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Tormented Voices

Tormented Voices

Power, Crisis, and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140–1200

Thomas N. Bisson

ISBN 9780674895287

Publication date: 08/01/1998

Mute in life as in death, peasants of remote history rarely speak to us in their own voices. But Thomas Bisson’s engagement with the records of several hundred twelfth-century people of rural Catalonia enables us to hear these voices. The peasants’ allegations of abuse while in the service of their common lord the Count of Barcelona and his son the King reveal a unique perspective on the meaning of power both by those who felt and feared it, and by those who wielded it. These records—original parchments, dating much earlier than other comparable records of European peasant life—name peasants in profusion and relate some of their stories.

Bisson describes these peasants socially and culturally, showing how their experience figured in a wider crisis of power from the twelfth century. His compassionate history considers demography, naming patterns, gender, occupational identities, and habitats, as well as power, coercion, and complaint, and the moralities of faith, honor, and shame. He concludes with reflections on the historical meanings of violence and suffering.

This rich contribution to medieval social and cultural history and peasant studies suggests important resources and ideas for historians and anthropologists.


  • Bisson has distinguished himself with a number of careful scholarly monographs on the politics and finance of southern France and Spain in the Middle Ages. But in this book, although he necessarily draws on this research, Mr. Bisson breaks new ground. A historian of the elite—of kings, parliaments and treasuries—turns his considerable analytic powers to the question of village society and culture. Catalonia, the author’s chosen area of research, has one of the richest documentary traditions in Europe, and in the last half-century scholars have begun to exploit with care and missionary zeal the cache of records that have survived. Focusing on a group of complaints from several Catalonian villages in the middle and late 12th century, Mr. Bisson tries to dispel layer after layer of distortion in these records in order to recover the ‘tormented voices’ of named and unnamed peasants who were at their wits’ end in resisting lordly power… This is a remarkable book, not only because it sets the record straight on rural violence in the Middle Ages, but because it is written with passion… Bisson succeeds in recovering the tormented voices of these Catalonian peasants, ‘what they spoke of in words that we have, or almost have; what some ones once, momentarily, thought memorable, and what I,’ the author writes, ‘have tried to read, to hear, to hold in the names and voices; in what we have of these people—and all that we have.’

    —William Chester Jordan, Washington Times


  • Thomas N. Bisson is Henry Charles Lea Professor of Medieval History, Harvard University. Among his publications are Fiscal Accounts of Catalonia under the Early Count-Kings (1151–1213) and The Medieval Crown of Aragon: A Short History.

Book Details

  • 208 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press