15.11.03, Barton, Contested Treasure

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Clifford Backman

The Medieval Review 15.11.03

Barton, Thomas W. Contested Treasure: Jews and Authority in the Crown of Aragon. Iberian Encounter and Exchange, 475-1755, 1. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. pp. xix, 292. ISBN: 978-0-271-06472-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Clifford Backman
Boston University

Newspapers here and in Europe announced recently that the government in Madrid is offering Spanish citizenship to all Sephardic Jews whose ancestors resided in Spain prior to the expulsion of 1492. The offer, while seeking to amend an historical evil, re-illumines an historical good--namely, the long history of relative convivencia between Muslims, Christians, and Jews that characterized medieval Iberia. Reactions to the Spanish offer thus far have been mixed, but have been more positive than not. So too is the scholarly consensus on the supposed convivencia of the medieval era. While a number of outliers have made the case for a near-idyllic Iberian haven of tolerance and cultural pluralism, and a few others have rejected the notion as a romantic PR stunt, most scholars recognize that Spain was the site of the closest, longest, and most generally successful co-existence of the three faiths. The only comparable society was the relatively brief realm of Norman Sicily.

Thomas Barton's book wisely avoids, and tests, broad generalizations by examining in detail a specific issue--namely, the treatment of Jews by various state authorities in the Crown of Aragon between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The Crown was not representative of all of Iberia, of course, and the city he focuses attention on--Tortosa--was not representative of the entire Crown, but Barton is right in his assertion that we cannot understand the broad picture of inter-religious relations in Spain without first doing some of the heavy lifting of finely-detailed local studies. His book is an admirably solid, sensible, and persuasive work.

He argues that the Jews of Tortosa were in a sense the field upon which the battle for jurisdictional authority between the count-kings of Catalonia and the local aristocratic families was fought. Having been declared the count-king's "royal treasure" in the twelfth century, the Jews (and also Muslims) of the Crown of Aragon supposedly became the unique and special responsibility of the ruler in Barcelona and lived under his protection and jurisdiction. But rulers' claims and rulers' actual powers were seldom identical in medieval Europe, and in either case they ran up against the established seigneurial rights of local barons. The phenomenon is a familiar one--witness John of England's confrontation with his nobles at Runnymede. Barton here parses out the tug-of-war between nobility and crown in Aragon-Catalonia by examining the ways in which both sides claimed, asserted, and tried to exercise jurisdiction over the Jews in the area of Tortosa. His book is therefore as much a study of baronial-comital relations as it is an examination of Christian-Jewish interactions.

Tortosa is a good test case to have chosen. After its conquest in 1148 by Count Ramon Berenguer IV, it was the home of the Montcada family--one of the most powerful and influential of all Catalan noble families. It also provided a station for the Knights Templar, a fact that added an unofficial yet significant crusader aura to the site, and hosted a sizeable (though, for that early time, unquantifiable) Jewish population that served as go-betweens between the new Christian rulers and the largely Muslim population. Moreover, numerous Dutch, Flemish, French, Genoese, German, and Norman crusaders, who had assisted in Ramon Berenguer's conquest of the city, stayed on as new residents. Tortosa, in short, and for a time at least, was more heterogeneous than any Iberian city outside of Barcelona itself. In such a varied milieu, the working out of jurisdictional rights was bound to be a complicated affair.

Barton clears the historiographical underbrush in a concise introduction, then progresses through highly detailed chapters on royal prerogatives post-conquest; the development of a more or less coherent policy regarding the Tortosan Jews; and then four oscillating chapters on the actions, reactions, counter-actions, and ultimate compromise actions taken by the count-kings and the nobles. His mastery of the archival records is impressive, and Barton invariably selects the most helpful specific examples of the various players' moves and counter-moves.

Administrative history seldom makes riveting reading, but Barton wisely calls repeated attention to how the Tortosan case illumines similar developments elsewhere in Iberia and western Europe. Tortosa was neither an anomaly nor a fixed precedent for the evolution of regalian rights and baronial lordship vis-à-vis Jewish subjects, and this finely argued book reminds us of the protean nature of that evolution.

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