Frontiers and Privileges

Since T99 is talking about legal privileges today, I thought I would share a tidbit from some further historical research on Medieval Spain.

Apparently the greatest scholar of such history in the English-speaking world was Dr. Angus MacKay (pronounced, for the non-Scots among you, so that "Kay" rhymes with "sigh"). Born in Lima, Peru, he grew up with the Spanish language and developed a love of history.

Dr. MacKay demonstrated, among other things, that during the period when Spain was reconquering land from the Islamic states, there was a persistent population problem. Land needs to be worked, and cities need to be defended. Most of the Muslims would leave an area that became Christian -- although about one in three people in these reconquered areas continued to be Muslim -- so it was necessary to get people down there to work the land and hold the towns.

This led the kingdoms of Spain to offer legal incentives to anyone who would move to one of the frontier towns. If you could fight, you were due more; and if you could provide your own arms, still more. If you could fight, provide your own arms and a horse, you were elevated regardless of the circumstances of your birth to the status of a caballero -- that is, a knight -- although your low birth was socially recognized. However, as one of the privileges of this status was exemption from taxation, if you won much plunder by the strength of your arm, or simply could maintain the status for a few generations or ordinary income, your sons would rise to the status of hidalgo (literally 'son of something,' i.e., a child whose ancestors had amounted to something).

Additional tax incentives were offered, sometimes liberating everyone who came to a town from classes of ordinary taxes. Sometimes it freed those who participated in raids from paying back any plunder to the crown. But the most interesting one, to me, was this one promise made by King Alfonso VII to the lords and settlers of Oreja:
If someone should flee to Oreja with a woman, who is not his relation, is not married, and has not been taken by force or ravished, and he wishes to be one of the settlers, then he is to go there safely, and the lord of Oreja need not fear to accept him, and neither he nor the man who has seduced her has to answer to any of the woman's relatives.
That's an incredible waiver from the usual rules of marriage at the time.  It's also interesting that it requires only her consent, but allows the consent of her family to be defied entirely.

And yet this romantic view is not out of place in the middle ages.  It is a rule that comes, as we have seen, at the same time as the courtly love poetry of the troubadours was wildly popular among the kings of southern France, Spain, and England.  It was also the time of the idea put forward by the Church that the love of husband and wife was a reflection of the love of souls for God.

It was available to those brave enough to cast aside everything for their love, except the hope that their risk and labor might provide better than what they were casting away.  A poor man's son who could work his way to a horse and mail, and so win the heart of a girl that she would go with him even to the frontier, could find love and wealth and glory, raise himself to knighthood and his children to the nobility, and all while being devoted to the service of God.

Such times were heady indeed.

Angus MacKay, Spain in the Middle Ages:  From Frontier to Empire, 1000-1500 (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1977), 37-9, 48.


douglas said...

I'd love to know how many were able to take advantage of the exception granted.

Grim said...

I'm afraid I don't know!

The town has a highly romantic history, though.

douglas said...

Indeed! If some number of the current inhabitants are descended from some of these people, I bet they're an interesting lot.

Romantic towns reminds me of Pienza, Italy. It's a beautiful village in Tuscany, and the last two streets before the town square on one side are Via del Amore, and Via del Bacio. The next block is the Duomo. Fall in love, kiss, and you're headed to marriage!