Cover image for Contested Treasure: Jews and Authority in the Crown of Aragon By Thomas W. Barton

Contested Treasure

Jews and Authority in the Crown of Aragon

Thomas W. Barton


$74.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06472-7

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06473-4

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312 pages
6" × 9"
3 maps

Iberian Encounter and Exchange, 475–1755

Contested Treasure

Jews and Authority in the Crown of Aragon

Thomas W. Barton

“This is an outstandingly good book. It is skillfully researched, thoughtful, carefully argued and solid in its conclusions. It is a very fine contribution to its various subjects and especially helps us to deepen our understanding of the nature and extent of royal authority, not only in lands of the Crown of Aragon but elsewhere in Medieval Europe.”


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Winner, 2017 Jordan Schnitzer Award for Best Book in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish History and Culture, Association for Jewish Studies

Winner, 2015-2016 Best First Book Award, Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies

In Contested Treasure, Thomas Barton examines how the Jews in the Crown of Aragon in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries negotiated the overlapping jurisdictions and power relations of local lords and the crown. The thirteenth century was a formative period for the growth of royal bureaucracy and the development of the crown’s legal claims regarding the Jews. While many Jews were under direct royal authority, significant numbers of Jews also lived under nonroyal and seigniorial jurisdiction. Barton argues that royal authority over the Jews (as well as Muslims) was far more modest and contingent on local factors than is usually recognized. Diverse case studies reveal that the monarchy’s Jewish policy emerged slowly, faced considerable resistance, and witnessed limited application within numerous localities under nonroyal control, thus allowing for more highly differentiated local modes of Jewish administration and coexistence. Contested Treasure refines and complicates our portrait of interfaith relations and the limits of royal authority in medieval Spain, and it presents a new approach to the study of ethnoreligious relations and administrative history in medieval European society.
“This is an outstandingly good book. It is skillfully researched, thoughtful, carefully argued and solid in its conclusions. It is a very fine contribution to its various subjects and especially helps us to deepen our understanding of the nature and extent of royal authority, not only in lands of the Crown of Aragon but elsewhere in Medieval Europe.”
“Barton’s thorough archival work and measured analysis are of undeniable value. With them, he offers ample proof that the legal status of minorities was in flux throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and that as a result it is essential to avoid generalizations that assume a uniform and universal royal policy or a consistent minority experience of royal protection.”
“Administrative history seldom makes riveting reading, but Barton wisely calls repeated attention to how the Tortosan case illumines similar developments elsewhere in Iberia and western Europe. Tortosa was neither an anomaly nor a fixed precedent for the evolution of regalian rights and baronial lordship vis-à-vis Jewish subjects, and this finely argued book reminds us of the protean nature of that evolution.”
“[Contested Treasure] is closely researched and well written, offering valuable insights into the often tragic experiences of this religious minority whose residence in one of the more liberal kingdoms of medieval Europe nonetheless required the utmost survival skills to maintain a precarious position.”
“This finely grained analysis provides an important guide to understanding medieval Jewry law in the Kingdom of Aragon and other medieval kingdoms. Contested Treasure is an important contribution to medieval European history, Sephardic studies, and Iberian history.”
“Barton makes plain how the issue of Christian jurisdiction over Jews must be studied within the wider framework of the evolution of royal authority and its interaction with local power structures. Conversely, historians of governance in Iberia can learn much by looking at the position of Jews (and Muslims) in the evolving Christian kingdoms of the peninsula. This approach yields a much more nuanced image of Iberia than is usually given.”
“Barton has made a significant, innovative, and durable contribution to the scholarly discussion regarding ethno-religious coexistence in the realms of the Crown of Aragon and the development of premodern royal authority.”
“The publication of Thomas Barton’s monograph on the contested jurisdiction over Jews in the Catalan town of Tortosa is a momentous historiographic event.”
“An excellent and well-documented history, a detailed and precise study of political power and Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages.”
“Focusing on Tortosa as a case study, Thomas Barton’s exhaustively researched and well-crafted book offers an insightful intervention into one of the thorniest historiographical questions: what was the nature and extent of royal jurisdiction over Jews in the medieval Crown of Aragon? In a compelling fashion, Barton shows that Tortosa was not an anomaly but in line with the manner in which the crown, religious and municipal entities, local lords, and the Jews themselves negotiated issues of political and fiscal jurisdiction. By problematizing the issue and refusing to accept monochrome interpretations, Contested Treasure makes a timely contribution to our understanding of these questions. This is a wonderful and insightful book!”
“Thomas Barton's study of the Jews in the Crown of Aragon, focusing on Tortosa, is a major contribution to an ongoing discussion of assertion of and resistance to regalian authority in the kingdom. Barton is quite aware of the distinctiveness of Tortosan developments, but he also makes a strong case for deeper similarities with developments elsewhere. His study adds to other scholars' recent reevaluation of the jurisdictional disputes among ecclesiastics and lay authorities elsewhere in Europe and the implications of these disputes for the lived experience of vulnerable groups. I regard Barton's book as an extraordinarily fine and fine-grained piece of work.”
“Through a rich and instructive case study of Tortosa, Contested Treasure explores the complex process whereby the kings of the medieval Crown of Aragon sought to establish the primacy of their jurisdiction over Muslim and Jewish communities. In so doing, this highly compelling book provides fresh insight into the fragmented yet interconnected nature of power in the medieval Mediterranean.”
Contested Treasure represents a significant advance in understanding the situation of the Jews in the Crown of Aragon by showing how contingent and contested royal claims of jurisdiction were. The power of seigneurial control over Jews has never been clearer. Thomas Barton presents the reader with a fascinating history of Tortosa after its conquest by Christian armies—an exotic and complicated city of trade and agriculture ruled by an uneasy complex of church, noble, and royal administrations governing a substantial Jewish, Muslim, and Christian population. Contested Treasure is an intriguing and meticulous account of how a multicultural society really functioned and of the people who tried to control and exploit it.”
“Barton’s book will be of major interest to historians charting the social interactions between minority groups in the Iberian Peninsula and secular or ecclesiastical authority. There is little more than passing mention of ecclesiastical jurisdiction (p. 189), and Barton highlights a significant contrast with the situation prevailing in many Jewish communities in neighbouring Castile. The author frequently references the recent work of Soifer Irish dealing with the church and the Jews in Castile and that of Ray and others. This valuable contribution complements theirs in portraying the vivid and complex patchwork of administrative and jurisdictional authorities affecting the Jewish minority in late medieval Spain.”
“Thomas W. Barton’s masterfully executed study of the Crown of Aragon’s jurisdictional authority over Jews between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries thoughtfully contributes to the burgeoning scholarship on the definitions of power, authority, and convivencia in the medieval Mediterranean.”

Thomas W. Barton is Associate Professor of History at the University of San Diego.




1 Foundations and Withdrawal

2 Royal Administrative Change and the Emergence of a Jewish Policy

3 Seigniorial Administration and Micro-convivencia

4 Royal Administrative Advances

5 Administrative Strategies and the Royal Takeover

6 Seigniorial Jurisdiction and the Transition to Royal Governance

Epilogue: Contested Treasure in Broader Context





In 1377, a Jewish moneylender named Abraham Açavella claimed before the royal court that he had been wrongfully imprisoned and robbed by the abbot and officers of the Cistercian monastery of Valldigna in rural Valencia. The royal procurator representing Abraham in the trial later explained that his client had visited a Muslim rural community in the Alfàndec Valley, in the domains of the Cistercian monks of Valldigna, to pursue debt payments from several Muslims, including Azmet Aeça. Azmet quickly grew hostile and tried to kill the Jew with a weapon, prompting Abraham to flee and hide in a neighboring house and Azmet to scream for help from the other Muslims in the village, claiming that Abraham had in fact attacked him. These other residents helped Azmet locate the Jew and, after giving him a severe beating, hand him over to Valldigna’s abbot, who then, according to the crown’s lawyer, exploited the situation to enrich himself.

The abbot allegedly incarcerated Abraham under harsh conditions until the Jew’s father could arrive from their town of Alzira, twenty kilometers to the north, to issue the abbot a promissory note for one hundred gold florins for his release. He also refused to return the sack full of silk that Abraham had been carrying at the time of the attack. The Jews later claimed it was worth more than one hundred pounds. In search of a judicial forum to overrule the monastery, Abraham lodged a complaint with the monarchy’s bailiff general in Valencia. After the officer failed to get an adequate response from the abbot, however, he referred the matter to the royal court.

During the court proceedings, the jurisdictional issues raised by the case overshadowed the simple question of which party was guilty of assault. The systemic challenge the case presented to royal prerogatives likely accounts for the trial’s length and the extensiveness of its extant transcripts. In keeping with the claims of Valencia’s thirteenth-century territorial law, the Furs de València, the monarchy asserted that, because all Jews represented “the king’s treasure,” all cases involving Jews, no matter where they were perpetrated, necessarily fell under royal jurisdiction. Given the circumstances of the case, the Jew obviously had a strong interest in collaborating with the monarchy’s agenda, just as the Muslims who testified were motivated to support their lord. On future occasions, however, residents of Valldigna in conflict with the abbot would instead seek to use the monarchy’s jurisdictional claims to escape seigniorial justice. One local Muslim in 1481 publicly ridiculed the executive authority of Valldigna’s justice, jeering that he was unable “to hang anyone [outside the valley] in the King’s land, God guard him!” Proclaiming himself “a vassal of my lord the King,” however, did not deter the justice from sentencing him to five hundred lashes and a five-hundred-florin fine.

In the case involving Abraham, the crown aimed to expose and condemn the dangerous precedent perpetrated by the abbot of Valldigna. By universalizing the case, the royal legal experts managed to use it to broadcast the monarchy’s claims of exclusive jurisdiction over Jews such as Abraham. In his testimony, the governor of Valencia, who claimed responsibility to “maintain and defend royal jurisdiction,” stated matter-of-factly that “usurpers and occupiers of royal jurisdiction and violators of licenses of safe passage [guiatges] from the king granted to this Jew and to other Jews must be punished.” He based his retelling and argumentation on the assumption that the monarchy’s exclusive relationship with the Jews was legally incontrovertible and universally recognized. Thus, according to the governor, when these Muslims decided to attack this lender, they naturally understood and were choosing to defy what was “known to all” by not “paying heed to omnipotent God and royal authority, nor observing how the said Jew and all of the other Jews are under the protection and guard of the said Lord King.” As Azmet grabbed a staff to kill Abraham, the governor reasoned, he must have been “motivated by an evil spirit,” since any subject in his right mind would have known not to transgress royal authority in such a fashion.

In this situation, from the crown’s point of view, the abbot should have known to cede the handling of the case to the king’s chief officer for the kingdom of Valencia. His abuse of the judicial and executive authority he had usurped from the monarchy by finding Abraham guilty without cause and illegitimately seizing his property further emphasized why special subjects such as the Jews so depended on the effective protection that only the king could offer. Even though the monarchy did not mention its parallel claims to possess all Muslims in its realms, the case obviously had serious implications for the abbot’s jurisdictional power over Valldigna’s Muslim inhabitants. If Azmet had indeed been the victim, as he and his lord had claimed, would the monarchy have had the same right to intervene?

Valldigna, however, presented a formidable defense that asserted control over the monarchy’s own claims by appealing to feudal law. Through his procurator, the abbot argued that, as local lord, he enjoyed the expression of the crown’s regalian prerogatives on his domains. And, unfortunately for the crown, in this instance its opponents had the documentation on hand to support their claim. According to evidence presented by the abbot’s procurator, the king’s predecessor, Jaume II (r. 1291–1327), had indeed invested the abbots of Valldigna with this independence by assigning them a charter of donation in 1300, later confirmed by Pere III (r. 1336–87). It had awarded them full jurisdiction over all criminal and civil cases (merum et mixtum imperium) as well as all other rights pertaining to “our regalia” over “all men and women residing or who will reside” within these domains in perpetuity. The language of the Furs de València, the abbot’s procurator continued, furthermore “provides no impediment,” since it must apply only to lords who had not already been granted these powers and made into veritable micromonarchs by the crown. There is no doubt, he concluded, “that the said Lord Abbot is able to punish any delinquents in the said Valldigna, either a Jew or whomever it might be.”

Thus, the monks of Valldigna had little reason to challenge outright the monarchy’s claims that the Jews pertained to the royal treasure because the principle undergirded their own jurisdictional rights. From their point of view, the royal donation had invested the monks with legal ownership of this treasure when it fell within their domains. The conflict between the principle of theoretically inalienable regalian jurisdiction over the Jews and the monarchy’s chronic tendency to transfer such rights to independent lordships for varying objectives had caused numerous similar scenarios throughout the Crown of Aragon over the past generations.

This book explores the origins of such controversies over the development and implementation of a policy of exclusive possession of resident Jews by the monarchy of the Crown of Aragon from the twelfth through the early fourteenth centuries. By scrutinizing the case of the town of Tortosa alongside an array of comparative local studies, it will seek to document the range of responses by independent lords who contested these jurisdictional prerogatives claimed by the crown because, like the monks of Valldigna, they felt legally entitled to enforce justice among the Jews and other subjects in their domains. The primary argument to be made here is that, far from a curiosity of legal history, these engagements had significant, lasting implications for the coexistence of Jews within Christian-ruled society and the development of royal governance. They influenced the regulatory norms for Jews that would endure until the expulsion, altered the dynamics within and between individual Jewish communities, and affected the modes of interaction between Jews and royal and seigniorial authorities. Similar to the court case in Valldigna, these confrontations forced rival local constituencies to confront and reconcile their conflicting interpretations about the very nature of royal power. The outcomes of these engagements have significant implications for their interrelationships as well as, potentially, for the potency of the crown’s regalian claims.