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.
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
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… ?