Religious houses, violence, and the limits of political consensus in early medieval León

Alvaro Carvajal Castro, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas

Sometime in early 963 in León, in the north-west Iberian peninsula, a man called Lupi, together with a certain Agila and a group of unnamed people, broke into the house of a priest called Helyas and a nun called Sabildi. They held a group of nine people for several hours, causing injuries to them, and then set fire to the house and its goods. The episode, about which we only have a brief, incidental account, stands out in the corpus of early medieval Leonese charters for a very particular reason: although the text does not explicitly say so, there are grounds to believe that the building in question was in fact a religious house.This is one among only a handful of brief references to attacks against religious houses and clerics in early medieval León. In one exceptional instance, the protagonist was a nameless crowd, which assaulted a monastery in the city of León upon hearing that the nuns had committed adultery and some had got-ten pregnant2. In the rest of the cases, the attackers were named, non-aristocratic individuals acting against churches and monasteries in rural locations, either alone or, most frequently, at the head of small groups of attackers.These events stand in stark contrast to what is portrayed in most charters from these centuries and in the related historiography, namely that this was a period in which individuals and families of very varied social standing strove to found religious houses — the so-called proprietary churches and monasteries — as a means to consolidate and enhance their social position. Conflicts over their control were not infrequent, but in León recorded attacks against churches and monasteries most commonly report either destruction caused by Muslim troops from Al-Andalus, or the appropriation of ecclesiastical property by aristocrats. How, then, are we to explain this other sort of attacks?

These records are part of a few dozen incidental references to violent actions, from petty theft to sexual assault and homicide, extant in León’s early medieval written record. The charters mention the episodes only in passing, either to justify the payment of a fine — which, when recorded, are usually paid in land — or to explain how a piece of land had been acquired, and thus to legitimise the capacity of an actor to dispose of it5. This reflects the overall nature of the charter record, which mainly comprises records of land transactions, most of them made on behalf of ecclesiastical institutions.


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