation is now set free to exercise its increasing monopoly on violence to its own advantage. This is a failure of the ‘public order’ in two senses, firstly that it doesn’t stop them, and secondly that it’s no longer a source for the lands and honores for which these lords now fight each other. I stress that I don’t necessarily agree with this in toto, but it is broader than White makes it.

Map of Europe c. 1100 CE (click-through for far better one)

Map of Europe c. 1100 CE (click-through for far better one)

Also White’s argument ultimately leads to a situation where nothing really changed in society over the tenth and eleventh centuries, whereas it seems pretty demonstrable that stuff actually did. I mean, at the simplest level, the Carolingian Empire broke up into a welter of smaller states, many of which we now know and love. Even if the basis of political relations at a low level was the same circa 820 and circa 1020, which is the keystone of White’s argument and with which as a statement I don’t have a problem, the fact that the superstructure of 820 had vanished two centuries later must affect the way those people go about their business in each case. In the simplest terms, that development removes the ability to appeal beyond a certain level that had previously been there; so people’s ideas of what’s possible must change and that must affect what they try to do. It can’t just stay the same, even if there are documentary arguments which mean that change may be overstated by the mutationnistes.6 And it’s this change in political horizons that Bisson has seen clearly where White’s work seems to blur it, perhaps because his work on the early period is essentially local anyway.7 This is what Bisson sees as explaining the wave of violence that he finds in the sources, and it’s perhaps the proliferation of local lordships against which there is no recourse that leads to new kinds of records lamenting violence, whereas beforehand the victims would have gone to the king or his missi or someone, someone who is in many areas no longer available, rather than resorting to local rhetoric and calling on their saints and so forth. And that alteration in horizons and external involvements means that it’s each man for himself on a more local basis than before, however much of that sort of vying there was before the collapse, and we see this, as has also been discussed here, giving rise to a proliferation of local castles and so forth. Some of course see the proliferation of castles as the cause of that change of political targeting, but if so the castles are only happening because of the collapse of that consensus of authority that might prevent their building, so I think it’s all the same but parallel, not series.8

So in sum: Bisson has a genuine point but strings impossible derivations from it, White also has a point but fails to recognise Bisson’s and to an extent fails to describe the actual developments of the time, Barthélemy says we’re all misreading the evidence anyway but when pushed seems still to admit that there was change, an impression he can only get from those self-same sources and hey, he wasn’t supposed to be in this post anyway.10 And I think there genuinely was a change, but I’m not going to say that pulling lots of its parts back to a collapse of royal authority is enough of an explanation, because why does that authority fail hey? So this is not yet my answer, but it is a notice that I still don’t think we have a good enough one yet. By the time this goes up, I shall of course have heard another one, so we’ll see if I still stand by this then…

1. Stephen White, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48, taking on Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. Dominique Barthélemy, “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205; Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II” ibid., pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution’: comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195; Chris Wickham, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. IV” ibid., pp. 197-208.

3. Bisson defends himself in Thomas N. Bisson, “Debate: the `Feudal Revolution’. Reply” ibid., pp. 208-234, and continues in idem, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446.

4. Referring to Georges Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le region mâconnaise, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hauts Études, VIe section (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971), repr. in Qu’est-ce que c’est la Féodalisme (Paris 2001), of which pp. 155, 170-172, 185-195 & 230-245 transl. Frederick L. Cheyette as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais” in idem (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (New York 1968), pp. 137-155, and on which see now idem, “Georges Duby’s Mâconnais after fifty years: reading it then and now” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 28 (Amsterdam 2002), pp. 291-317; and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du Milieu du Xe à la Fin du XIe Siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, II pp. 575-599 & 609-610 transl. in idem, “The Banal Seigneurie and the `Reconditioning’ of the Free Peasantry” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 114-133, II pp. 781-829 transl. J. Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242. On the place of such oaths and agreements in Catalan history see now Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

5. The work in question being Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 383-430.

6. Barthélemy so described Poly and Bournazel in his “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; they responded in kind with “Que faut-il préférer au « mutationisme »? ou le problème du changement sociale” in Revue historique de droit français et étranger Vol. 72 No. 3 (Paris 1994), pp. 401-412, with a further round as Barthélemy, “Encore le débat sur l’an mil” ibid. Vol. 74 (1996), pp. 349-360 & Poly & Bournazel, “Post scriptum“, ibid. pp. 361-362. Why have I never written all those down in one place before? That took ages to pin down and then I find François Bougard did it already: “Genèse et réception du Mâconnais de Georges Duby” in Bulletin du Centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre, Hors serie 1 (2008), online here.

7. See for example the papers collected in White, Feuding and Peace-making, and the review by Jonathan Jarrett in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007). pp. 124-126.

8. Referring to Michel Bur, “Le féodalisme dans le royaume franc jusqu’à l’an mil: la seigneurie” in Feudalesimo, pp. 53-78 with discussion pp. 79-83.

The long long gripe of Hugh the Chiliarch

I don’t know how many of you may have heard of the Conventum Hugonis? I’ve been freshly reminded what a marvellous text it is by the last article in that Spoleto volume, which yes, does mean I’m about to shut up about it, for now at least. I had something of a flash of inspiration during the reading of this last paper, tried to write it down and wound up with a 3,600-word paper core, which I might even be able to do something with next year (but seriously, not before), so I don’t promise to shut up about it for ever, but all the same, I recognise that an audience can have too much feudalism. Where’s the human interest, I might hear you cry if both you and I had the right kind of software? And the answer is, here in this text I’m about to talk about.

The illumination for March from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, taken from Wikimedia Commons and depicting the Château de Lusignan

The illumination for March from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, taken from Wikimedia Commons and depicting the Château de Lusignan

Hugh IV de Lusignan was a fairly important castellan lord in the South of France, floruit c. 1040, and his line became famous enough eventually that they furnished a king of Jerusalem and their castle got into the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, as you see above. In Hugh IV’s day it probably wasn’t quite that substantial, but he was a major player. He was however a major player in a world dominated by Duke William V of Toulouse, whom he calls a count, and like most of the second rank nobility of his area he had to come to some kind of position vis-à-vis William. It being the age it was, this position was a feudal one, and the Conventum tells us all about it. But it tells us all about it not as an idealised text showing the way to do such things, but after relations between the two had deteriorated to open (if carefully limited) war, and so it’s as much a library of what could go wrong in feudo-vassalic relations as of how they should work. A sample of Hugh’s scribe’s style:

The count, while holding a court assembly with count Fulk, promised to give Fulk benefices from his own property. Fulk promised that he would give Hugh what belonged to him. The count sent for Viscount Ralph and said to him about this agreement: ‘Hugh won’t keep the agreement which he has with you because I forbid it. But Fulk and I have an agreement to give him Joscelin’s honour and wife. We shall act to your undoing because you are not faithful to me.’ When he heard this Ralph was very distressed and said to the count: ‘For God’s sake don’t do this.’ And the count said ‘Give me guarantees that you won’t give him your daughter and won’t keep your agreement with him, and in return I’ll make sure for you that he won’t get Joscelin’s honour or wife.’ And so they acted so that Hugh got neither one nor the other.

You wouldn’t know it, but they were actually patching things up at this stage, after Hugh had taken over a castle (one of many) that he felt the count should have got for him and didn’t, by force, and held it until William agreed to do some kind of right by him. To read it as Hugh had it presented, he had had endless ill-treatment from William, including insults and threats, and got nothing but loss for it, and he makes sure to recount all this, I mean all of it, he goes on for a while. The standard edition, or at least one of them, as a particular scholar called George Beech has all but made a career out of replacing work on this text, has a text that took up eight pages of the English Historical Review, and the translation, coordinated by Paul Hyams and online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, that I quoted above, is fairly meaty for a webpage too.1

It’s a very rich text, anyway, especially in the Latin as it’s full of words we hardly ever get about particular sorts of grants, honour and so on (as well as words we just hardly ever get, like Chiliarch, a Biblical term meaning ‘ruler of a thousand men’, which is what Hugh’s scribe calls him). The Conventum can be read for the history of military tenure for service, certainly, but it can also be read looking for judicial process, for emotion (William is angry, Hugh is gloomy—but how much of that’s presentation?) and for fun (I find it reads best in the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android). But it’s such a piece that it really comes quite close to literature. It’s even been seen as a forerunner of the epic Troubadour romances in its style: I think that’s going much too far but it has got enough going on, grieving, confrontation, dialogue and fury, that such an argument can be made.2

It can also of course be read critically, which is where the Dominique Barthélemy article I was reading comes in.3 Why was William treating Hugh so badly? Was it because at several points in the narrative Hugh is also dealing with William’s biggest rival, Fulk Nerra Count of Anjou?4 (Mind you, you see from the above that William and Fulk could at least appear in public together, so I’m not sure I reckon that so much.) When William shunted Hugh from lord to lord, was he merely grinding Hugh’s face in the muck of subjection to make a point? Or was he involved in delicate brinkmanship with a number of potentially dangerous castellans and trying to bind enough other lords to him to maintain control by an alliance of the great against the many not-so-great? Did Hugh really get nothing from those ties, or did it just break down later? Was, perhaps, the real trick to stop Hugh by any means necessary from taking Fulk as his lord instead, and therefore to make sure that a great number of things that Hugh wanted were in William’s control and not to be got by any other route? If William had emptied the bag, would Hugh have stuck with him? Hugh pleads his absolute loyalty at many points in the text, but how far do we trust it, given that the text seems basically to be to get Hugh’s outraged rebellion, in reality very calculated it seems clear, well justified and acknowledged as such by William? This is an agreement that renews Hugh’s fidelity; it’s hardly going to present him as anything other than utterly loyal, is it? and so on. And this is why the text has taken so much work and will continue to source and cause more, because it’s full of personality apparently overriding politics, and will source either. I recommend having a look if you haven’t.

A view of modern-day Lusignan

A view of modern-day Lusignan

1. Jane Martindale (ed.), “Conventum inter Willelmum Comitem Aquitanorum et Hugonem Chiliarchum” in English Historical Review Vol. 84 (London 1969), pp. 528-548, transl. Paul Hyams et al. as “Medieval Sourcebook: Agreement between Count William V of Aquitaine and Hugh IV of Lusignan”, online here, last modified 25 April 1996 as of 15 September 2008. Beech’s edition is in George T. Beech, Yves Chauvin & Georges Pon, Le « Conventum » (vers 1030), un précurseur aquitain des premières épopées, Publications romanes et françaises 212 (Geneva 1995). On the family more generally, it’s still conventional to cite Sidney Painter, “The Lords of Lusignan in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries” in Speculum Vol. 32 (Cambridge MA 1957), pp. 27-47. Beech has been working on this text for many many years; his first piece on it was in 1966 (J. Beech, “A Feudal Document of Early Eleventh Century Poitou” in Pierre Gallais & Yves Rou (edd.), Mélanges offerts à René Crozet à l’occasion de son 70e anniversaire par ses amis, ses collégues, ses élèves et les membres du C. E. S. C. M. (Poitiers 1966), I pp. 203-213—it really is given as J. Beech, I’ve seen the original, I don’t know how that happened), and his most recent ones were in 1998 and 1999, George T. Beech, “The lord/dependant (vassal) relationship: a case study from Aquitaine c. 1030″ in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 24 (Amsterdam 1998), pp. 1-30, and “The Contribution of Diplomatics to the Identification of an Early-Eleventh-Century Aquitainian Narrative” in Adam J. Kosto & Anders Winroth (eds), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: the preservation and transmission of documents in the medieval west. Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique (Princeton and New York, 16-18 September 1999), Papers in Mediaeval Studies 17 (Toronto 2002), pp. 61-80.

2. Beech, Chauvin & Pon, « Conventum »; cf. Dominique Barthélemy, ‘Du nouveau sur le Conventum Hugonis‘ in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes Vol.153 (Paris 1995), pp. 483-495, and in reply Beech, “The lord/dependant (vassal) relationship”.

3. Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495.

4. Studied in detail in Bernard S. Bachrach, Fulk Nerra, the Neo-Roman Consul, 987-1040. A Political Biography of the Angevin Count (Berkeley 1993), as well as many other works by him; Regesta Imperii brings up 21 on title keyword search alone, and it probably hasn’t got them all…

When is a fief not a fief? When it’s a fisc (Feudal Transformations IX)

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

If we’re looking at feudalism, and I’m afraid we still are, I think I’ve said by now that the meaning of that term that I find most plausible out of the several possible ones is that one that sticks to the etymology, and deals with the relations of lords and their followers who do service for a temporary grant of land under terms: feudo-vassalic relations, as some call it to disambiguate it from the other senses of ‘feudalism’.1 Because we’re working, ultimately, from the Latin feodum, or sometimes feudum, which becomes in English ‘fee’ and, via French, ‘fief’. And in the Oxford English Dictionary, firstly those two entries crosslink in the online version, but secondly the definition is:



noun 1 historical an estate of land held on condition of feudal service. 2 a person’s sphere of operation or control.

– DERIVATIVES fiefdom noun.

– ORIGIN Old French, variant of feu “fee”.

A bit circular, but clear enough. But is that what it means in the documents? Sometimes, alas, no; it’s not as simple as indexing uses of feodum and seeing how they rise or fall (even if you had the kind of sample or statistical significance measurement that would make such an exercise meaningful). Feodum doesn’t really crop up much before the ninth century, and when it does occur then it actually means ‘a supporting allotment of public land, or the revenues from it’, so for example, a fiscal castle will have an associated feodum which provides its upkeep.2 In this element it’s really quite like fiscum, which doesn’t quite mean the institution of the fisc, the landstock of the public power, as we read it now, but its individual portions. So that castle might just as well have a fisc, and some Catalan documents actually use the two words as equivalents, “fiscis sive feodis”.3

Certainly, use of the term feodum goes up and up in the eleventh century. And if you’re Dominique Barthélemy (which, after all I’ve said about him here, I kind of hope you’re not), you emphasise that the two words have been associated for a long long time and that you can’t be sure what’s meant when a fief turns up, and deny the whole transformation because you’ve spent years taking the model apart in detail in different places.4 On the other hand, if you’re Thomas Bisson, you perhaps generally prefer not to sacrifice the big picture by getting bogged down in that detail, and like to try and show that big things are genuinely changing, and that does at least make a better story.5 But if you do it by simply counting the use of the word feodum without ever considering its ambiguity or the sample size of the documents, you don’t necessarily carry me with you… 6

It’s not that his Spoleto article here isn’t interesting, or even valid. The contrast he draws between Flanders, where a public power remains in control of the new feudal arrangements of military service, and where they don’t therefore lead to a total collapse such as Catalonia suffers, between Provence where it does all go a bit wrong because there’s no overall power that can bring it back into order, even a feudal order, and between Occitania where there isn’t even too much trouble but where the feudo-vassalic structure nonetheless becomes the overriding social structure, is interesting, and deserves more investigation, though by someone else as it goes too late for me. But without some deeper investigation of how the words is used in these very different areas, I don’t necessarily think we’re comparing like with like, and we certainly can’t really quantify these supposed fiefs.

1. You can find this usage defended in Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. So, for example, in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 159.

3. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, including a 1003 document from Sant Pere de Besalú which confers revenues, “ex censali publico, quod vulgum feum nominat… “; Dominique Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495, at p. 458 where he cites Marc Bloch, “Questions féodales” in Annales d’Histoire Économique et Sociale Vol. 10 (Paris 1938) at p. 174 & idem, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

4 Classically, Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; in English, idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; idem, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein, rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147; and, most relevantly, Barthélemy, “Autour d’un récit de pactes”.

5 Bisson, “Feudal Revolution”; idem, Tormented Voices: power, crisis, and humanity in rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge MA 1998).

6. Bisson, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Feudalesimo, I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446, including a lengthy critique from Barthélemy which however goes for him on a subjective basis about how serious disorder was, allowing Bisson to simply restate his own view, rather than this point where he’s actually weak.

Theory I like: a long post about how to read charters and who did it right first

By now you know that for the last three years I’ve been standing up at Leeds each July and trying to persuade people that charters are complicated documents. Words like `authored’, `context’ and `involved’ have passed my lips, and I’ve written posts here about how the documents are the winner’s record; I could have saved myself many words and just said `situated’, perhaps, but I’d look as if I’ve read things I haven’t. All the same, earlier this year I sat down and wrote something that for now bears the rather worrying title, “Revisionism and the Grateful Dead: a justification”. The Grateful Dead only got into it because Jerry Garcia, may he trip eternally, once said of the Dead’s legendary endless jam `Dark Star’, “There are certain structural poles which we have kind of set up in it, and those periodically we do away with”, and that struck me as a marvellous expression of academic progress.1 If I’d not confessed what it was I’d bet my collaborators would have loved it. Chauvinists. Anyway, it is unlikely that when this emerges, having been through the tender hands of my Leeds collaborators, dear Captain Trips will remain in it, and it’ll probably have a lot of my original rant taken out and this is probably for the best.

All the same, may it be placed on record that in February 2008, I wrote this thing and it had a list of 9 assumptions made by people using charters I wanted to stop. They were, briefly:

  1. In a charter-using society, all transactions were recorded in charters, even if we don’t have them. I can point you to a Catalan count saying that he made one donation to his wife per cartam and another per simplice donacione, and he could afford a scribe and parchment.
  2. Charters can be used to reconstruct tenure patterns of their and their neighbouring territories. Except that when someone makes a charter, it’s because they’re changing something, so you never have a still gameboard.
  3. A charter’s form and content is dictated by the law of its area and may be irrelevant to actual events. Rubbish: scribes vary details incessantly, so it’s not that fixed, but estates consistently keep certain attributes like mills, winepresses and so on; it’s really very complicated to assume that that’s for any reason than that these places have those things.
  4. A charter’s content was set by its transactor/by its scribe. Pick whichever you like, the other possibility’s always there. There is no rule, people talked to each other then too, get over it.
  5. Charters were written in a single operation at the ceremony/before the ceremony/after the ceremony. I can find you instances where any of these must have been the case except during. We have enough charters that describe themselves being placed on the altar to wake up to the fact that that’s a lie^H^H^Hcreative misrepresentation.
  6. Charters are an official record of a transaction… Yeah, for whose office? Oh, it’s the beneficiary’s. Well that’s impartial. Oh no, it’s not is it, sorry.
  7.  … that occurred at the date given by the charter. That kind of falls apart when you don’t know when the charter was written relative to the ceremony, doesn’t it? Which part of the the process do you think the date refers to, drafting, meeting, investiture, witnessing… ?
  8. The transactions recorded in charters took place. Unless, for example, someone else held onto the lands.
  9. Preservation of documents is representative of the documents that existed. See “winner’s history” above.

And I felt a lot better with that off my chest. Only now, the week before last already, I read an article in which someone else sets out the five faulty assumptions of traditional diplomatic:

  1. That texts should be studied by reference to their issuer, even though he hardly ever wrote them
  2. That charters were written for use at law, even though we hardly ever see them being used there [my picture differs, here]
  3. That charters’ validity resided in their adherence to formulaic texts, even though the variation between surviving texts is way way off any fixed national or even regional formula
  4. That charters can be used as evidence of deliberate archiving strategies, even though most surviving archives didn’t generate a lot of their material
  5. That forged documents are somehow to be treated differently

Blimey, eh? Why wasn’t that me? And the answer is, because it was presented in 1991 and published in 1994, before I’d even read my first precept, and that though since I started doing charter work it’s been on reading lists that people have pushed at me, I’ve taken this long to get round to it. It’s “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, and it’s the paper I originally picked up John van Engen’s The Past and Future of Medieval Studies for and have finally reached.2 It’s going to generate me some writing here because it’s very very chewy, and one of the best ways to work out what I think is to put it here. I might break it up a bit though, I could write lots and lots about this. Let’s here stick to charters, and then I’ll do the other two sections she has in separate lighter posts.

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090, a basic sale transaction of the 950s

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090, a basic sale transaction of the 950s, being stretched taut by your humble author

Now, obviously I should have read this a long time ago, as it does share quite a lot of my message and I see why people have pointed me at it. On the other hand, our approaches are very different. Mine has been to verbalise these assumptions and disprove them for particular cases, aiming to imply that we can’t be sure of them in any unchecked case. Hers was to take a fair body of critical theory, though from the Hayden White end arguing that historical texts are ‘situated’, by which we mean here that they cannot be read apart from their author’s and indeed their reader’s preconceptions and do not represent anything objective at all, rather than from whatever the authors of the sort of stuff I’ve complained about elsewhere were smoking. I mean, I think that can be argued with, and she does, but it is at least an argument we have to face. And, when you apply it to charters, or rather argue with the peculiar exception that seems to be made for documentary sources, the obvious response is to remember that these are privately produced narratives written to preserve someone’s advantage and need to be treated with all the suspicion that implies. So our two approaches lead to the same place, mistrust of any idea that these are objective texts, she saying that they can’t in principle be and I saying that sometimes they just provably aren’t. Our findings support each other. And she and I are in accord not just here, but when she says:

Attention and explanation have therefore primarily focused on the actions the sources document. This attitude is of course shared by historians who select their object of study, gather all documents relating to it, study their documents from the viewpoint of this object with far less attention to the circumstances grounding documentary production, and try to resolve contradictions by applying the principles of authenticity and forgery, and by distinguinshing legendary from historical documents. (333)

I mean, I would have put `authenticity’, `forgery’, `legendary’ and `historical’ in snigger quotes (and now I have! I can retire) but that is, in fact, just the sort of work that got me shirty about all this in the first place. So it’s lovely that this is out there to be cited, but I wish some non-diplomatists had actually read it. As it is, I have great trouble getting this stuff out there, because it’s obvious to most actual diplomatists and has been out there for more than a decade, so they don’t see it as new and won’t recommend its publication, but it just isn’t anywhere where the people who do phenomena studies by combing archives about which they don’t care will come across it.

It may not just be me she pre-empted though. In my various posts about the feudal transformation, I have repeatedly cited its greatest opponent, Dominique Barthélemy, who has repeatedly contended that “la mutation féodale n’a pas eu lieu”. His argument is that the documents of around the year 1000 were getting a lot more verbose, and that this reveals things that were always there, or had been for a long long while, but were not previously recorded. So the argument is that it’s more of a documentary revolution than a feudal one. That first came out in 1992.3 In 1991, though, Bedos-Rezak was asking a room full of probably slightly glazed medievalists:

… could we, in talking about a feudal revolution, for instance, be confusing the clarification of social concepts performed through writing with a possibly a-synchronous growth of specific social structure? If this were the case, might not the “feudal revolution” abvove all be a revolution in diplomatics? (321)

I guess there’s no way Barthélemy could have known of that; his article for Annales must have been submitted by then. But it’s a pity because she also has the answer, because she had from the beginning been arguing that charters should not be read “as products, rather than as processes… ” (314) and therefore was set up to contend that documents affect the society in which they are produced. There’s more to say about that, and she does, but I’ll pick up on it in another post because it’s where I disagree with her. For now, let it be noted that though Barthélemy has and always had a point, similarly the critical diplomatists over here have always had an answer: people use documents to change things, so if the documents change firstly, this is probably caused by some larger social change, and secondly, it will also cause social changes as they are used. Matthew Innes and I have argued similar things, but I got it from Matthew and he may well have got it from here.

You see, I don’t mind someone using critical theory like this, because the actual upshot is to bring us closer to understanding our sources, and therefore the times that created them. My objections to over-theoretical historiography are basically, well, that it’s impenetrable, and to be fair this is very hard reading for me at least, but also that it forgets the latter step in the giddy wash of cleverness imbued by the former. When people do something with it that helps me understand my subjects, well, I want more of that please, and perhaps my irritation with critical theory in historiography is mainly that it so often fails to provide that help.

1. This paper was intended to be an agenda statement for a volume we’re working on to publish some of the Leeds papers we’ve solicited, and if the one of my collaborators who reads this hasn’t turned this piece round by the time this goes up, he should know that his beer tally is going up by compound interest. The Jerry Garcia quote can be found in context at this link.

2. B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.

3. D. Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; ibid., “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205. There’s more, but how much do you need?

Feudal Transformations VI: Chris Wickham suggests

On the way back home after meeting up with medievalists from the Internets in London the other day, as described already by one of those mysterious virtual persons, I came on an article of Chris Wickham’s I should have read years ago, tucked in the back of Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre’s Property and Power with a title that might have led me to ignore it, did I not by now know not to ignore Chris’s stuff.1 Actually, although most of the sources it uses are indeed twelfth-century, his task is to argue back from those to how the Lucchese society he knows so well got this way, this way being feudalised in its tiny minutiae, dues, renders, labour and hospitality obligations differing from household to household. And that of course means that what we’re looking at is the good ol’ feudal transformation, discussed here a good few times. So I thought it might be time to collect up my writings here on that subject and mark out how Chris differs from the others.

  1. In the first of these posts I was complaining that the very detailed take of Jean-Paul Poly & Eric Bournazel on the changes in European society over the tenth to twelfth centuries hid the fact that they were being falsely compressed by the synthesis of the data Poly & Bournazel presented into a single phenomenon close to the year 1000 when actually what was being discussed was a almost-infinitely variable series of local experiences in which power and the organisation of society moved through recognisable, but not identical stages, at their own speed.2
  2. Then I took a much more theoretical vision of “el procés de feudalització” as offered by Josep María Salrach i Marès,3 and suggested that it was too schematised to work in most places but did give us a much clearer idea of what we are actually discussing than Poly & Bournazel’s immersion in Romance culture.
  3. Then I paid attention to Victor Farias trying to explain how the government of the counts in Catalonia could still meaningfully be differentiated from the landlordship of a lesser noble until the point of actual collapse, thus giving a working definition of the ‘public’ power that is supposed to have collapsed in this whole transformation thing.4 As I said there, I think a lot of this is warmed-over theory from Pierre Bonnassie, but it is a valid distinction and the question is merely whether it’s really a significant factor in the counts’ power. Me, I think not so much as control of castles, but it’s got to be in there somewhere.
  4. But then I found Josep María Salrach again explaining how even control over castles had changed,5 and that I found really quite subtle and interesting.
  5. And then Gaspar Feliu kindly sent me the fundamental article by Manuel Riu which suggests that a lot of feudal lords were probably heads of really quite ancient chiefdoms, in long-term dynastic succession, who adopted the new trappings of power but whose real importance came not from the new system, but from their heredity.6 In fact, then the system got its power from the endorsement of people like these, the already powerful. This, I think is not a whole explanation, but there must be cases where it is the best explanation, and if we try and stop explaining everything the same way we probably have a chance of getting somewhere

Otherwise, as I’ve mentioned, you wind up with historiography that unpacks like this:

and really, that doesn’t actually help us understand. In the lecture at Kings where I discussed this, I used the phrase ‘Occam’s Hairbrush’ to describe a logical tool that allows you to separate needlessly tangled entities; you really need it here.

So, where does Chris’s article fit into this tangle? Quite neatly, in fact. I don’t think he’s read Riu’s article, though I wouldn’t want to put money on this; I also don’t believe he much rates Feliu, despite their shared pessimism about aristocrats and peasants, though I know he’s worked with Salrach.7 None of this Catalan stuff necessarily percolates through to his Italian work, anyway, but what he’s saying is quite a lot like what Riu says. He looks at two little areas in the twelfth-century documents from Lucca where lordships sprang up that acquired these sort of menial dues and obligations, and shows that actually some of the lordships went back to before these dues were commonplace. What he is dealing with here is the angry insistence of Dominique Barthélemy that much of what is supposedly brought in by the so-called Transformation is not new at all, but found in the Carolingian era if not before. Barthélemy says it’s merely that the sources are recording things, that have always been there, differently.8 I would argue that if the documents change it’s because of a demand for a new sort of record, and that suggests a change in society. Pierre Bonnassie instead counter-attacked by showing that when new coins came into circulation, for example, the documents picked up on that almost straight away and we should expect them to be current in other respects too.9 (This was a really clever article and it is undeservedly obscure.)

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

Here, instead, Chris reaches a middle ground. The documents are indeed changing, but to write down these things regularises what was not necessarily regular before. A lord of Carolingian Lombardy probably could, if necessary or desirable, demand most or all of what these Lucchese patricians can; he may well have been able, absent any real restraint, to demand more. Once a compromise is reached between subject and lord here, both sides are limited, because even with a posse of armoured bovver boys you can’t hold down all your peasants all the time, and you’d get lousy service if you tried it; passive resistance to coercion can really drop your revenue.10 It’s in everybody’s interest that there be a compromise which is acceptable enough that it will continue without too much effort. So it is reached, household per household, and it is written down.

The questions that then hang off this are ones about how greater literacy affects society, and that is a big question all by itself.11 It’s not as if Carolingian Lombardy was alien to written surveys, sworn inquests recorded on parchment and so on.12 If Carolingian aristocrats here weren’t making such regular demands, and that of course is an argument from silence, there must have been something else going on that distracted them, or prevented them. Chris says it is the militarisation of local lordship that gets these things fixed; people before this didn’t need this kind of detail. But there must always have been local administrators, we see them at Perrecy apart from anything else, and they must have needed such records. So I’m not sure yet. But I am sure that he shows quite nicely how a lord in place, given new options about how to exercise his power, might then turn himself into something we then see and recognise as a feudal baron or whatever your local language of power calls him, on the basis not of oppressive force, but of status, repute, ability to protect his familia and pre-existent dominance of a less documented kind.

I think this is what is going on, I think it’s a question of changing modes of power, mainly brought about by increasing wealth giving increasing initiative and scope for variation on social conduct and the use of resources. But the question then becomes, why are there new options, are they really new, where have these `modes’ come from and why are they taken up now, and of course, how much does anything change for the poor pheasants? If il Patrone is the same all along, and you gotta have respec’ for il Patrone even if he wants all your sheep to throw a banquet for his daughter’s wedding, because we know what happens to people who don’ show no respec’, does it really matter to you if he makes you sign something saying how many sheep he’s allowed to take? I think it does, because it makes it negotiable or enforceable, but maybe the verbal settlements were too. So much more to work out still…

1. Chris Wickham, “Property ownership and signorial power in twelfth-century Tuscany” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and power in the early middle ages (Cambridge 1995), pp. 221-244.

2. Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200, transl. Caroline Higgitt (New York 1983).

3. Josep María Salrach, “Introducció: canvi social, poder i identitat” in Borja de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998; repr. 2001), pp. 15-67.

4. V. Farias, “Alous i dominis”, ibid. pp. 102-105, 107-111 & 113-116. He is improving here on Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle: Croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.

5. Josep María Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987).

6. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorns dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208.

7. Salrach translated one of Chris’s articles into Catalan, alongside one of Bonnassie’s and one of his own and some others, in a dossier on slavery in L’Avenç no. 131 (Barcelona 1989).

8. He says this most forcefully in “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, but perhaps most accessibly in “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205.

9. Pierre Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe: cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

10. For more on this, see James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance (New Haven 1985), but I owe the phrase ‘armoured bovver boys’ to a lecture by Amanda Brett in my second undergraduate year at Cambridge. It may be the only thing I remember from her lectures, but that puts her ahead of several other lecturers and no mistake.

11. Classically treated in Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979) or Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organisation of Society (Cambridge 1989), and some critique in Rosamond McKitterick, “Introduction” in eadem, The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 1-10.

12. On which see Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 105-124; rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 229-256.