This official research project is completed!

Changes in the cultivated ecosystem of the late medieval Kingdom of Valencia

  • Code: HAR2011-27662
  • Main researcher: Josep Torró Abad, University of Valencia
  • Researchers: Enric Guinot (UV), Sabina Asins (CIDE), Antoni Mas (UIB), Sergi Selma (UJI), Kilian Cuerda (scholar, UV)
  • Period: 2011-2015
  • Financing institution: Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Government of Spain

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The project aims at studying the reorganisation of agricultural spaces and the division of lands that followed the conquest of the Kingdom of Valencia, from the mid-13th century to the early Modern Age. At a general level, our research aims at answering two questions. The first is to what degree the inherited agrarian ecosystem offered an adequate basis for the settlement of the Christian colonists. That is, whether the transformation, clearing and ploughing of new lands following the conquests was due to demographic factors or to the fact that the social order of the conquerors was unsuited to the practices that would have been needed for the maintenance of the previous agrarian system. The second question concerns the techniques involved in the transformation of existing fields and the division of new lands: which were part of the Andalusi tradition, which had been brought from the new settlers’ regions of origin, and which were a synthesis of both. The key premise on which we base our work is that social systems are also ecosystems. If the mere continuation of the physical structures left by Andalusi society had sufficed for the reproduction of the feudal system imposed by the Christians the conclusion would follow that no significant differences could exist between both social systems; a conclusion which is obviously false.

Historiography has agreed – at least for the past two decades – upon the fact that the Christian colonisation of the territory of Valencia did not simply prolong previous agricultural practices; new management models were introduced and new agricultural lands were swiftly created. However, the characterisation of the dynamics of this process of colonisation is often limited to a few vague references to the general trend towards growth which seems to explain everything, but the nature and evolution of which is not itself explained. Every colonisation process is based on practical knowledge and this, for its part, is based on a multiplicity of technical skills previously tested in the ecological environments of origin. Any consideration of the options open to the new colonists and the evaluation of the scale of change brought about by colonisation must take this factor on board, but this is very rarely done. In this regard, and despite the most pertinent observations of Thomas F. Glick, the Christian colonisation of eastern al-Andalus has to date not been considered as a factor in the transformation of the existing agricultural ecosystem, with all the methodological and analytical implications of this.

Given the historical narrative of the conquest and colonisation of the Kingdom of Valencia, the development of this approach involves the consideration of three key issues:

  1. the Andalusi agrarian ecosystem at the time of the conquest
  2. the transformations introduced in the areas settled by Christians
  3. the situation in lands still inhabited by Muslim groups

With regard to the existing Andalusi system our starting hypothesis assumes a landscape characterised by discontinuous areas of intensive cultivation subordinated to irrigation systems. These irrigated areas were not the only form of agriculture but were the centrepiece of agricultural planning from both a topographical-morphological and a productive point of view. On the other hand, irrigation networks were not conceived for the irrigation of all the land within their perimeter, but as a means of connecting the small areas for continuous cultivation associated with each qarya or settlement unit, leaving ample areas where irrigation regimes were less intensive or completely lacking. This ecosystem, already consolidated as far back as the 10th century, interrupted the sequence of cereal based regimes traditionally found in the Mediterranean from the first centuries of the Christian era.

How did the new conquerors intervene in this ecosystem, characterised by irrigated niches? The landscape found by the Christian colonists on their arrival to areas abandoned after the expulsion of the Andalusi groups was comprehensively built: houses, fields, channels, trees and vines. This is, at least, the picture shown by the donation deeds or repartiments. According to these documents everything necessary was already present, and there was nothing to do but run it. We know that the situation was not quite as neat as this in reality, but the impression given by the documents has until very recently inhibited the detailed analysis of agrarian transformations following the conquest. These colonists did not improvise their response. They came from a tradition of clearing and ploughing new fields which was immediately reproduced in the newly occupied lands. In addition, the technical assemblage brought in by the new colonists –tools, knowledge and practices – was clearly different from that featured by the pre-existing Andalusi groups, still maintained to a considerable degree by the surviving Andalusi communities, or aljamas. The changes introduced by the new lords and Christian urban communities need to be analysed in detail. Their key features are as follows:

  • land allotment including morphology, land surveying, reorganisation of plots
  • new ploughed fields including slopes, riversides, wetlands
  • the creation of new irrigation systems
  • the reorganisation of Andalusi irrigation systems
  • irrigation techniques put into practise

Most significantly, the clearing and ploughing of new fields started almost immediately after the military conquest, when the influx of Christian immigrants was still insufficient to compensate for the loss of population caused by the deportation of Muslim communities. Textual and palaeoenvironmental evidence indicate the felling of wooded areas on river- and hillsides, in the latter case also due to the construction of terraces, and the drainage of wetlands for agricultural ends. This suggests an early trend towards the expansion of agriculture which soon modified the previous equilibrium, particularly to the detriment of wooded areas. The drainage of highly diverse wetlands was in this regard highly significant. These areas had mostly been exploited by Andalusi peasant groups for non-agrarian purposes – grazing, hunting and gathering of plants such as reed (Scirpus holoschoenus), salsola (Salsola soda) and algazul (Aizoon hispanicum) – with the exception of some areas of little significance sown with rice.

The construction of new irrigation works at an early date is also highly relevant. These works, a personal undertaking of King James I, included the major channels of Séquia Nova in Alzira and Séquia in Vila-real. These projects were designed for extensive irrigation, with the main objective of creating as many colonisation plots as possible. All plots were located within the perimeter and had identical rights concerning water access. In this regard, the irrigated space was homogeneous, and in general plot distribution was subject to a regular geometry, characteristic of colonising endeavours. These cases are equally significant in revealing the Christian approach to existing Andalusi hydraulic systems; the traditional Andalusi gradation in the volume of water supply was suppressed by ensuring equal water access to all plots with the introduction of adequate distribution devices. It was, in short, a trend towards uniformity resulting in the so-called ‘grandes huertas’ of the Modern Period, most especially the huerta of Valencia.

Of course, the application of different principles opens the difficult question of how the Christians colonists used Muslim hydraulic systems. Despite all historiographical assumptions regarding the maintenance of Andalusi knowledge and practices in the field of irrigation, and without discarding out of hand the knowledge acquired by Aragonese and Catalonian colonists in the preservation and management of hydraulic systems taken in the Ebro valley in the 12th century, archival documents do not record the intervention of a single Muslim in the planning and direction of the hydraulic works carried out after the conquest of Valencia. This new perspective calls for a renewed analysis of the technical knowledge and traditions deployed by the Catalonian, Occitanian and French experts in the Kingdom of Valencia. In addition, the two major technical skills involved in the construction of Christian hydraulic systems – masonry and drainage techniques – will also have to be factored in, in detail. Most technicians involved in the construction of irrigation channels were masons or foremen, who used identical tools and surveying techniques for the construction of hydraulic works. Regarding the drainage of water-covered valley bottoms and coastal areas, often connected in Catalonia and the northern Pyrenees with the irrigation of meadows, it must be highlighted that a significant proportion of drainage experts working in the Kingdom of Valencia in the 13th and 14th centuries were of French origin, specifically from regions to the north of the Alps.

Finally, the third issue under consideration – the situation in the Muslim aljamas, which always amounted to a very significant proportion of the population and the territory of the Kingdom of Valencia – is, perhaps, the most problematic. On the one hand, there is plentiful evidence for the continuation of basic features of Andalusi agrarian ecosystems: a dispersed settlement pattern of small hamlets built in association with compact terrace blocks, a highly heterogeneous and selective agrarian landscape, a considerable variety of crops, and so forth. This ideal definition, however, neither fully characterised all surviving aljamas nor kept them apart from the transformations being implemented by the new dominant social system. The persistence of traditional Andalusi practices and the changes brought about by the conquest must be studied in detail on a case by case basis. Among the factors of change we must highlight the priority given by Christian lords to the ploughing of new fields, the resettlement of displaced Muslim communities, and the dislodgement of traditional exchange networks caused by the substitution of many aljamas for colonial settlements. In this regard, the analysis of the expansion of irrigation systems and the determination of the criteria followed in their design constitute a key research strategy for the identification of the patterns of early change.