Tag Archives: aprisio

A Medieval Land Settlement Program – the Carolingian Aprisio Revisited

In Jonathan Jarrett’s recent EME article, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective,” 1 Dr. Jarrett takes issue with what the scholarly community has to date accepted as characteristics of aprisio. 2

As I mentioned in the comment section of my Carolingian Lay Literacy post, what I knew of aprisio two weeks ago could have been written on the back of a book of matches. I simply thought it was a strategy the Carolingians used to encourage people to settle in underpopulated areas. I had no idea how it worked, what kind of benefits settlers would have – I didn’t even think about it being royal lands (though I hope I’d have been able to figure that one out if I’d given it any thought – be tough for even Charlemagne to get away with settling folks on someone else’s lands). If you’d asked me to sum up aprisio in one statement I’d have likely muttered something about it being similar to The American Homestead Act and shut up fairly quickly.

So Dr. Jarrett’s article was very informative for me, and once I started going through it I knew that in order to blog about it, I’d have to read a 2002 article from Cullen Chandler as well. 3 I don’t know the history behind it but Dr. Jarrett and Dr. Chandler have agreed to become friendly enemies, or respectful rivals – or something. They disagree with each other on things, then have a meal together when they meet at a conference. I hope we all have the pleasure of seeing them argue about medieval issues for the next 30-40 years. 4

In short, aprisio evolved in the aftermath of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition of 778. The expedition has been viewed as a failure historically and I suppose by Charlemagne’s standards it was, but it did yield some benefits. One was the inspiration for the Song of Roland. While the King would never appreciate that, he seems to have placed some importance on the territories in Northern Spain that he gained, a large portion of what is now Catalonia. Much of the region was underpopulated, basically wasteland, and Charlemagne initiated aprisio grants where settlers would clear the land and bring it to productivity and he would allow them to hold it. The use of this term is unknown outside of what is today Catalonia.

This is where we reach the point of disagreement discussed in this article. Overall, what Jarrett believes is that aprisio, as an overall practice, should not be considered more than a general term used for clearance of land and settlement. In essence, he believes that aprisio did not include certain characteristics attributed to it and, even when these characteristics are found, they are not nearly as universal as historians have believed. 5

Among these characteristics which Jarrett challenges are that aprisio was; always accompanied by extensive privileges; in any way tied to the Visigothic thirty-year rule of law; awarded largely to Hispani 6; created and used for military purposes to counter the influence of distant and independent counts and; exclusively the prerogative of the Frankish King.

As I expected, based on the quality of his blog posts, Jarrett proceeds with his arguments through a detailed examination of the source materials, in particular charters.

One of the issues Jarrett explores, and which he believes to be a major source of confusion, is the relationship between Hispani and aprisio. He provides considerable evidence demonstrating why he believes that previous studies, including Chandler’s, have wrongly attributed rights and immunities granted to Hispani as also applying to aprisio. (324) He states that, “The Constitutio pro hispanis and the earliest grants to Hispani do indeed represent a fairly consistent set of exemptions and requirements . . . It was not however general to all land held by aprisio . . .” (327-8) In other words, the Carolingians did provide favorable treatment to the Hispani, but this cannot be applied to aprisio as a whole. An additional argument against this connection is that not all aprisio holders were Hispani. The Church and indigent landholders also received aprisio grants. (339-41)

In arguing against aprisio always including privileges beyond the grant of land (remember that when I say “grant” this means they held the land in the name of whoever gave them the grant, they didn’t own it – though they could frequently transfer the property) Jarrett explores several aprisio grants which did not confer additional privileges and returns to his argument that these immunities applied to the Hispani and not aprisiones. (327-329) 7

Jarrett argues against Chandler’s proposal that a major purpose of the aprisio was to “establish a military counterweight, in the form of an armed yeomanry, that might check the independence of the counts whom the kings appointed to this distant frontier.” (322-3) Jarrett concedes that “The basic premise here is convincing . . .” (323) however ultimately he believes that this is inconsistent with normal Carolingian strategy which focused on influencing and controlling the powerful, not a weaker group such as individual holders of land. (331) I will return to this in more detail below. 8

His counter to the idea that aprisio grants exclusively originated with the king is very simple. He gives several examples where counts granted the privilege (336) and indicates that frequently the privilege might be claimed without them. “Such instances [of royal or comital grants], however, are outweighed to negligibility by the sheer volume of references to aprisio which have nothing to do with kings or counts.” (337)

As this is an area I’m relatively unfamiliar with, it’s difficult for me to pick apart arguments, or to really evaluate the quality of Jarrett’s article, except for appreciating the detail and acknowledging the extensive use he makes of sources. However there are a couple of exceptions to my ignorance.

One is related to the Visigothic thirty-year rule. This rule is not unique to the Visigoths and may be found in accounts of disputes in various regions. Basically, if someone held land for 30 years, their possession of it could not be challenged (this is a bit simplistic – there are exceptions to this but it’ll do for this discussion). It appears to have originated in Roman Vulgar Law. 9 Related to this, there has been a belief among historians that aprisio holders could not defend their landholding rights until the thirty years had passed. Dr. Jarrett relates how this came about, originally based on an 812 case where a group of settlers appealed to Charlemagne that their aprisio rights were not being respected by the local counts. (326). Their grant dated from 780 and in addition to the language of the grant, they invoked the thirty-year rule as well. This does seem to be an odd thing for historians to believe. There are plenty of examples among the Franks, Lombards and Visigoths of the thirty-year rule being used in land disputes, and plenty of disputes where it was not. The aprisio holders certainly cannot have been left to fend for themselves without recourse to challenging an infringement of their property rights for 30 years. If Charlemagne really wanted to grant them land, that seems a strange way to do it – giving a charter without it meaning much for thirty years. In a dispute, both sides will throw the kitchen sink at each other. The use of the thirty-year rule in this case certainly seems to have been no more than additional ammunition in defense of their rights, not something which they would have been defenseless without.

In the opening of this article Jarrett highlights Cullen Chandler’s 2002 EME article (see note 3) and you could be left with the impression that his article is written as essentially a counter-argument and that the bulk of the criticism is directed toward Dr. Chandler. This is untrue. While Chandler may have provided, at least in part, the motivation for this article, several of the items Dr. Jarrett takes issue with, such as that they only originated from Carolingian Kings, are not positions Chandler takes. I also think it’s important to note that the period Chandler’s article addresses ends in 897 while Jarrett continues the discussion into the tenth. However there are some significant areas where Jarrett disagrees with Chandler and I’d like to explore two of these.

One of these is related to how aprisio immunities may have paralleled or even been related to those granted to religious entities. Chandler draws substantial parallels between the two. Jarrett believes that this is overstated and a tendency to apply Hispani privileges to all aprisione grants is partially the reason. 10 However the area I’d like to discuss is this: Chandler discusses an aprisio grant of 847 of Charles the Bald to Alfonso, Gomesindus and Duranus. This grant mentions only a right of proprietorship and no other privileges or rights of royal protection. Chandler states, “This may be because it is the latest new Carolingian aprisio grant, and the terms and conditions of such grants were well established by then. This simplified language, referring only to jure properietario, surfaces also in the 849 confirmation of Teudefred’s aprisio inheritance. Charles the Bald did not need to explain what the aprisio rights and privileges were in great detail largely because of the generations of precedent that his father and grandfather had established.” (Chandler, 2002, p 35)

Chandler believes that the rights and privileges of aprisio grants had become so customary, so well known, that they no longer needed to be included in the language of the grants. Jarrett has some problems with this argument, as do I. Jarrett’s argument has several aspects. First and, to me, most important, is that immunities granted to religious institutions continued to be fully stated. (327) This seems to be a matter of simple logic. If putting everything in writing became less important for aprisio grants, wouldn’t it be expected to carry over to other areas? Jarrett also believes this may be an error caused by a tendency to see aprisio in grants to Hispani which are not aprisio.

However Dr. Jarrett does provide some support to Dr. Chandler in a discussion of 10th century grants. “The word aprisio is used so widely, however, that it obviously had a meaning that was fairly well understood, and a few charters make it clear that there was a more systematic and even legalistic idea of what the claim involved than the simple clearance envisaged in the royal documents.” (335) This doesn’t exactly say that there were commonly recognized but unwritten rights associated with aprisio but it comes awful close. NOTE: See Dr. Jarrett’s comment below – I misread the intent of this statement.

I believe the argument that if aprisio grants were meant to carry unwritten privileges then other grants of immunity would likewise show a lack of specificity in their language is a sound one. There is a second question that came to mind for me as I read this. In later disputes concerning aprisio land, did a) those holding land by aprisio mention these unwritten privileges and b) were these privileges recognized in the proceedings? I don’t know the answer to this and certainly a dispute taking place in, say, 890 can’t tell us much about Charles the Bald’s intentions when he stopped referring to privileges in these grants in 847, but it would add some weight to the “customary but unwritten privilege” argument.

The final area I would like to explore is by returning to the disagreement between Jarrett and Chandler about whether the aprisio grant “was created and used by the Frankish kings to establish a military counterweight, in the form of an armed yeomanry, that might check the independence of the counts whom the kings appointed to this distant frontier.” (321-2)

I’ll mention a couple of things on this. First, this is a bit of an oversimplification of Chandler’s argument. He believes aprisio was, at least in part, introduced as a way to reduce, or at least counter, the power of distant marcher counts (or if it wasn’t introduced for this purpose, the Carolingians quickly recognized the potential benefits). The fact that aprisiones were to give military service to the king, not the local count, is an aspect of this power reduction, but far from the whole of it. In addition, Chandler argues that their appealing directly to the king, rather than to the count for justice, and that statements in the grants saying they would only hold their lands so long as they were faithful to the Carolingians are also aspects of this. 11

This is not unpersuasive, if relatively unprovable. Put more correctly, I think it’s a reasonable, though certainly contestable, interpretation of the evidence (what can you actually “prove” in history anyway?). One problem with the theory is that aprisiones were generally given the right to sell their property. It would still ultimately belong to the king, but would have another landholder. If countering comital power was a major concern, then it would seem that allowing the alienation of land to either an ally of the local count or the count himself might have been restricted.

For my money, I think it very possible that Charlemagne and his successors saw this as a way of maintaining their influence in the marcher lands, as Chandler proposes. I question how much impact it would have had though. A belligerent count could create much more trouble for a landholder than the king over 600 miles (a thousand kilometers) away, no matter who he held his land from. I have a feeling most Hispani and aprisiones likely paid more attention to the local guy who had armed forces at his call, may have controlled the local mill, etc., than to a distant king. To me the military force aspect would have been less important as a check than the appeal to justice since in that case a king could basically overrule a count about something taking place in his back yard and would also find out much more quickly if local authorities were getting out of hand.

I’d like to propose an interpretation of my own for this. At the time of the first aprisio grant, Charlemagne had just finished a failed invasion of Muslim Spain. Clearly he did not achieve all of his objectives and I don’t think it’s a stretch to conjecture that he at least had thoughts of going back. The aprisio grants – as well as the grants to Hispani – would have provided him with a force located close to his target which he could call up for military service without requiring them to attend the mallus. This is pretty much opinion on my part without any basis in the evidence (that I’m aware of) but it seems like it might be an option.

To return to Jarrett’s paper as a whole, I enjoyed it – and it forced me to read Cullen Chandler’s 2002 article which I also enjoyed. Composing this post was not quite as enjoyable, simply because I’m posting from an even greater degree of ignorance than I’m accustomed to. I found Jarrett’s article very persuasive. It seems like we’re constantly, on closer examination, finding that almost any medieval institution is not as simple as we had believed. The thought that there might be considerable variability in different aprisio grants not only seems logical, but it appeals to me. I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite books is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford, 2005). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this book, it’s not to generalize. Instead, closely examine items individually and only then, if the evidence fits, can things be grouped together and generalizations applied. While aprisio grants share a name, I’m very willing to accept that their characteristics might change over time, or even depending on the recipient. Although it’s apparent that the grant might well contain some privileges, it appears that quite often it did not, or that these privileges were not uniform, and Jarret’s article has persuaded me that, “Aprisio was one of these practices, an interesting and illustrative one, but in final analysis, mainly a word for a wider phenomenon of ground-level clearance and settlement, in which context it has to be understood.” (342) 12

1 Jarrett, Jonathan, ‘Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in perspective,’ Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010), pp. 320-342.

2 This is where Google and Blogger and the Internet get in the way. I wanted to title this post: “Northward Ho! A Carolingian Homestead System”. But not mentioning aprisio in the title would have been bad – and including the word “ho” for search engines to pick up would have been worse.

3 Chandler, Cullen J., ‘Between court and counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897,’ Early Medieval Europe 11 (2002), pp. 19-44.

4 I’m not sure if this even matters but I want to mention that at the time he wrote his 2002 article, Cullen Chandler was not yet Dr. Chandler but a Phd. candidate. I have no idea what the protocol is for this – maybe by even mentioning it I’m screwing up. I know that advanced doctoral students will – and in this case certainly did – provide quality work. The only thing I can go by is consistency. I tried to include education levels and affiliation in my Kalamazoo session write-ups so I wanted to include it here, somewhere, but hopefully without in any way inferring that Chandler wrote anything but a quality article, or that he should be judged any differently from any other author.

5 The detail with which Dr. Jarrett explores the evidence and my own propensity toward over-writing combined to create a slightly ludicrous situation. My initial foray resulted in a post of 532 words – at which time I had only gotten to the 4th page of the article. This edition is, I hope, a bit saner, though it’s still my longest blog post to date. My goal is to discuss some things of interest and encourage people to read EME, not recreate the entire article in Geekish.

6 Hispani is a term used by Carolingians for residents of Spain who fled Muslim territories to live under Carolingian rule. It has been explained that often these were people who supported the Carolingians during the invasion and, once it was beaten back, found the concept of remaining under Muslim rule untenable. NOTE: See Jonathan Jarrett’s comment below regarding the correct use of the term Hispani.

7 Once I got into the details of the charter evidence I nearly decided not to post this article. I am completely unfamiliar with this evidence and am unable to comment on it other than to state that Jarrett footnotes extensively, in particular referring to R. d’Abdadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolingia Vol. II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, 2 vols (Barcelona, 1926-52). In fact, if Dr. Chandler had not responded to my Carolingian Lay Literacy post, I may not have written this at all. However this seemed like a good way to start an interesting discussion and, from a selfish perspective, I have a feeling I may learn a lot from these two gentlemen and hopefully others will as well. And I should note that Chandler’s 2002 article also uses sources extensively, though his interpretation of some of them are different.

8 This is a major theme of Dr. Chandler’s 2002 EME article and one I really would like to give more time to. Chandler offers a summary of his argument for this on pages 22-24 and also in his conclusion (43-44) but touches on it throughout.

9 See Davies, Wendy and Fouracre, Paul, eds., The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe, (Cambridge, 1986) ISBN: 978-0521428958, p. 275. The thirty-year rule is also discussed in several cases in this book, in particular in; “Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia,” by Janet L. Nelson, pp. 49-51 and; “Land disputes and their social framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900,” by Chris Wickham, pp. 110-111.

10 See Chandler (2002), p. 26, “Not only do grants of aprisiones to Hispani chronologically and geographically coincide with grants of immunity to monasteries, but aprisio grants also contained immunities that paralleled those contained in the diplomata issued to monasteries.”

11 In Chandler (2002) for discussion on; appealing directly to the king for justice, see pp. 22-3 and p. 27; military service owed to the king, see p. 25; statement that they will retain their grant only so long as they remain faithful to the Carolingians, see p. 30.

12 Even with the length of this post, I haven’t completely covered this article. Dr. Jarrett also includes a substantial discussion of what aprisio, even with the inconsistencies he attributes to it, can teach us about patterns of land settlement. I haven’t touched on this here, though it’s one of the most informative sections of the article. Again, I encourage people to read the full article, as well as Dr. Chandler’s.


Posted by on August 8, 2010 in Society and Social Structure


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