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García Leal, ed., Las donaciones piadosas en el mundo medieval (Portass)

  • 31 Aug 2018 9:20 AM
    Message # 6648099
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    García Leal, Alfonso,  ed.  Las donaciones piadosas en el mundo medieval. Asturiensis Regni territorium, documentos y estudios sobre el período tardorromano y medieval en el noroeste hispano, 5.  Oviedo: Universidad de Oviedo, 2012, 507 pp. ISBN 978-84-616-1388-5.


    Reviewed by Robert Portass

    University of Lincoln

    rportass@lincoln.ac.uk 


    This book is the fruit of a conference held in 2012 in honour of the twelve-hundredth anniversary of Alfonso II’s donation to the Church of Oviedo in 812. The editor’s introductory comments on the ‘alto nivel científico’ (p. 7) that characterised proceedings indicate that the conference was a great success. So too, in large part, is this volume, although a somewhat reverential tone, at odds with the more sceptical and inquisitive spirit of much recent work on pious donation, is notable from the outset. For example, considering that a list of conference sponsors appears at the foot of page 7, spilling over onto page 8, it is odd to see the editor upbraid regional cultural institutions and political authorities for not recognising ‘tan fausto acontecimiento’ with due solemnity.1 The contents of the book thereafter offer an erudite rejoinder to those to whom the immediate importance of Alfonso II’s donation of 812 might not seem obvious, but a longer prefatory statement as to why and in what ways pious donation merits such scrutiny would have helped the book appeal to an audience beyond those already persuaded by the interest of the subject matter. 


    This notwithstanding, much of what follows is excellent. Lengthy multi-chapter volumes of this sort – this one collates no less than twenty contributions – often find themselves criticised by reviewers for lacking focus, largely on account of their being written by a multitude of authors. No such charge can be levelled here, for the thematic coherence of the volume is near-exemplary, and therein lies its principal strength: while the chapters vary in cogency and interest from one to the next (as one would expect), the volume as a whole reminds us of the bewildering variety which characterised the many expressions and modalities of donation in the Spanish Middle Ages.


    Francisco Fernández Conde’s contribution, one of the volume’s best, exhorts us to set the worldly ‘business’ concerns expressed in medieval donations in an enduring, dynamic and surprisingly ancient (indeed partly pre-Christian) context of popular religious sentiment. An interesting reflection on the Visigothic formulae allows him to develop this point by way of example: faced with such imitative and routine convention, we must confront the spiritual and religious dimension of the socio-political power enshrined in such formulaic language, not simply dismiss it as the stilted legalese of predatory realtors. Dealing with one of the most (in)famous donations of all, José Ignacio San Vicente González de Aspuru argues that the Donatio Constantini was used to legimitise papal intrusion in the politics of the kingdom of Aragón from the eleventh century: whether this intrusion ought to be connected with other forms of extra-Pyrenean involvement in Spanish Church affairs after c.1050 we are left to wonder for ourselves.


    Javier Rodríguez Muñoz returns to that most vexed of questions: can we speak of a programme of Gothic restoration associated with Alfonso II’s court? He answers, convincingly, and chiefly by drawing upon the Testament of Alfonso II of 812, that we must not, placing the emphasis instead on just how determinedly and skilfully Alfonso II’s court functionaries promoted the dignity of Asturian rule. Alfonso García Leal compiles an annotated list of royal donations to the Church during the Asturian period; useful in so far as it goes, this chapter joins the dots between some of the historical personages cited elsewhere in the volume, but its conclusion – that Asturian kings made donations, mostly to the Church – is hardly newsworthy. In an extremely learned account of the techniques and stylistic motifs deployed by the ninth-century creators of the Cross of the Angels, donated by Alfonso II in 808 to the church of San Salvador in Oviedo, we glimpse another, more spectacular form of pious donation, this time bearing Byzantine influence, as César García Castro de Valdés reminds us. Less insightful but no less erudite is the chapter by Alejandro García Álvarez-Busto, which focuses upon monastic foundation as a form of pious gift. The eleventh-century monastery of Corias is the focal point of the author’s attention, and attempts are made to relate this particular case-study to processes set in train by the growing influence of the Benedictine Rule. 


    The next three chapters (the first the work of Clara Elena Prieto Entrialgo; the following two co-authored by Nicolás Ávila Seoane and Susana Cabezas Fontanilla) demonstrate the erudition and scholarly expertise on display in this volume but also expose its limitations. Interesting questions emerge regarding the two versions of the foundation charter of the monastery of Cornellana in Prieto Entrialgo’s piece, but description overwhelms what little analysis there is, and the bigger picture all but fades from view. Likewise, Ávila Seoane and Cabezas Fontanilla note that the increasing formalisation of royal diplomas throughout the central Middle Ages saw them become something quite different from private charters, but explanations – let alone causal relationships – are left unexplored. Why did the Castilian language in written form appear ‘primero en los instrumentos particulares’ (p. 259)? What prompted scribes at the royal court to retain ‘un latín culto’ (p. 259) in the thirteenth century when it was becoming increasingly obsolete in other spheres? The effectiveness of these otherwise extremely scholarly chapters is blunted by their classificatory and somewhat taxonomic character.


    Analysis and compelling conclusions are most certainly offered by David Peterson in his chapter on the falsification and interpolation of written records in the Becerro Galicano of San Millán de la Cogolla. Rather than fall into the trap of seeing the twelfth century – that unwieldy, famously ‘long’, and transformative period – as the golden age of falsification, Peterson shows that we need to be attuned to various waves of falsification, each of different intensity and character: ‘diferentes momentos, diferentes estilos y diferentes motivos’ (p. 313). María Antonia Fornés Pallicer and Mercé Puig Rodríguez-Escalona draw attention to the colourful narrative flourishes of Catalan charters, arguing that by making sense of these somewhat rococo passages we more convincingly reconstruct local societies and politics. Josep María Escolá Tuset’s chapter extends our stay in the Spanish March, but here our focus is on the testaments of Catalan counts; once more we see the impressive deployment of facts divined from a difficult-to-decipher source base, but we must content ourselves with largely descriptive conclusions.


    In an excellent contribution, Sergio Delgado Sotelo reminds us that the seigneurial power of some fourteenth- and fifteenth-century noblemen was such that even the instructions they left in their wills might be seen as attempts from beyond the grave to choreograph the spatial and psychological geography of their family status in the locality. Related to Delgado Sotelo’s chapter, and just as good, is Marta Miriam Ramos Dias’ learned investigation of pro anima donations in Portuguese contexts; to her great credit (and the reader’s benefit), the author makes it clear that truly pious acts demanded that thought be given to setting as well as the creation of a testamentary statement.


    In two excellent single-authored chapters dealing with the Islamic custom of charitable giving, Ana María Carballeira Debasa and Manel Feijoó show that a major difference between donation practices in the Christian kingdoms and al-Andalus was that in the latter private wealth was frequently put to public ends. Was communal cohesion well served by such traditions? Yes, it would seem, for communities of individuals were bound together all the more tightly because of the existence of complex links, crossing the public-private divide, between ‘benefactores y beneficiados’ (p. 420). 


    María Concepción Fernández López offers a series of extremely learned ruminations on the various words derived from ‘don’ and ‘gracia’, but the concerns of the chapter are only tangentially related to the themes and case-studies examined in the rest of volume. Next, José Joaquín Milans del Bosch y Solano contributes a somewhat star-struck account of the greatest hits of the Asturian monarchy, but his contention that ‘el origen histórico del Camino de Santiago’ (p.451) should be closely tied to Alfonso II’s early promotion of the cult site will not be met with unanimous agreement. We find ourselves back on track with the inventive, clever and elegant chapter by José Antonio Valdés Gallego, who latches onto the trail of a certain Justo. Responsible (according to the early modern antiquary Ambrosio de Morales) for a now lost set of Gospels (the ‘Evangelios de Oviedo’ of the chapter’s title), Justo is identified by our author as the probable writer of Alfonso II’s testament. Finally, Emiliano Fernández Vallina sketches out the development of prayers and invocations in the Spanish Middle Ages, arguing forcefully for the role that creative and spiritual tension played in fostering innovation.


    This book has much to recommend it; a handful of the chapters are excellent, a few are very good, and the volume as a whole would represent a useful addition to the shelves of many a university library. One only wishes that more care had been taken to spell out what is at stake in these chapters, to say why they matter, to provide even provisional answers to more of the questions posed by the contributors. In sum, a stronger editorial hand, a more detailed prefatory statement, and a greater focus on connecting these case-studies with questions of broader application would have turned what is already a good book into an important one. 


    1 To take two examples of less historiographically complaisant approaches to the subject matter: F. Bougard, C. La Rocca and R. Le Jan (eds), Sauver son âme et se perpétuer: transmission du patrimoine et memoire au haut moyen-âge, Rome 2005; W. Davies, Acts of Giving: Individual, Community and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain, Oxford 2007. 


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