Blogs > Cliopatria > From the sources II: Sant Joan de les Abadesses and the men of Gombrèn

Dec 7, 2009

From the sources II: Sant Joan de les Abadesses and the men of Gombrèn

After the resounding success of the last post! I thought I'd brandish another of my sources at you. This post is less about what the source says and more about how I read it, and how getting at the original, or at least a decent facsimile, has affected my interpretation. I never really tire of making this point, probably because I'm secretly hoping for some rich benefactor to let me go and play with charters. So, here is an exemplum for you from the tenth century.

Outside of the cloister of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

A little while ago I managed to get in touch with the current archivist of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, Joan Ferrer i Godoy, who has been really helpful, and is also fresh from the achievement of publishing all the monastery's documents from 995 to 1273.1 One of the ways in which he has been helpful is that he's sent me images of the two documents I most wanted to look at there, thus potentially saving me a trip. Almost all of Sant Joan's early archive is now in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó in Barcelona, but a very few pieces remain at Sant Joan, and that meant that when Federico Udina i Martorell published the early series as part of a programme of the ACA's he did four documents from transcripts in Barcelona rather than the originals.2 Two of these are both quite important documents to me (and the other two are interesting forgeries): the former is the partner to a huge hearing over the monastery's own valley that I've talked about elsewhere quite a lot. Today however I want to introduce you to the other one, a different hearing about which I've been suspicious for a long time.

Arxiu de l'Abadia de Sant Joan de les Abadesses, volum de pergamins dels segles X-XII, fo. 35

Here it is (and it clicks through to the full-size version if you want to scrutinise the script for yourself). What this is is a hearing from 987 in which Abbess Fredeburga of Sant Joan called a bunch of people together in court before Marquis Oliba Cabreta of Besalú, who was by now the monastery's most local count, and had those people testify that the monastery had owned the castle of Montgrony since the time of the first abbess, Emma, and swore to what its territory was as well.3 Now, this was almost certainly not true; Sant Joan's documents from Emma's time that mention Montgrony are all interpolated, apparently to establish this very same fact, and Emma herself was no stranger to the sworn oath to complete fiction as a judicial tactic, having used it on Oliba's father (her brother) in that same huge hearing I already mentioned.4 What this means is that anything from Sant Joan that mentions Montgrony is automatically dubious, and close reading of this charter in Udina's edition made me no more comfortable about it.

  1. First of all, the people swearing the oath are not identified until the very end, in that little paragraph by a signature at the bottom right there, where they are identified as the men of one village, Gombrèn.5 Now, this is the nearest settlement to the castle so fair enough but I did wonder why no-one had thought to mention who they were till then, as you'd think that was a fairly important part of their value as witnesses.

  2. Secondly, I wondered why the judge Ervigi Marc was scribing, as he had nothing in particular to do with Sant Joan, never appears in its other documents, and was first and foremost a man of the counts of Barcelona, not their cousin Oliba Cabreta. Judges did travel, certainly, but this is out of his area and it's still odd.6

  3. And that got odder with each of the witnesses I checked. None of Oliba's usual men are here, though one guy, Florenci, at least appears with no-one else; instead, every other witness I could identify had pedigree as a follower of his cousin Borrell II of Barcelona, Ervey's main employer.7

So at this point my thought was that this document, which has been used to argue some pretty dubious stuff, was itself probably pretty dubious. I suspected that a hearing had been made up and the witness list borrowed from a charter of Borrell's, though against that I did have to admit that no matching charter of Borrell's seems to have survived. Later reflection showed me that that wouldn't work, because they're all named in the opening lines too—modulo the apparent correction in line 3 where 'radulfo' is added over a scraped patch, he not being in the witnesses—so if it was made up it was done in one go. Some of the witnesses are big men and at least one, Tassio, really did appear with many counts, so he's not surprising.8 The others are still weird though. Obviously sight of the original was the only thing that might get me any further, and now, here we are. So, what difference does this make?

  1. Well, it actually is an original, or close to, which in and of itself chucks a load of possibilities out of the window. It's one bit of parchment written in contemporary script and there are autograph signatures on it, so we have to accept that there was some kind of hearing or meeting at or close to the date it gives.

  2. On the other hand the men of Gombrèn are still, as we say in the trade, 'well dodgy'. Observe that long long horizontal stroke in the centre of the page; that's the list of people who swore, evidently running short. What that means is that Ervigi (who certainly wrote the main part of the document, the scribal signature right at the bottom is the same precise hand as the first few lines I'm sure) didn't know who was swearing when he wrote this, left a gap and then there weren't enough oath-takers to fill it. So, prior redaction to a set of facts not then fully known.

So what I now think is this, as a first guess. Gombrèn was in Oliba Cabreta's territory at this point, so it had to be before him that this case was heard, or at least it would be best if it were. I still don't understand what Fredeburga, about whose connections we know little, was up to that Oliba's court was apparently packed with Barcelona nobles (though we don't have to assume there was no-one else there; the panels for these things are chosen for relevance and can be subsets of the court9), but apparently she'd brought people with her. Ervigi accordingly wrote the document up first, leaving out the names of those taking the oath because it doesn't seem to have been clear who they would be, and the witnesses because they would need to follow the list of those swearing.

Once it was finally agreed who was taking the oath, and perhaps even once it had been taken, he added them in, two or three fewer than he'd allowed for, in bigger letters to try and fill the gap (I'm pretty sure that is the same hand, all the letter forms look the same as the smaller script to me) and finished the document by adding the witnesses' names, letting the clerics and one or two who at least don't say they're clerics write their own in a few places. Among them however was the man in charge of the men from Gombrèn, Miró (as ever one of about a dozen otherwise-unknown Miros involved), and at this point Ervigi seems to have realised that as well as not initially naming the oath-takers, he'd never explained who they were. So that information was squeezed into the signature he wrote for Miró (perhaps at the same time he realised he'd also missed out a boundary clause and added it between lines seven and eight). Also, there seems to have been some doubt about whether a record botched this badly would be legal, because another signature added at this point is the one at the middle of the penultimate line, 'S+ bonutius cl[ericu]s doctusqu[e] lege qui ha[s] conditione[s] roboraui', 'signed Bonnuç, cleric and learned in law, who have confirmed this oath'. Except that that still looks like Ervey's hand to me so I wonder how learned this cleric was, in fact, that he didn't sign himself. Anyway, there's almost no other instance of a specifically legal approval like that from this era, and I think it's significant.

Finally, and perhaps shamefacedly, Ervigi signed off at the very bottom, admitting to, 'rasas ac emendatas atq[ue] sup[er]positas in u[e]r[s]o III· & uiii· ac nono ac...' and I can't even read it, 'erasures and corrections and superscripts in the third line and the eighth and the ninth and...' Poor beggar. No backspace on parchment.

Sant Pere de Montgrony with the old castle's rock behind it

So it is an odd occasion. Fredeburga may not have known that what she was contending wasn't true, that depends when the interpolations to Emma's documents were made, but she may have had trouble sorting out the oath-swearers because of dissent on the matter. She also seems to have had trouble getting Oliba's own following to pay attention, and Borrell may have been behind the panel who did attend, intending to unsettle his elder cousin. There's many lurking pieces of politics behind this hearing that may explain its oddity. But the main reason it looks dodgy is no malicious or fraudulent purpose, but that the problems getting people to swear seem to have led the unfortunate scribe to make a complete hash of it. Never attribute to malice what can be satisfactorily explained by incompetence, eh?

(Cross-posted at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.)

1. Joan Ferrer i Godoy (ed.), Diplomatari del monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses (995-1273) (Barcelona 2009).

2. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), ap. II, docs A-D.

3. Udina, Archivo Condal, ap. II D, now edited from the original as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d'Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1526. On Fredeburga see Esteve Albert, Les Abadesses de Sant Joan, Episodis de la història 69 (Barcelona 1968).

4. Montgrony: J. Jarrett,"Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses" in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258 at pp. 235-241; the hearing is edited in Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 38 or Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV doc. no. 119; the former has palæographical notes par excellence but the latter has the correct date... Discussion, Jarrett,"Power over Past and Future", pp. 241-248.

5. The Latin makes clear that the origin of the modern placename is 'Gomesindo morto', 'dead Gomesèn', whoever he may have been. For a suggestion, see J. Jarrett,"Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), p. 141 & n. 268.

6. For judges in general and Ervigi Marc in particular, see 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. 81-99.
7. Jarrett,"Pathways of Power", p. 249 n. 155.

8.Ibid., pp. 229-230.

9. For example C. Devic & J. Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, rev. E. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach & A. Molinier & ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. V (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), Preuves: Chartes et Documents nos 193 & 194, are two hearings from the same day and town by the same judge, but the witnesses differ per case.

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Jonathan Jarrett - 12/13/2009

Wow, that's pretty much exactly parallel to one of the concerns I'm currently writing about, whether these documents necessarily indicate a gathering and whether they couldn't in fact just make one up. There are some examples where this is demonstrably the case but the bulk of them are presumably regular. I just want to sow some seeds of doubt so as to better grow a critique. But there is literature on this for the early Middle Ages (as well as supposedly universal stuff like Jack Goody's two books) if those would be helpful...

Jonathan Dresner - 12/10/2009

Sometimes writerly issues are reflected (the recent scanning of Dickens' A Christmas Carol manuscript, for example, shows heavy and judicious editing), but more to the point, fewer modern documents are simultaneously texts and social events.

In my own work, there's one document which I'd really like to see in manuscript: pledges of conduct which local governments required emigrants to swear to and sign. The published versions suggest that they were signed in groups, in a sort of ceremonial fashion, but I've never seen any actual documentation on the process, and there are significant questions about emigrant literacy which might be answered. But a real answer to these questions would require much greater familiarity with the body of manuscripts, so I could pick out differences and nuances, and I haven't had that kind of access.

Jonathan Jarrett - 12/10/2009

My landlord is a big Feynman fan and had told me that story, but I think Feynman probably got paid better for his 'insight' than you're going to :-)

You could, of course, do forensic-level tests on your manuscripts, as in, did these all come off the same typewriter and what might it mean if they didn't, and sometimes that might get you something, but the sense of connection to the person would hardly be the same I guess.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/9/2009

There's a great scene in Richard Feynman's autobiography where he's called in to solve a problem with a plutonium production facility: they show him the blueprints, but he's never read a blueprint before, so he just points at something and says "what about this?" They start talking, looking things over, getting more and more animated, and suddenly they turn back to him and say "thanks, you solved the problem." I never knew what that was like, until now....

One of the downsides to being a modern historian, actually, is that I never got trained in these kinds of raw, pre-printing documents. Sure, we work with manuscripts sometimes, but rarely is there real evidence encoded in these beyond the text itself. Or perhaps it's an upside, as I never was all that good at the kind of physical/visual/artistic/stylistic analysis.

Jonathan Jarrett - 12/9/2009

Yes and no. There is, in that the `pizza hooks' are done by the main scribe, Ervigi Marc, whereas Adalbert pretty obviously signed himself (and uses no clerical title, notice). But, no, in as much as they're just personal variations on a stylised monogram of the word Signum, cut down to just an S and a cross, and then reornamented up again into what you see here.

In fact, I'm glad you asked me that because it suddenly strikes me that Bonnuç, our `cleric learned in law', uses a different form of it. I woner if I'm wrong that Ervigi wrote his signature, then? Perhaps they just schooled in the same place, which would itself be interesting... Thankyou!

Jonathan Dresner - 12/7/2009

Is there a difference between the signature marks with hooks (the vast majority of pizza-like circles) and the one towards the end without one (Adelberytus?).