Vicens, Rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragon

Infançones, franchos, and wannabes: Rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragon

Belen Vicens (Notre Dame)

Prior to the fourteenth century, there is very little evidence concerning general assemblies in the Crown of Aragon. Other than the fact that laws were discussed and approved, we know next to nothing about what went on in these gatherings. A rare, hitherto unstudied, glimpse into one such gathering is afforded by a manuscript that ensued from the 1247 assembly in Huesca (Aragon). Called the Vidal Mayor, after its compiler, the jurist Vidal de Canellas, this single manuscript—a compilation of customary laws or fueros— contains an anecdote that recounts the controversy that arose between experts in customary law (foristas) and trained jurists on the use of written documents as legal proof. Whereas the foristas argued that oath and ordeal were valid forms of proof in debt disputes, the jurists countered that those forms were no longer valid, as only written documents were now deemed “reasonable” and “lawful” forms of proof.

This controversy pitting “old school” customary law against “new school” Roman and canon law was far from inconsequential. As relations between the Aragonese king and the nobility became increasingly hostile in the aftermath of the conquest of Valencia (1238), law became the focal point of dissension, with the nobles taking sides with the foristas, and the king with the jurists. Yet, for all the hue and cry raised on the question of legal proof, a cursory glance at contemporary court records reveals that written documents were routinely handled as forms of proof. Why then did this issue become a bone of contention at the assembly? This paper addresses the unresolved tension between what the anecdote tells and the evidence of legal practice by reconstructing what we know about this assembly, and examining how the issue of proof features in the laws that were approved by the assembly.