Tag Archives: Tarragona

This makes things more complicated

It’s day 3 of the UK academic staff strikes, and we are very much still on it. Let me remind you again of my presence in the teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane tomorrow, details here, and then pick up yet another post I meant to have time to finish years ago but only now have! This one is about Tarragona.

University and College Union pickets on the steps of the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets on the steps of the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, this very day

If you fly into Catalonia nowadays, Tarragona’s airport (Reus) is one of your three options. I’ve never yet used it, because it’s further away from the bits of Catalonia I work on than the other two by some way, and that may itself tell you that in the ninth to eleventh centuries it wasn’t really part of the world I study. Even though it had been a metropolitan bishopric and the centre of a frequently restless province during the time of the Visigoths, we know very little about the city after the Muslim invasion of 711, and the general best guess has been that it was more or less deserted. I’m sure that there is more to know, and Lawrence McCrank has made it his life’s study to know it and may any day publish work that means what I say below is just wrong, but as far as I know our data for early medieval Tarragona after Islam are more or less these:1

  • At some point between 804 and 806 the city was besieged and briefly taken by the Frankish armies of King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine, but then abandoned again, presumably because it either wasn’t strategically useful or because it was indefensible.2
  • In 941/42 ‘Frankish’ forces recaptured the city, which must have been the work of Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, very busy on the frontier around this time.3
  • In 956 Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, at the prompting of ‘his princes’, went to León and was consecrated Archbishop of Tarragona, but found that his theoretical suffragan bishops wouldn’t respect his appointment when he returned. He carried on using the title till the end of his life in 981, but with no chance ever of being recognised in it, especially after…4
  • In 966, after an attack on the frontier by the forces of the relatively new Caliph al-Hakam II of Córdoba, Count-Marquises Borrell and Miró of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, returned a number of frontier fortresses to Muslim control, which seem to have included Tarragona.5
  • In 970, while on an embassy to Rome, Borrell II tried to get the metropolitan dignity of Tarragona transferred to a city he actually did control, Vic, prompting an epistolary howl of protest from Abbot, I mean Archbishop, Cesari.6
  • After that, we know basically nothing until serious attempts started being made in the 1090s to raise troops for a campaign to recapture the city, which finally succeeded in 1117, with its archbishopric having been optimistically restored some years before. After that it was just about held onto for some time until reaching greater security in the late twelfth century.7

But, unless I’ve missed something, that’s about what we know. I have assumed a good few things about it in my mental picture of my counts’ world: that it was effectively ruinous, making it hard to defend without massive clearance; that it was effectively deserted; that anyone holding land out there did so without reference to Barcelona; and that, despite probably not having any actual governor or anything, it was notionally Islamic at least 720-809, 809-941 and 966-1117. I have tended to explain the apparent Muslim inconsistency over whether it was worth defending through matters of local control: for much of the 950s the Upper March of the Caliphate was in the control of the Tujībid lineage based in Zaragoza, who had replaced the infamous Bānu Qāsī as local warlords a few years before, and the Tujībids were in rebellion for much of that time too, so I’ve always assumed that the Frankish conquests initially looked like good news in Córdoba, deligitimising and weakening the rebel lords, until such time as Córdoba itself ruled there again, which is why Barcelona then caught the caliphal attention in the 960s and had to withdraw.8 Tarragona itself, however, doesn’t seem to have been the prize for the Muslims. Wikipedia currently says “It was an important border city of the Caliphate of Córdoba between 750 and 1013”, but I have never thought we have any basis to say that. But then I came across this, and things became more complicated…

Alabaster arch with Arabic ornament and inscriptions, Tarragona, Museu Diocesà, Col·lecció àrabe, no. 1

Alabaster arch with Arabic ornament and inscriptions, Tarragona, Museu Diocesà, Col·lecció àrabe, no. 1

I learnt of this from a rather good little blog post by one Marcelo del Campo, but I really should have known about it already, as I had in fact read about it a long time before and, evidently, forgotten.9 The reason this arch is a big deal, despite being quite small, is that its inscription proclaims it to have been commissioned by ‘Abd al-Rahmān III al-Nāsir, the first Caliph in al-Andalus, in the year 960. The implication of that would be that actually, the counts of Barcelona did not control Tarragona in the 950s as I have thought, or else that they were chased out earlier than I thought, and also that the city was important enough to have some really fancy stonework from the Caliph himself. All of that would be quite a change, but it’s harder evidence than my guesswork and so I would have to accept it. But thankfully for my peace of mind, there’s a way out.

Gate of Ya'far at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra', near Córdoba

Gate of Ja’far at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra’, near Córdoba, image by Wwal – Own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Note that Ja’far, one of al-Hakam II’s ministers, is also named on the Tarragona arch.

You see, as Señor del Campo rightly points out, there’s no way to know that this arch was actually in Tarragona when it was first put up. We just know that it was incorporated into the cloister of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century cathedral. It would be the only sign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III being interested in places this far out, especially after he stopped campaigning in person in 939, and it seems a lot more like the kind of architecture that survives from his palace outside Córdoba at Madinat al-Zahrā’, such as you see above, than anything else we have from Tarragona.10 And, not to put too fine a point on it, the Catalans helped sack Córdoba in 1010, with several bishops being present, and plenty of stuff remained for later bishops to nick later on too, including the archbishops of Tarragona once there finally were some of those again. And now that I look, the Diocesan Museum itself now attributes this piece to Madinat al-Zahrā’. So thankfully for me, my story of Tarragona probably remains intact, until Professor McCrank’s book comes out, at least. But it had me worried for a moment! And so you have today’s blog post.


1. There is probably also more information than this in Emilio Morera Llauradó, Tarragona Cristiana: Historia del Arzobispado de Tarragona y del territorio de su provincia (Cataluña la Nueva) (Tarragona 1897-1899), 2 vols, but I didn’t spend as much time with the only copy I’ve ever seen as I should have done, sorry…

2. Astronomer, Life of Emperor Louis, printed as ‘Vita Hludowici Imperatoris’ in Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris) (Hannover 1995), pp. 279–555, online here, cap. 29 (pp. 320-323).

3. Al-Mas’Ūdī, The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, translated into Catalan in Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Biblioteca Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §411 (pp. 305-306).

4. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), no. 404, on the chronology of which see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “L’abat Cesari, fundador de Santa Cecília de Montserrat i pretès arquebisbe de Tarragona. La falsa buttla de Santa Cecília” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, II, pp. 25–55.

5. Ibn Khaldūn, History of the Berbers, transl. in Bramon, Érem o no musulmans, §424 (pp. 316-317).

6. Junyent, Diplomatari de Vic, doc. no. 405, with Cesari’s howl being no. 404; on this episode, see Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (M¨nchen 2010), pp. 1–42.

7. See Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick N.J. 1983), online here, pp. 29-37, or Lawrence J. McCrank, “Medieval Tarragona: reconquest and restoration” in Butlleti Arqueològic de la Reial Societat Arqueològica Tarraconense Vol. 19/20 (Tarragona 1997/98), pp. 219-230.

8. On these events, hard to reconstruct, see Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: a political history of al-Andalus (London 1996), pp. 92-94 & 102.

9. It is described, and indeed translated and painstakingly drawn on a fold-out plate, in Prospero de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836-1838), 2 vols, I (online here), pp. 171-175, which I would have said I’ve read.

10. See Maribel Fierro, ʿAbd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban caliph (Oxford 2005), pp. 53-78, for context, with pp. 109-116 on Madinat al-Zahrā. On Ja’far, see Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal, pp. 101-102.

The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this… Continue reading