Garcia-Oliver, Ferran. “The Valley of the Six Mosques: Work and Life in Medieval Valldigna”. The Medieval Countryside 8. Turnhout:
Brepols, 2011. Pp. xx, 311. $150.00. ISBN: 978-2-503-53130-4.
Reviewed by Tom Barton
University of San Diego
This brilliantly translated monograph is a rare example of medieval scholarship that is both path-breaking and literary. When its bestselling original version, “La vall de les sis mesquites: El treball i la vida a la Valldigna medieval”, first appeared in 2003, this combination may have come as less of a surprise to Catalan readers who already knew Ferran Garcia-Oliver as an accomplished medievalist (“profesor catedràtic” of medieval history at the Universitat de València) as well as a popular novelist and essayist.
In addition to several important but more conventional monographs concerning the feudal, religious, and ethno-religious history of medieval Valencia, his works at the time included novels and a well- received biography of the fourteenth-century Valencian knight and poet, Ausiàs March. Garcia-Oliver took fifteen years to publish his doctoral research, but the time enabled him to substantially rewrite and season the work, yielding a much more mature and elegant book. Its translation into English, in turn, has afforded the author another opportunity to revise and expand, adding material and clarifying discussion to make this relatively unknown microcosm within the Crown of Aragon more intelligible to an international audience.
Valldigna ("Worthy Valley") is the name the Christians gave the Alfàndec valley after conquering it in the mid-thirteenth century and awarding its Muslim inhabitants the free religious practice and other concessions meant to encourage them to continue working the land for Christian landlords. Even though he delves into the cultural and administrative repercussions of the Germanies revolts of 1521 that transformed the Muslims of the kingdom into Christian converts (Moriscos), Garcia-Oliver is chiefly interested in the messy coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and sometimes Jews in the valley's six Muslim (and one Christian) villages in the preceding years. These residents were ironically preserved by the stern yet pragmatic lordship of the Cistercian house that was invested with the valley by the king at the turn of the fourteenth century. The book describes dynamics of coexistence in which ethno-religious identity, in spite of mutual distrust, ultimately mattered little in much day-to-day interaction. Certain kinds of contact (chiefly sexual relations) were of course strictly forbidden, and Christian settlement was mostly segregated within the walled planned village of El Ràfol. Christian vassals were also generally better off than their Muslim counterparts, with more land, lighter taxes, and additional privileges. Yet despite these barriers and patent differences in their religious laws, places of worship, and certain customary practices, the diverse situational evidence presented by Garcia-Oliver reveals that Christian and Muslim peasants were strikingly alike: conservative, hard-working, and not especially devout, and caught in a similar peasant existence under the same absolute lordship of the abbot (12-17).
While Garcia-Oliver repeats the common medievalist's lament about the "labyrinth of silences" that impair the "tracks left by peasants from Valldigna," it is apparent from the chunks of primary sources punctuating the narrative that for all of its frustrating gaps, the incredible richness of the documentation pertaining to this valley helped him capitalize on his gifts of capturing the "drama [that] gives birth to life" in vivid, often mesmerizing prose. The variegated and detailed nature of these sources, from colorful court proceedings to terse records of account, recommended an unconventional approach.
Instead of disciplining the material to support a single primary argument, Garcia-Oliver chose to organize the monograph as a series of diffuse topical chapters filled with case studies and digressions.
Although, for many subjects, he borrows evidence from different time periods throughout the valley in order to present overarching phenomena before the “Germanies” revolts, Garcia-Oliver also considers dynamics over time, when relevant, in order to present spatial patterns and inter-connections: for instance, he profiles the management styles of individual abbots (e.g., 16, 197), documents the exodus of Muslim and Christian families from the valley to indicate the difficulty of sustaining a living there (186), and accounts for
changes in the seigniorial administration (277). With the rural life of the valley serving as book's topical thread, this organization engenders a less cohesive but ultimately more satisfying narrative because it equips the author to pursue the implications and stories that interested him most within this evidence. This is not to suggest that any of these sources speak for themselves. Anyone who has slogged through scores of thick, irregular, often deteriorated register volumes will appreciate the inordinate toil required to locate, select, decipher, and recreate the illuminating chains of vignettes that occupy the analysis of each chapter. Yet throughout most of Garcia- Oliver's discussions my dominant impression was awe at how much he was able to recover, with such apparent effortlessness, about life in this small place over half a millennium ago.
The book begins with a chapter that describes the physical and human geography of the valley: the roads integrating villages and the centers of seigniorial power with the fields, marshes, and mountains where the peasants conducted their work; the political context; and demographic growth in the valley. It then turns, in Chapter 2, to the largely indistinguishable agrarian pursuits of Muslim and Christian peasants in the valley. While peasants were interested in the protection afforded by diversification, their conservatism, combined with the heavy rents demanded by the monastery, led many of the less- well-off to prefer the customary cultivation of wheat, which could feed their families in times of scarcity, rather than innovating with potentially more lucrative (yet labor- or capital-intensive) engagements such as sugarcane, mulberry leaves for silk production, bee-keeping, and stock-breeding. The agrarian economy of the valley, in general, benefited from the melding of Andalusi agricultural techniques and the peasants' own experience gained since the conquest, which made it, in Garcia-Oliver's view, one of the most productive regions in Western Europe and made possible the high rents and taxes imposed by the monastery. Valldigna's fecundity and its residents'
desire for supplemental income encouraged the marketing of high-value goods well beyond the valley via both land and sea-based commercial routes, which offered both the possibility of profit and the danger of misfortune from banditry and legal claims.
Chapter 3 delves more deeply into the factors underlying the individualism and conservatism of the peasantry. Self-sufficiency and the priority of "intimate domestic decisions" fostered the normalcy of individualism that was only occasionally disrupted by collective action inspired by extraordinary abuses by the abbot, urban creditors, or rival communities. The family's well-being was prioritized above all else since peasants recognized that it represented their most important protection against both financial and criminal misfortune.
In spite of the productivity of the valley's rural sector, peasants lived in constant fear of debt (which inspired otherwise resistant agriculturalists to innovate), and the general scarcity of land made it more difficult for upwardly mobile peasant families to assemble a landed patrimony and establish themselves among the landowning elite.
Peasants therefore had to start working at a young age, hiring themselves out as day laborers or servants, in hopes of saving enough to afford marriage, and many left the valley in search of better opportunities. Moneylenders of all faiths preyed upon these marginal communities through the offer of vital credit in the form of both loans and “censals” (leveraging land). The many obstacles spread throughout the year that stood between peasant families and viability were worsened by the multitude of taxes imposed by the monastery.
The individualism of peasants and their families--combined with clear memories of ineffective past action against the lord--impeded effective collective action against seigniorial abuses. The Muslim vassals of the valley preferred to exercise 'weapons of the weak'
(Garcia-Oliver does not use the term or reference Jim Scott) to undermine the “corvée” (“manaments”) and other offensive rights exercised by the lords. Arguably the biggest disruption of these rights was the conversion of the Moriscos, which entitled the formerly Muslim vassals to the same exemptions as Christian residents of the valley.
What were the internal dynamics of families in Valldigna? The next chapter pursues this question using a fascinating body of archival materials. We learn how Muslim youths, in particular, struggled to earn sufficient money to marry, due primarily to the excessively high customary value of the dowers (“acidacs”) with which men "purchased" their brides. Even though men exercised considerable authority over most family affairs, both “acidacs” and dowries invested wives with increased agency, since husbands had to obtain their consent before utilizing this property. Desperate young men and women could deviate from this traditional pattern by either abducting would-be wives or offering their bodies in the hopes that it would engender a union, respectively; these were interactions that, Garcia- Oliver finds, ended in clandestine marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and even mortal abortions. Just as achieving successful marriages represented a considerable relief for families, the difficulty of establishing or perpetuating a family drove many settlers out of the valley, never to return. Nevertheless, Garcia-Oliver caps off the chapter with two in-depth (mixed) success stories: he uses the story of Pere Baldó, who was born a peasant and ended up the abbot of Valldigna, to illustrate the mechanisms of upward mobility at work in the valley and the case of the Christian Colomer family to show how a family's prosperity established by its enterprising founder could be challenged by political conflicts and obstacles facing its second generation.
Chapter 5 turns to consider the condition of the individual peasant in the valley and what characteristics would have been required to establish him as "A Man of Qualities." Violence, preferably perpetrated by dagger (the peasant's favorite weapon), was the language by which residents codified their daily relationships and solved their conflicts and thus ironically was the most effective way to restore harmony to Valldigna's communities. The rules of conduct for the quarrelling punctuating daily life were dictated less by the “Furs” of Valencia (the kingdom's territorial law) than by custom and tradition, "a collection of experiences and referents" (222). The competition and feuding between the "big men" of the valley was more common, more deeply linked to the political order, and more ritualized. The initial causes of the feuding usually remained deliberately hidden, and when the injured honor was finally restored, the families tended to emerge emboldened with a better-united purpose. Garcia-Oliver also explores how the engagements of adults at the family level over their honor were emulated by adolescents in their sexual relations. Although accusations of sodomy as well as Christian-Muslim liaisons were prosecuted and punished severely in accordance with both Christian and Muslim laws, in general the monks "turned a deaf ear to the sins of the flesh" (260). They opposed only clandestine prostitution because it deprived the monastery of tax revenues and hostels of patronage and increased the potential
for Muslim use of Christian public women.
The final chapter concerns the activity and handling of miscreants in the valley. Peasants were vigilant about protecting their crops against thievery--which, if frequent, could begin to undermine a family's finances. The fact that these were tight-knit communities meant that it was difficult for anyone to make a living through theft alone. In contrast to urban crime, thievery in the valley tended to be motivated by hunger; it was primarily an effort to supplement meager incomes. Despite the best efforts by the lords and their officers to uphold law and order and punish thieves, the local court proved ineffective: it did not hold malefactors accountable or serve as a deterrent to crime. There was simply too much work for local officers, and the justice system demonstrated "a certain stagnation in judicial conception and practice" and lacked the modernization occurring in the cities (280). Far from a money-making seigniorial operation, Garcia- Oliver calculates that the local court spent more on its operations than it earned from fines. It had to maintain a larger staff due to its accommodation of two parallel systems of justice: for cases involving Muslim and Christian plaintiffs and defendants, the court had to involve Christian notaries and experts knowledgeable about the “Furs” as well as “qadis” and “faqihs” capable of upholding Islamic laws. The harshness sometimes displayed by the court in its verdicts, the author contends, was "rather a sign of impotence." Ultimately the officials could not find the "correct antidotes" to the violence endemic to the peasant society of the valley (288).
Because this is a book without a dominant argument, it did not require a traditional conclusion to weave together its sub-points and reinforce its thesis. Instead, an epilogue that presents timeless vignettes from "An Ordinary Day" a passerby might have been privy to had he visited the valley during the fourteenth or fifteenth century serves as a satisfying and elegant end to the study. Building on the foundations laid by the previous six chapters, Garcia-Oliver takes this opportunity to paint for the reader a final set of scintillating, highly personalized images from this landscape with his evocative prose. By this point, after three hundred pages of story-telling, the reader feels that he has become a fly on many walls throughout medieval Valldigna, gotten to know its rhythms and local personalities, and, almost as with a good novel, is morose to have to bid them goodbye.
No history book can be all things, and it is understandable that Garcia-Oliver had to let go of features common to monographs in order to breathe such life into a potentially dry topic. Most notably, despite the author's gratitude to Paul Freedman and Isabel Alfonso for their "purely historiographical meditations" (ix), the book does not relate its discoveries to the considerable volume of secondary research on rural society and coexistence within the Crown of Aragon, greater Iberia, or Western Europe. Aside from a fruitful nod to
Braudel (93), the main text and notes are devoid of references to other scholarship. How do we integrate this case study into the broader picture? Garcia-Oliver surely has complex, illuminating answers to this question but divulges nothing specific throughout the study. Given the extensiveness of the primary-source quotations in the footnotes, space could not have been the limitation. Given the author's stated objective of reaching out to an international audience in his new preface, it seems he could have made more of an effort to
engage with other work on rural society and coexistence and thereby rendered his monograph all the more useful to scholars without decreasing its readability. Indeed, at this price point there was no chance this version would be the bestseller it was among “Catalanoparlants” and therefore little risk of scaring off history enthusiasts with some orientative historiography.
In spite of this forgivable deficiency, this study certainly accomplishes much more than reminding us that "Europe was, and is, more than a Christian club" (viii). It transports us to a lost world through vibrant glimpses of the fiercely competitive and complicated lives of late medieval peasants by using unparalleled and largely neglected archival resources from the Crown of Aragon. Both serious scholars and general readers interested in life in the medieval countryside should treat themselves to this impressive journey through “The Valley of the Six Mosques”.