Tag Archives: Visigothic Spain

Frontiers Day at the 2016 International Medieval Congress

When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.

1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries

There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:

  • Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
  • Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
  • This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.

  • Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
  • Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.

The reconstructed watchtower at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

The reconstructed watchtower at l’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.

1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires

Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:

  • Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
  • Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.

  • Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
  • This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.

  • Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
  • On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.

Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!

Entrance to the citadel of Berat, in modern Albania, from Wikimedia Commons

Entrance to the remains of the Byzantine citadel at Berat, in modern Albania, with a thirteenth-century church guarding rather older fortifications. Image by Jason Rogers – originally posted to Flickr as Berat, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1710. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, III: Frankish Frontiers, Internal and External

Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:

  • Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.

  • Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
  • Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8

  • Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
  • Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.

The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…

Futbol Club de Barcelona Scotch Whisky

Still made in Scotland, sorry, doesn’t count

So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…

1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”, Exarc.net, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.

3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…

4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.

5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.

6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.

7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).

8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 2

Back to the conference reportage, then, and far from the end of that too; you can probably imagine how much I want to be through this backlog, so I shall launch in and try to be brief… But the second day of the 2015 International Medieval Congress was a good one for me, as the sessions I went to covered pretty much the range of my interests and mostly they had people in I’ll go out of my way to hear talking, too. It unrolled like this.

539. Texts and Politics in the Long 10th Century, I: the Western kingdom

  • Horst Lößlein, “Establishing Rule: Charles the Simple and the cases of Western Francia and Lotharingia”
  • Fraser McNair, “Histories in Diplomas: kings, archbishops, nobles and the disputes over St Servatius’s abbey, Maastricht, 898 and 919”
  • Ed Roberts, “Religious Patronage in the Reign of Louis IV: dynasty, memory and the monasteries of St-Corneille and St-Remi”
  • When I started in on this whole research thing there was approximately one chapter about tenth-century Francia that had been written in my lifetime, so it’s really good to see people interested in working over the difficult evidence of the period and trying to understand how we got from the imperial break-up of 887 to something quite like France, Germany, Italy and Flanders a century later. This is partly the fault of Geoff Koziol, who was invoked in all these papers, but the pieces still need assembly.1 Each of these speakers had a piece, Dr Lößlein looking at the patterns of attendance at King Charles the Simple (899-923)’s courts and noting that although Charles was able to fight and negotiate his way into his secondary kingdom of Lotharingia, his inability to cow Duke Robert of Neustria, his eventual and short-lived successor, meant that there were large areas of his main kingdom of the West Franks where Charles could not actually go.2 Not just Robert’s territories, too, I might have added, but the difference is that he had to work with Robert nonetheless, whereas he could wait for people from south of the Loire to come to him. Fraser, an old friend by now, appealed to my scholarly heart by pointing out that there are narrative sources for the early tenth century in Francia, they’re just in charters, and he showed the different spins that court and Archbishops of Trier put on one particular dispute when thus recounting it. I enjoyed this, but especially for the subtle observation that Charles the Simple’s diplomas stress consensus and participation much more than those of his predecessor in Lotharingia, King Zwentibold. Fraser may get me to revise my opinion of Charles yet. Lastly, Ed, who noted how difficult a relationship Charles’s son, the unlucky but dogged Louis IV, had with the legacy of his father, whose reign had ended in civil war and imprisonment by his magnates, something which Louis at least suffered only briefly. Ed argued that Louis made his own way rather than pursuing a ‘Carolingian’ policy and having now taught his reign, I’d be inclined to agree. Questions here revolved mainly around the Spanish March (I bet you can’t guess who asked that one) and queens, since Louis’s queen Gerberga seems to have been an awful lot of his support thanks to being sister of King Otto I of the Germans.3 All of this, I think, goes to show that the pieces are there, it just needs people to find the work interesting enough to make it so to others.

    Ottonian family tree from the twelfth-century Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis

    A rather wonderful Ottonian family tree from the twelfth-century Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Note how Gerberga and her children appear but no mention is made of her unlucky husband…

Then coffee, and then a session about which I had no choice, because I was moderating it, but didn’t need one because it was also really interesting.

641. Re-Formed Coinage, Renewed Meaning: using, imitating, and disposing of Byzantine coins far beyond imperial frontiers

  • Lin Ying, “Byzantine Gold Coins in Chinese Contexts: three approaches”
  • Florent Audy, “Scandinavian Responses to Byzantine Coins”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Valuing Byzantine Gold Coins in Medieval South India”
  • The core question of this session is not hard to spot, I guess: Byzantine coins are found in faraway places where their context as imperial currency could not apply, so what were people doing with them? In China, Professor Ying told us, they were mainly burying them with dead people, and along the Silk Routes and into Sogdia making things that looked like solidi to do that with as well, usually doubly or triply pierced for wearing; there’s very little indication that this was more than a species of jewellery to a population to whom normal coins would have looked very different. In Viking Scandinavia, that was also happening but there is more sign of a discerning user-base: although Byzantine coins are a tiny fraction of the foreign money and bullion that was accumulating in Scandinavia in this period, the gold is never pecked or tested and very often set as jewellery, whereas the silver usually had been pecked but only when it was real coins; there were also imitations of Byzantine miliaresia but except in Finland, these don’t seem to have actually circulated even as bullion. So why make them? As with the Chinese context there is more to do here. Lastly Rebecca provided the Indian context, not unlike the Chinese one in as much as Byzantine coins were apparently commodities here but treated fairly consistently, usually double-pierced above the bust and also imitated but only in gold, not as plated knock-offs; the contexts are almost all lost but use in temple contexts seems a better fit to what there is than anything to do with commerce or ports. That provoked a sharp question in discussion, because while in India the focus is clearly on the imperial portrait, in China it can often be on the reverse, leading someone to wonder if the coins were appreciated as Christian symbols, which Professor Ying thought possible. Certainly, as someone else observed, that would be about all you could see on a coin someone was wearing as jewellery unless you were impolitely close! This all hung together very well and I gather that publication of something deriving from this is in distant prospect; it should be fun.

    Double-pierced Byzantine solidus of Emperor Justin II, found in a tomb at Guyuan

    Double-pierced solidus of Justin II, found in a tomb at Guyuan; click through to an article on Lin Ying’s in which further context and some comparator finds are presented

That got me to lunch, and then it was off to a different bit of my interests! I do begin to understand how someone like me must be almost impossible to schedule for…

733. The Early Islamic World, VI: Iberia

  • Nicola Clarke, “Law, Families, and the Frontier in Umayyad Iberia”
  • Mateusz Wilk, “Power, Law, and Ideology in Umayyad Spain”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Conquest and Settlement: what al-Andalus can tell us about the Arab expansion at the time of the Umayyad Caliphate”
  • I will pretty much always go to hear Eduardo Manzano speak, but here there were obviously other things to interest me too. Dr Clarke dug into the agendas of the Arabic sources for the conquest of al-Andalus, all significantly posterior to events and for the most part more interested in trying to settle questions of how the caliph should behave to his lieutenants when they exceed his authority, and indeed who should have been caliph at all and why (for example, being able to restrain those same lieutenants), the result of which is that it’s quite hard to say how far either Caliph al-Walīd or the lieutenant in question, Mūsā ibn Nusayr, were in any real control of events. Dr Wilk, on the other hand, saw in them an attempt to picture Muslim Spain as a new and better Umayyad Syria, but with shifts once the Malikite school of law took hold there in the ninth or tenth centuries (and with no useful ninth-century sources, which is hard to say). This provoked surprising amounts of argument; commentators proved very invested in the importance of Malikism in al-Andalus either as a mark of Arabian connection or as the ineluctable result of fugitives from Arabia turning up there, and it would perhaps have been more fun to set these people arguing with each other than with Dr Wilk. Lastly Professor Manzano pointed out some odd things about the Muslim conquest of Spain, not least that it was accomplished largely by Berber auxiliaries whose acculturation to Islam took place largely in the peninsula, not before getting there, and that by moving a large salaried army into the peninsula and keeping it that way rather than settling it, at least at first, the new rulers committed themselves to importing a whole fiscal system, including gold coin for tax and copper coin for pay, where nothing like it had existed for a long time, which more or less required the cooperation of Christian worthies to make it work. This got Professor Manzano and me into an argument about the survival of the Visigothic taxation system and how far that involved copper, an argument that Ann Christys had to stop but in which I would now graciously concede that we were both wrong, which I’m sure would amuse him.4

    Copper-alloy fals of the unlocated al-Andalus mint

    A coin on the importance of which we could agree, a copper-alloy fals of the unlocated al-Andalus mint, struck in somewhen during the eighth or ninth centuries I guess, Jean Elsen & ses Fils,
    Auction 120, 15 March 2014, lot 1594

Revitalised by dispute, I imagine I needed tea less than usual at the end of this session, but with the last session of the day still to come I certainly did still need it.

814. Networks and Neighbours, IV: tracing aristocratic networks in three early medieval kingdoms

I was here partly because the title involved some of my keywords and partly out of a loyalty to a related journal that was at that stage (this is a story for another time) still supposedly about to publish me, but also because Roger Collins was supposed to be moderating and that, unfortunately, proved not to be so. The running order was this:

  • Paulo Henrique de Carvalho Pachá, “Searching for the Visigothic State: monarchy and aristocracy in the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo”
  • Karen Torres da Rosa, “Merovingian Testaments and Power Relations in the Transference of Goods”
  • Renato Rodrigues Da Silva, “Northumbrian Aristocracy through Archaeological Evidence: coins and coinage”
  • Señor de Carvalho engaged directly with the work of Luis García Moreno, arguing that rather than an eternal opposition between kings and nobles in Visigothic Spain we should see a periodic rebuilding of consensus between these and other elements of the state which could break down in a variety of ways, not just that defining cleavage, since the monarchy was obviously unable to operate without any aristocratic support at all and the aristocracy was frequently divided.5 This made sense to me and the only thing that surprised was the age of the scholarship being engaged, surely written before the speaker was born. Discussion here was very constitutional, and made my normal ‘realpolitikal’ take on such power dealings feel very out of place. Miss da Rosa’s work was at too early a stage for it to be fair for me to comment on it here, though, and Señor Rodrigues’s paper, about the early Northumbrian silver coinage as a tool of aristocratic power, I thought rested on some pretty unprovable assumptions about moneyers; there were many ideas here that needed better links to the evidence. I’m afraid that at the end of this, incipient local loyalties not withstanding, I was minded not to come to another Networks and Neighbours IMC session.

    Obverse of a silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1980-2007

    Obverse of a silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1980-2007

    Reverse of silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1980-2007

    Reverse of the same coin. I think the triple-tailed wolf probably militates against this being an attempt to churchify the coinage, myself…

Looking back over this as I write it up, it strikes me suddenly how generalised the use of coin evidence is becoming in the fields of history I follow. Granted, one of these sessions was explicitly about it, but coins were part of one speaker’s evidence in two of the other sessions as well, which as you see makes hunting down suitable illustrations much easier for me! It’s nice to think, though, that the numismatic gospel might be getting out there. Anyway. What I did with the evening, I cannot now recall; I fervently hope that it was spent drinking with friends and colleagues, and certainly on one night of the conference I went hunting curry houses with two of the Birmingham posse; perhaps that was this evening? But in any case, it is another day recounted. Next one in two posts’ time!

1. My point of reference would have been Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (Harlow 1987), pp. 305-339, but now as I say there is also Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas: the West Frankish kingdom (840–987) (Turnhout 2012), and we’re still reacting.

2. On this I cannot resist citing Koziol, “Is Robert I in Hell? The Diploma for Saint-Denis and the Mind of a Rebel King (Jan. 25, 923)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 233-267, which is fun.

3. On Gerberga, see Simon MacLean, “Reform, Queenship and the End of the World in Tenth-Century France: Adso’s ‘Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist'” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 86 (Bruxelles 2008), pp. 645-675, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.2008.7582.

4. I’m wrong because I hadn’t realised quite how early the Visigothic copper coinage we know about was, and it almost certainly wasn’t still running by 711; he’s wrong because it existed at all, dammit. See Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “The Copper Coinage of the Visigoths of Spain” in Mário Gomes Marques and D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area: a Symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 35-70, but now also Crusafont, Jaume Benages, Jaume Noguera Guillén, Eduard Ble Gimeno, Pau Valdés Matias, Tomi Cartes, Xavier Sicart & Joan Enric Vila, “La sèrie de plata de la monarquia visigoda” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 45 (2014), pp. 71-80, which changes the picture quite a lot!

5. That work being Luís Agustín García Moreno, Historia de España visigoda (Madrid 1989), to which one might for example compare Javier Arce Martínez, “The Visigoths in Spain: old and new historical problems” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 31-42.

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

[Edit: a correction has reached me from one of the organisers of this conference, so please note alterations in the first paragraph. Otherwise, this stands as it did when first posted in June 2015.]

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing[Edit:] They secured some really big-hitting speakers, without assistance too, but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty’: Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5

This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.

1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain

I have mentioned Graham Barrett here before, not least as one of those people whom I fear would, if they’d done my doctorate, have done it a good deal better than I did (though, y’know, I’m happy with my outcome). When I mention him, moreover, people pipe up saying how impressed they’ve been with his papers and wanting him to publish on slates, so, you probably want to know about when he presented one called “The Literate Mentality and the Textual Society in Early Medieval Spain” to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 21st November last year, especially since this was kind of a mission statement for his soon-to-be-finished doctorate. So, okay, here I am to tell you about it!

Frontage of León cathedral

Frontage of León cathedral; there are worse places to have to work...

The main question Graham was addressing here was the social level of literacy in Northern Spain, 711-1031, not including Catalonia (though less because of me, I imagine, than because of Michel Zimmermann, whose monster work covers this kind of ground; Professor Zimmermann probably has more to fear from Graham than I do). This gives him some 4,000 charters to play with, of which roughly a quarter are now in the cathedral archive of León. Some useful figures followed, characterising the sample: 61% cartulary copies, 21% originals, 6% loose copies; 54% donations, 36% sales, 10% ‘other’, and so on. He then stressed, however, that these categories aren’t necessarily useful for his kind of enquiry: more relevant may be that only 19% of them are transactions between lay-persons. That’s a lot, by early medieval standards, but the vast majority of the material here still concerns the Church. Preservation peaks at around the year 970, which makes a kind of sense in terms of war and stability but surely needs a better explanation than frequency of randomised destruction; we are instead, Graham argued, probably seeing a sea change in the social uses of writing.

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970, complete with scribes busy altering the social fabric

[Edits to the first sentence of this paragraph, with apologies] At this point there was a pause to address the historiography, whose various offerings on what early medieval societies were doing with writing Graham didn’t find entirely helpful in his case, and the material he brought to bear more or less proved his point. For example, the boom in document preservation is in non-royal ones, so not driven by government directly.1 Instead he sees the pressure to write as having come from the Church, with monasteries and so forth being set up in new areas and effectively archiving community memories in such terms as boundary clauses, names of witnesses and knowledgeable persons, and so forth, and defending themselves at law in such ways that meant others needed documents too, when without that outsider pressure the whole thing might have rested on the community’s collective memory. (The references to documents the monastery didn’t make and didn’t preserve of course indicate that other people could write as well as the monks, and he would come to this.2) The fact that documents were valued at law – and Graham said that he has no court cases where a side with documentary proof ever loses, which surprised me and must, I think, despite its totality, be a factor of preservation as we’ve seen here before – meant that people were willing to forge them, store them, copy them and if necessary, destroy them.

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica

The law, which is the Visigothic Code on which Graham was presenting when reported here the time before last, even governed to an extent what documents were supposed to be written, and was itself a form of socially-active writing, albeit one that could be modified or ignored, and referred to silently, i. e. without saying that that’s what it was; it was, at least, a starting point and suggestion for how to deal with the situations it covered.3 One could argue—Graham did not, quite—that the Bible was used the same way, even though its status was rather different, and higher; nonetheless, it too was a source from which the writers of these documents drew their ideas of how things should be arranged (and, indeed, what would happen to those who disarranged them). These two texts were treated with at least some respect; other, lesser, ones were apt to be recycled, modified, edited or miscopied in fruitful ways, and the last part of the paper focused on their writers.

Three scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Three identified scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Scribes are surprisingly rarely identified in Graham’s documents (it surprises me, anyway, but then I am used to a corpus that is mostly originals) but those who are can be broken down into royal, episcopal, monastic, aristocrats’ and village scribes, almost all clerics or likely to be so. One third of these, roughly, only wrote a single document that survives, but as the period went on it became more usual for a few people to write a lot of charters, which I think probably tells us something about towns becoming spaces of public action and possibly, given its presence in the preservation, the development of León as a capital. These people had written models, of which at least one was the Formulae Visigothicae or, presumably, a version of those texts’ ancestor, with regional variations visible in the detail, and the documents they made could be done at the time of the transactions concerned, although sometimes they would come later. (This must be harder to judge with fewer individuals and I would want to leave some conceptual space for writing them before the ceremony too.)

Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978

Grant by King Ordoño I to Bishop Fronimio of León, 28 June 860, Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978; slightly bigger version linked through

What the ceremony at which the text was deployed, witnessed, signed and given to the property’s new (or new-again) owner did, argued Graham, was to embed the act of writing and its encoding of an action in society. The increase in specialised scribes, as he saw it (contrary to my suggestion above) was a recognition of this by the powers-that-were, monopolising the authority of text and the ability to make it. Here again is supposed a world where for a while, writing got ‘out’ into a wider social plane, but where before that, it had been mostly élite and rare. Michel Zimmermann would, I think, agree with this, but I’m still struggling to see that boom in access to text in the 970s, which I have in my material too albeit maybe a decade or two earlier, as a phenomenon of society rather than of preservation. I’m not sure that when documents are rarely preserved it necessarily implies that few people of that era could write, rather than just that they were not writing things that get preserved. The Visigothic Law and the Formulae Visigothicae envisage far far more things being written down than we have from the tenth century, and the very limited preservation on slate, rather than parchment, from that era seems to show that in action, with accounts, lists and so on far outnumbering solemn documents.4 I, instead, find it easier to imagine a continuity in attitudes to writing from seventh to ninth centuries and that what changed after that was less more people finding it necessary to get at quills and more a greater number of institutions surviving, due to economic growth and so on, that would preserve a certain sort of document better for us. And for that case I would cite girls being taught to write at home, the incredible scale of loss of documentation from the societies of the Peninsula who didn’t have the good fortune of a continuous Church presence through to the modern era and the apparent survival of Visigothic norms of writing, including to an extent the script (something which is a lot truer for Graham’s area than mine5). All the same, I would certainly have to admit, firstly, that Catalunya no es Espanya, secondly, that the evidence we don’t have is obviously impossible to characterise, and thirdly, that Graham’s more complicated version of the history of text in his area would, indeed, look just the same as my simpler one in terms of evidence that we now have.

1. Compare, most obviously, Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979, 2nd edn. Oxford 1993), for a governmentality-driven thesis.

2. And until this work gets published, there’s Roger Collins, “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), XVI.

3. Compare Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism, V, and Jeffrey A. 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. 33-55, just to stick to the English-language literature.

4. I am used to consulting the slates in Ángel Canellas López, Diplomática hispano-visigoda (Zaragoza 1979), but Graham informs me that I would find many more in Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Documentos de época visigoda escritos en pizarra (siglos VI-VIII) (Turnhout 2000), 2 vols, where there are also pictures, for which you otherwise have to go back to Manuel Gómez Moreno, Documentación goda en pizarra: estudio y trascripción (Madrid 1966), with the reproduction standards of that era.

5. On which see Anscari M. Mundó, “Notas para una historia de la escritura visigótica en su periodo primitivo” in Bivium: Homenaje a Manuel Cecílio Díaz y Díaz (Madrid 1983), pp. 175-196, though cf. Collins, “Literacy and the Laity”. I’m sure Graham could provide far more up-to-date references than all of these but they are where my views came from.

Kalamazoo and Back, V: say your piece and get

Sorry this has taken so long to complete. I actually put it off earlier today because of not having my notes before realising that I could actually remember pretty well because the only session I made it to on the Sunday was the one I was in… I’d have liked to see what my colleague Rory Naismith was saying in ‘562. Medieval Money: Coin, Trade, and Credit’ but as it was I kind of had to attend…

Session 536: The Court and the Courts in the Carolingian World

(Also covered at Medieval History Geek here.)

I had worried about sleeping late, given that this session was the morning after the dance and earlier than any of the others, but in fact nerves or drink-confused sleep had me awake quite early and I was on station in good time, both fed and caffeinated enough to make some kind of sense. And just as well because there was plenty of information to make sense of!

Extract from a manuscript of Marculf's Formulary

  • Warren Brown, talking to the title, “Local Conflict and Central Authority in the Carolingian Formula Collections”, reminded us as is his wont of the very different sort of evidence that formulas contain about what people were getting up to in the Carolingian period. These documents, templates for writing charters, have often only studied as sources for the documents that were abstracted to make them, but because they are not subject to the kind of preservation bias that means most of the rest of our record is mediated by a link to ecclesiastical property, here you get to see what else people needed documents for, from making wills and settlements to issuing a safe-conduct for someone enjoined to lifetime penitential pilgrimage for killing his wife… Warren’s paper was essentially a demonstration of these possibilities. There are as he admitted still limits: you get to see what documents people wanted because of events, which is not the same as a record of the events themselves, but it still gives a much broader picture of society and a much fuller impression of Western Europe’s use of documents. I’ve heard both Warren and Alice Rio deliver papers that are essentially, “Hey did you realise how much interesting stuff there is in formulae?” now, and the measure of how correct they are is that there has been hardly any repetition between the papers.
  • Following Warren, largely to keep him apart from Geoffrey Koziol I think, was me, giving a rather sketchy paper (I thought, but then I knew what I’d wanted it to be) entitled, “The Carolingian Succession to the Visigothic Fisc on the Spanish March”, which was mainly intended to ask what strength there could have been to a claim to be living on ‘royal land’ in tenth-century frontier Catalonia. I considered possible continuity with the Visigothic fisc as far as we can know about it, which isn’t far, although it seems to be what some of the sources imply; I also considered the Muslim interregnum that ran things in this area for sixty years, and some rather odd suggestions that historians have made about it, but considered in the end that we couldn’t really tell much about this either, and finally wrapped up by giving some specific examples of the sort of claims that were made, showing that they were likely to be mistaken but concluding that attachment to the past, which was at least possibly genuine in some cases, was important both legally and culturally whether it was true or not, all of which leaves quite a lot still to be investigated. Or at least, that’s what I was aiming for: if you want an impression of how it actually came across, have a look at Curt Emanuel’s write-up and my comments over at Medieval History Geek. Someone, I now forget whom, told me they’d been taking pictures of me presenting, so if that person owns up and if they were any good, I’ll add one here for vanity’s sake later.
  • Last up in this session was Geoff Koziol, talking to the title, “Power in the Palace in the Last Years of Charles the Bald (869-877)”. This was a fairly in-depth account of the shifting political constellations in the West Frankish king’s final years, as the title implies, and it would be rather difficult to summarise as it was full of small interesting parts but an overall scheme is perhaps no easier to determine for us than it was for Charles; certainly, existing overall schemes don’t quite cover it, though I would have liked to have a copy of Jinty Nelson‘s Charles the Bald to hand to check things against in questions and see where Geoff differed from her. One place where he certainly does is that he thinks that what we can see of the palace and its élites shows none of the office structure or church/laity separation envisaged by Hincmar of Reims in his tract De ordine palatii, which claims a far older source but must have been informed by Hincmar’s court experience under Charles. This makes it much more likely that the DOP is a kind of protest written to an ideology, which does rather threaten any claim made for it being an faithful record of the court of Charlemagne: Hincmar’s court may have been an effort to turn back to clock, but it was a clock he very definitely saw himself winding. (Not sure if that metaphor will hold up if you look too close, let’s move on…)
  • King Charles the Bald of the West Franks in old age

    I don’t have any notes on the questions, largely I presume because I was standing up and answering, but I also presume that no-one bowled me anything that I had to incorporate into revisions; as I recall, in fact, Warren and Geoff got most of the questions not least because we’d been told they would fight and they’d more or less refrained from doing so, so people were trying to kick it off, all in good fun, people, all in good fun. I was fairly happy with how this all went, anyway, and thanks are of course due to Jonathan Couser for organising it and Julie Hofmann for her inestimable chairing.

After all this I very much needed coffee, so Another Damned Medievalist and I set off in search of it. It proved to be harder to find than I’d anticipated because of distance, and because of lack of caffeine oh noes recursion and because the main coffee options weren’t running on this last day. I had intended to make it to ‘573. Topics in the History of the Frankish Empire’, not least because one of the people presenting, Wes Bush, had made a point of getting himself introduced to me the previous evening and because he was also talking about the charters of Charles the Bald. In fact, though, by the time we were near the building it was ten minutes after start time and I didn’t have the energy to face down the late entrance so ADM and I went and looked for book bargains and there found both coffee and Steve Muhlberger, so we sat and nattered and then once we were more collected we got our various baggages arranged and piled into cars by prearranged scheme to go and eat at a diner in town, whose name I have unjustly forgotten because it was really nice. This was almost another blogger meet-up: besides myself, Prof. Muhlberger and ADM there was also the Notorious Girl Scholar and Lisa Carnell, the Congress Coordinator who doesn’t have a blog as far as I know but you know, give her a break, she obviously had her hands fairly full! and there was a sixth person who was furthest from me at the table and damned if I can now remember who they were which is really unfair on them and I do hope they’re not offended. I spoke of long-distance travel in Canada to Steve and goth dress-up to Lisa (some of my best friends, etc.) and again didn’t really get to talk to Dr N., but the food was extremely welcome and very much what was needed to set me up for the long journey home. I also owe ADM and Lisa considerable favours for letting me get at and borrow a printer to reprint my plane ticket; what happened to the original I have no idea, but it went, so I would been a bit stuck without them: thankyou both.

CNN map of the infamous ash-cloud, April 17th

CNN map of the infamous ash-cloud, April 17th

Delivered back to the Goldsworth Valley Complex, we found firstly that some really enterprising tagging of one of the exhibitors’ lorries had happened while Lisa’s back was turned, and then that the buses to the airport were not exactly running to timetable. In fact they were making it up on the fly, it became clear once I’d got on one, and this meant that people asking whether this was the bus scheduled for such-and-such a time got some fairly unhelpful, if amusing, answers, because there wasn’t really a right one. I got to the airport in the end and there had the company of Dr Catherine Rider, whom I’ve known a long time and whom I’d seen at several points in the Congress and not actually been able to catch to say hi to. Eventually, though, there was a plane, stuffed of course with medievalists, and then another plane, just about. There was also an ash-cloud, of course, and as I arrived in the international departure lounge at O’Hare, the flight four hours before mine still hadn’t left; I was glad to have a different place to wait to see what was going to happen as there were some very tired and angry people waiting for that one. We heard the cheer when they were allowed to board from where we were, all the same. Up till then things had been extremely frustrating: CNN, broadcasting loudly over our heads, was telling us all that the Atlantic was shut and we’d had it, and the airline employees who could be found said they didn’t know, but to anyone who was alert it was plain that the signs were good: the cabin staff were waiting to board, as soon as the plane was there it was restocked with food and our baggage was loaded. The airport clearly thought we were going, but still people went off to find someone else, who didn’t know anything either but was happier than they were to make stuff up, and then coming back and reporting this hearsay as clear evidence that we weren’t going to be able to get home. This is why the critical disciplines are needful in education, people, so that people don’t panic and start demanding hotel vouchers on the back of uninformed guesswork. Anyway, they let us on when they were ready and then waited a short while longer and eventually we headed away and we were two hours late back, so I missed my planned bus home but on the whole it was still the most comfortable long-haul flight I’ve ever taken, I managed to sleep a bit and one of the important lessons I learnt from this whole trip was that the extra money you pay for flying British Airways across the Atlantic is worth it, because everyone else I knew on this journey was flying American and were rather later and less comfortable.

Cambridge, Parker's Piece, coach station

Cambridge, Parker's Piece, coach station

And then I went to work, not to do any but in order to pick up and fix a new bicycle on which to ride home on the back of a few hours fitful sleep and imminent jetlag, an effort which caused at least one good friend to diagnose me as completely mad, and this may be true (especially since I had stupidly had the bike tools in my carry-on, which gave the security at O’Hare some pause for thought) but it seemed an appropriately odd end to a long journey in which a wide range of silly things had happened as well as serious ones, and almost all of them fun. If I could get someone else to pay I would happily do it again next year. And thereby hangs another post I have yet to write, so I’d better get on with the backlog… Mind you, the books I bought and had shipped back only arrived at work today, so in some sense the whole saga has only now closed; but an awful lot has been happening meanwhile!

Seminary LXII: from these hilltops we can see for centuries

Here is a much-delayed seminar report for you. On 9th March, already, Damián Fernández of NYU came to speak to the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar. Since his topic was “Hilltop Settlement and Economic Change in Late-Antique Northern Iberia”, which isn’t Byzantine at all, it’s not entirely clear to me why that was, but it was of obvious interest to me (you’ve heard me mention hilltops here before, right?) and there are people in Cambridge I only see at the Byzantine seminar, so I happened along.

The basic question Fernández was setting out to answer came out of a couple of quotes from Hydatius’s Chronicle, of which one goes like this:

The Sueves under King Hermeric pillaged the central areas of Gallæcia, but when some of their men were slaughtered and others captured by the people who remained in possession of the more secure fortified sites [castella tutiora], they restored the peace treaty.1

The question that comes out of this is, what exactly were these castella? This treads lightly into some very tangled questions, about the degree of Romanisation in the north of Spain—Fernández thinks that recent work that has found seals, ceramics, buildings, walls to towns and so on demonstrates that it was more considerable than hard-line ethno-continuity theories would accept, but I know there are those reading who would say that this is what the authorities of the area want archæologists to find.2 However, what Fernández was mainly attacking was a historiography in which the period after the arrival of the barbarians in Spain and before the eventual attempted extension of the consolidated Visigothic kingdom into the north is a time in which all that the locals could do was, quite literally, run to the hills. As Fernández pointed out, however, a lot of the hilltop forts they supposedly found seem to have been there under the Romans, Gijón for example being a third- or fourth-century foundation (which was still going for the Muslims to try and run Asturias from when they arrived, of course). Some are more ancient than that, even, but are refurbished during the Roman period (castro ventosa, seen below). I suppose the question then becomes, is that Roman occupation or local resistance to the Romans? It’s all very well to say that Roman material culture indicates this area was part of the Empire, but we know from the Scots and German borders that the peoples on the outside of the limes are very often keen buyers of Roman gear, and even happy to join the army (and serve in far-away places) without that necessarily meaning that they’re now cives romani.3

Current state of Castro Ventosa, near Bierzo

Current state of Castro Ventosa, near Bierzo

Fernández’s answer to this was that this sort of question can’t be addressed from the archæology. The material culture doesn’t differ between areas that may have been outside the frontier and areas everyone is sure were in it; it’s not ethnicity, it’s just poverty. Okay, fair point, but we still don’t know what was going on. One thing that was going on, however, was wall-building, in the third century right through to the early fifth, not because of any particular threat but because walls are a prestigious thing to have round your late Roman settlement. They associate not with decline, but with wealth. He suggested therefore that fortified hilltop settlement (and indeed fortified lowland settlement, of which there is also lots contemporaneously) was not an aberration caused by military, economic or demographic crises but the new mode of settlement for the period, a cultural shift not a strategic one. He saw a state-driven change in the settlement network caused by, well, fashion as much as economy, though that too. This seemed somewhat circular to me, the state encouraging change in settlement morphology because lots of people have changed the morphology of their settlements because the state… I wanted to know whether these sites have rôles as burial centres, as my pet ones from later certainly do, but this didn’t appear to work here: apparently some do and some don’t, and almost none have churches. I don’t think I’d expect churches, actually, I think those would be more local until later, so this didn’t really get me anything.

Remains of the walls of the ancient fortification at Viladonga

Remains of the walls of the ancient fortification at Viladonga

So, okay, there were a lot of small things here, and some quite big things, where I think alternative theses might be arguable or even preferable, but what I did like about this paper was his overall argument that these castella need to be seen not as crisis symptoms but as part of the same growth that is, at the same time that many of them are being refurbished (or even built, like Muelas below), causing the sprouting of new villas in the lowlands from third right through to sixth and in some cases seventh centuries. (Visigothic Spain was, after all, not apparently short of wealth.) Where the land is good for large-scale agrarian agriculture, you get villas; where it’s better for pastoralism and living on hilltops, you get castella—it’s environmental not military. That makes a lot of sense to me. The other important thing that he stressed is that, unlike the situation with hillforts like Dinas Powys in Britain, these are not aristocratic centres.4 There’s no evidence of resource redistribution, of patronage of craftsmen or of accumulation or special treatment of food animals (such as Alcock found at Dinas Powys); they’re just where people live, villages with walls. That’s so in the south, anyway; in the far north we know (from the slates!) that rents were collected at these places. Here a situation where control over transhumance routes is a source of power becomes more likely, even if the material culture, as said, is no different.

The (fifth-century) settlement of Muelas del Pan, near Zamora

The (fifth-century) settlement of Muelas del Pan, near Zamora

So, plenty to chew on, and much that I thought other scholars would have disagreed with, not necessarily correctly but they would have. But my last paragraph of notes reads:

Settlements are a decision taken by social actors: response to soc.-econ. change by e. g. state, moving to a more dynamic organisation of a local kind under a hands-off barbarian k’dom; aristocracies, intensifying local and decentralised econ. Good places to put walls!

and I hope that shows that this is a guy with some big and powerfully explanatory ideas, which I’m sure I’ll meet again and which perhaps the readership might also find useful.

1. R. W. Burgess (ed./transl.), The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana (Oxford 1993), Hydatius cap. 81 rev. D. Fernández.

2. The most relevant reference that the handouts provide seems to be Carmen Fernández-Ochoa [& Ángel Morillo], “Walls in the Urban Landscape of Late Roman Spain: Defense and Imperial Strategy” in Kim Bowes & Michael Kulikowski (edd.), Hispania in Late Antiquity: current perspectives, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 24 (Leiden 2005), pp. 208-340, but Dra Fernández-Ochoa’s webpages would seem to be a good place to find more. That does of course rely on the assumption that she is not, contrary to what some people think, involved in the suppression of pre-Roman evidence from these areas so as to promote, “un pasado romano hipertrofiado por cuestiones políticas”. If you are concerned by that possibility you probably ought to follow the link; I’m not in any position to judge from here.

3. If you want an actual academic reference here rather than links to other blogs, no matter how authoritative they be, I offer you Karl Hauck, “Der Missionsauftrag Christi und das Kaisertum Ludwigs des Frommen” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 275-296, which manages with startling ease to be more relevant to this question than you would imagine from its title.

4. I’ve given all these references before, but because it was a dig worth reading, I’ll do so again: Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.

Staying in Toledo, Visigothic Council style

Here’s one for you all currently at a conference of the learned. I can’t now remember what it was, but there was some reference a while ago on one of the various blogs in the sidebar there to a medieval summit meeting of some kind which is recorded in a text that has the participants’ tents all round the central hall. Anyone? Anyway, it reminded me that some time ago I asked if anyone wanted more of the work of Velasco of San Millá de Cogolla. Kishnevi obligingly stepped up, and then I did nothing for months. Poor show Jarrett! So here, at long last, is the mentioned picture of Visigothic Toledo in council season as imagined and painted by Velasco to accompany those councils’ resolutions.

Imagination of Visigothic Toledo during a Church council by Velasco of San Millán, c. 976

Imagination of Visigothic Toledo during a Church council by Velasco of San Millán, c. 976

Tents, you see! Actually I imagine that in Toledo of the sixth or seventh centuries there probably could have been found rooms for all the likely attendants, but given that they’d been travelling hundreds of miles to get there, they probably did indeed have tents with them. More importantly, at the places where Velasco was familiar with meetings of churchmen and their lackeys, there probably wasn’t room for them all to stay indoors, so we get his version here. At which rate, whose are the tents? Are the bishops and abbots and their batmen all inside, and the grooms and cooks outside under canvas (if medieval tents would have been canvas, I assume not really but I could be wrong)? Or are there some lucky contingents who get inside all of them and the leftovers are seen here? Is that to be read from the apparent precedence that the churchmen have in their line before the king, or is that just a stylistic choice of how to represent a lot of people? Could their varied robes have been decoded, like academic gowns now? Or is it just variation for variation’s sake? Are they actually meeting outdoors, or did the Visigothic kings have pot-plants taller than a man in their palaces? Did they really paint the town citadel patchwork like Elmer (but with more expensive joins), or is that just Velasco adding the sort of ornament that we saw his colleague Emeterius do in his picture of San Salvador de Tábara de León? Can we take any of this seriously?

I don’t know. But I love it.

Words that all look the same: a way to deal with evidence for social change

Once or twice here, I’ve written about one particular development in the way that Spanish medieval history is viewed and talked about by Spanish historians, which can be viewed as a battle of two schools. This is not just a question of old rivalries and forgotten debating positions, though, as both schools have remained influential and they still have a lot to tell us, not just about medieval Spanish history but about ways to approach our sources in general. I came freshly up against this just the other day and decided that, with a bit of luck, the themes would be close enough to universal to make it a suitable Cliopatria debut topic. So I’ve bitten my lip and posted it there, and you can go read it and agree with the person who thought it was too long if you like. There’s not usually a post at Cliopatria with nothing in to interest even me, despite its fairly modern US focus, so you may already be reading.

On the other hand, I want the search hits too, and you may not want to start tracking me across two blogs, so employing the famous device of the cut, I’ve stationed the rest of the post with minor tweaks underneath this one… Continue reading

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.