Although my role in Birmingham is to look after the coin collection in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, my research background is in history, and specifically the history of South-Western Europe in the ninth to eleventh centuries, a period when the whole of Europe was undergoing some pretty deep reconfiguration and when that corner of it preserves some of the best, but least used, documentation. I’m especially interested in power and authority, and specifically how, as I have often put it, the boss man gets himself obeyed when he is not there to make sure it happens.
Now, it’s a besetting problem of medieval studies before, say, the fourteenth century, that even if you want to study the world outside the Church, the Church tends to be the source of all the evidence you have, and it should be this that led me to be looking into the priesthood and their places of work around the Catalan city of Manresa in the tenth century. After all, in the tenth century Manresa, though not a place anyone much has heard of now, was on the frontier between Christianity and Islam; it was probably sacked twice by Muslim armies around the turn of the tenth and eleventh centuries, and land all round it was being cleared from abandonment and put back under cultivation. Frontier spaces like this are in some ways the best testbed for ideas about control and authority; it actually has to work here, because there are still alternatives, so you get to see what really underpins loyalties and the claims of the powerful upon them. And, when you only or mainly have Church evidence, the organisation of a frontier Church is one way of getting at those techniques and pathways of power, right?
Actually, though, it’s not that that led me to this enquiry at all. I was going through the Manresa charters one day years ago, and I noticed one particular priest turning up as scribe for land transactions that seemed to be scattered all around the city. (Going back, I find that they’re in three different places only, but they are still at about twelve o’clock, four o’clock and six o’clock where the city is the centre of the face.) I wondered, therefore, if the best explanation of this was not that he had a pastoral beat that took him miles and miles around the city, where his various flocks would ask him sometimes to write charters as well as whatever else he did for them, but that he was in fact in the city on these occasions, with people coming to see him from outside to get such things done. But he was certainly not the only priest visible in the documents, so it began to look as if the picture should be that actually, many priests were based there and going out to different areas from the centre, probably from the very building that the current Santa Maria replaced.
That in itself is not too strange an idea, as similar structures have been suggested for Anglo-Saxon England, most notably by John Blair, and picked up quite widely in other areas. But how to test it? The first problem came from the fact that almost all the documents concerning the area that survive come not from Manresa, what with the sacking and so on, but the nearby monastery of Sant Benet de Bages. So my first subsidiary question was whether I was actually seeing priests who worked in Manresa, or if what my sample preserved was just the priests most beloved by the monks. That meant being able to say whether a given priest was attached to the monastery or not, which in turn meant trying to distinguish which clergy in the records belonged at the monastery.
Now you’d think that would be fairly easy; it should be the monks, right? But this was quite a new monastery, and its monks are strangely elusive in the records. Moreover, when they do turn up, they usually have the same names as people who don’t sign as monks. Now, OK, perhaps there were just a lot of people called Adroarius in this area in the 970s, I could buy that. But when it got to four potential people called Athanagildus writing charters in the same years none of whom ever turned up with each other, I began to smell a rat. And the only way to establish whether these people were, in some way, monks only some of the time, was therefore to look at the original documents and try and see if the same handwriting is visible in the signatures of both monks and non-monks. And the trouble with that is…
… that the originals are hard to get hold of! Now, that is a problem that can hopefully be solved, but while I wait for the chance it’s worth reflecting on the strange places following these threads can take you. I am trying to compare a set of signatures of, say, eight or nine people working in a monastery in tenth-century Catalonia (as it would become), so as to work out whether or not I can tell priests at that monastery from priests in the town next door, so as to work out if they actually worked in the town, so as to get at how the church in this area was organised, and thus maybe by whom and why. I seem to be a long way down this particular rabbit hole, but hopefully when I eventually emerge it’ll all make sense. Hopefully…
There is, as yet, no English-language work on the area of Manresa in the early Middle Ages, although my Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010) has some snippets. The standard work for now is probably Albert Benet i Clarà, Historia de Manresa: dels orígens al segle XI (Manresa 1985), not the easiest work to get hold of but very thorough. The documents are almost all published in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, but there are no pictures, so the originals are the only way to get at details of script!