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Not only peasants: the myth of continuity in the irrigation communities of Valencia, Spain, in the medieval and early modern periods


The Horta of Valencia is a large irrigated area managed by eight communities of landowners. Traditionally, it was considered that these communities were composed of peasants, that they were self-managed and self-governed, and that they had remained immutable over time. However, the historical evidence shows that this is not true for pre-modern times. This article examines a possible Islamic origin of these institutions, the rupture caused by the Christian conquest of Valencia in the thirteenth century, the structure of the communities, and the social diversity of their members within the framework of feudalism. We conclude that irrigation communities cannot be used as examples of institutional continuity or of self-regulated and autonomous social organisations.

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1 de Passa F. Jaubert, Voyage en Espagne dans les années 1816, 1817, 1818, 1819, ou recherches sur les arrosages, sur les lois et coutumes qui les régissent, sur les lois domaniales et municipales, considérés comme un puissant moyen de perfectionner l'agriculture française (Paris, 1823); Markham C. R., Report on the irrigation of Eastern Spain (London, 1867).

2 For a historical synthesis and an overview of the changes that this body has undergone over time, see Guinot E. and Romero J., ‘El Tribunal de les Aigües de l'Horta de València: continuïtat institucional i canvi social’, Derecho, historia y universidades: estudios dedicados a Mariano Peset (Valencia, 2007), 755–69.

3 On different economic levels within the peasantry in the kingdom of Valencia, see Aparisi F., ‘Village entrepreneurs: the economic foundations of Valencian rural elites in the fifteenth century’, Agricultural History 89, 3 (2015), 336–57.

4 Romero J. and Marco J. L. Hernández, Feudalidad, burguesía y campesinado en la huerta de Valencia (Valencia, 1980).

5 Maass A. and Anderson R. L., And the desert shall rejoice: conflict, growth and justice in arid environments (Cambridge, MA, 1978); Glick T. F., Irrigation and society in medieval Valencia (Cambridge, MA, 1970).

6 Ostrom E., Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action (Cambridge, 1990), 71–6.

7 Ibid., 91.

8 Ibid., 69. Ostrom refers to the minutes of a meeting of the community of Benàger in 1435, which are also quoted by Glick. The survival of the minutes is exceptional, but the meeting itself was quite ordinary, and not pivotal, as Ostrom believed. She assumed that the operation of the community had changed little in the 1,000 years since the irrigation system was constructed in the Islamic period.

9 Borrull F. J., Tratado de la distribución de las aguas del rio Turia y del Tribunal de los acequieros de la Huerta de Valencia (Valencia, 1831); Guillén A., El Tribunal de las Aguas de Valencia y los modernos Jurados de Riegos (Valencia, 1920); Boira V. Giner, Tribunal de las Aguas de Valencia (Valencia, 1988); Fairén V., El Tribunal de las Aguas de Valencia y su proceso (Valencia, 1988).

10 In 1963, the local authorities in Valencia celebrated the millennium of the Tribunal de las Aguas de Valencia, despite having no documentary evidence that this was appropriate.

11 For his original ideas on continuity, see Glick, Irrigation and society, 230–40. For later revision, see, for example, Glick T. F., From Muslim fortress to Christian castle: social and cultural change in medieval Spain (Manchester, 1995), 6491 .

12 Sanmartín L. P. Martínez, ‘Tecnoexperts, perits i sistemes hidràulics: la Séquia de Mislata i les comunitats de regants de l'Horta de València al segle XV’, Recerques: Història, Economia, Cultura 69 (2015), 3197 . See also Martínez Sanmartín L. P. and Terol V., ‘El libro de los actos, provisiones y reuniones de la acequia de Favara (1362–1521): aproximación a un registro clave para la historia del regadío en la Huerta medieval de Valencia’, in Sanchis-Ibor C. et al. . eds., Irrigation, society and landscape. Tribute to Thomas F. Glick (Valencia, 2014), 598618 .

13 Garrido S., ‘Las instituciones de riego en la España del Este: una reflexión a la luz de la obra de Elinor Ostrom’, Historia Agraria 53 (2011), 13–42 here 15. See also Garrido S., ‘Water management, Spanish irrigation communities and colonial engineers’, Journal of Agrarian Change 14, 3 (2014), 400–18.

14 Albentosa T. Peris, ‘Las huertas valencianas: la necesaria actualización de los postulados de Maass, Glick y Ostrom’, Agricultura, Sociedad y Desarrollo 12 (2015), 349–83. The journal also includes an English translation of the article.

15 Albentosa T. Peris, ‘El ejercicio de la autonomía local en las acequias de la Huerta de Valencia: la olvidada imbricación municipal (siglos XIII–XIX)’, Minius: Historia, arte e xeografía 23 (2015), 131–70.

16 Peris Albentosa, ‘El ejercicio de la autonomía local’; Garrido, ‘Las instituciones de riego’; Guinot E., ‘El gobierno del agua en las huertas medievales mediterráneas: los casos de Valencia y Murcia’, in del ser Quijano G. and Viso I. M. eds., Espacios de poder y formas sociales en la edad media: estudios dedicados a Ángel Barrios (Salamanca, 2007), 99118 ; Guinot E., ‘Com en temps de sarraïns: la herencia andalusí en la huerta medieval de Valencia’, in del Val Valdivieso M. I. and Zubizarreta O. Villanueva eds., Musulmanes y cristianos frente al agua en ciudades medievales (Ciudad Real, 2008), 173–96; Guinot and Romero, ‘El Tribunal de les Aigües’.

17 F. Esquilache, ‘The role of the Imazighen tribes in the building of the large irrigated areas in Sharq Al-Andalus: the irrigation canal of the Hawwāras in the Horta of Valencia’, Agrarian archaeology: Irrigation, drainage, dry agriculture and pastures in Al-Andalus, in press; Guinot E. and Esquilache F., ‘La reorganización del paisaje agrario en la Huerta de Valencia después de la conquista cristiana: el sistema hidráulico y el parcelario de Montcada y Benifaraig en el siglo XIII’, Debates de Arqueología Medieval 2 (2012), 229–76.

18 Glick, Irrigation and society, 234–5.

19 Ibid., 198–206.

20 Ibid.; Guinot, ‘El gobierno del agua’, 103–5.

21 Glick T. F., ‘Regadío y técnicas hidráulicas en al-Andalus: su difusión según un eje Este-Oeste’, in Malpica A. ed., La caña de azúcar en tiempos de los grandes descubrimientos (1450–1550) (Granada, 1990), 379.

22 Trillo C., ‘Regadío y estructura social en al-Andalus: la propiedad de la tierra y el derecho al agua en el Reino Nazarí’, in Wamba F. J. Pérez-Embid ed., La Andalucía medieval: Actas I Jornadas de Historia Rural y Medio Ambiente (Huelva, 2002), 71–98 here 96–8.

23 See, for example, Guichard P., Structures sociales ‘orientales’ et ‘occidentales’ dans l'Espagne musulmane (Paris-La Haye, 1977); Barceló M., ‘Vísperas de feudales: la sociedad de Sharq al-Andalus justo antes de la conquista catalana’, in Maíllo F. ed., España, Al-Andalus, Sefarad: síntesis y nuevas perspectivas (Salamanca, 1988), 99112 .

24 Glick, From Muslim fortress, 67–76.

25 Gual M., Estudio histórico-geográfico sobre la Acequia Real del Júcar (Valencia, 1979); Guinot E. and Selma S., ‘La construcción del paisaje en una huerta feudal: la Séquia Major de Vila-real (siglos XIII–XV)’, in Torró J. and Guinot E. eds., Hidráulica agraria y sociedad feudal: técnicas, prácticas, espacios (Valencia, 2012), 103–45.

26 Glick, Irrigation and society, 95.

27 Guinot E., ‘Comunidad rural, municipos y gestión del agua en las huertas medievales valencianas’, in Rodriguez A. ed., El lugar del campesino: en torno a la obra de Reyna Pastor (Valencia, 2007), 309–30, here 315–23.

28 One well-documented example is the town of Vila-real; see Millán I. Román, El regadío de Vila-real durante los siglos XIII–XV: orígenes, administración y conflictos (Vila-Real, 2000).

29 On the transition from a tribal-run irrigation system to a commune-run one, see Glick, From Muslim fortress, 67–75.

30 There is evidence to suggest that there were more cases, particularly in suburban areas. In the royal town of Borriana, for example, two irrigation systems and two communities existed throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. These systems merged in the early fifteenth century, but due to the lack of local documents, we know little about the way they operated and their degree of autonomy from the municipal government. In the town of Alzira, which was also a royal jurisdiction, the construction of the Royal Canal, in the mid-thirteenth century, made use of the Andalusi irrigation system located to the south of the Xúquer River, the Canal of Escalona. In the late Middle Ages, this system was also managed by a commune. Gual, Estudio histórico-geográfico.

31 ‘We [the king] give and grant to you forever all and every one of the canals of the city of Valencia, large, medium and small, with water and channels, except the canal called Real [Royal], that is, that which goes to Puçol, whose canals, water and channels you will always have continuously and unceasingly, by day and at night; so that you may irrigate from them such as the old custom was’ (… donamus et concedimus imperpetuum omnes et singulas cequias civitatis Valencie maiores, mediocres et minores cum aquis et aquarum ductibus excepta cequia qui vocatur Regia, illa scilicet que vadit usque ad Puçolum. Quarum cequiarum aquam et aquarum ductum habeatis semper continue et incessanter die et nocte; ita quod ex eis possitis rigare secundum quod est antiquitus consuetum). Archives of the Council of Valencia (hereafter AMV), Pergamins, n. 3.

32 AMV, Pergamins, n. 4.

33 ‘We [the king] give and grant to you, each and every one of you who have and will have castles, estates, hamlets and any other possessions within the territory that irrigates the Canal of Montcada, forever, that canal that is called Real [Royal], free and exempt from all servitude and royal and personal exaction’ (… damus et concedim us vobis universis et singulis habentibus et habituris castra, hereditates, alquareas et quascumque alias possessiones sub cequia de Moncada imperpetuum ipsam cequiam que voca tur Real liberam et fra ncham ab omni servitute et exaccione regali et person ali). Archives of the Cathedral of Valencia (hereafter ACV), Pergamins, n. 3,506.

34 Romero and Hernández, Feudalidad, burguesía y campesinado; see also Garrido, ‘Las instituciones de riego’.

35 Details of the process of colonisation of Valencia in the thirteenth century are well known. See, for example, Furió A., ‘Organització del territori i canvi social al País Valencià després de la conquesta cristiana’, in Bolòs i Masclans J. and Busqueta i Riu J. J. eds., Territori i Societat a l'Edat Mitjana: història, arqueologia, documentació (Lleida, 1997), 131–66; Guinot E. and Torró J., Repartiments medievals a la Corona d'Aragó: segles XII– XIII (Valencia, 2007).

36 On land ownership in the Middle Ages among urban elites, both secular and religious, see Furió A., ‘El mercado de la tierra en la Valencia de los siglos XIII-XV: crédito, endeudamiento y compraventa de parcelas’, in Cavaciocchi S. ed., Il mercato della terra secc. XIII–XVIII: Atti della ‘Trentacinquesima’ Settimana di Studi di Prato, 5–9 maggio 2003 (Firenze, 2004), 797812 ; Furió A. and Mira A. J., ‘Le marché de la terre dans les pays de Valence au bas Moyen Âge’, in Feller L. and Wickham C. eds., Le marché de la terre au Moyen Âge (Rome, 2005), 573623 . For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Romero and Hernández, Feudalidad, burguesía y campesinado.

37 For Mislata, see Martínez Sanmartín, ‘Tecnoexperts’, and for Favara, see Martínez Sanmartín and Terol ‘El libro de los actos’.

38 In addition to Martínez and Terol's introductory study cited in notes 12 and 37, we have consulted the original minutes for the meetings, which are preserved in the Corpus Christi Archives, Valencia (hereafter ACCV), Històric, VAR-201. We want to thank the archivist Salvador Ferrando for pointing out this document to us. The 1510 citizen list was published by Valldecabres R., El cens de 1510 (Valencia, 2002). Martínez has also identified some of the attendees at the Mislata assembly in 1415 as peasants and artisans, cross-referencing documents concerning different legal matters but issued by the same notary. See Martínez Sanmartín, ‘Tecnoexperts’, 74.

39 See the proceedings book of Favara, cited in note 38 (ACCV, Històric, VAR-201).

40 Martínez Sanmartín, ‘Tecnoexperts’, 72–5.

41 Esquilache F. and Guinot E., ‘La gestió técnica de la irrigació en les hortes històriques valencianes: el sequier, dels orígens a la desaparició (segles XIII–XVII)’, Millars: espai i historia 37 (2014), 5999 ; see also Martínez Sanmartín, ‘Tecnoexperts’.

42 The 1415 proceedings from Mislata were published by Febrer M. V., ‘Las ordenanzas medievales de la acequia de Mislata y los acequieros, vehedores y otros cargos ocupados en su gobierno’, Annals de l'IDECO 2 (1985–86), 157–63; for Favara in ACCV, Històric, VAR-201 (see note 38). Of the three diputats appointed by the commune of Mislata, one was a knight of the Romaní family (lords of Patraix) and another was appointed as misser. The three diputats appointed in Favara in 1493 were knights and lords from some of the villages located within the area served by this irrigation system: Giner Rabassa de Perellós was lord of Benetússer, and the two Sanoguera brothers were lords in Catarroja. On this issue, see also Martínez Sanmartín, ‘Tecnoexperts’.

43 For more on the clavari, see Glick, Irrigation and society, 40.

44 The fact that the main official, the de facto president, of modern irrigation communes is known by the same title, has undoubtedly also contributed. However today's irrigation communes are no longer ruled by the collective, but by a committee with a chairman at its head, just like a municipal council.

45 ACCV, Protocols, 2,864 (1421); 23,682 (1435).

46 ACCV, Històric, VAR-201, fo. 26.

47 Glick, Irrigation and society, 33.

48 A copy, dating from 1403, found in the proceedings book cited in note 38 is preserved (ACCV, Històric, VAR-201, fos. 7r–10v), while another sixteenth-century copy has also been found in the Archives of Kingdom of Valencia (ARV), Procesos de Madrid, H-16, fos. 541v–546r.

49 A copy of the 1446 internal regulations of Favara is preserved in the books of proceedings cited in note 38 (ACCV, Històric, VAR-201, fos. 11–24), and a copy of the 1597 regulations is preserved as evidence in a lawsuit presented before the royal court in 1599, as cited in note 48 (ARV, Procesos de Madrid, H-16, fos. 508r–546r). According to Martínez and Terol, another copy may be found in the private archive of the commune of Favara.

50 The 1597 regulations of Favara were the first that, in addition to being voted on by the assembly, had to be endorsed by the governor of the Kingdom of Valencia. See reference in previous note.

51 Trillo, ‘Regadío y estructura social’.

52 In 1244, only a few years after the conquest of Valencia, the Christian colonists in the Horta of Gandia summoned a Muslim ṣāḥib al-sāqiya to explain the water allocation system along the secondary channels indicating that this was one of the ṣāḥib al-sāqiya’s functions, alongside the administration of justice. Esquilache and Guinot, ‘La gestió técnica de la irrigació’, 68; Glick, From Muslim fortress, 80.

53 ARV, Pergamins, n. 4. See note 32.

54 The municipal charter of Teruel, in the kingdom of Aragon, which dates from the twelfth century, burdened zabacequias with the same responsibilities that Valencian sequiers would be expected to assume in 1250, thus supporting the idea that both titles referred to a single office. Furthermore, the titles of zabacequias and savaçéquies remained in use in Aragon and Catalonia into the early modern period; while acequiero or sequier, were, in contrast, never used.

55 Esquilache and Guinot, ‘La gestió técnica de la irrigació’, 81–4.

56 Teira F., El régimen jurídico de aguas en el llano de Lérida, siglos XII al XVIII (Barcelona, 1968), 98.

57 Ostrom, Governing the commons, 94.

58 Furs de València, law XLVIII from James I of Aragon. Essentially, the document explains the function of the sequiers, makes municipal governements responsible for ensuring that all these tasks were adequately carried out, and describes potential offences.

59 It would be interesting to study who was chosen to act as síndic, how this was done, but this is well beyond the scope of the current study. See Guinot and Romero, ‘El Tribunal de les Aigües’.

60 The issue has been dealt with more extensively in previous works published in Spanish and Catalan. See, for example, Esquilache and Guinot, ‘La gestió técnica de la irrigació’, and Guinot's works cited in note 16.

61 See, for example, De Moor T., ‘The silent revolution: a new perspective on the emergence of commons, guilds, and other forms of corporate collective action in Western Europe’, International Review of Social History 53, supp. 16 (2008), 179212 .

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