18.05.14, Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain

Main Article Content

Adam Adam

The Medieval Review 18.05.14

Portass, Robert. The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain Local Community and the Land Market . Royal Historical Society Studies in History New Series. Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society / The Boydell Press, 2017. pp. xiv, 225. ISBN: 978-0-86193-344-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Adam Kosto
Columbia University

If not quite as numerous and geographically dense as the sources from the contemporary Catalan counties, the early medieval charters of (the rest of) early medieval Christian Iberia offer similar opportunities for rich historical analysis. They have grounded a recent boomlet of deeply researched Anglophone studies, with Wendy Davies' two excellent books (2007, 2016), [1] Graham Barret's Oxford thesis (2015), [2] and now the volume under review, a revision of the author's own Oxford thesis (2011), a comparative study of two small but well documented regions, the Liébana valley in Cantabria and the area centered on the monastery of Celanova in Southern Galicia. This clearly argued and clear-headed book unfolds in two matching parts, each of which includes chapters on the Visigothic and eighth-century evidence; society and economy in the ninth century; society and economy in the tenth century; and finally the nature of law, governance, and public authority. In each region, the author finds in the early period not tribal societies, but communities that were essentially Romano-Visigothic; not the subjection of the peasantry by local powers and ecclesiastical institutions, but free, self-interested action on both sides, reflected in the existence of something that can reasonably be considered a land market as well as social mobility; and not local powers throwing off royal authority, but cooperation. The differences in how this plays out in the two regions rest on differences in scale and connectivity.

After an introduction that sketches the political history of the kingdoms of Asturias-León, describes the sources, and reviews the historiography of early medieval Iberia, the book turns to the first case study, of the Liébana valley, centered geographically and in terms of sources on the monastery of Santo Toribio (then San Martín de Turieno). Chapter 1 argues that the region of Cantabria was in the sixth through eighth centuries in no way "tribal," but rather essentially Romano-Visigothic, sharing "broad socio-economic characteristics with the rest of the peninsula" (29). But a reading of the foundation charter of the monastery (from the year 790) shows that the society was not yet "feudal" either; small-scale private landholding existed, and the formation of the monastic community is not evidence of domination and exploitation. Chapter 2, focused on the ninth century, develops this latter theme, describing village life characterized by "the autonomy and ingenuity of a significant part of the peasant community" (52), private ownership of land, and social difference structured by loose ties of patronage. Chapter 3--the most interesting in the book--describes how, in the tenth century, a local lay couple raised themselves above their neighbors through purchases in a vibrant land market; where earlier scholars saw the creation of seigneurial lordship, the author sees non-exploitative social mobility driven by risk-taking and an acquisitive instinct. The couple's son became abbot of San Martín and attracted a raft of donations to the monastery, further cementing the family's local power. But this power never extended beyond a very local scale and dissolved after one generation. No feudal revolution here: "it was their time that was up, not that of a largely free peasantry" (95). Chapter 4 reinforces the fundamentally local horizons of the Liébana valley, showing the vanishingly light footprint of representatives of royal authority. Courts and public activity existed, but as "an extension of community cohesion and collective participation, rather than the result of some imposition from above" (114).

The second case study explores another "small world," the Southern Galician territory centered on the monastery of Celanova. Chapter 5 describes Galicia as a very different sort of place than Cantabria, with deeper Roman and urban roots, but weakly integrated into the Visigothic realm, only briefly subject to Islamic influence, from the eighth century home to a local aristocracy closely linked to the power politics of the Asturian kingdom, and possessed of a much more substantial documentary source base. Chapter 6, on the period before the foundation of Celanova in 936, shows a region similarly characterized by small-time property ownership and a land market in which peasants participated freely, but, in contrast, with a more evident servile population and structures of proprietary lordship. Chapter 7 tells the story of another dominant family with close ties to an ecclesiastical institution, with Rosendo, abbot of Celanova, as the leading figure. The monastery vacuumed up land through sale and donation--including twenty-one transactions in just two years in the village of Rabal--but the author stresses that here, too, peasant proprietors alienated land not under pressure, but because they thought it was in their interest. They did so, he claims, without realizing the long-term consequences of alienating land to an institution, consequences that would only play out in the eleventh century. And here, in another contrast to the Liébana, the connection to the monastery contributed to the family's continued power. Chapter 8 describes Galicia's much more "recognisably public political framework" (175) and allows the author to argue against another pillar of previous historiography: the demise of royal authority in the tenth century. In a further contrast to the Liébana, the leading family here was closely linked to the crown and dominated courts as royal agents, but as in the more northern region, justice was "based on procedure and text," not arbitrary (192).

A brief conclusion stresses the differences between the Liébana and the Tierra de Celanova, differences that show the importance of considering local context. But in closing, the author returns to commonalities: the socio-economic history of these regions cannot be read as a simple story of peasants slipping into servitude ("concentration of economic power...did not a priori depend on the genesis of new mechanisms of coercion" [198]), and the political history is not one of the collapse of the public sphere. Thus Spain is different from the rest of Europe.

While others may read the evidence differently, these arguments are well grounded in the sources and presented engagingly. The main weakness of the study, such as it is, is not the analysis, but the historiographical framing with respect to a non-specialist audience. The author correctly presents his findings as a contrast to plenty of mostly Spanish historiography developing or responding to the arguments of Barbero and Vigil [3] that posits a breakdown of public order, growth of lordship, and suppression of the peasantry in the early Middle Ages. But when linking this argument to the "feudal revolution" debate elsewhere in Europe, the chronology is off. In orthodox form (Duby, Bonnassie, Bisson...), the wholesale breakdown of public order, rise of castellans, and the absorption of the peasantry into increasingly local structures of violent lordship takes place after the late tenth-century. A mostly free peasantry happily transacting business under the aegis of a thin but still functional public order is precisely what one expects around 950. Furthermore, much recent scholarship paints a less rigid chronology of change, which approaches the "slow-burning" developments (199) the author points to.

A lesser weakness is the author's occasional reliance on a shaky and borderline circular argument about the survival of documents. The book makes a strong case for the deep penetration of the written word in these societies. But the absence of evidence for "persons who had made themselves substantially rich by means of recurrent purchase" in the ninth-century Liébana means that they didn't exist because this would "probably have led to the retention of at least some of the documents recording that process" (66). And when noting the absence of peasant donations to the monastery of San Martín, the author suggests "that this is a mirage contingent upon evidential survival is highly unlikely; peasant donations were precisely the sort of documents that it was in the interests of monasteries to keep" (95). With reference to previous sales to Celanova mentioned in donations to the monastery, the absence of these charters in the records of the monastery means that they never existed, that the transactions were oral: "Had charters recording these latter ever existed they would almost certainly have been folded into the monastery's archive" (158). And when arguing that it was the foundation of Celanova that first attracted donations to the Rosendo family, he concedes in a footnote that earlier donations may not have been recorded or may have been lost, "but this seems improbable since it was in the monastery's interests to record these deals and keep the documents, as, indeed, they did when this process seems to have really taken off in about 950" (197n4). Leaving aside the point that the monastery did not exist until 936, the question here is about what we can positively claim about lay and ecclesiastical archival practices. The author may be correct in his suspicions that in these particular cases, if we don't have the documents, they were never there. That position does conflict, however, with the motto of aficionados--including, presumably, the author himself--of the submerged portion of the early medieval documentary iceberg: "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

More than counterargument, though, this book stimulates questions. How significant demographically were the strata of well-off peasants visible through the records? How did a local family in the Liébana without wide horizons accumulate the resources to start buying up others' lands in such great numbers? If peasants were so wrapped up in the land market that they didn't see the long-term consequences of selling to a monastery, was the same true of the monastery? Are the insights of behavioral economics--not directly referenced here, but certainly present in the background, and which do in fact help us imagine how a land market might work--directly applicable to the tenth century?

One last point: in its skillful unpacking of the dynamics of very local socio-economic and power relationships, The Village World is reminiscent of Jonathan Jarrett's 2010 study of tenth-century Catalonia, which appeared in this same series. [4] The author of the volume under review, like most who work on "non-Catalan Christian Spain," reasonably brackets the eastern story on the grounds that "it has an entirely separate historiography, which in large part reflects its different historical trajectory" (10n25). But given his own rejection of dominant narratives and productive use of comparison to educe enlightening similarities and differences, perhaps it is time for some cooperation across that historiographical divide.



1. Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford, 2007); Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London, 2016).

2. "The Written and the World in Early Medieval Iberia," D.Phil. Thesis, University of Oxford, 2015.

3. Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil, Sobre las origenes sociaes de la Reconquista (Barcelona, 1974); idem, La formación del feudalism en la Península Ibérica (Barcelona, 1978).

4. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways of Power (Woodbridge, 2010).

Article Details