The presence of women in working the land, settling, colonisation and civilisation is constant throughout the medieval centuries. This feminine presence is especially noticeable in the frontier areas of the different regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Setting out on this basis we will bring into history women of diverse social classes who appear in the documents of the Catalan Earldoms of the Pre-Romanic and Romanic period –pre-feudal and feudal-, a time during which women left an active trace in the documentation. There are feminine hands that plough, that plant, that found, that pacify, that govern, that judge... and that also look after the children; they educate, they heal, they knead, they cook, they sew and embroider.
It is a period when symbolism was very important. Symbolism in Romanic painting is often shown in the hands; hands that express attitudes, mentalities and feelings. Amongst the Romanic hands I would choose those of Lucía de la Marca, countess of Pallars, painted at the monastery of San Pedro de Burgal. Lucía appears with one hand open, generous, in a gesture of offering, of giving; with the other hand she is holding a lamp, like the wise virgins, always alert, always ready, and she wanted her patronage to be known, so her name figures on the painting.
They were times in which pairs of colonisers snatched uninhabited lands, women peasants and men peasants, women and men side by side: “break, plough, cultivate, capture” lands up to the furthest point of the boundary with the Saracens. It was a constant trickle from the ninth century: I, Ermengarda and my son Otger and my daughters Ermengarda and Eldefrida sell you ... a house with a court and vegetable garden, cultivated and uninhabited lands, everything that we took out of the uninhabited land together with my husband Senaldo, deceased. This structure of the settler family continues; we read in a document of the eleventh century, I, Altamir, and my wife Sindola, are sellers ... of a vineyard that we obtained out of compassion and with the sweat of our work.
It was a period of hard work in the country. The remains of bones analysed in many places of the medieval countryside have shown that the women worked hard; they did work comparable to that of the men. It is a period of wars made by men, whilst the women cultivated, took care of the patrimony, administered the fiefdoms, commanded the castles, ruled earldoms. Their work was more recognised than in other periods of history, as can be appreciated in the ownership of lands, as well as in the rights recognised in the presiding laws and in the instances of power that they held.
Official papers of the cathedral of Vic, Vic, 1980, doc. 11 (year 889).
Archive of Barcelona Cathedral, Liber Antiquitatum, vol. I, doc. 62 (year 1017).
OLLICH, Imma, Arqueología medieval y género. “Morir en femenino”.
It was more with hoes and ploughs, and not so much with swords, that the land was brought under control. Women peasants and men peasants snatched lands from the woods and the oak forests, they cultivated new fields and planted vineyards. The documents recognise this shared work; it is on record that the women participated in the ploughing of the land, from when it was uninhabited, abandoned, unproductive. However, this active presence is not reflected in history books; but they worked the land, built and founded; they were settlers, mothers and educators; they were there from the beginning.
Very interesting in this sense is the gift made to the Benedictine monastery of San Juan de las Abadesas by a coloniser called Grima; her three sons, fulfilling the wish of the mother and for the repose of her soul, granted to the monastery a piece of land that she brought out of its uninhabited state, together with us, her sons, the first men on the royal land under the dominion of the Franks, make the gift in favour of the Abbess Emma and the nuns of San Juan. Note that amongst the “first men” that colonised the Ripollés a woman is cited, owner of lands that are fruit of her own work, at a time during which the organisation of the area was also in the hands of a woman, Emma of Barcelona, maker of the legislation of that territory. We can discover, from the document that recorded the integration of diverse peasant communities under Emma’s control, that half of those signing, the heads of the family, were women.
The women ploughed side by side with the men, some even took the initiative, they occupied lands and built fortifications at the frontier, like Guinedilda, who, without husband, with her three sons and two pioneer couples, was the first to occupy Cervera, which was situated in a place very close to the kingdom of Lérida. This woman was the leader of a small group of pioneers; the Barcelona authority recognised her leadership by granting it to her and her people, but firstly her, the letter of settlement showing that she is the first amongst the first to settle and build in that place, before any other settler of the frontier area. That a woman is a leader is never an isolated fact; in that context there were other women protagonists in the history of the colonisation and organisation of the territory, so that we find lists of settlers headed by women; others act at the side of the men at a level recognised as shared work, like the couple who appear in the capitals of Ripoll.
During those first centuries there were few advances at the frontier, carried out by force of arms; we said before that the land had been taken under control above all with the hands that worked it and that put it in order, but there were also conquests; we will look at a concrete example that is sufficiently documented so as to be able to guess what the role of women was. Arnaldo Mir de Tost and his wife Arsenda conquered, repopulated, organised the valley of Ager and built in it. Her husband recorded in the canonical book, on making a gift of the town and the valley, that they had both conquered it, that I and my deceased wife built together. We do not know in what way she participated in the conquest, whether she took up arms, or rather advised and supported her husband and administered the patrimony; in any case, in her will she considered that she was entitled to her part of the arms, the same as the furniture, however, she stipulated that they should be sold in order to buy sacred ornaments, in contrast to her husband who left the arms to his men to use them in service of his daughters and grandchildren. We do not know if she fought, but we do know that she participated actively in the organisation and repopulation of the valley, establishing peasant families, ordering the construction of roads, bridges and hospitals, and she carried out work that was civilising, conciliating and peacemaking in the feudal wars.
During those centuries, cultivated lands grew all over Europe, especially in the frontier and newly colonised zones; there was an active participation of women in the work of settlement and construction – I say that in the widest sense – they built vineyards, villages and temples, they created and transmitted languages and culture, they consolidated family, genealogy and lineages. The presence of women in contact with nature that they tamed gradually brings us close to the land that bears fruit, mother earth, mother goddess; thus, in many places of the new colonisation there appear Virgins found in the caves, the woods or in the margins of the cultivated lands; the cult of the Mother, transformed into the cult of María, is more and more alive. There are Virgins who hold up the universe and the God child with their hands at the same time.
Precepit nobis jenitrice nostra quando ad extrema voluntate venit, nomine Grima, fecissemus cartam de terras ad supradicto monasterio propter Deum et remedium anime sue. .. quod illa eam tenebat genitrice nostra supradicta Grima de aprisione, que illa traxit de heremo cum nos supradictos filios suos, pimi homines terra regia subditione franchorum… The document is dated 942, exactly the year that the founding abbess was to die. UDINA, Federico, El archivo condal de Barcelona, en los siglos IX-X, doc. 116 (year 942). It is not the only example: Riquilda, coloniser, woman, makes the donation to San Juan de las Abadesas and to its abbess Emma with her santi moniales, from a vineyard that she had built together with her husband. Cited work, doc. 12 (year 900).
On Arsenda, VINYOLES, Teresa; SANCHO, Marta; NAVARRETE, Maria; VERGARA, Elena, “Lo material y lo simbólico en los testimonios de mujeres el siglo XI”. In De los símbolos al orden simbólico femenino (siglos IVXVII). Madrid, Laya, 1998, 265-283.
In relation to the conquest of Ager, Arnaldo Mir and Arsenda thank God “that He has given us victory over the pagans and after many dangers and tribulations He made us conquer and possess, in the territory of the Saracens, many castles, lands and fortresses that we take from their control”. The documentation on Arsenda is taken from the documents published by SANAHUJA, Pedro, Historia de la Villa de Ager, Barcelona, Seráfica, 1961 and CORREDERA, Eduardo, The archive of Ager and Caresmar. Balaguer, 1978.
I Ermesenda, by the grace of God countess, with my son we give generously to you Guinedilda, wife, and to your sons… we read at the beginning of the letter of settlement of Cervera. Ermesenda, countess-mother, supports the work of repopulating and colonising of the land; she acts as the first signatory for the right given to the wife over the possessions of her husband, and she puts on record that at the head of the settlers was Guinedilda, pioneer-mother, symbol of the colonising woman in whom is recognised the work carried out in the occupation of uninhabited lands and the construction of frontier strongholds. The letter incited those new women and men settlers to continue to take lands out of their barren state and loneliness, transforming them into cultivated land and to build houses, castles and towers. Let us also take note that she explicitly refers to the condition of mother that these women had: from this “category” emanates a great part of their standing.
The countess figures before her son and her daughter-in-law; it must be pointed out that in spite of the fact that the name of Berenguer Ramón figures as a maker of the gift, he does not sign; however, his young wife Sancha does. Ermesenda had stopped having the guardianship of her son three years previously, but the law in force recognised the right of the widow not to get married again; she was above the son; just as the women peasants who were ruled by the so-called Gothic law, in all the Iberian Peninsula and in the French midi, had this right and fought in order to keep it. Ermesenda exercised her authority, first with her husband; in his name she presided over trials, like the one that in the year 1000 favoured a poor woman who had returned from captivity, she accompanied Ramón Borrell in the battlefield and above all in the peace missions like the one that took her to Zaragoza near the Moslem king of that city and which was sealed with the wedding of her son to the daughter, still a girl, of the count of Castile. With the death of her husband, she governed alongside her son, who died young, and afterwards acted as guardian to her grandson.
During that violent period in which the rapid process of feudalisation took place, Ermesenda surrounded herself with bishops, abbots and judges, with whom she tried to carry out peacemaking work, of establishing religious foundations, of repopulation and economic recuperation; she wanted to guarantee the law and public powers. But the times changed irremediably, feudal violence triumphed everywhere, the nobility desirous of power challenged her authority, the old law that the old countess defended was substituted by arbitrary trials, violence reached the heart of families; she found herself set against her grandson and stubbornly claimed her rights, she placed herself on the side of the moral reform advocated by the church, she defended the existing laws, the rights of women, the rights to just trials and the rejection of the ordalías. Finally she passed on her powers to her grandson Ramón Berenguer I, for whom she had almost been a mother.
The documents of the period present her and remember her as a pious woman; she was active in the founding and the endowment of churches and monasteries, amongst them the feminine monastery of San Daniel de Girona shortly after the one of San Juan de las Abadesas had been violently suppressed. Her will, like those of other women of the nobility of her time, is a journey round the cathedrals and the Romanic monasteries that were being built around her. They call it religiosa femina in the book of deaths of the cathedral of Gerona; a document from Navarre called it comitissa santísima.
In spite of everything, historiography has turned her into an authoritarian and ambitious woman, into a negative character. Other women, of her time and of all times, have been silenced by history; but in the face of this personage silence cannot be used, given that she exercised her authority from 993 practically until her death in 1058. The historians have opted to give her a very partial and negative perspective, I think that she has been treated unfairly. We could read her actuation not from the point of view of a desire for power but rather from that of an insistence upon legality. Ermesenda wanted the law in force to be complied with, beginning with her rights evidently, the rights that left women as the life holder of the possessions and rights of her husband; but the custom was changing and the widow was more and more left out in favour of the son.
At a time when the noblemen wanted to privatise the exercise of justice and for the arbitrary force of the trials of God to prevail over the decision of the city tribunal, Ermesenda defended the validity of the law over and above the use of force and arbitrariness – she affirmed that problems should not be argued over with arms, but rather with the law to hand.
I have written on the subject in VINYOLES, Teresa, “Ermessenda, Guinedilda... les dones de l’any mil”. Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu temps. Vic, Eumo, 1999, pp. 175-187. “Las mujeres del año mil”, Aragón en la Edad Media, n. XVII, Zaragoza, 2003, pp. 5-26.
AURELL, Martí, Les noces del comte, Barcelona, Omega, 1997, p.85. Colección diplomática de la Rioja, vol. II. Logroño. Diputación Provincial, 1976, doc. 3 (year 1040).
The countess granted a letter of settlement in favour of a resettlement, she founded a monastery of nuns, she saw to it that the law which favoured widows was enforced; she listened to a peasant woman who had come out captivity... Historiography rewrites this aspect in presenting Ermesenda up against another woman, Almodis de la Marca, the wife of her grandson; History wants to remember her as an old pious woman set against the young feminist, who should be inexorably in combat.
It is certainly true that Ermesenda came up against her grandson Ramón Berenguer I –to whom she had been grandmother, mother, educator and advisor-, she opposed his marriage to Almodis, which was considered illegitimate by the church; but it was her who interceded personally with the Pope so that he might legalise what was a great love story of the eleventh century. Ermesenda swore fidelity to Almodis; we can imagine her with her old hands on top of those of the young countess, swearing in God’s name and that of the saints and their mothers: I Ermesenda swear, daughter that I was of a countess, to you Almodis countess, who was daughter of Amelia countess, that henceforth I will not disappoint either you or your life, nor the limbs of your body nor your descendence… Some historians have seen in this act a serious humiliation for the pride of the grandmother countess; we could see in it a deep act of love. The hand held out towards the other, who she calls countess, while she renounces this title.
We cannot forget that Ermesenda handed over the rule to Ramón Berenguer for the good of peace and in the name of love, remembering it thus: I beg the master Ramón, count, my grandson, together with the mistress Almodis, countess, your wife, for God and Saint Maria, his Mother, ...to take great care with my soul ... given that God knows that I have loved you more than anybody of your people, and you may know this through what I have done for you. I consider this sentence in the mouth of the octogenarian countess, when she signed her will around November 1057, brilliant, magnificent. She recognises that she has loved them, him and also her, consciously with the intention of doing so and with the feeling emanating from her heart towards the son of her son and his wife. What is more, she has shown active love in the things she has done for them, and she thinks that she has loved them more than anybody. Perhaps at the end of the day the old lady was right: the nobility had risen up against the count, and some years later the son of Ramón Berenguer would murder Almodis in the palace itself. Historiography has set these two women against each other; but Ermesenda said that she would be faithful to Almodis and that she loved her and trusted in her, and I believe that.
AURELL, cited work, p. 206.
Iuro ego Ermesindis filia qui fui Adalaizis comitissa, tibi Almodis comitissae que fuisti filia Amelie comitisse, quod ab hac hora et deincebs, in futuro tempore, dum xivero, non dezebré te predictam comitissam Almodem de tua vita neque de tuis membris que in corpore tuo se tenent, nec te neque posteritatem tuam quam nunc habes de Remundo chomite, filio Sanccie, comitissae vel in venturo tempore habebis ex eo. Los pergaminos del archivo condal de Barcelona de Ramón Borrell a Ramón Berenguer I, Barcelona, Fundació Noguera, 1999, doc. 534 (year 1057).
Liber Feudorum Maior, doc. 490 (year 1057): quia Deus scit quod plus vos dilexi et amavi quam alium de vestra gente. Ermesenda did not die until the following year; after her will she wrote a codicil where she does not mention her grandson or his wife; but where she does not revoke what she had signed and affirmed in her will.
This topic was thought of as a way of learning how to make another reading of history. I want to highlight that this history, in spite of setting out from a specific document, has been constructed with diverse documents, and that the protagonists are various women, they are the women. They identify themselves as planters, settlers, builders, countesses, mothers… The society of their time did not silence them, their powerful word is recorded in writing: I Ermegarda sell..., Our mother Grima has told us..., Guinedilda the first before any other settler..., I Ermesenda give..., judge..., swear..., I have loved you...
I have wanted the central figures to be Guinedilda, mother and pioneer, similar to many other mothers and pioneers that there would be throughought Europe in those first medieval centuries, and the countess Ermesenda, a renowned figure of her time who acted with authority like other of her female contemporaries. History written by male historians has made them invisible, and when they have not been able to do this, they have minimised or underrated their presence.
What we would highlight is that they, in those so far off centuries, did not limit themselves to being spectators of events, rather they were protagonists; and we must insist that they looked at the world with the eyes of women, they acted in feminine, they made the land and the men of their times feel their ordering hands.
These words were inspired by a wedding song of the ninth century dedicated to Leodegundia, daughter of Ordoño I king of León, who married a king of Pamplona; it is a magnificent praising of the bride: her virtues, her word, her erudition, her face and her ordering hands: Ornata moribus, eloquiis claram, eruditam litteris sacrisque mistertiis, conlaudetur cantus suavi imniferis vocibus. Dum facies ejus rutilat decore moderata.... ornat domum, ac disponi mirabile ordine.
Song written around the year 869, conserved in the Codex of Roda, published by Armando Cotarelo. Historia crítica y documentada de la vida y acciones de Alfonso III el Magno. Madrid, Victoriano Suárez, 1933, p. 641.
Lucía de la Marca represented in a fresco from the monastery of San Pedro de Burgal (Pallars Sobirà)
Pair of peasants loading sheaves
Pair of peasants loading sheaves
Romanic sculpture of Virgin, of the Kyriotisa type
Seal of the Countess Ermesenda
Countess exercising her authority
Sculpture of Romanic Virgin of a markedly popular nature
Elisabet and María
Santa Catalina with open hands
Scentific Direction: Maria Milagros Rivera Garretas
We are thankful to the Research Project from the Instituto de la Mujer I + D entitled: "Entre la historia social y la historia humana: un recurso informático para redefinir la investigación y la docencia" (I+D+I 73/01) for its financial support to this project.
Institut Català de la Dona de la Generalitat de Catalunya and the Agrupació de Recerca en Humanitats de la Universitat de Barcelona for they contribution to its development (22655).
Technical Direction: Dr. Óscar Adán
Executive Production: Dr. Sonia Prieto
Edition: Marta García
Correction: Gemma Gabarrò
Catalan Translation: David Madueño
English Translation: Caroline Wilson
German Translation: Doris Leibetseder
Italian Translation: Clara Jourdan
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Teresa Vinyoles Vidal
Teresa Vinyoles Vidal was born in Barcelona in 1942, she is married with two sons and two daughters, she is a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Barcelona, member of the Centre Duoda of the said university since its foundation. Among her lines of research is the study of women, which she has devoted herself to since 1969, and of daily life in the medieval period; she co-ordinates a research project on the teaching of history. Amongst her works are: Les barcelonines a les darreries de l’edat mitjana (Barcelona, Fundació Vives Casajuana, 1976). La vida quotidiana a Barcelona vers 1400 (Barcelona, Fundació Vives Casajuana, 1985). Mirada a la Barcelona medieval des de les finestres gòtiques (Barcelona, Dalmau, 2002). Presència de les dones a la Catalunya medieval (Vic, Eumo, forthcoming). And numerous articles on women’s history, amongst which we could highlight: "Petita biografia d’una expòsita barcelonina del segle XV" (Barcelona, CSIC, 1989 pp. 255-272). "L’amor i la mort al segle XIV, cartes de dones" (Miscel·lania de textos medievals 8, Barcelona, CSIC, 1996, pp.111-198). "Las mujeres del año mil" (Aragón en la Edad Media XVII, 2003, pp.5-26).
Countess of Barcelona, she was the daughter of the countess and count Amelia and Bernardo de la Marca, she was the third wife of Ramón Berenguer I, count of Barcelona (1035-1076) who she was united with in the year 1052. Before she had been married to Hugo de Lesinhan and to Pons II, count of Tolosa. She was excommunicated by the Pope because of her illegitimate union with the count of Barcelona, since both were married; once their marriage had been forgiven and legalised, she ruled next to the count and collaborated in the writing down of the Codes of usajes. She was murdered by Pedro de Barcelona, son of Ramón Berenguer I and Elisabet, son of the first marriage of Ramón Berenguer, in the year 1071. she had children from the three marriages, who ruled in their respective territories; in relation to the earldom of Barcelona, she was the mother of the twins Ramón Berenguer II, and Berenguer Ramón II, counts of Barcelona and of Sancha de Barcelona, countess of Cerdaña.
We do not know the origins of Guinedilda, founder of Cervera de Segarra, she is an anonymous woman, a mother, who acts clearly as head of the group of resettlers where we find men and women, but she is the first recipient of the document.
It is not an exceptional case, for example, amongst the settlers of Vallformosa (Rajadell, el Bages) there appear forty four heads of family, the first person mentioned and at the same time the first one to sign is Tudila, coloniser, woman, with her inheritors. Diplomatari de la Ciutat de Manresa (segles IX-X). Barcelona, Fundació Noguera, 1991, doc. 124 (year 977).
Countess of Pallars Sobirà, daughter of the countess and count Amelia and Bernardo de la Marca, sister of Almodis, countess of Barcelona, she was promised to the count Guillermo II de Besalú, but did not marry him. She married the count Artau I de Pallars Sobirà (1049-1081). Lucía intervened in matters of government next to her husband and her son Artau II, she became the guardian of the children of count Ermengol IV de Urgell, she died possibly around 1090. Her son Ot, bishop of Urgell, was recognised as a Saint and is praised in his hagiography.
The betrothal document of Lucía and Artau is surprising: That Artau, count, take Lucía as long as she lives as the man should take the wife that he has taken legally. That he should not abandon her as long as she lives, under any pretext, unless she were to become a leper. That he should not bother her nor slander her to the point that she has to leave him. Liber Feodrum Maior, doc. 37 (year 1058).
The monastery of San Daniel of Gerona was founded by Ermesenda in the year 1018, little after the death of her husband, and little after the disappearance of the community of San Juan de las Abadesas. According to the dowry document, Ermesenda herself had had it built, she equipped it and she assigned it as a monastery for nuns; it is still today the seat of a feminine community. Col·lecció diplomàtica de Sant Daniel de Girona. Fundació Noguera. Barcelona, 1997, document 6. (year 1018).
Benedictine women’s monastery founded by Wifredo I el Velloso, count of Barcelona and his wife Guinedilda, countess of Barcelona. In the year 885 they provided it with a large amount of land, at the same time as they made an offering of their daughter Emma to the monastery. The rich community of nuns was dissolved in the year 1017.
Perhaps it was a mixed monastery, or at least in the tenth century it had a feminine community; Ermengarda de Pallars, daughter of the count Isarn I, was the abbess between 945 and 966; our documentation shows men ruling before and after those dates.