The Medieval Review 10.09.06

Pérez-Alfaro, Cristina and Carlos Estepa Diez,. Land, Power and Society in Medieval Castile: A Study of Behetría Lordship. The Medieval Countryside, 3. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. Pp. xiv, 338. $100 ISBN 978-2-503-52623-2. .

Reviewed by:

Teofilo F. Ruiz

Marc Bloch, the great French historian of feudal society and of the French rural world, has been credited with saying that the study of the Middle Ages is always a study of localities. Each region or village differs from others in a variety of ways. This is particularly true for the history of the medieval countryside. The differences between one realm and another were considerable indeed. It is also certainly the case for the Iberian realms. There, the contrasts between rural structures in Castile and Catalonia were quite sharp, as they were between the northern and southern parts of the kingdom of Castile itself.

Land, Power, and Society in Medieval Castile makes available to English-reading scholars a collection of articles--given first at a conference in 1998 and then published in Spanish as Los señoríos de behetría in 2001--that illuminate the uniqueness and peculiarities of the behetría lordship. Its findings serve as a powerful reminder that we reduce the history of medieval rural Europe to a set of common paradigms only at our peril and by obscuring the complex diversity of that history.

The Behetría is among the most puzzling phenomena in rural medieval life. In Spain, it has been the subject of numerous classical studies, and it is re-examined in this volume in great detail and with new methodological vigor. Over the last two decades, many of the authors of these essays (above all, Carlos Estepa Díez with numerous works on the subject) have mapped what the behetría was and how it developed over time. At its most basic level, the behetría was a type of lay lordship in which peasants were able to freely choose their lords. This, in the classical formulation, meant that peasants could choose their lords either from "sea to sea," from specific lordly families, or from any lord in the region. To complicate matters further, behetrías could and did often have two distinct levels of lordship. One would be sole lordship (one noble having fiscal and jurisdictional control of one village); the second would be a shared or communal lordship (these lords were called diviseros), often by nobles of lesser standing than those enjoying undivided jurisdiction over a behetría. As Jular Pérez-Alfaro, Estepa Díez, and other contributors rightly point out, this type of lordship, while providing a certain range of freedom to peasants and rights over their possessions, also evolved over time to the detriment of peasant rights until its almost complete disappearance in the early modern period. Thus, this book is an excellent example of the great complexities of medieval rural life and of our need not only to read--to brush in Walter Benjamin's terms--this history against the grain, but to keep these regional examples always present as we examine the varieties of rural structures, types of lordship, and the relative freedom, or lack thereof, of the peasantry throughout the medieval West.

The articles in this volume revolve mostly around a great documentary source, the Libro becerro de las behetrías (LBB), and borrow heavily from the meticulous edition by Martínez Díez published in 1981. The LBB, a great survey or census of behetría lordship and feudal dues, was undertaken, as the editors argue, partly as an attempt to turn behetrías into lay lordship or señoríos (and thus to gain greater control over their dependant peasantry), in 1351. It is an impressive portrait of the types and extent of lordship in northern Castile and an incomparable source for the studies discussed in this review and, more generally, for Castile's late medieval economic and social history. One of the advantages of such a source is that we have compelling and detailed evidence for this type of lordship at one point in time. One of the disadvantages is that the rest of the complicated story of the origins, nature, development, and eventual demise of the behetrías has to be woven together from very variegated sources. This the contributors to this volume have done superbly, keeping a fine balance between over-reliance on the LBB and the deployment of other documents.

Behetrías were mostly confined spatially--though Estepa reports some of these arrangements in the region of León--to northern Castile and chronologically from the twelfth century (though its origins went back to an earlier period) to the end of the Middle Ages. The seven articles that comprise the collection are written by well-known and established scholars whose works focus upon or intersect with aspects of lordly power in general and behetrías in particular. The articles are arranged in roughly thematic groupings. Jular and Estepa's introductory chapter provides a formidable context for the rest of the volume. Tracing the origin of behetría lordship, the pertinent historiography, and the character of this peculiar type of lordship, the two co-editors address the thorny issue of Castile's incomplete feudalization and of how to understand the relationship between lords and dependant peasants. By placing behetrías within a larger seigneurial context and by tracing the development of this particular type of lordship, the initial chapter provides a superb overview of the behetría system, its uniqueness within the northern Castilian context, and its relations to royal power and other forms of lordship. Above all, the introduction and all the chapters that follow focus on questions of power. Who holds the power? How it was exercised? What were the consequences for the peasantry? How did noble power relate to that of the Crown?

Escalona Monge's next chapter, "Supra-Local Territorial Units: On the Origins of Behetría Lordship," explores the relationship between types of lordship and the spatial hierarchies that are present in the LBB and other sources. That is, although the behetría appears as either the expression of an individual lordship or that of diviseros (a type of communal lordship in which several lords share the income and labor of dependant villagers in a given location), the LBB and other documents implicitly show the existence of larger units, either lordly, municipal, or royal that are not directly reflected in the LBB's taxonomy. Escalona's article is followed by Estepa Díez's engaging study of the relationship between behetría lordship and royal power. He argues that this particular type of lordship emerged from an archaic, pre-twelfth century form of royal jurisdictional power. Here and elsewhere throughout these contributions, the reality of an enduring royal fiscal power over the land points to the links between kingly authority, power, fiscal prowess and all other types of lordship in Castile in this period--links that were quite distinct in many ways from those in other parts of the medieval West.

The next two chapters, Alvarez Borges' "The Lordship of the Rojas Family Group in 1352," and Jular Pérez Alfaro's "Nobility and Patronage: The Velasco, a Case Study," are extensive (the first is over eighty printed pages) prosopographical case studies of two influential family groups and their associations with behetría lordship. Both pieces involve careful examination of kinship, lineage (a term which Alvarez Borges does not apply to the Rojas), and the different strategies deployed by these families--or lineage of lineages as Alvarez Borges describes the Rojas--to consolidate their power and to move into the upper ranks of the nobility, as was, most decidedly the case of the Velascos. We see the processes that led to the consolidation of property and how they worked, through primogeniture, matrimonial alliances, violence, and the like, to counteract the co-existing forces that made for fragmentation of lordships.

The final two articles, Luis Martínez García's "Solariego peasants in Castile's late Medieval Behetrías," and Isabel Alfonso Antón's "Conflict in the Behetrías" are very different types of articles, even though they both address the question of behetría lordship from either the perspective of the peasantry or from that of conflict and conflict resolution. Martínez García notes that although the peasants may have benefited from certain privileges under behetría lordship (to choose one's lord, for example), these rights had evaporated by the end of the fifteenth century. Nonetheless, because of new aristocratic economic needs and political strategies, solariegos (peasants who lived in the solar) enjoyed extensive rights to expand, donate, improve, sell, and/or exchange their holdings as long as they paid the rents owed to their lords. This is a complex and extensive article that examines feudal structures from different perspectives, most notably, from a fiscal perspective. He argues convincingly that, for the nobility, control over their peasants was far more important than control over the land. The peasants held to the land; the lords held to the peasants.

Finally, Alfonso Antón's thoughtful examination of conflict (mostly between ecclesiastical and lay lords) over behetrías in her "Conflict in the Behetrías" provides an adroit reading of the evidence and of the manner in which lay lords sought to expand and intrude into the jurisdiction of other lords, most often that of ecclesiastical institutions. Seeing some of the disputes as forms of negotiations, Alfonso Antón raises as many questions as she answers, but her queries open new avenues for research and permit us to see the nuances and pitfalls that accompany the study of this type of lordship. Her concluding remarks provide a stunning coda on the evolution of lordly power in northern Castile and to the book itself. As she argues, "It was in the context provided by the behetrías that the most powerful members of Castilian society competed to establish themselves as individual, hegemonic, lords, by either eliminating or subjugating the intermediate powers associated with the shared level of behetría lordship and transforming both the nature of that lordship and the status of the vassals" (294, here "vassals" is a term used to describe, as is the case in Castilian nomenclature, nobles and peasants alike). By connecting this evolution of power to the survival until today of local caciquismo in the region where behetrías had once prospered, Alfonso Antón provides a powerful reminder of the enduring nature of structures that allow the few to rule over the many.

Although it would have been most welcome to have the different authors place their research and findings in a broader context--that is, to provide some comparative assessment: how is this different from other regions in Iberia, from other regions in Europe?--this is a most valuable contribution to a topic that has been hitherto ignored or not noticed by historians of medieval rural society elsewhere. The foundations of the book rest on the authors' impressive mastery of the sources, and their admirable willingness to ask questions and suggest possible answers, while refusing, in most cases, to advance any overarching and dogmatic interpretation. Although many of the pieces are animated by Marxian or neo-Marxian methodology (an approach to which I am sympathetic), theory always takes second place to textual evidence and to the desire to see the issues from a variety of perspectives. And the evidence speaks clearly of the complex history of the rise and fall of the behetrías between the Central Middle Ages and the onset of the early modern age, to the enduring quality of lordly power, and to the rather unique strength of the monarchy in Castile at a time when their counterparts north of the Pyrenees were just beginning to flex their muscles.