Belmonte De Los Caballeros: Anthropology and History in an Aragonese Community

Belmonte De Los Caballeros: Anthropology and History in an Aragonese Community

by Carmelo Lison-Tolosana

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Spain's most productive, creative, and highly regarded anthropologist, Carmelo Lison-Tolosana was born in the small Aragonese community he calls Belmonte." This work reflects both his deep knowledge of the village and the objectivity of his professional training.

Originally published in 1983.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand


Spain's most productive, creative, and highly regarded anthropologist, Carmelo Lison-Tolosana was born in the small Aragonese community he calls Belmonte." This work reflects both his deep knowledge of the village and the objectivity of his professional training.

Originally published in 1983.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Belmonte De Los Caballeros

Anthropology and History in an Aragonese Community

By Carmelo Lison-Tolosana


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09402-1



'Entre la cuidad y el campo hay más distancia que entre los más distintos climas'


'La esteva, más que signo de poder, es símbolo de servidumbre'


'La tierra no es sólo espacio, sino tiempo'

Ortega y Gasset

Astranger to the town would be aware, after only a few chance conversations in the street, that the same topics come up again and again. Let us consider one of them.


As work in the fields absorbs the daylight hours of practically all the men over school age, it is only natural that every man's attention should be primarily taken up with the soil and the fields and that this should be reflected in their use of the language. This concern is revealed in the richness of a special vocabulary, while the abundance of characteristic colloquialisms indicate, if not true originality, a process of selection, adaptation and intepretation of words and phrases concerning tools, crops and country tasks. The value and yield of lands, the periodical rotation of tasks, the care of the soil, the selection of seed and fertilizer, arrangements for using the water in turn, methods of reaping, threshing, sowing, harvesting, etc., these make up the principal topics of daily conversation, whether it be on the way to and from the fields, at home, in the street, in the cafes or at evening gatherings. When a man has been on a journey the conversation invariably turns to the fields seen from the train and their cultivation, even apart from journeys with an agricultural purpose such as going to the cattle Fairs or Agricultural Shows. The particular theme follows the rhythm of the soil, so that the work in the fields, seedtime, the beet harvest, sowing, threshing, the grape harvest, set the tone of conversation, each in its due season. On summer nights, when the pressure of work is greatest, one can observe an unceasing search for farmhands, mutual aid, and a sharing of tractors, mules and carts which are all brought in to get the reaping and threshing finished as soon as possible, even if it means working day and night, for the harvest is sacred, sagrada.

Every newly-married man's ambition is to possess his own fields. The parents' aim is to leave their children more land than they themselves inherited. With this end in view every ounce of energy is vital. Money is borrowed to buy a field, a tractor, a horse. There are fierce arguments over who has prior right to buy a certain field, with unpleasant consequences for the disputing families, who may never speak to each other again.

Fields are the most highly esteemed possessions. The history, agricultural properties and other details of each field are known; their ownership brings a feeling of respectable comfort, of a certain security with which to face the future. In any case if things don't go too well, if there is a serious illness in the family, one of them can be sold. But to have to sell them all is the greatest misfortune that can befall a man, and therefore they are only sold in extreme cases. A few years ago an old man committed suicide when he found out that his fields had been sequestered owing to his son's weak administration. He could not bear the disappearance of the fruit of his life's labours. The ownership of land binds the owner so closely to the soil that when things go badly or the property is not sufficient, he no longer has any reason for remaining in the town. He breaks away completely and goes to the city; this is considered a sad necessity.

This bond between man and the soil would be incorrectly interpreted if we saw in it any kind of mysticism or reverence on the man's part. He works hard because it is necessary, because it is the only way of getting his daily bread. 'Only fools work in the country', they say, 'only countrymen know what it is to work', to work in the open in winter and summer, by day and by night, without regular hours, putting up with the cold, the sun, and the dust of the threshing floor. City people are señoritos who know nothing about this and have no idea what it is to work. 'I'd like to give those fellows the hoe', people often say. When anyone complains of having too much work, if this is not agricultural, or when it is believed that someone does not work, they say: 'I'll give you the hoe'. Everyone's highest aim is not to have to work; 'if I had money I should throw away the hoe 'is a common phrase. Note that they say 'throw away', not 'lay aside'. The hoe, which is not the most tiring tool to use, is a symbol for calloused hands, energetic work, speech that other people ridicule, rough manners, living in a small town, and being part of a low social class. They would like to throw all these things to the winds together with the hoe. It is the symbol of the homo rusticus and presupposes the existence of the homo urbanus, who ridicules the former, who in his turn criticizes, envies and tries to imitate the urban man. Frequently country people feel humiliated in the city, inferior to the city dweller with his fluent speech behind his little office window. 'We don't know how to approach people nor how to explain what we want', 'We can't mix with other people', 'We can't talk about anything except agriculture', are phrases which one keeps hearing. They believe that they have very little in common with the city dweller, with those who work in banks and offices, with lawyers, doctors and people who have studied, and when they have to deal with them they feel like 'a hen in a strange barnyard'.

This sense of inferiority, together with the toughness of the work in the country, the enviable comfort of those who 'live without working' in the city, the idea that everyone is exploiting the farmer and that the Government does not concern itself much with agriculture, weighs very heavily on their minds. If the schoolmaster tells them that their son 'would make a good student' they spare no effort or sacrifice so that he can study the bachillerato and get a position in the city or at least no ser del campo (not be of the country). The power and richness of the phrase, the bitter tone in which it is pronounced, reveal a world of differential social status. They do not say no trabajar en el campo (not to work in the country), 'no estar en el campo' (not to be in the country), or 'no pertenecer al campo' (not to belong to the country), but 'ser del campo'(to be of the country). The verb ser differs from estar in that it refers to qualities essential to the person, that define him. Ser normally implies qualities from which the person cannot be separated, such as being a man, being a woman, being Spanish, while estar indicates situations which while they may sometimes affect the person essentially, cannot be considered stable, as for example being ill. By saying 'ser del campo' or in aiming that a son 'no sea del campo' (shall not be of the country), they are assuming that the cultivation of the land affects an individual's personality in such a way that this quality can be expressed grammatically in the same way as being a man or being a Spaniard.

So 'being of the country' marks an individual in such a way that he will be recognized whatever the circumstances in which he lives. His world, his conceptions, his habits and customs, his speech and manners are different from those of people who do not share his work in the fields. He cannot alternar ('alter'-nar, mix) with them. 'May my son be something better than I have been, may he not work like a donkey as I have', 'I would rather my daughter married a cobbler than someone from the country', are phrases which centre around the same idea. This desire, this anxiety to better oneself is reducing the rural population; there is a constant process of urbanization which began in earnest at the end of the civil war. Geographically the city is very near and it is ever present in thought.


The 'Deeds of Sale' of land, from the first one in 1186, already mentioned, seem to indicate that the municipal district has been divided since ancient times into a great number of plots, this being the result of the absence of a Señor of the district with jurisdiction over it. When fields are sold, their limits are given with the names of the owners of the properties bordering on them and the amount of money paid for them indicates small divisions. In 1660, a French traveller journeying to France from Madrid, found the road that connects the town to the city very pleasant because of the numerous market gardens. He left some notes in his diary: 'I left the city at about mid-day on the 18th, and went to spend the night at Lorena. Part of that road is pleasant because of the market gardens which are seen continuously (my italics) in a broad valley, always watered by canals. One passes over the little river by a bridge; and shortly afterwards one comes upon the town of Belmonte (de los Caballeros); the rest of the road is a wilderness'.

The 905 hectares of cultivable land are divided into 2,107 fields of an average area of 0·4295 hectares, their small size often making it very difficult to use machines. On the other hand, each one is a garden, as the aforementioned Frenchman found, carefully tended, exploited to the full. On the following table are the number of owners of land with the sum total of plots each owns within the término or municipal boundaries.

The Minute of the Council of July 26th 1801, complains that half the property of the district is in the hands of people not living in the town. Some forty years ago the Council sold the last 103 hectares in the table to an outsider ; this was salt land, full of pools, of doutful yield, thick with reeds and liable to periodic flooding from the river. There was no one in the town interested in it because the townspeople could not afford to buy in a block, drain the land, clean it, make dykes and wait for a number of years before getting any yield from it. Therefore the Council saw fit during an economic crisis to sell, even though to an outsider. The community criticized this decision so forcibly that the Council had to resign. Today the land held by the townspeople outside the limits of the municipal district exceeds 1,380 hectares which, added to the 802 hectares that they possess within the limits, makes a total of 2,182 hectares of cultivable land. This figure indicates that the land property has quintupled during the past hundred and fifty years, through patience and tenacity, and that once the townspeople succeeded in getting possession of the municipal lands — a stage which was completed roughly by the end of the nineteenth century — they embarked on a new economic expansion, spilling over the district limits.

In practise this second stage began in the years immediately following the end of the civil war, in 1939, when landowners from neighbouring towns came to offer their fields to the people of Belmonte, because they paid a better price for them; but it seems that this expansion has already reached its peak, because of the expense of buying and tilling fields at 15 and even 35 kilometres distance; besides, many of these fields cannot be irrigated and need to be rested for one or two years, and even then they do not pay unless it rains in the year that they are sown. They are always sown with wheat. The following figures show the approximate ownership of land both within the town limits and beyond.

The total number of landowners in the first table was 330; in the above table there are 352, so 22 people who had no land inside the town limits have been able to acquire it outside during the last two decades. The National Institute of Land Settlement has made available advantageous conditions by which the tenants on an extensive estate in the district of Torres have become owners of the land they worked.

The second difference we notice on comparing the two tables is that while the total in the first two columns has diminished by twenty in the second table, the sum total in the other columns has increased by forty-two. Twenty-two new landowners have appeared, and forty-two of those included in the first table have managed to enlarge their property to reach or even surpass the minimum number of hectares necessary to achieve economic independence in the sense explained. The three landowners in the last columns' of the table do not represent an immoderate holding of land, since most of it is hill property outside the town limits, where only about one quarter of the total area is cultivated each year; apart from this there is the risk that if the rainfall does not reach the necessary minimum there may be several barren years and in this event it is only by having a moderate margin of capital that they can sustain the loss of everything including the wheat that is sown. Therefore the acquisition of the new property has been to almost everyone's advantage; it has not fallen only into the hands of the wealthiest.

Nor is the second table an exact indication of the distribution of wealth; there are numerous other factors that must be taken into account. As was said in the previous chapter, people included in the first two columns of the table need other resources if they are to earn an annual living that is adequate, for the land is not sufficient to supply this. At the same time, the 112 landowners in the remaining columns need extra labour at the seasons when work is heaviest. From the second half of May to the second week in August, and from November to the beginning of January, the tasks which centre around reaping, threshing and the sugar-beet crop require the combined efforts of several people. At both these seasons there is a tour de force on the part of some landowners to raise wages in order to get the farm-hands they need, and also on the part of the smallholders, and labourers who take advantage of the circumstances to ask for higher wages and better working conditions. These five months of abundant work, when in the evenings farmers go from door to door in search of casual labourers, solve the problem of the shortage of land in a number of families.

In the town there are six grocers' shops, three café-bars, and a tavern, three carpenters' shops, a messenger who goes to the city several times a day, two bakeries, four hairdressers, two cinemas, a public telephone and a tobacconist. There is a postman, a constable, a tailor, a rural guard, shepherds and stonemasons. In other words there are quite a number of other means of supplementing the annual income from the land. A small flour mill employs six regular workmen, while five families own a small plaster factory.

Lastly several landowners who for various reasons cannot administer all their lands, or sometimes simply parents who wish to help their newly-married sons, go into partnership:

(a) a medias, i.e. by 'half shares' in some fields. The owner ploughs the first furrow and pays the taxes. The partner has to work the land. The cost of fertilizers and haulage, and later the yield are shared equally between the owner and the partner.

(b) When the land is divided al tercio, i.e. by thirds between the owner and the administrator, the latter only contributes his work. Two thirds of the profit go to the owner and one third to the administrator.

(c) When the division is al quinto (by fifths) which is usual in the case of hill land with an uncertain harvest, the terms of contract are the same as in the previous case but the owner only receives one fifth of the profit.

(d) Arrendamiento. Sometimes the owner lets his fields. The tenant grows what he wishes, pays the stipulated rent for the fields, and is entitled to the profit. This use of land is both the most desired and the most difficult to obtain since nobody wishes to let fields, and it only occurs in a limited number of cases, as a result, for instance, of the illness of the owner, or when a father lets land to his son.

(e) Administrar por su cuenta (Stewardship): a few people who do not reside in the town, or women who cannot supervise the work themselves, employ a steward to look after their land. The owners provide and pay for everything; the steward receives 10% of the profit, plus a daily wage for his work.

This is a sketch of the arrangements for using land, in actual fact there are as many methods as there are cases of sharing, especially when land is granted by parents to their children. One must also take into account individual ways of coming by a greater income, such as the buying and selling of alfalfa, straw, cattle, horses, the sale of milk from a handful of cows, or going to France to work for a few agricultural seasons, as has been popular during the last few years.


Excerpted from Belmonte De Los Caballeros by Carmelo Lison-Tolosana. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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