A Confession, then an Argument

Confession: I love my job. I love teaching. I see true value in advising students and helping them in their efforts to achieve goals for college and beyond. I appreciate the significance of meeting with my department colleagues and with committees to do the business of the college. But… I hate not being able to work on research and writing consistently. Whenever I manage to get back to it, there always seems so much more just to read, so that it never seems like time to write… and it’s been this way for ten years. I don’t know why it really takes so long to complete an admittedly long project, other than putting writing on the back burner during each academic year, and then always feeling the need to read a lot more. And even then, given the piecemeal approach to work, new insights don’t always get incorporated very well when it comes time to write.

OK… now that’s off my chest. Turning my attention to scholarship, let me set up a bit of an argument between me and another historian. This fellow, Jonathan Jarrett, is clearly a good scholar who knows what he’s doing in studying charters—basically documents that record transactions involving property. He is not afraid of doing meticulous work. He is also a bit argumentative, often in what seems to be to be unproductive ways, in that he can treat the academic enterprise as a zero-sum game. If he is right about something, then someone else must be wrong. Still, he does excellent work, and I can refer you to his blog,[1] book,[2] and articles as proof.

I came into his crosshairs over ten years ago. In 2002, an article I wrote was published in the journal Early Medieval Europe (and won that journal’s annual prize for the best article that is the author’s first).[3] That was quite a feather in my cap, as EME is a top-notch journal. The next year, an article Dr. Jarrett wrote was published in the same journal and won the same prize.[4] In a footnote, he took issue with my interpretation of the aprisio, a type of land-holding that seems really to have existed only in early medieval Spain. In particular, this word applies to land that had been brought back into cultivation after a period of being either unsettled, unorganized, or unproductive, and it really seems to come from the Spanish March and Septimania, although there are clear parallels to practices known by other names in other parts of northern Spain. My article argued that Charlemagne used the aprisio practice as a way to get his royal authority to permeate down to the local level of Septimania and the Spanish March and to build a loyal following of individuals who were given right to their aprisiones as property without having to answer to the jurisdiction of the counts in the area. I made this claim on the basis of royal documents, and furthered the argument by pointing to later documents issued by Charlemagne himself and his successors to show that kings protected the rights and status of aprisio settlers.

So far, so good. But Dr. Jarrett didn’t see things in quite the same way. In that footnote in his 2003 article  that referred to my article of the year before, he mentioned that he hoped to publish a response to my thesis. That happened in 2009/10, again in the journal Early Medieval Europe, in an article titled “Settling the king’s lands”.[5] My name appears many times in the main text of that article, and my earlier paper is referred to in a good many footnotes. Dr. Jarrett’s argument in “Settling the king’s lands” is basically that aprisio was a local thing, and that kings and immigrants had pretty much nothing to do with it. He critiques my reading of some of the documents I had used and points out instances where I was more generous to the surviving source record than he thinks necessary. And you know, I am willing to concede some of those points. Having written the paper that seems to have set him off, I remember trying to figure out what to do in those situations. I was trying to flesh out my major point about Charlemagne while still a graduate student, and my training was not centered primarily on working with royal documents. (As a matter of fact, my graduate training was not centered on the study of any particular kind of source text, whereas Dr. Jarrett’s was. I am therefore fully willing to admit that he should be better at that than I am. But I digress.) Anyway, I remember grasping at straws to try to explain why later documents don’t repeat in detail the precise list of rights that earlier kings had granted to the aprisio settlers. I settled on the notion that they didn’t need to repeat the rights after decades of having them recognized. I knew at the time that my explanation was rather weak, so I’ll concede. So Charles the Bald cannot be proven to have actively protected the kinds of rights to immunity that Charlemagne had earlier issued. But that doesn’t mean that Charlemagne never issued them and upheld them when challenged.

We can get into a little debate as to whether only a group of people known as hispani were given such lands and rights because they were refugees from elsewhere in Spain. I emphasize the point that Charlemagne put such immigrants under his own protection, while Dr. Jarrett emphasizes established, local people doing their own thing. I can see Jonathan’s argument, but I need to go back to the sources before I settle my mind. The main argument between us is that we are placing our strongest emphasis on different aspects of the subject: his interest is local society, especially in the tenth century, while mine is royal authority in the late eighth and ninth centuries. I happen to think we can both be right; he seems less inclined to do so. And I can certainly accept his points about how the aprisio idea functioned as a way for local people to settle and organize land without royal involvement in the very late ninth century and throughout the tenth. My article in 2002 really didn’t go that far in time because it wasn’t germane to the thesis. But some things that Dr. Jarrett asserts in “Settling the king’s lands” just cannot go unanswered.

(Warning to non-specialists: there might be weird vocabulary in this paragraph.) For one thing, contrary to what he seems to say, I never claimed that Charlemagne “invented” aprisio, or if I did, I meant in terms of “inventing a new way for the king to link himself to locals by co-opting a local practice”. As king, Charlemagne was claiming deserted areas for his fisc and immediately granting them out retroactively to those who cultivated them, giving these people limited immunity from comital jurisdiction. Of course he was recognizing a fait accompli every time, not giving people permission to undertake something new. But these people became immunists and something like vassi dominici in that they enjoyed a direct relationship with the king. Rights of immunity are shown in a famous case from 812 that formed part of the backbone of my argument in 2002. Early documents from Louis the Pious also show immunity. I might concede that Charles the Bald’s documents of aprisio do not show it as part of a continuing royal program of immunity—that’s where I am forced to see the weakness of my earlier argument, as described above—but I’m not claiming that they were ever a royal program. I’m claiming that Charlemagne saw what was going on and seized the opportunity to turn it to his advantage. If Charles the Bald did not, and aprisio reverted in meaning to a simple label for land reclaimed from waste, so be it—that does not mean that such properties were not bestowed immunities in earlier years. The so-called “thirty-year clause” that appears in these documents[6] is important as a way to make the grant (because waste was theoretically and legally part of the fisc and thus only legally attainable by alienation from the king) part of the aprisionist’s patrimony. Now, did Charles the Bald have to grant aprisiones out of the fisc retroactively? Did later kings? By the end of the 840s, the rights of immunity are no longer enumerated, so does that mean that the aprisionists no longer had those rights? The right to recognize land reclamation seems to have shifted over from the kings to the counts by the tenth century… just the time when kings ceased to intervene in the secular affairs of the Spanish March more generally. It’s irrelevant to my argument about royal authority what kind of role aprisio played in the tenth century because my main point is about Charlemagne, really, and my 2002 article was colored by my interpretation of the 812 case, and I stand by that interpretation.

There you have it. Please, dear readers (if there are any), leave a comment. If I’ve done up this post in a way that renders it impossible to follow, let me know so that future posts won’t have that problem. If you’d like more information, I can provide it in the comments. If I have made some error in judgment, fact, or interpretation, by all means point it out. It may cause me to change my mind, as did some of Dr. Jarrett’s arguments, and I’m not too stubborn to change my mind in the face of good information. General comments about how to improve the blog are also welcome. Perhaps I should include photos or other images, or something else. Let me know what you think so I can make this as useful to others as I think it has been for me.


[2] Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways to Power (London: Royal Historical Society, 2010).

[3] Cullen J. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897,” Early Medieval Europe 11 (2002): 19-44.

[4] Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over past and future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses,” Early Medieval Europe 12 (2003): 229-258.

[5] Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010): 320-342.

[6] The record of the dispute, dated to 812 reveals that the land in question had become property of the hispani immigrants because they (or their ancestors) had held the land by royal permission for at least thirty years. The document is published in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, ed., Catalunya Carolíngia vol. 2, in 2 parts: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1926-1952), 312-314.

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