Saturday, May 5, 2018

Artifacts of Power by Thomas Bisson

I have tried to evoke some people who happened to live in villages, fields, and pastures under the lordship of the Count of Barcelona about 850 years ago. Their freedoms and prosperity were coming under pressure in an age of competitive growth. They survive today only in some little-known records of their complaints against a few other people whom they served, obeyed, and feared. Problematic and mostly unpublished, these records are partial as well as few in number. I have tried to learn from them, even to imagine from them, without misreading them. For I have lived with them enough to be persuaded that, whatever their limitations, they afford rare evidence of how power was experienced in a medieval peasant society. That is the subject of my evocation . . .

The anguish survives in their voices, is what renders them audible. I do not wish to exaggerate the suffering conveyed in the fragile evidence of that emotion. The Count’s and King’s tenants survived, remembering  two killings amongst their troubles. History knows of more desperate peasantries than these; and it may be that the societies here evoked belong to a troublous subset of people prosperous enough to be capable of protest when their lives are disrupted. What is peculiar (though surely not unique) to this Catalonian scene is the place of violence and fear in the disruption. If “violence” is conceived to encompass all that was forced unwillingly on the peasants of the memorials, then I may indeed be at risk of exaggerating their suffering. People always complain, not always persuasively. Moreover, the violence which stalks their representations, and caused their suffering, was morally ambivalent, for it straddled a zone marking off conflicting customs of societal order. There was something familiar about the distraints visited on Bertrandus of Sant Climent, whose house was forced and a pig taken, or on Carbo, when Lady Berenguera (and her men, be it understood) broke into his house at Font-rubi in pursuit of her ”right.” Intimidations, ransoms, even quite possibly beatings would surely have been defended as customary behavior by our voiceless perpetrators. Was there a subsistent strain of institutionalized violence left over from ancient military practice?

Nevertheless, the tenants of Count Raimund Berenguer and his successor King Alfons I complained, and many of them complained bitterly, about the deportment of the men set over them and their cronies. They represented that those people had disrupted an old order of customary lordship. They said they were violated, said they suffered. I cannot read their memorials otherwise.

            The struggle of man against power is the struggle
                              Of memory against forgetting.
                                        - Milan Kundera

So the paradox abides. In an agitated world of tumultuous lordships some troubled peasants fought custom with custom, sought (as only we can see it) to stave off a new mode of harsh exploitation that made them feel, in words from Font-rubi, ‘like slaves.’ They were the Lord-Count’s (and Lord-King’s) tenants, yet their story is hardly one of distant masters, paragons of exaggerated virtue. That is why it was forgotten, first by those for whom the people were beneath remembrance, later by us who can only be accused as hard of hearing. What needed remembering was not so much how the Lord-Princes of Barcelona tended their old domains as how their people experienced power in their drenched and sun baked rural habitats. For this experience is what they spoke of in words that we have, or almost have; what some one once, momentarily, thought memorable, and what I have tried to read, to hear, to hold in the names and voices; in what we have of these people, - and all that we have.

The memorials of complaint and the very parchments which contained them were forged in the steamy experience of power. So they themselves, these artifacts, lead lives of their own, human-like lives insofar as they reveal the options and strategies of scribes groping uneasily between responsibilities and subjective engagement. They at least survive – and have more to tell the brave scholars who will one day decipher them more fully and edit them. Yet “I have traveled a good deal” in them myself, have come to know some of their dark corners as well, even to recognize their authors- Ponc the Scribe and Guilelm Ponc, and the uneasy anonymous of Ribes –of two or three of them. They seem like reverberating spaces, holding echoing voices of scarcely more than audible accents.  THE memorials evoke the periphery of spoken rural life, an expressive  yet confined zone in which event and recollection were rearranged by external prodding. It is a fated limitation of my little journey that the people I know best are the malefactors, but for whom there would be no records at all. Et even of them – of Deusde, or rather his petty brutality; of Arnal de Perella and his wife and bailiffs building a lordship on the wreckage of comital power at Caldes de Malavella and environs; of Raimund de Ribes profiteering in justice in the Pyrenees;  of the Berenguer exploiting the eastern settlements – even of these people the portraits lack depth.

Still less can the people subject to their power be realized. That is why I have clung to their names, and to the voices that come with some of them. Maria Guitarda of Caldes de Malavella, from whom Arnal de Petrella took a 3s. pig; Guilemus de Noger, who fought unwarily with Berengarius de Soler at Ribes, which cost him a field; Amallus Oromir, whose household at Argencola – perhaps quite a little one, yet including a woman’s effects – was sacked: what have such people to prove of themselves but their faithful witness? What they might have wished to remember – their contented lives, their tolerably customary services and payments to the Count or King’s servants – are lost to all but conjecture from their yelps (for the capbreus tell us little more). They cannot be blamed for failing to answer the questions they were never asked. For us they come on, these people, as they did to their interrogators, in their sheepish silences, yet also in their spoken sorrows, lamentations, and pleadings for mercy and justice. “Your man Raimundus Marti” and his fellows at Font-rubi, Ramon Sunier of the Rubes valley, who said that Raimund de Ribes took 200s.from his brother’s killer, “and he himself got nothing.” “And you, Lord, give us the land where we lived, that we may be yours!” The people of Cabra “dare not appeal” to the King “for fear of those knights . . . for you are far away and they are near us.”

Petrus Guilelmi de Brugera 12s and 3 Mitgersb of barley, and Deusde struck his wife.” Arnallus de Valoria of Corro, denouncing Pere de Bell-lloc. “Ermessen and my husband Esbaldid 5s because our small child died, no other cause.” Bernardus Burdo weaver. Gui the clerk. Pere Oler . . .

“For you are far . . . and they are near . . .”

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