Tag Archives: Paul Freedman

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 2

The second day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies—which is where my reporting backlog currently sits, alas—began reflectively…

226. The Nature of the Middle Ages: a Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)

I went along to this mainly for reasons of celebrity-spotting, but it’s also often interesting to hear veterans of the field talk about what the field actually is, and to set it against one’s own perspectives. There are dynamics here about how elevated you get before your bird’s eye view becomes cloud-cuckoo land, but equally ones about being so close to the ground that you define the whole world by your local topography, and so on. All of this was given extra meat by this ICMS being the 50th, provoking reflection on the ICMS itself as much as anything. The scheduled presenters each picked their own targets for their muses, as follows:

  • Robin Fleming, “What Material Turn?”
  • Marcus Bull, “The Study of the Middle Ages and the Dread Word ‘Relevance'”
  • Ruth Mazo Karras, “Not Quite Fifty Years of Women’s History at Kalamazoo”
  • Paul Freedman, “Changing Subjects in Medieval History”
  • Nancy Partner, “Medieval ‘People’: Psyche?/Self?/Emotions?”
  • Some of these were complaints, and some reflections. Professor Fleming told everyone else that we don’t use objects enough in our history, and the conference programme certainly gave her a basis for the stance. Professor Mazo Karras charted the growth of the history of women from the archive of ICMS programmes—the first session on women at the ICMS was (only?) eight years coming but the take-off point for her was when societies started to form to do the work elsewhere. Professor Freedman, who was one of the first people to realise how great Vic is as a place to work on and whom I was glad to meet at last, had done similar analysis and noted, among other things, that at the second ever ICMS there had been seven women presenting, four of whom were nuns, but also that English literature and English history still dominate the programme, but that the rest has diversified hugely since 1965. Professor Partner spoke mainly of periodization and the problem of difference, between us and our subjects, which she argued could only be approached by deliberately seeking the ‘interiority’ of our sources, a kind of ‘depth psychology’.

    Medieval manuscript illumination of King Arthur's court and the Round Table

    Of course, it now strikes me that the very word ’roundtable’ is a medievalism, not something that any of the participants mentioned, but the site I got this image from epitomises the medievalism pretty well…

    This opened up the question of the session title perhaps more than the others had, and discussion went two ways, one following this, asking what we could do to avoid the problems of the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’, which have myriad difficulties because of being defined only by whatever lies outside them and not having clear ends. Professor Partner had argued half-jokingly for ‘really early modern’, but David Perry, one of the organisers, argued that it means more to people outside the Academy than it does to us, and Steven Muhlberger continued that by saying that the emptiness of the category actually serves us by allowing us to fill it with whatever suits us. True, useful, but hard to make into a clear mission statement, I think…

    Faulty slide purporting to set out differences between women's situation in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

    Periodization and women’s history: what we’re up against, grabbed just now from the web

    This desire for a mission statement was what had occupied Professor Bull’s contribution, which I haven’t yet discussed. This is because it seemed to me a much more UK-focused perspective than the others and to sit oddly with them. His was a pitch familiar to me from my years in Oxford, in fact, roughly that that we should stop paying attention to governments and managerial bodies who want us to justify our subject, especially in terms of its relevance to the era in which we live, not least because we medievalists will always lose to the modernists in such a contest but also because modern-day relevance must by its nature shift all the time so can’t be a foundation. I accept the logic of this but it seems to me that this is only a fortification that can morally be erected by those who have no outside paymasters. Oxford had been mostly aggrieved that those of its paymasters whom it had trained didn’t seem inclined to respect that privilege, and obviously that someone pays some of your money doesn’t mean that they should get to set all of your agenda, but to argue that they can set none of it because what we do is just worthy of support, whatever it is, is, I fear, unlikely ever to convince those with nationally-accountable beans to count.

    Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)

    But why should we stop now, when we’re beginning to get books out of it, I am tempted to ask? Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)…

    The people who picked up on this in discussion seemed mostly to argue that our use to the wider world is not to show how the Middle Ages is like whatever is now happening, but to show when other people who are saying that are wrong. I feel the push to do that very strongly myself, as you may be aware, and have long argued that to use history is almost always to misuse it, but behind this is an idea of a ‘correct’, empirical and detached vision of the Middle Ages whose perfect fruition would be that no-one outside the Academy ever derived any benefit from the study of the past at all except in a pure æsthetic form; if they discovered anything that was ‘relevant’ it would have almost to be suppressed before it got into others’ hands. It seems to me that people are always going to have reasons why they find this stuff interesting and the best we can do is to train them to find it interesting enough to be careful with it. You can tell, anyway, that this interests me as a subject of discussion, but I still wish we could have the discussion with the economics in. As an earlier defender of this view said, “money doesn’t stink”. You’d think we couldn’t strike for more of it without considering where it comes to us from, but it seems not so. So anyway, from here to coffee and calmer waters…

248. The Venerable Bede: Issues and Controversies I

  • Thomas Rochester, “The Place of Luke and Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • Morn Capper, “Bede and the Making of ‘Mercian Supremacy’: Challenging the Construct”
  • Sarah McCann, “Nodes of Influence: Networks, People, and the Writing of History”
  • It is of course impossible entirely to avoid Bede or Beowulf at the ICMS, but in this instance I would of course have gone anyway because of the presence of Morn Capper, long-standing friend of both this blog and your blogger. Morn’s paper argued that the groundwork for the period of the eighth century in which the kingdom of Mercia dominated England was largely laid in the seventh century, when Bede was in some sense watching, and yet he tells us very little about how it was done: for him, Mercia under the famous King Penda only shows up when it was on the warpath, whereas our sources for his successors Wulfhere and Æthelred emphasise negotiation, alliance and sometimes infrastructure. As Morn said, all of these rulers must have done all of these things but Bede is mainly interested in how far they supported the Church and so the version of Mercia we get from him is very partial indeed. As for the other two, both were at a very preliminary stage, Mr Rochester to establish Biblical models for Bede’s structuring of the Ecclesiastical History and Miss McCann to build a network model of the History using Gephi, and it doesn’t seem kind to mount a critique of their work here.

315. Fluctuating Networks: the Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

  • Robert Portass, “The Peasant Parvenu: Social Climbing in Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Petra Melichar, “Noble Women and Their (Broken) Allegiances in Late Byzantium”
  • Arthur Westwell, “Studios: a Network of Alternative Power in Ninth-Century Constantinople”
  • Here, likewise, I had mainly come because of the presence of a colleague of yore, Rob Portass, but his paper sat rather oddly in the session as it was principally about bonds formed, not broken, between local transactors in Galicia, which is after all kind of Rob’s stuff.1 He was arguing that confrontation with the actual documents, mainly here those of Santo Toribio de Liébana, showed you peasants making deals with each other and advancing relative to each other, rather than the narrative of the historiography of the area which shows you landlords beating down on peasant necks.2 Well, not here, says Rob. Meanwhile, the other two had picked up on the theme a bit more. Ms Melichar looked at the different ties late Byzantine noblewomen could break, with family, Orthodoxy, political networks and so on, usually to stay connected to one of the other of these sets, but as she pointed out, never as far as we can see to advance their own positions, rather than those of the networks within which they worked. Lastly, Mr Westwell set out a case for the monastery of St John the Forerunner of Stoudios as a long-lived ‘safe’ focus for opposition to imperial religious policies in eighth- and ninth-century Constantinople, although the high point of that was the Abbot Theodore, who set himself and his monks to guard what they saw as orthodoxy through a series of theological disputes and mounted that defence not least by many many letters to people at court, ex-monks who had gone on to serve elsewhere, friendly church officials and noblemen and women, not just mobilising support but giving backing to those people’s own opposition. This was a whole world of source material I’d had no idea about and for me one of the eye-openers of the conference.

That was the end of the academic programme for me on this day. If I remember rightly we now met back up with Morn and set out to walk to the legendary Bilbo’s, a required rite de pizza for the medievalist visiting Kalamazoo. We had no driver so set out to walk it, which is perfectly doable as long as you can work out which way to head, and that I eventually did after being 180° wrong to start with. That was worth it for the guy we checked directions with, however, who despite being of apparently normal build and health counselled us to get a cab: “It’s a hell of a walk. Gotta be half a mile at least.” We assured him that in Britain that is OK to walk and enjoyed our pizza and beer all the more for the adventure, and that was how we wrapped up day two of Kalamazoo 2015.


1. As witness Robert Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

2. Classically presented in Reyna Pastor, Resistencias y luchas campesinas en la época del crecimiento y consolidación de la formación feudal: Castilla y León, siglos X-XIII (Madrid 1980).

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Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

Sometimes the best way to realise what you think is to hear or read a view from someone that presents you with difficulties. Once you’ve worked out what the difficulties are, you know more about what you think. (This is like the internal monologue version of the way to get an answer out of Usenet.1) This is another thing that has happened to me as a result of continuing on with Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages.

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Put shortly, ideas of agency are very strong in my work. I’ve worked on authority and power pretty much as long as I’ve been researching but one of the things that comes along with that is the idea that the people who have this property can act in ways that change things. (There are probably good and obvious Freudian reasons for why I have a fascination with the ability to change things, but let’s not go there on this blog. Suffice to say that this is a political fascination now, even if it wasn’t to start with; the state of UK politics has made it incredibly appealing as an idea.) This kind of historical agency is actually not as much of a given as it seems: a deterministic enough view of historical events might make it seem as if it’s hard for even those in power to change the direction of societies sometimes, and various social theories that involve large-scale dialectical processes, most obviously Marxism I suppose, would seem to give humans little choice in their affairs.

My work tends to argue against this. Two books into my hypothetical future career is a proper study of Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, a man who lived at a time when big social forces seem to have been burgeoning.2 He wasn’t going to change the fact that the economy was booming, that the frontier was being settled, that al-Mansur had turned the Caliphal armies of al-Andalus onto all the principalities of Northern Spain (not with Borrell’s war record, anyway) or a great number of other things, but the ways he chose to meet the demands of his time meant that the lives of the people he ruled worked out slightly differently than they might otherwise have done so (with better-educated judges, for example, and a more trustworthy coinage, or if you prefer a negative emphasis, with far more of their relatives captive in Córdoba and a much greater likelihood of an independently-minded castellan ruling their local roost).3 He was not a typical aristocrat.

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400, ironically therefore as a typical aristocrat (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now Chris is quite big on the historical importance of aristocrats (“I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognize their importance”, he has written4) but they do tend to appear in his work as a homogenous class, all interested similarly in being and staying wealthy and powerful by whatever means necessary. This is hard to argue with, because people who weren’t so interested didn’t stay in that position versus people who did. Nice, considerate, light-handed aristocrats are hard to evidence. There was Gerald of Aurillac, of course, but if even half of what Odo of Cluny records about this lay saint is true to life, he was so very odd that he represents nothing except the possibilities of acting abnormally (though that is a real iceberg of a point, with huge hidden depths, to which I continually gravitate). I think, however, that Borrell II shows that there is more to aristocratic action than simply a single class ambition; some aristocrats worked to their ends differently from others, and indeed against each other.5

The fact that the third book I’d like to write next would make this point more fully probably has probably arisen in part from the increasing amount of debate I’ve had with Chris over the years. As a result of it, I would like to stress more that people’s differences had historically significant results. Chris knows this, too, of course, as his comparisons of different sorts of landowner in Framing, especially the Apions in the Oxyrynchos region of Egypt versus the slightly later Dioskoros of Aphroditō, makes clear, but to him, it seems to me from reading, they are important because they represent examples of a wider phenomenon, and therefore their differences exemplify disparity in scale of wealth and in their political times, whereas I am much more interested in the ways in which aristocrats deviated from pattern by choice.6 (This of course makes Chris much more able to write 820-page-long syntheses of the development of the entire Western world for four hundred years than I will ever be; he may be more able to do this than anyone, after all. But I persist in the belief that individual agency needs its part in historical explanation too, however much it may vie with generalisation.)

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

All this, albeit less worked out, is an argument I have actually had with Chris, and as you may have noticed from the above I’ve more or less agreed to differ. But what about peasants? This is what has brought it freshly to mind. You would think, initially, that with peasants such generalisations are much more justifiable. Firstly, there were vastly more early medieval peasants than early medieval aristocrats, so the individual dissenter from a phenomenon stands out much less and is statistically less significant. Also, the peasant just has less agency than the aristocrat. How many people’s lives can a peasant affect, without (or even with) going on a homebrew-induced billhook killing spree? Not as many as even the most minor person with power, one might argue, and this is probably true. And yet it seems to me that – perhaps precisely because it matters less to grand arguments? – Chris gives a lot more space to peasant choices than he does to aristocratic ones. In the section of the book where he constructs a fictional Anglo-Saxon village society (‘Malling’), to make up for the lack of adequate records from a single place that can balance his case studies from elsewhere, the rise of one patron family and the fall of another, more established one, are explained solely in terms of their political choices and ability.7 Of course these are not real instances, but that doesn’t make their theoretical importance the less striking. And of course, behind them are a raft of choices about which patron family to associate with on the part of their followers.

You can see, I’m sure, how that scales up easily to aristocrats, and quite a lot of the explanations of the way politics worked in the Carolingian Empire with which I’m most comfortable rely on the aristocrats themselves needing help in getting potential followers to make such choices.8 But there are other ways in which peasant decisions make political differences, even short of revolt, and this is especially clear with Catalonia, or any other society with an open frontier. Now is not the time to get into a massive debate with the ghost of Pierre Bonnassie and the thankfully very-much-alive Gaspar Feliu i Montfort about exactly how true the former’s picture of Catalonia as a zone of mainly-independent free peasants, presumably governing their own labour in much the way that Chris suggests was more possible in his period than later,9 but it is important to note that the reason for that contention, however true it may be, is usually that there was an open frontier, where authority was thin, settlement encouraged (as we shall see in two posts’ time) and opportunity available to make a fresh start. While that remained true, it has been argued (and not just by Bonnassie10), the Catalan peasant could never be entirely oppressed, because he or she might always escape. Such settlement, after all, clearly did happen, even if Gaspar Feliu thinks that it was mainly driven by lords even so.11 It is of course a large-scale social phenomenon, sure, but it is made of a whole patchwork of individual decisions. This is not just because I’m sure (and have written) that not every settler had upped sticks far away, bought all the livestock they could afford and moved on out hoping to make a new life far away—I think many of them were much more local, often ‘field-next-door’ local12—but because whatever was going on here and whatever choices were being made, they obviously weren’t made by the peasantry as a class. If the whole peasantry had wanted to move to the frontier the interior would have become denuded of labour. This didn’t happen, so some people obviously chose to stay put and take it. We could argue about different economic circumstances, but again it would be hard to show that local societies lost a whole socio-economic layer of themselves, and I think I’ve shown that such choices could vary widely even within families out here.13 (I doubt that’s exclusive to ‘out here’ but ‘out here’ is where I can show it.) Such choices, furthermore, varied a lot in methods: save up, sell up, or get support? If so from whom? Does making a new independent start preclude doing so under new lordship? and so on.

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

So this is the edge case, where a class fragments and a general answer has to take into account a lot of individuals making very difficult choices (and some rich proprietors making rather easier ones, of course). But from this edge I can see the space for more such people. I don’t want to accuse myself of being specially ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘individualist’ here. (After all, what can be more individualist than arguing that almost every other Marxist is wrong?) But I am made freshly conscious by Chris’s magisterial treatment of whole societies in their entire layers, however varied the layers may have been and however much societies differed between each other, that my historiography does not build from class down but from individuals up, and does so because I still want the individuals to be the ones who make the differences.


1. I realise that those old enough to even know what Usenet is/was won’t need the explanation, but the method probably has a more Hellenistic name given how Socratic it almost seems: it is, of course, to ask a question that presupposes something wrong or gets its facts wrong, on the basis that you are more likely to provoke a reaction from someone who can put you right if they can also tell you you’re wrong. On Usenet, classically, this worked far better than simply asking for help.

2. There weirdly isn’t one yet, beyond the standard nineteenth-century reference, Prosper de Bofarull y de Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), I pp. 139-196, though there is also Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “Dos comtes de Barcelona germans, Miró i Borrell” in Marie Grau & Olivier Poisson (edd.), Études roussillonnaises offertes à Pierre Ponsich. Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’histoire de l’art du Roussillon et de la Cerdagne (Perpignan 1987), pp. 145-162, but that isn’t very much. There is also a certain amount of stuff by Michel Zimmermann, which is as ever very clever and, I think, also wrong in detail. Till I get the book together, thus, I can best refer you to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 141-166.

3. On all this the best guide remains Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, though cf. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115. Specifically, on al-Mansur you could now see Philippe Sénac, Al-Mansûr : le fleau de l’an mil (Paris 2006), on the judges Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99 and on the coinage J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243; on the 985 sack of Barcelona you should now see G. Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here in PDF, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008. On feudalism, well, give me time

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 19-31, quote at p. 30.

5. I’ve already essayed something along these lines in what I hope will be my next-but-one paper, J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming), pp. 000-00, but it could obviously be done more broadly than that.

6. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 242-250 & 411-419.

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

8. That comfort comes most obviously from Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

9. Bonnassie: esp. his Catalogne, II pp. 781-829, handily translated by Jean Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242; Feliu in his “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41 (no, seriously, do, this is a really important article); Chris, classically in “Problems of comparing rural societies in early medieval western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (London 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in his Land and power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

10. E. g. also by Josep María Salrach i Marés in El procés de feudalització (segles III–XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987) and Paul Freedman in The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

11. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” & “Pagesia”, and the various works (which include the latter at pp. 93-110) in his first collected papers, La llarga nit feudal: Mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2010).

12. J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 57-66.

Rustici ad libertatem! or, things I’d like to discuss with Ramon Martí

I’m sorry it’s been so long. There was the Vienna trip, which will make for a couple of posts, and then there were just other things that needed doing before spending quality time with the Internet. On the upside, activity should now be fairly intense for a while, as I’ve been reading a range of stuff that’s caused me to bluster, think and start drafting posts. First of these, then, follows.

Ramon Martí i Castelló is Titular Professor of Medieval History at the Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, and is a name I come across quite frequently. I’ve corresponded with him once or twice and he’s always been drily helpful, but I’ve so far really only met him in print. This is always stimulating, but frequently makes me wonder if someone changed the consensus take on Catalan medieval history while I was out. Anglo-Saxonists might feel the same way about Eric John, and I’m sure there are others in everybody’s field; it’s all sustainable, but it’s very different from what most people argue… I’ve recently hit it again, in an article of his from 1999 called “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas”. There is a translation in the relevant volume later on, under the title “Peasant victories and defeats”, which just isn’t as snappy.1

Peasants at work, from the Bíblia de Ripoll

Peasants at work, from the Bíblia de Ripoll

I could go on at great length about this short article, because it leaves so much unexplained; this is why I’d like to talk to Prof. Martí about it, once my Catalan is better. But there’s value in trying to get out the reasons it gives me problems, in case they’re not much good. So, let me try and explain. His paper is a contribution to a lengthy debate about slavery and serfdom in Catalonia. The canonical view is probably Pierre Bonnassie’s, which as with most of his work makes better sense for Catalonia than anywhere else (like Marx with Russia).2 Bonnassie argued, firstly, that under the Visigothic kings of Spain slavery was still economically important, even if Roman-style fundi of dormitoried labourers working the owner’s fields (what Marx would have called the Ancient Mode of production) were probably rare compared to servi casati, ‘hutted’ slave families living on the plot of land they worked. (This refinement owes as much to Josep María Salrach as it does to Bonnassie really,3 and fits better into what the neo-Marxists now call the Tributary Mode of production.) Secondly he argued that due to slow but growing Christianization, which made it harder to pretend that these men and women who shared a church with you and got the same sacraments weren’t really human beings, due to the diminution of supply of slaves due to warfare as the kings slowly brought the whole peninsula under control, and due to political and economic collapse, that system was falling apart by the end of the Visigothic era, as the increasingly ridiculous legislation against fugitive slaves shows. Thirdly he argued that in the early independent Christian areas, the open frontier offered a zone of opportunity to which fugitives could go to make a new life and where the new power structures would support their rights, which as soon as that territory was opened up by the Carolingian take-over (in Catalonia—other processes along the northern coast obviously) meant that a slave system back in the mountains (where large-scale demesne farming didn’t really work anyway) was unmaintainable, so for a short period there is a society here in which peasant dependence is minimal, and almost all of them are free smallholders who can bear arms and owe neither rent nor labour to anyone, except what everyone owes to the public power by way of military service and tax. And (fifthly) as the economy booms in the late tenth and early eleventh century and the rich get richer, and then suddenly public power collapses, the increasingly oppressed peasantry is rapidly forced into subjection to the new lords and becomes the tied serfs that have to wait till the fifteenth century for its violent revolution. All this can be summed up as the “d’une servitude à un autre” argument.4

Martí’s version is much starker. As I first read it, I thought he was genuinely suggesting that the peasants took up arms to free themselves in the wake of the social disorder caused by the Carolingian takeover, which he sees as much more aggressive than, well, the sources do, albeit that they are all Frankish sources.5 In fact it’s not quite that amazing, but it’s not exactly canonical. In fact he suggests that the Visigothic kings’ measures were more effective in preserving slavery than Bonnassie thinks, mainly because they were in a powerful position and it seems hard to explain why they shouldn’t have been able to do this.5bis He argues that the Muslim takeover in any case arrested any decline, and froze Christian society’s development for some years, so where lords could hold their position they could continue to own slaves, even though slaves might find better lives working for the state on taken-over fiscal estates. And then he argues that because of resistance to the Carolingian takeover, and the Carolingian readiness to overturn social structures, converting the old fundi to benefices whose owners were often shuffled, and to support the establishment of immigrant and other armed yeoman households independently populating the frontier for its defence, this is the period in which it was possible for the slave system to break down, and that remaining slaves would have taken full advantage of the social breakdown to escape to new situations and become independents. By the time the charter evidence really gets going, in the late ninth or early tenth centuries, everyone can agree that slavery is so rarely seen that it seems basically to be domestic, and that there are an awful lot of free peasants. Martí is basically saying, this all happened in the century or so of effective Carolingian rule when our sources hardly exist and the Carolingians were prepared to endorse, establish and defend a new social order breaking out of the old one.

The Carolingian host on the march (though not on the March)

The Carolingian host on the march (though not on the March)

It’s difficult to argue with this, in as much as it’s possible in the absence of evidence to argue almost anything. And certainly others have argued that slavery persists much later than Bonnassie thought, Paul Freedman believing in the freedom effect of the frontier but thinking that there was probably always more dependence and slavery than the sources, which are obviously generated by landholders, would ever show, and Gaspar Feliu generally arguing that the lords never really lose that much control, and that it’s the way servitude is defined and exploited that changes, not its existence.6 All the same, the amount of peasant initiative and their ability to overcome a previously-rigid structure of oppression once the state behind it doesn’t want to hold it up, is very different in this account from Bonnassie’s, Freedman’s, Feliu’s or anyone’s really. It’s not fully explained here either, referring the reader to other works of his which are much harder to track down, though I’ll give it a go. How to get a grip on this and assess on what it is that my disinclination to accept it is based?

I don’t actually have a realised alternative argument, it must be said, except that on the whole I’m somewhere between Bonnassie and Feliu; I think that there probably was a lot of oppression of peasants by powerful people but on the whole, there was more smallholding liberty in the Carolingian period as documented (as opposed to the bit we can’t see) than before and after. I’ve explained why I think this elsewhere, but Martí’s argument isn’t on this continuum. I think that the differences in argument arise from differing accounts of two particular things, or at least my differences with this do. (This ignores our considerable difference over the extent to which the pre-Catalans were complicit in the Carolingian takeover; I think his version is militantly nationalist almost to the point of delusion, but it doesn’t actually alter his argument if it wasn’t like that.) The first of these is the definition of slavery, or servitude, and the second is the róle we give to the ‘public power’, the ‘state’ or whatever you want to call the government of the day.

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria d'Amer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Martí has taken a very stark definition of slavery, which could be nuanced a great deal. Me, I think there is a difference between free, serf and slave which must have been very hard to draw in individual cases, but which can be expressed (and is best seen) in land transfers: a free man sells the land, a serf is sold with it but not without it, and a slave can be sold with no land involved. What this doesn’t really cover is the tenant, whom Professor Feliu has rightly warned me was surely the most common person we never see. He could be free and still included in a land sale, though he might well consent or witness without being specified as such I suspect.7 But Martí again isn’t on that continuum, so I can leave that problem of mine aside, for the moment. Bonnassie argued that by the ninth century, there was really little visible difference between the slave, who lived with his family on a plot of land and was subject to various duties, renders and levies to his owner, and the poor peasant who technically owned some land but had had to commend himself to a lord, did labour for him, paid him various renders and so on. They worked in the same fields, worshipped in the same church, and generally lived the same lives. This distance was not unbridgeable, and even in the Visigothic period there are complicated laws about marriages that cross it.

The argument more or less ignores domestic slavery, which is obviously more oppressive, has various implications that still draw me a great deal of web-search interest, and which clearly continued, but since we are like good post-Marxists focussing on the means of production here, let those unfortunates step back into the shadows. Martí repeatedly argues for the Carolingian conversion of fundi, big-estate farms of the Ancient type, into benefices, which means that he is thinking in terms of concentrated agricultural slavery. It’s true that the Visigothic Law does seem to be trying to save that, and that the Muslim polity further south did take over big estates bodily and run them with only semi-free labour, and therefore might have done here too; that is, if fundi lasted till 718 the Muslims might have maintained them as fiscal estates and that slavery might therefore have continued there, though whether we’re really looking at barracks of men and women in chains fed from a communal kitchen like US plantations are sometimes imagined rather than outhoused families farming strips and notionally owned is more dubious; there really just isn’t evidence for the former after the Forum Iudicum, and that, being normative not documentary, is a world of interpretative difficulties. I would need to chase up the other papers of Martí’s before I knew why he thinks this is defensible, but at the moment it doesn’t seem right to me, and I prefer Bonnassie’s take on it.

King Sisebut of the Visigoths, as depicted on a gold tremiss of his reign (image from Wikimedia Commons)

King Sisebut of the Visigoths, as depicted on a gold tremiss of his reign (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Then there’s the fisc. Until the late-ninth century almost all the charters we have from Catalonia are either royal precepts or dispute settlements that royal missi or counts heard in Carolingian-style courts (albeit with Visigothic-style judges and saiones). One of these, from 832, is a case where a count tries (and fails) to claim a man as a servus fiscalis, which Martí claims as proof that the counts still held big estates of the fisc for which slave agriculture was appropriate. Wrapped up in this is the question: what happened to the lands which belonged to the Visigothic state? We know that it was separate from the land the kings themselves owned, because some chronicles of those kings criticise King Sisebut for mixing the two up.8 And my charters are full of land that is called fiscs, and occasional unspecified ‘benefices’ which seem to be held by officials.9 But are these two the same thing? Were the royal lands partly taken over by the Muslims, and then the walis of Barcelona, and then its counts for the Carolingian kings? Or is it just that all abandoned land is swallowed up into the fisc during the Carolingian takeover? Could the title to its supposed slave cultivators have been maintained through all that in either case? Martí says yes, until the Carolingians turn up at least; Bonnassie said it was gone before they arrived. (Feliu says it hardly matters what you call it, there are big landowners who have tied dependants at all points.) The problems are made worse because we can’t assume that everything the later counts hold or dispose of is fiscal land, even though at times Bonnassie did; like the earlier kings, they have lands of their own.10 Here I don’t have an answer; I know I don’t think there was slave agriculture of any kind really, and that serfdom was as yet unformalised even if, especially in Barcelona county rather than Osona, there were big estates farmed as demesne which must have looked like serfdom did later once definitions were clearer. But as to how much there was a survival of public landholding that the Carolingians might have messed up, I couldn’t tell you. Boundaries are remembered that are that old; but that’s not the same thing as what dues whatever’s in them is supposed to pay and to whom, which is essentially what the difference is and breaks down when there is, for example, no king any more.11

I don’t seem to think the same things about these important building blocks of the argument about what happened between late Antiquity and the medieval period, what Chris Wickham has called ‘the Other Transition”, in Catalonia, as does Martí.12 He certainly knows more about it than I do, though whether that explains how he thinks of it is another question. I do wonder for example whether, since the different ways Gaspar Feliu and I seem to see things is at least partly a factor of the fact that I know Osona best and he knows Barcelona, where estates are bigger and seigneurial power larger, better, it may not be the case that Professor Martí, who is best centered in Girona, is seeing a regional situation in this old area that was never frontier that genuinely did differ from the two frontier counties.13 And I think there is some pretty basic difficulty with what Martí is proposing at the level of continuity, because it requires a very great deal of continuity through all the disturbances of the seven and eighth centuries, rebellion, secession, invasion and resistance, take-over and foreign occupation, which is then able to just collapse into severe and violent discontinuity as soon as the magic Carolingians turn up and take a more hands-off approach. I think the obvious period for discontinuity is during the Muslim occupation myself, when the supervision of the area by the state is basically military garrisons in a few places and the isolated places can now remake things their own way. But what mainly intrigues me about this is that from such quite fine differences over some important basics we can pile up deductions, conditioned by those different views, until we are so far apart that almost all we can do is throw things at each other’s preconceptions, because our two takes on the same evidence essentially don’t meet at several points.


1. Ramon Martí, “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cutura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Madrid 1999), pp. 59-63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451.

2. Most easily accessible in Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

3. Josep Maria Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització, Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), pp. 93-109; Salrach has since written what is probably a very important book precisely on this question, La formación del campesinado en el oriente antiguo y medieval: anàlisis de los cambios en las condiciones de trabajo desde la Roma clásica al feudalismo (Barcelona 1997), which I haven’t yet read; clearly time to fix that.

4. The phrase is Bonnassie’s, translated by Jean Birrell as “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism, pp. 288-313; rev. from orig. French as “D’une servitude à l’autre: les paysans du royaume” in R. Delort (ed.), La France de l’An Mil, Points-Histoires H130 (Paris 1990), pp. 125-141.

5. In particular, though the Royal Frankish Annals are plainly hiding some complexity when they baldly say that Girona handed itself over to Charlemagne in 785, the whole area between there and Urgell seems to be in Carolingian hands very soon after, and this just isn’t something a single campaign that isn’t even mentioned in the annals could conceivably have done. I just find the Catalan-cooperation version far easier to understand. Cite for the Annals in the previous post but one. Meanwhile, one of the first things that made me baulk at this paper was his adduction of the Hispanus John as evidence that the Barcelona area was one of lawless warbands at this time. John (or Juan, or Jean—what language do you use for a man who came from who knows where in Spain, fought around Barcelona before the place really spoke Catalan and settled in what’s now France?) is discussed in José Enrique Ruiz Domenec, “Un «pauper» rico en la Cataluña carolingia a fines del siglo VIII” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vol. 36 (Barcelona 1975-1976), pp. 5-14, and Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994), pp. 106-110; he was no peasant, but trailed round a small force of armed men who later became his dependants when he scored two big estates from Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. They were probably his dependants before that, too. The fact that he was out there in no way shows that there were peasant warbands on the rampage as the Carolingians arrived.

5bis. There is this basic problem here for anyone studying Visigothic Spain: how, if it was so strong, did it collapse? Or, if it was so weak, how did it survive so long and act so powerful? Peter Linehan points out people struggling with this in his History and the Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford 1993), but doesn’t have a solution, and no-one really does.

6. Paul Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-68; Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41, and “Feudalisme: llibertat i servitud” in Miguel Barceló, Gaspar Feliu, A. Furió, M. Miquel & J. Sobrequés, El Feudalisme Comptat i Debatut. Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català (Valencia 2003), pp. 45-70. Professor Feliu kindly sent me offprints of both these papers, for which I thank him.

7. Feliu, “Pagesia catalana”; I’d reached some of the way along this path before I received that article, as can be seen in my “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 160-167.

8. Questions of the Visigothic fisc most recently discussed (I think) in Santiago Castellanos, “The Political Nature of Taxation in Visigothic Spain” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2004), pp. 201-228.

9. Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 188 & 194, mentions two of these apparently fiscal allotments; it’s hard to say what will make the final cut just now but as it currently stands two more are added in idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming).

10. Bonnassie made a table of alienations of the fisc by the counts of Barcelona in his La Catalogne du Milieu du Xe à la Fin du XIe Siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976) 2 vols, I pp. 145-148, but one of them was a sale of lands that the counts had only bought a few years previously and which had passed to the seller there from a village founder who had developed it (Jarrett, “Pathways”, p. 195 n. 166). If that was fisc, so was anything the counts owned in any way at all, and there needn’t be anything ancient about it.

11. On continuity of boundaries see Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, “Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn de l’any 1000” in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 254-283, with English abstract pp. 285-286.

12. Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36; rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 7-42.

13. Jarrett, “Pathways”, is essentially centered on Osona and the Ripollès immediately to the north, though it also touches Urgell and Rulers and Ruled will make more of the latter evidence even as it spreads the range in Osona. Feliu’s key article on Barcelona, derived in turn from his thesis, is “El condado de Barcelona en los siglos IX y X: organización territorial y económico-social” in Cuadernos de Historia Económica de Cataluña Vol. 7 (Barcelona 1972), pp. 9-31. Martí’s works meanwhile include the definitive collection of the charter material from the Cathedral of Girona, Col·lecció Diplomàtica de la Seu de Girona (817-1100), Diplomataris 18 (Barcelona 1997), although it was still not he who published that material for the Catalunya Carolíngia series, which oddly never cites his edition. I imagine some disagreement behind this.