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Reviewed by:
  • The Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century León and Castile
  • William D. Phillips Jr.
The Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century León and Castile. By Simon Barton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xvi plus 366pp. $69.95).

Until recently, the study of the medieval Spanish kingdoms has been characterized by a lack of attention to the wider European and Mediterranean contexts. In part, this arose from the cultural isolation experienced during the decades of the Franco regime. Spanish historians did not often travel and study abroad, and, outside of Spain, a distaste for Franco caused many historians to neglect Spanish history. Consequently, but with notable exceptions, historians of Spain often have not made use of comparative material from outside the peninsula, and historians of other parts of Europe often have seemed unaware of Iberian developments. Even before the end of the Franco regime, this began to change, and the pace has accelerated since Franco’s death in 1975. Even so, much still needs to be done in order to integrate the history of Spain’s medieval kingdoms into the wider European context. It is a pleasure to note a new book whose author has placed his study squarely within a comparative context.

Simon Barton, of the University of Exeter, is fully aware of the wide range of studies of the aristocracy by scholars of various European regions and he applies their work to his Leonese and Castilian primary data. Unfortunately, the primary sources are not as complete as one would like, nor are the secondary studies done by Spanish historians. The aristocratic families of the twelfth century had limited legacies; most were gone by the late Middle Ages, replaced by new lines. In these circumstances, their archives have mainly disappeared. Studies of the aristocracy in the Spanish Middle Ages concentrate on the late Middle Ages. Studies of the twelfth century tend to concentrate on the monasteries and other ecclesiastical establishments which have preserved their archives. Barton set himself a difficult task in this book, and generally he has succeeded in overcoming the shortcomings of his sources.

He begins with a short and careful survey of León and Castile in the twelfth century, stressing their political history and their relations with their neighboring Muslim states and rulers. Most of the book consists of a series of topical chapters. The most suggestive one treats “Class, family, and household.” Here Barton deals with definitions of class and the structure of kinship, and he offers a series of images of typical nobles at the significant stages of their life: childhood, adulthood, marriage, and old age. His chapter on “The lineaments of power” could more accurately be called “Land and authority,” for he details the economic and social power that the aristocrats wielded as a result of their [End Page 229] possession of land and their authority over the people living on it. He next offers a chapter on the relations between the monarchs and the nobles, particularly emphasizing the advisory role of the aristocrats in the royal court during its constant peregrinations. His account of the relations of monarchs and the aristocrats stresses the honors and grants that kings and queens bestowed on favored nobles, and the confiscation and exile that could befall those nobles who lost that favor. A discussion of aristocrats as elite warriors occupies a special chapter that covers both their activity as knights in battle and their role as controllers of castles, which in the twelfth century were near their height as military machines and often determined military and social control in local areas. Finally, Barton treats the relations of the aristocrats and the church, at a time when proprietary churches and lay patronage were still common. In addition to the detailed footnotes, the scholarly apparatus occupies the last third of the book. There is an extensive bibliography, brief biographical sketches of the counts of twelfth-century León and Castile, a series of genealogies, and a selection of charters.

The book is an excellent study of a topic that should be better known to scholars. Indeed, it can serve as a model for monographs on topics in medieval Spanish history, for Barton bases his conclusions on the...

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