Tag Archives: gender history

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…

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Kalamazoo 2015, Part 1

People in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo

Other people in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo (official photo)

Well, we’ve had another lapse in posting, for which I apologise, but there was good reason, I promise you, not least the International Medieval Congress just gone, which was a success but really very busy. I will write about that at some point, I promise, but my ridiculous backlog is only made more so by the passing of another IMC, not least because the next thing I have to write about is an ICMS, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at West Michigan University, which I didn’t make it to this year but did last year, that being where the trip to the US lately described wound up, and that’s how far behind I am. Given that, while I don’t want to say nothing about it I do want to say less than usual, so: I am going firstly to let all the stuff about dreadful accommodation, food and coffee go as standard; secondly I will add that the actual town of Kalamazoo does however have some places worth exploring for food and drink if you are not, as I used to be, determined to scrounge all the free alcohol going on campus; and thirdly, I will try and keep my reportage on the papers I saw down to one sentence of summary or commentary each, a writing challenge I should probably set myself much more often. So, here we go with day 1, 14th May 2015!

45. The State and its Loyal Constituencies in Late Antiquity

  • Michael Kulikowski, “Saying No to Government: Disintegrating and Reinstating States”
  • One sentence for this is actually all I have, because I arrived late to the session and missed almost the whole paper. That sentence therefore is: “A ‘collective sovereignty’ model of northern barbarian kingship gets picked up by those further south over the 5th and 6th centuries”; make of it what you will, but I wish I’d seen more.

  • Stefan Esders, “Regnum, Civitas, and Pagus: Rearranging Spatial Structures in Merovingian Gaul”
  • Arguing that although in Merovingian Gaul many of the functions of the Roman state fell away or were loaded onto new counts or old bishops, the territorial structures through which they continued to be organised necessitated a continuing level of fiscal sophistication that we could safely call a state. As Julie Hofmann pointed out, the missing part of this picture was Church organisation and its imprint on bishops’ fiscal responsibilities, but that was a part of the study still to come.

  • Guy Halsall, “Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities”
  • Guy, who it was that I had particularly come to see, argued instead that Merovingian Gaul was not a state, in as much as there was no single identity of which people could claim membership, but several, Frankish military, Catholic Christian, Arian Christian, Gallo-Roman aristocrat or peasant, all partially replacing the now-discredited Roman civil and patrician identity that, until Justinian I’s campaigns excluded them from it, the ruling élites in this area were still emulating. Michael Kulikowski pointed out that that identity had never been available to most of the Roman population either, but Guy argued that patronage would have joined them up to its holders.

Gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London

Arguably a part of a state apparatus, a gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London. By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969234

80. Leadership Profiles in the Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Church

  • Edmund McCaffray, “Leading by Example: customaries and abbatial conservatio at Cluny in the eleventh century”
  • Argued that we should see John of Salerno’s biography of the famous Abbot Odo of Cluny less as a straight biography than as a set of descriptions of the abbey’s custom justified by Odo’s good example, something that became irrelevant as actual custumaries became common and the Life was rewritten.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “In the Teeth of Reform: reprofiling the Catalan Episcopate around the year 1000”
  • Argued that the commonly-propagated picture Catalan Church of the millennial era as a worldly monopoly of the comital family is based on misreadings of Catalan secondary work, rather than actual evidence, but that a binary appraisal of them in terms of being reformed or not in any case misses out what most of what made them suitable for their jobs. Rereading this paper makes me think I should get on and do something more with it, it’s maybe quite good.

  • Pieter Byttebier, “Intitulatio or Æmulatio? Developing New Forms of Episcopal leadership in Eleventh-Century Lotharingian Contexts”
  • A series of examples of new, and often foreign, bishops, boosting the reputation and even cults of their predecessors in order to better anchor themselves in the local traditions of their offices, and arguably imitating what could be known of their lives—Heer Byttebier argued it, but some of those supposed imitations were post mortem so I had trouble taking his case at full strength. Someone in questions asked about the æmulatio part of his title and he admitted that he had no examples as yet, so probably more could be done here.

St Clement of Metz  leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille

One feat probably beyond imitation, St Clement of Metz leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille, a legend of the tenth century. Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17574925

99. Women and Power to 1100 (A Roundtable)

Quite how I, with only one paper on anything like gender to my name and that unpublished, got in on this may never be entirely clear but it was fun and I don’t think I disgraced myself. I think Julie Hofmann won the day early on with her remark that we’ve been being surprised by women with power in the Middle Ages since 1908, but her deepest point may have been that when you’re dealing with power, their gender is not as important in defining what power someone has as their placement in society and their efficacy at using that. There was a general preference for the word ‘agency’ over ‘power’, which got challenged in discussion by Teresa Earenfight for I think good reason—Lois Honeycutt offered ‘autonomy’, a right to decide, as being closer to what we were getting at. Martha Rampton spoke about magic, one sphere in which women were perhaps dominant, up until around 1000 at least, and I focused on the apparent plenitude of examples from my material of women doing stuff without reference to men, usually with property but still untrammelled, and suggested that even that could more usefully be seen as a way they operated within larger family contexts than trying to separate them out into a female sphere that never existed by itself, any more than a male or indeed, as Jonathan Lyon pointed out, royal or imperial, sphere did. Lastly in the formal section, Phyllis Jestice pointed out that work on women and power has either focused on individual strong women or the whole aristocratic class and asked if there was a middle level where variation and over-generalisation might coalesce into useful conclusions. In discussion I managed to steer that through my favourite point that we need to distinguish between things that are usual but infrequent and things that are actually unusual, and Julie reminded us that the limits on female power were less institutions than straightforward misogyny, so looking at rules about what women could do only gives us the tip of the iceberg. This was all fun to be part of and I felt a lot like a real scholar afterwards, but I can’t help feeling looking back that although progress does seem to have happened these are all quite old problems. The new work that many of us were agitating for seems to be hard to do.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Not everybody can be Matilda of Canossa…

So that was the end of the first day, and then there was a certain amount of free wine and catching up with people. I can’t, by now, remember who those were, or what we did for food, but I don’t think we can have gone far because there was a blogger’s meet-up later in the evening. I felt somewhat as if I shouldn’t show my face at that given how little blog I’d written in the previous few months, nay, years, but others were in the same case and in any case these are to some extent my people, so, if any of you are reading, Another Damned Medievalist, Notorious Ph. D., the Medieval History Geek and Vellum (and others? Sorry if I’ve forgotten you), it was good to catch up and I learnt a lot in that conversation too. It overran well into the evening sessions: does anyone ever go to those? I’m not sure I ever have. Anyway, with that all concluded, it was off to my awful bed and ready for the next day, on which I will try and report shortly!

Unexpected female scribe perhaps too unexpected

[I wrote the first draft of this post in August 2014, pretty much all in one go, and queued it. This is even more ridiculous than usual, as since then I’ve actually been to the relevant archive and answered the question it poses. But it’s still a good question, I still wrote the post and I feel very strongly about queues, so I’m putting it up anyway, and you’ll just have to wait for the answer…]

After months, nay years, I have finally found the time to finish Michel Zimmermann’s immense two-volume book Écrire et lire en Catalogne. There are 28 appendices – 28! – and the very last of them is a set of commented plates that include some really interesting documents. And one of them, sitting starkly against one of the things I have most often observed about this complex book, is this one:

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b, as presented in Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

Now this dates from 1044, which is later than I usually run. So, although it is from Vic, my favourite archive, I’ve never seen the real thing. I really want to now, though, and it must go on the list. What Zimmermann thinks is important about it is the scribe, whose name was Alba, which is of course feminine in any Romance language you’d like to name.1 She was, therefore, a female scribe, and by the look of the charter, perfectly regular despite its unpleasant state of preservation, she knew what she was doing. (Some of the look of it must just be the photography, in any case. I have another picture of the same charter that isn’t half as bad, though black and white, so I guess that this one has been treated for increased visibility; I’ve applied nothing more than a bit of extra contrast myself.2) We only have the one document signed by Alba, but that may just be because she wrote for laypeople, although it could instead be that she was one of the literate women the sources occasionally show us, whom Zimmermann almost always prefers to deny, and got called in to write where others could not. It’s a neat and perfectly normal if quite thick charter hand, though, so I doubt that.

A second Riuprimer charter of 1044

Witness this very similar-looking document by the scribe Arnau in the same place a couple of months earlier, it being Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. no. 1026 and lámina 95.

All the same, it bothers me. Look at the left margin of the first document and you will quickly see that this is an example of something I have seen before at Vic, where two documents are written transverse on the same long strip of parchment.3 In the other case I have, the same scribe wrote both, which helps to explain why the same parchment was available to two different sets of transactors (and raises serious but unanswerable questions about archiving—were these people storing their documents with the scribes that made them, like later Italian notaries?4) And it looks, from what very little we can see of the script of the left-hand document, as if it’s the same hand here as well. But Zimmermann, and perhaps more significantly given that author’s tendency to push women out of his account, the index of scribes in the Vic edition of their eleventh-century charters both maintain that Alba wrote only one known document, so I’m willing to bet there’s another scribal signature on the left-hand one. Obviously I need to see it to be sure, but if so, as Mark Knopfler once sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of ’em must be wrong”: either one of the scribal attributions is fictive, or there’s some really similar handwriting around Riuprimer in the 1040s.5 I can’t say any more without seeing it, but which would you guess?

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243 in happy union, click through for (slightly) bigger

Also worth thinking about: if one of the names is fictive, why? When this happened at Sant Joan de Ripoll (that is, when a scribe can be seen to have written a document that has someone else’s name at the bottom) it’s because the person whose name goes at the bottom was the abbey’s apparent chief scribe.6 But that doesn’t really work when they’re both on the same parchment, and whether we see here a woman asserting her right to have writing that she had done and never mind the lazy notary (perhaps her father? I’m not sure if an unmarried woman would sign as femina, I’ve never quite figured out what that appelation means when it’s used), or rather a notary with a narky female client who wanted it noted that she could have written the document even if she hadn’t, we also need to explain the fact that this was not apparently rendered daft bu the other scribe’s signature. OK, if there is one. I think I have now hypothesized as far as my lack of evidence can take me…


The final version of this post was brought to you with the aid of Krankschaft, III, which is excellent.

1. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. 1031 and lám. 96.

3. Arxiu Capitular de Vic, cal. 6 nums 242 & 243, printed most recently in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 1718 & 1719.

4. See Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter (Wien 2011), pp. 163-171.

5. Dire Straits, “Industrial Disease” on Love over Gold (Vertigo 1982).

6. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 29-30; Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205.

From the Sources IX: a network of dowagers

I can’t now remember what it was I read or remembered that made me suddenly remember this document and decide to put it before you, but it may even have been writing the Widow Warlords post of a while back. Of course, when I actually dug up the charter in question it turned out to be slightly different from what I remembered, but there’s still so many points one can make with it that it seemed more than worth translating. So, this is the first will of Viscountess Adelaide of Narbonne, dated 4th October 978.1 (I don’t have a decent source to pin down the place-names, however, so most of them I leave in the Latin.)

“In the name of the Holy and Individual Trinity. Any man whatsoever, while he persists in this mortal pilgrimage, ought to raise his eyes up on high to the contemplation of the divine majesty, so that when he shall come to judgement, he shall be found justified. On account of which I in God’s name Adelaide, as I am exceedingly terrified of this day, order to be made [a document] in which I choose my executors [‘alms-givers’] so that, whatever they shall know of my will, that may they carry out. These are their names: Archbishop Ermengaud, & Raimond, & Vasadello, Seniorello, Bernard, Adalbert, Sigard de Petrulio.

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

Sadly the nunnery of Saint-Sauveur, entitled to the lion’s share of the properties listed below, doesn’t appear ever to have got finished… The lucky beneficiary would therefore have been this place, the Cathedral of Saints Just et Pastor, Narbonne, or at least its predecessor. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

“That holy work which I have begun outside [‘below’] Narbonne, to be built in honour of omnipotent God and the Holy Saviour, I leave to my sisters and to the lady Countess Arsinda, in such a tenor that my selfsame heredity of Vidiliano may revert to my sister Arsinda, and the selfsame alod of Tolomiano may revert to Ermessinda, and my heredity of Artimiciano may revert to Garsinda, and let them also hold these and possess them while they shall live; and if they bring the holy convent to completion, let the aforesaid alods all together revert thither in all integrity; & if they do not complete the aforesaid convent, after the death of Arsinda, let the selfsame heredity Vidiliano revert to the canons of SS Just & Pastor [Narbonne] in common; & the selfsame heredity of Artimiliano, after the death of Garsinda, revert in a similar way to the canons of Saint-Paul [Narbonne]; the selfsame alod of Tolomiano revert between Notre-Dame which they call la Grasse and Saint-Pierre which they call Caunes. The selfsame alod of Trolias with the selfsame part that I have in the same church, let revert to the monastery of Saint-Aniane. The selfsame alod of the villa of Boraxo let revert to the monastery of Saint-Pons [de Thomières], except the selfsame tower; let Aurice hold the selfsame tower with its manses that are tied to it while he shall live; afterwards indeed let it revert to the selfsame monastery of Saint-Pons. The villa of Bajas with its term, let Guadaud hold while he shall live, except those vineyards that others plant there; & when the convent of Saint-Sauveur shall have been made, after Guadaud’s death let it revert thither in all integrity; and if the convent shall not have been made, let revert those vines which come to my part in that villa to the guardian and keyholder of Saint-Paul who keeps the altar there; that villa with all its other heredity let revert in common to the canons of Saint-Paul. The selfsame alod that I have in the villa of Geminiano, which was Person’s and Daniel’s, and the selfsame vines that were Godrand’s, let hold the priest Dieudé while he shall live; afterwards indeed let it revert to the church of Sainte-Marie which they call Quadraginta. The selfsame alod that I bought from Bishop Arnulf in the term of Oveliano, with that same one of Taliaventos, let that now revert to the canonry of Saints Just & Pastor. The selfsame manse of Florenzac, which was Saint-Étienne’s, let revert to that same church. That alod which I have in the circuit of the castle of Saint-Martin, let revert to the monastery of Saint-Laurent. The selfsame alod of Cananiello let hold Golfred while he shall live; after his death let it revert, with the church of Sainte-Marie which they call Quart, to the monastery of Saint-Sauveur [Aniane]. That suburban settlement [burgus] which I bought from the woman Ebbo, let hold Hugues and Alulf while they shall live; afterwards let it revert to Saint-Paul, & let Saint-Paul hold among its possessions just as much the selfsame manse where the priest Nectar lives. The selfsame vines of Cesasinano, which Bon Vassal [or ‘a good vassal’] pledged to me, let revert to Umbert, as long as he redeems them from Bon Vassal. The selfsame manse of Aquaviva, which is in Lézat, let revert to Saint-Nazaire the see of Béziers. The selfsame manse within Narbonne which I bought from Saint-Pons, let revert to it.

The church of Saint-Paul-Serge de Narbonne

The other major beneficiary, or at least the church that now stands on that site with a much more developed saint’s cult, Saint-Paul-Serge de Narbonne. Par GO69 (Travail personnel) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

“I also [wish that] this mercy and alms which I make on account of love for the highest eternal King, may be for the remedy of [my] soul, so that I may be able to avoid the punishment of [my] collected [sins], & attain to eternal happiness, and by His mercy the Creator may ignore the collected evils which I have done from the day of my birth until now, and at the same time the lord my man Matfred and my parents may provide for themselves a common mercy therein, and all my kinsmen and relatives, and all the faithful departed. The selfsame alod that I have between Biarum and Syronis, let revert to my son Ermengaud, and the selfsame church of Ductos which they call Sainte-Marie, with its parish, let revert to that same man. The villa Columbaria with its church of Saint-Pierre let revert to my son Raimond. The selfsame gold cups let revert to Ermengaud, and let him give fifty solidi for them to the canons of SS Just & Pastor which they may spend in common, & to the canons of Saint-Paul similarly 50 solidi, and to Saint-Nazaire the see of Carcassonne 50 solidi, & to Saint-Nazaire the see of Béziers 50 solidi. To Raimond let revert one silver chain, & two candelabra of silver, one with rolls and a belt, one with gold cublismonario [?], & let him give for those 50 solidi to Saint-Pons, & to Saint-Aniane 50 solidi.

Excavations in the cloister of Saint-Sauveur d'Aniane

Digs going on at another place that did all right from Adelaide, not the Saint-Sauveur she wished to build but that of Aniane, again in much later form

“Of the collected harvest of the vine and corn that I have in Florenzac, let the selfsame half revert to Ermengaud, of the other half the selfsame third to Saint-Thibéry [Agde]; the other two to Saint-Sauveur d’Aniane. Similarly of the harvest that I have in Nebozianense, let the selfsame half revert to Ermengaud, the other half let revert between the selfsame monks of Vabre and the monks of Joncelles. Of the harvest of Pociolo, & Urbanio, & Cavorras, let three parts be made; let one part be given to Saint-Michel de Galiaco, the other to Saint-Sauveur, & the other to Saint-Cecilia. If our convent shall have been completed, let revert thither my horses; if not, however, let 4 of them revert to Ermengaud, with the selfsame 2 mules, & 4 horses to Raimond. Of the other horses let three parts be made; one part let revert to the canonry of Saints Just & Pastor, another to the canons of Saint-Paul, the other to Saint-Aniane. Of the harvest of Villamagna, let half revert between Ermengaud and Raimond, of the other half let one third revert to Saint-Sauveur, the other two to Saint-Martin. Of the harvest of Vallemagnensis, & Caucenogilo, & Cogiano, let the selfsame half revert to Raimond; let them distribute the other half among churches and the poor. Of the harvest of Narbonne let revert half to the convent being built there; & if, God permitting, it shall have been constructed, I ask that my daughter may be abbess there, & to the selfsame woman let revert my jewellery, with the selfsame mancuses and golden things: the other half of the harvest let revert to Raimond. Let them make Archiberga & Adalberga & Belhomme & Aldeguer free and let each one of them be given five solidi. Of the chalice and offertory and 2 patens let the lord Ermengaud order one chalice to be made, & let him give it with the paten that Belhomme has to Saint-Paul. Let the cattle of Abuniano revert to the convent we are building. Let the cattle of Matucino along with all my swine revert to Ermengaud & Raimond, & let my aforesaid executors make a grand banquet of them. Of the substance they may have in their ministry, let them have for their work 20 solidatas, & afterwards whatever they may be able to find of my substance, let them faithfully divide it among churches and the poor, for the remedy of my soul; let them receive from me by God such a reward as the mercy for me for which they may implore Him.

Medieval chalice and paten in the Bibliothèque nationale de France

I’m pretty sure that this chalice and paten are later medieval than is relevant for this post but they are firstly French and secondly absolutely gorgeous [edit: and, as it turns out, rather earlier than I thought, see comments…].

“This testament done the 4th Nones of October, in the 24th year of the reign of King Lothar. Signed Adelaide, who ordered this testament to be made and signed and asked to sign. Sig+ned Aldo, who is called Baroncel. Sig+ned Arlabaud. Sig+ned Guadaud. Sig+ned Isimbert. Sig+ned Ramnulf. Dieudé, notary, wrote these words.”

There’s obviously loads one could say with this document, especially if you do more than skim it as I guess you mostly just did. The particular bigger point that made me choose this one needs other information, so I’ll go into that last but meanwhile there are three things apparent just from this that are worth highlighting.

  1. Firstly, Adelaide comes over here as a patron of her city in a quite late Antique style. Most of the bequests favour either the cathedral (SS Just & Pastor) or the archbishops’ other church, St-Paul, with the little-known city monastery of St-Aniane coming in a reasonable third, and there’s also a clear expectation that it will be easy to sell things as needed, suggesting a ready market and in general an urban milieu. To me this looks different from my pet counts on the other side of the Pyrenees, except maybe the count-bishop Miró Bonfill’s investment in Besalú, but is that in fact because they have to rule differently? As an elderly city-based viscountess, her options to travel widely may have been limited compared to their more itinerant and military power.
  2. Secondly, the main impression this will gives is that Adelaide had a lot of stuff and was managing it quite closely, with known persons in charge of almost every bit of it and produce and livestock counted to nearly the head (the horses at least). But actually these things are relative: she bequeathed property in eighteen places, about three hundred and fifty solidi‘s worth of treasure and money, an unknown quantity of cows and pigs but apparently no more than one banquest would demolish and at least eleven and probably at least fourteen horses, the last being impressive because horses were almost all war animals at this time. That seems a lot but isn’t out of the realm of possibility for a major castellan in my Catalan documents, and Adelaide is an apparently sovereign viscountess. It is at least clear that there was more in the tank, as she was bequeathing produce from eight different estates here and only one of the actual estates is itself bequeathed, had you noticed? And in fact she also made a later will in which she bequeathed an almost entirely different set of properties, including the actual honor of the viscounty, which went to son Raimond.2 All the same, she doesn’t seem to have been in the top flight despite her position.
  3. The third thought is a similar one: there isn’t much hierarchy visible here, is there? One of these people holds a tower; otherwise, she, her late husband and the archbishop are the only obvious aristocrats here. There is no count, fine, but where are the castellans? Not appearing in this film, it would seem. Her six executors and five witnesses are quite possibly military men, someone must be riding those horses she has, but again there’s not a lot here to distinguish her from a rich castellan herself. Was there anyone holding office from her, we might wonder? If so she doesn’t say so. If we hark back to Jeffrey Bowman’s five qualities of female aristocratic power, it’s not clear that Adelaide had very many of them.3

But the gender angle is important, and it’s what initially made me notice this document. It’s not just that Viscountess Adelaide was herself a woman in power, her world contained many other women. Although her daughters don’t seem to merit naming, unlike her sons, one of them at least was hopefully to be an abbess, and her sisters were to support the building of the nunnery, not any male relatives. The figure who interests me most here is the countess, however. Did you notice her? It would be easy not to, since she doesn’t apparently get any property, but nonetheless she is there, Countess Arsinda of Carcassonne, helping out with the nunnery by uncertain means. I can’t help feel that it’s significant that she bears the same name as one of Adelaide’s sisters, too. The female namestock round here was restricted, as we know—this is after all another post about a woman called Adelaide—but these two reasons to believe some kind of connection do support each other.

Saint-Pons de Thomières

A common focus of interest… The modern settlement of Saint-Pons de Thomières, which in the days of Viscountess Adelaide and Countess Garsinda was probably not much more than a new monastery. By Fagairolles 34 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, when I first read this document I couldn’t help but notice the countess, because this was the sixth time she’d turned up in the relevant documentary collection.4 Nor is she by any means the only countess or viscountess appearing with such frequency. That collection was selective, but unless the Benedictines who put it together had a real thing for women in office there is something going on here. Furthermore, as this document shows, they were not women apart, but seem largely to have known each other. Here we see Viscountess Adelaide of Narbonne relying in part on her comital neighbour Arsendis; that’s the only connection between those two this anthology shows us, but Adelaide also shows up twice with Countess Garsinda of Toulouse, who also spent some time as a dowager ruler; the first time they concur they were both giving to Saint-Pons de Thomières, as did Adelaide again in her will, and the second time is Garsinda‘s will, in which Adelaide was the largest immediate beneficiary.5 Since Garsinda’s appearances here otherwise are pretty much only to do with Saint-Pons, which was clearly a concern of hers, and that’s presumably what governed the editors’ selection from documents otherwise now largely lost, we’re seeing just once here a connection that obviously meant more to both of these women, as did that between Adelaide and Arsendis to them for all that we only get a flash of it. I’m pretty sure more could be done to reconstitute these networks, which were probably largely constituted by marriages, but the picture I was already left with was a half-century or so of the French Midi in which a number of ageing women organised several aspects of society more or less in cooperation with each other, having got used to government with their husbands and seeing no immediate need as yet to hand over to their sons. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve looked at here of female power, there is something here that looks usual as well as frequent, and I wanted to bring it to wider attention.


1. Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, rev. Émile Mabille, Edward Barry, Ernest Roschach & Auguste Molinier & ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. V (Toulouse 1872, repr. Osnabrück 1973), online here, Preuves : chartes et diplômes no. 130. It being online, I won’t type out the Latin for once; you can check, after all.

2. Ibid. doc. no. 151.

3. I’ve just linked to where I reference this paper, but because it could hardly be more relevant I’ll cite it here too: Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity, and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084. This post here is of course about the milieu in which almost all his example women grew up…

4. She occurs in Devic & Vaissete, Histoire générale de Languedoc Vol. V, Preuves : chartes et diplômes nos 79, 89, 103, 104.4, 104.6 & 130, which as per the nature of the collection are from several different archives any of which might show her up some more.

5. Ibid. nos 125 & 126 respectively; presumably Garsinda’s earlier arrangements were timore mortis ones.

Widow warlords

A couple of days ago I found myself engaged once again in one of the arguments about medieval society it’s just impossible to resolve, that of how possible it was for women to wield political power as men did. It’s impossible to resolve because it obviously wasn’t usual for women to do so, so every case of a woman who did is exceptional and thus probably unsafe to generalise from. There’s a whole argument’s room in that ‘probably’ of course, but on this occasion the argument focussed on Jeffrey Bowman‘s article on countesses in Catalonia and the Midi in the tenth and eleventh centuries that I mentioned a few posts ago, and there you may remember me promising a post about how I thought his case could be deepened. So, this is it.

Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona as portrayed in Televisió de Catalunya's series Ermessenda

There are no contemporary or even medieval depictions of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, but that’s OK because TV has since provided

Professor Bowman, you may remember, developed a fivefold set of acts of power that he thought women would need to do to hold power like men, and then argued that they did, at least in this area and time.1 These were fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’, and of these perhaps the toughest to show is fighting. His best example, and everybody’s for female power in this area, is Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, who wound up running her son’s and initially her grandson’s governments and had to be forced to let go by said grandson making open war on her. One of the issues about her rule was that she didn’t send campaigns into Spain to keep the castellans rich, but she certainly directed armies when necessary, though whether she was actually ever in battle herself is harder to show. Her three-generation coregency and final reduction to ignominious and short-lived dowagerhood is about as extreme an example as it’s possible to get, however, even if she was followed by another countess of almost as much ability and independence of whom we have already heard (but who also got murdered).2 And besides, she was at the head of her state. There is only room for one such person at a time; like Margaret Thatcher, she did not necessarily leave the ladder down behind her. So what were the possibilities like a few rungs down?

Now, I could tell you about viscountesses (and in a future post I will) but viscounts were not really very different from counts by the late-tenth century; they too were rulers of their areas, even if some notional comital superiority was occasionally acknowledged.3 So how much further down the ladder can we get? Well, in my famous book I mention a lady called Adelaide (as so many were) who ran a castle. This is admittedly Bowman’s third act of power, not necessarily his first, but it’s worth looking at how she got it. The castle was the Castell d’Orsal, south of Vic, and it enters our record in the hands of the viscounts of Girona. They sold it, however, to a man called Radulf, and he then sold it to Adelaide.4

Remains of the alleged Castell de Malla

This is on Wikimedia Commons as the Castell de Malla, but to the best of my knowledge that should be the just-visible remains on top of the hill (what you can see is basically what there is).5 What this building is, therefore, I’m not at all sure… By Elmoianes (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-es], via Wikimedia Commons

Now straight away we hit the problem of exceptionality, although for once not about the woman but about the castle. Orsal’s initial owners must have been holding it privately rather than in their official capacity, since though they were viscounts they were not viscounts here, so it’s not entirely clear that the castle had military obligations to fulfil, although there was a ‘beneficium’ in its territory which suggests fiscal land-stocks dedicated to its upkeep.6 The comital family also held land nearby, both Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell and his sister Godregilda Countess of Pallars, and had clients here, of whom one, Riculf, may have been Adelaide’s husband.7 Also, it doesn’t seem that the castle was worth keeping – all these powerful men selling it very quickly – so it may not have been very well-equipped or repaired. It was apparently OK for Adelaide to be a castellan, in other words, but that may be because there was nothing that really came with the castle. And for castellans, she is the best case I can find.

But, surprisingly, we can get lower down and much more certain at the same time. Rather earlier in the century and higher up in the Pyrenees, we have the will of a woman called Oliba (usually a man’s name but here specified ‘femina’).8 She was old enough to have two sons, one of whom was a deacon and the other dead, and she was reassigning the inheritance to take account of that latter fact. And, in the course of rewarding the surviving son Ludiric because he had “remained in my obedience and desired so to do”, she gave him an alod big enough to have an island in it, in the territory of the castle of Bar, and it came with various revenues including those “de predam et de ostem”. I cannot think of any way to translate that but “from plunder and from campaigning”, and with that seems to follow ineluctably the implication that this land supported a warband, and neither the fact that she was an ageing widow nor that he was a churchman were apparently going to stop that.

Obviously it's only a guess, but here's a farm in Bar with an island in the Riu Segre on its likely property; it could be where theirs was...

So, OK, again, we have the obvious cavil: there’s nothing here that proves she herself was fighting, even less that proves that he was. In fact, he can’t have been expected to, if he owned the land, since if he was receiving revenues from some venture he was presumably not bringing them in himself or he could just have kept them— with Ma dead, who else could claim? Nonetheless, they were running soldiers. Whether they told those soldiers where to go or just sent them out for pigs (another of the revenue sources mentioned), no questions asked, they controlled men of war enough to take some of their booty off them. And this, apparently, like Adelaide’s control of a castle, was, if not usual, at least by no means so odd that it needed explaining in the charter.

When I bring these examples up, and others of women witnessing or signing documents, people who work on other early medieval areas where they get none of this stuff often ask me why tenth-century Catalonia should have been so well-disposed to women’s rights, justifiably enough. I have tended to suggest that if they had my evidence density maybe they’d see this too, because these are—here it comes again—probably not usual cases. But they were possible cases, and that in itself merits more explanation than I’m usually willing to give it. That doesn’t mean I have one, but I will suggest two interlinked factors that must have played a part. One, both Adelaide and Oliba were widows, which is to say, there had once been a man with whom they shared these rights, and second, as often said here, in Catalonia the law of resort was still the Visigothic Judges’ Book.9 These connect because the Visigothic Law was fairly generous to wives and widows: while their husband was alive, they held ten per cent of his property with him, and after he died, they got to keep that tenth for their support, until or unless they married again, in which case it devolved to the children of the first marriage since she would now have a new tenth.10 How often that was actually done is not clear, but it was often enough that “from my tenth” is a way that widows disposing of property by charter explained how they came to own it.11 Now, unless we are to suppose that people deliberately chose that tenth to exclude any land they held with a military duty or whatever being done from it, which would often have been quite hard to do I’d guess, widows of men who ran soldiers must sometimes have wound up with a warband’s base on their hands when he died, in perfect legal right. Actually, this land of Oliba’s came from her parents and Adelaide just bought her castle, but my point is that women running soldiers must have come up enough that if it was acceptable one way, it might be acceptable in others.

We expect, of course, based on later primogeniture and despite any number of romances in which women get knights in to defend their castles and don’t even always marry them, that this would have seemed so unnatural that it had to be altered. There are enough female litigants in the record here, though, including castellans’ widows who defeated the Church in court, that I suspect women being so shunted out of control would have generated a record.12 I also think we probably expect that particular sense of the unnatural too much. We might, realistically, be beyond the law in Oliba’s case, with frontier pig-raiding a bankable source of cash, but she still had a charter written and in any case, pioneer pragmatism surely ought to have seen an old woman elbowed out of place in favour of an able-bodied man sooner, don’t you think? If it was weird out here, it should have been fightin’ weird not legal weird. So perhaps it wasn’t weird at all, just unusual. We still have the philosophical wrangle about what to do with an unusual thing that perhaps still happened a lot, of course, but if we’re not happy making rules out of it at least we can also avoid making rules out of its more common opposite.


1. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. The standard book on Ermessenda is Antoni Pladevall, Ermessenda de Carcassona, comtessa de Barcelona, Girona i d’Osona: esbós biogràfic en el mil·lenari del seu naixement (Barcelona 1975), but you can find him reprising it more recently for an audience of Romanesque fans in “La Comtessa de Barcelona Ermessenda de Carcassona” in Amics de l’Art Romànic de Sabadell no. 109 (Sabadell 2011), pp. 519-538, online here as PDF.

3. On viscounts and their power see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141; cf. cf. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngi en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29-75, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974, 1989), 2 vols, I pp. 181-226.

4. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 82-83; the documents in question are printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 1774 & 1805.

5. Jordi Vigué i Viñas, Albert Benet i Clarà and Antoni Pladevall i Font, “Castell de Malla” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya romànica, II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 292–294.

6. The beneficium is in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 350; see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 84.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 661, 1542 & 1730 show Borrell’s lands here; the first of these shows Goldregilda as neighbour. For Riculf, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 84-86.

7. My reference here is Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 7–143, doc. no. 70. Now, it’s a while since I saw the text of this document. I’ve been citing this charter for this fact ever since my doctoral upgrade in 2001, but my viva revealed that I’d read one other thing in this document quite wrong, and now that I go back to my notes I find that they say nothing of this, which is a little disturbing. It’s on open shelves in Cambridge University Library, P582.b.1, probably North Front 5 still; if any of my readership happen to be passing, and wouldn’t mind photocopying or scanning a text, I would be quite grateful for it…

8. See Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

9. Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), online here, III.1.6 sets the tenth, though note that III.1.7 says that the bride’s father inherits it when she dies, presumably not a usual occurrence and not something I can document.

10. This, however, is common: some examples are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 95 (where the woman had kept the tenth from her previous husband despite remarrying), 560, 579, 596, 636, 726 (consenting to its alienation), 919, 1040, 1263 (a couple who weren’t even legally married, Unifred and Sesnanda), 1299, 1404, 1548, 1727 (Ermessenda!) & 1822 (citing the Law for it), and these are just the ones in that collection where I made a note of it.

11. Ajó, widow of the Vicar and judge Guifré de Néspola and perhaps daughter of the Vicar Sal·la, founder of Sant Benet de Bages. Again we see the problem: she was certainly unusually privileged, and the result is almost unique in terms of preservation, but how much more could we nonetheless expect this unusual thing to have happened… ?

Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in Exeter

We seem now to be firmly into June 2013 in my never-decreasing backlog of reporting, and next up in it was a day out to Exeter, somewhere I hadn’t been for a long time but which called me now for the same reason as it often has before, a gathering of the intermittent organisation known as Historians of Medieval Iberia. The main reason this had occurred was the presence in the UK of a man much cited here, Professor Jeffrey Bowman, visiting Exeter, because of which Professor Simon Barton thereof had wanted to organise a day symposium, and so being called we variously went. Due to the uselessnesses of First Great Western trains, I was only just in time for the first paper, but in time I was, and the running order was as follows, in pairs of papers.

  • Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Lordship and Gender in Medieval Catalonia”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Per multa curricula ex parte destructa: membership of a Church community in Catalonia c. 1000″
  • Robert Portass, “Doing Business: was there a land market in tenth-century Galicia?”
  • Teresa Tinsley, “Hernando de Baeza and the End of Multicultural Iberia”
  • Graham Barrett, “Beyond the Mozarabic Migration: frontier society in early medieval Spain”
  • Simon Barton, “The Image of Aristocracy in Christian Iberia, c. 1000-c. 1300: towards a new history”

Professor Bowman’s paper is now out as an article, but some brief account may be of interest anyway.1 The way it worked was to do what I love doing, standing Catalonia up as a better-evidenced counter-example to a broader theory, in this case that of Georges Duby that female lordship as early as the tenth century was an incredibly rare occurrence seen as a pale imitation of masculinity. To do this involved setting up some kind of definition of lordship, which Professor Barton suggested should at least include fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’. Women with military rôles are not unknown in the Catalan records (wait for a future post here, as I think the phenomenon goes down lower than Professor Bowman had time to look), countesses in the eleventh century at least certainly presided over courts alone, a good few held castles in fief (or by other arrangements2), we have various Arabic testimonies to the countesses of Barcelona being conduits for diplomatic communication and under ‘special projects’, if we mean things like land clearance, Abbess Emma is an obvious example.3

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, a woman who would not give up government till there was no choice, in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

So that case looks pretty much made: in this area, for that definition of lordship (and it does occur to me now that it is a very tenth-century-and-later one because of the inclusion of castles, though one could still say the same of Dhuoda I guess), it’s hard to see anything odd about female participation in lordship here and we should stop thinking it odd. And I suppose I’d agree with that, and not necessarily just here (another future post) but there does still seem to me to be a difference, in the Languedoc at least where the ninth century gives enough to compare with, between the rôles in and frequency with which women appear in charters, especially as far as their titles go, to suggest that even if this situation wasn’t odd, it might still be new. It did, however, last: Professor Bowman was keen to stress in questions that those who have looked for a shift towards a lineage system here have found it hard to locate over any timeframe much shorter than a century.4

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

As for me, little enough needs saying there: in the throes of another project entirely and with no time to come up with two papers so close to each other from it, I’d offered the latest version of the now-legendary Sant Pere de Casserres paper; I ran through where the place is, what the sources are, why there’s a problem with the narrative of its foundation and what the actual story might be that would fit it; Graham Barrett suggested some modifications to my Latin and then the questions were all for Professor Bowman, which is fine as he was building a much bigger thesis. One of my problems with the Casserres paper is working out what larger point it makes; the other, of course, is non-responsive archives, but that’s a bigger problem than just here…

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The second session put two rather less-connected papers together. Rob was out to demonstrate peasant access to the land market in his corner of early medieval Spain, which has often been overlooked because the dominant Spanish historiography interested in peasants has been more interested in how they resisted power than how they cooperated with it.5 This Marxist perspective needs rethinking, argued Rob, not least because many of these peasants did not live in the Marxist ‘peasant mode’, but operated in both vertical and horizontal networks of power and assistance. Even when those networks led to the monastery of Celanova, whence most of Rob’s material, it was not always to peasant disadvantage to cut a deal with the monks, whose rents were limited, and the land that was then sold to them had often come from other peasants previously. The problem here is of course the definition of peasant, but I think I would agree that whatever we call the free smallholders here they could happily do business with each other, and do so with an eye to their own benefit.6

The Alhambra palace in Granada

The Alhambra palace in Granada, now very keen to be widely known as a World Heritage site

Miss Tinsley’s paper came from a completely different place, sixteenth-century Granada, where one Hernando de Baeza, a Christian interpreter for the last lords of the Muslim state there, was writing a history of recent events. This man is almost exactly the author a multicultural twenty-first century reading of events at the end of Muslim rule in Spain wants: his sources included Africans and women, he spoke all the necessary languages and about the only minority group he doesn’t mention is Jews, but the work was only published in the nineteenth century, from two incomplete manuscripts and is consequently confused and disordered in structure, which with its anecdotal style has left it out of most serious historiography. There is now, however, a recently-discovered complete manuscript to work from (which a Mexican archbishop had made in 1550 to help with converting native Americans!) and this offers more details with which the author’s life can be filled out. He seems to have been an ambassador to the papal court for Queen Isabella, briefly papal chamberlain and a protector of Jews, but whom King Ferdinand however booted out of his offices and whose parents had been burnt by the Inquisition! He seems to have written his history in Rome, a disenchanted man. He may therefore have been attempting something like a dream past of late medieval inclusion, before intolerance and persecution wrecked everything for him and his family. Again, just what we might wish but correspondingly slippery to deal with! This all sounded tremendous fun and I hope Miss Tinsley can make the man’s name better-known, although it transpired in questions that she is dealing with a recalcitrant editor of the manuscript who is being very careful what details he lets her have. That sounded dreadfully familiar, alas…

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860

Then came Graham Barrett, who was speaking on those curious populations in the frontier Christian polities of tenth-century Spain whose personal names were Arabic, about whom I’ve spoken myself once or twice, including at an earlier Historians of Medieval Iberia gathering, pre-blog. As that suggests, I had given up trying to get my work on this published before Graham had arrived in England to start his Ph. D., but also in the room was Professor Richard Hitchcock, who was fairly sparing about the absence of his more successful work from the presentation…7 I found it hard to rate this paper neutrally, anyway, it was much too close to my own fruitless sidetracks of yore. Graham’s take on things is always original, however, and he knows the documents far better than me, so there were new thoughts available. In particular he raised the possibility that lots of the relevant documents might be forged, although why one would then put Arabic names into them (and the same names over quite an area, I’d note) is hard to explain.8 He also correctly pointed out that migration of southerners was not necessary to explain these names and that they themselves were not evidence of ethnicity or even cultural affiliation,9 but that they might usefully be mapped against other markers of that, if any could be agreed. There’s definitely a project here, but I suspect that in fact neither of us will be the ones who do it as we both have easier things to attempt…

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Lastly our host, Simon Barton, asked whether the approximate synthesis to which historians of North-Western Europe seem now to have come about the medieval aristocracy applies in the Midi.10 Most study of the Spanish nobility has been of families, rather than of a class, but Simon argued that a class identity can be seen in formation after about 1050, with a hierarchy of aristocratic rank, heraldry and literature all developing to emphasise it. He suggested that these markers were developing not so much as spontaneous expression of ideals but as tests that helped mark people off from their imitators, which exposes the ideals in play to us in negative. This was a good wrap-up to a good day that refreshed a realisation for us that even if it’s thinly spread and uncertain of duration, nonetheless there is still a medieval Iberian scholarship in the UK and we’re all active parts of it; it’s never a bad time to be reassured that one has colleagues!


1. Jeffrey A. Bowman “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 83-85.

3. Idem, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005), pp. 229-258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

4. Cited here was Theodore Evergates, “Nobles and Knights in Twelfth-Century France” in Thomas N. Bisson (ed.), Cultures of Power: lordship, status and porcess in twelfth-century Europe (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 11-35; Georges Duby, “Women and Power”, ibid. pp. 69-85, provided the basic counter-type here.

5. Classically, Reyna Pastor de Tognery, Movimientos, resistencias y luchas campesinas en Castilla y León: siglos X-XIV (Madrid 1980).

6. R. Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanaca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here, contains some aspects of this paper.

7. R. Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008), building on his “Arabic proper names in the Becerro de Celanova” in David Hook & Barrie Taylor (edd.), Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain: Historical and Literary Essays Presented to L. P. Harvey, Kings College London Medieval Studies 3 (London 1990), pp. 111-126; references to my presentations can be found on my webpages here.

8. One example would be the apparent court notable Abolfetha ibn December (good name huh?), who certainly does appear in the forged Santos García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), doc. no. 22, but also in the less dubious José María Mínguez Fernández (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Monasterio de Sahagún (siglos IX y X) (León 1976), doc. no. 19 and Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952) (León 1987), doc. no. 68; at that rate, it begins to look as if the reason for putting his name in a forgery would be because it was known to belong to the period being aimed at, which is to say that at least up to three separate forgers thought he was a real historical person.

9. As also argued in Victoria Aguilar, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes 15 (1994), pp. 351-363 esp. at p. 363 and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI), ibid. pp. 465-72 with English abstract p. 472; they collect the Leonese evidence in Aguilar & Rodríguez, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media Vol. 6 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

10. E. g. (cited) David Crouch, The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300 (London 1992) or Constance Brittain Bouchard, “Those of my blood”: Constructing noble families in medieval Francia (Philadelphia 2001), to which cf. S. Barton, The aristocracy in twelfth century León and Castile (Cambridge 1997).

A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

I don’t hang about the late antique sources as much as perhaps I should, given some of what I have taught and hope to teach again, but there are of course only so many hours in the day. This means that stories from quite well-known sources can catch me by complete surprise when I read stuff by people who do hang out there, and a while back one such that I was surprised I’d never seen anywhere else wandered before me, courtesy of a paper by one David Grafton.1 This tracks medieval and indeed later identifications of Arabs and, by false implication, Muslims, to the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Grafton believes this is a fourth-century conflation of the Biblical story placing Ishmael’s exile in about the right part of the world with the general picture of the peoples there as barbarians and generally beyond the pale of civilisation. That seems to stack up to me, but in the course of it he refers to an early mention of the Arabs, or at least one of the tribes of Arabia (whom all writers concerned are happy to call Saracens2), who in 373 appear to have revolted against Rome. A clutch of ecclesiastical historians report on this and consider it most serious, though I note just in passing that Ammianus Marcellinus does not. Does this suggest a particular Christian context, you ask, and I say, indeed it do matey, ‘ave a look at this from Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

About this period the king of the Saracens died, and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mavia, the widow of the late monarch, finding herself at the head of the government, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine… the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man called Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses, and to conduct him to Lucius.3

Now this Lucius was the Bishop of Constantinople, but at this exact time the Roman Empire’s dominant Christian creed was Arianism, and Lucius was an Arian bishop. This immediately caused problems as Moses refused to receive ordination from him:

“Your creed is already well-known to me… and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile, and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.” Having again protested, upon oath, that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans, and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.

Grafton reads this as evidence that there was Christianity among the Arabs, and furthermore that it was Catholic Christianity, and that the revolt can therefore be seen in terms of orthodoxy versus Arianism. I’m absolutely sure that that’s how Sozomen wanted it to be seen, and probably the other historians who record this episode, all of whom seem to be deriving it from Rufinus. I, myself, would be a very great deal happier about it if Ammianus mentioned any such thing, or if Sozomen mentioned the names of the Roman and Phoenician generals Mavia (or Mawiyya, as she is modernly transliterated) is supposed to have defeated in her revolt. As it is, it looks like a story more or less invented, or at least spun, to indicate that everyone knew that Arianism just wasn’t really legitimate even when it ruled Constantinople. I find it hard to imagine the trip off to find the exile bishops so as to settle a troublesome frontier people, don’t you? I would like it a lot more if any non-ecclesiastical source mentioned this woman. But they don’t, as far as I can quickly find out.6

Modern portrayal of Queen Mavia receiving the obeisance of two Roman legionaries

Of course, for perfectly understandable reasons Mavia has become something of a heroine in certain areas of the Internet, and I really do wish that there was some source for her that wasn’t religious polemic so that I was not in the position of spoiling the day of people like the artist responsible for this…

However, this is not the last mention of her and her people (who are known, in the limited historiography on this, as the Tanukh, I don’t know whence since all references I can chase up easily go back to Sozomen). In fact, to my continuing surprise, they turn up at no less a place than Constantinople, defending it against the Goths in 378 after the disaster at Adrianople in which Emperor Valens was killed. Sozomen adds only, “In this emergency, a few Saracens, sent by Mavia, were of great service.”5 But this, this time, Ammianus does mention, and he has a lot more to say:

A troop of Saracens (of whose origin and customs I have spoken at length in various places), who are more adapted to stealthy raiding expeditions than to pitched battles, and had recently been summoned to the city, desiring to attack the horde of barbarians of which they had suddenly caught sight, rushed forth boldly from the city to attack them. The contest was long and obstinate, and both sides separated on equal terms. But the oriental troop had the advantage from a strange event, never witnessed before. For one of their number, a man with long hair and naked except for a loin-cloth, uttering hoarse and dismal cries, with drawn dagger rushed into the thick of the Gothic army, and after killing a man applied his lips to his throat and sucked the blood that poured out. The barbarians, terrified by this strange and monstrous sight, after that did not show their usual self-confidence when they attempted any action, but advanced with hesitating steps.6

You can see why Sozomen cut this back a bit: it’s not exactly staunch Catholic conduct. What he also seems to have done, however, or possibly Rufinus did, I haven’t checked, is add the link to Mavia. Ammianus does, as he says, describe the Saracens elsewhere, but it’s in pretty disparaging terms, starting with, “The Saracens, however, whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies…” and going on into a series of clichés about their nomadic, horse-riding, milk-drinking habits, their lack of laws and their enthusiastically-consummated short-term marriages that make these people more or less the same as any other set of outer barbarians he might describe.7 He never mentions a queen, however, so my initial position remains sceptical. I meant, before posting this, to have chased the limited historiography down and tried to gather if there’s any reason to believe that Mavia was anything more than a moral tale. Sadly, time did not permit before I left Oxford and the local resources aren’t as useful for it. This means, of course, that there’s still hope, but even if she should in fact have been a fabrication of the church historians, why was it necessary or useful to fabricate a queen? Perhaps you have thoughts…


1. David D. Grafton, “‘The Arabs’ in the Ecclesiastical Historians of the 4th and 5th Centuries: effects on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations” in Hervormde Teologiese Studies Vol. 64 (Pretoria 2008), pp. 177-192.

2. Grafton discusses this word and its origins, ibid. pp. 178-183, but a more in-depth account to which one is usually referred is John V. Tolan, Saracens (New York City 2002).

3. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VI.38, here quoted from the translation by Edward Walford as The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, as epitomised by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (London 1855), online here, where pp. 308-309.

4. The thing that Grafton cites which I should seek out, as it presumably collects this information if it exist, is J. S. Trimingham, “Māwiyya: the first Christian Arab Queen” in The Near East School of Theology Theological Review, Vol 1 (1978), 3-10, though there is also Glenn W. Bowersock, “Mavia, Queen of the Saracens” in W. Eck et al. (edd.), Studien zur antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift F. Vittinghoff (Vienna 1980), pp. 477–495 and indeed apparently more. No-one appears to consider it possible that she was just a story, so maybe I’m too cynical. Benjamin Isaac, “The Eastern Frontier” in Averil Cameron & Peter Garnsey (edd.). The Cambridge Ancient History XIII: the late Empire A.D. 337-425 (Cambridge 1998), pp. 437-460 at pp. 447-448, runs through this episode and confirms (p. 448):

Our sources on the Mavia affair are all ecclesiastical, so that their interests focuses exclusively on the religious aspects of the episode. The history of Mavia has been discussed frequently in the modern literature, and some scepticism expressed as to the reliability of these sources.

He goes on, however, “However, even a minimalist interpretation allows several conclusions” and then basically accepts everything except the scale of the damage, so I am apparently more minimalist than minimalist here…

5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.1.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestarum, transl. John C. Rolfe as Ammianus Marcellinus: Res Gestarum quae supersunt (New York City 1939-1950), 3 vols, online here with limited corrections by Bill Thayer, XXXI.16.

7. Ibid. XIV.4.