Portuguese Medieval Parliament:
Are We Asking the Right Questions?
Luís Miguel Duarte
History Department /Faculdade de Letras do Porto
It had traditionally been thought that the history
of the Portuguese mediaeval parliament was exhausted from the point
of view of available information; almost all approaches had studied
the Cortes from a legal angle. In 1990, Armindo de Sousa published As Cortes Medievais Portuguesas (1385-1490); this work was to
radically renew everything that was known about the theme, proving that,
even from the strictly factual point of view, there continued to be
a large number of errors and gaps and, above all, suggesting a sociological
and political approach to the mediaeval parliament, treating the texts
that were produced at the Cortes as discourses, rejecting biologistic
theories and concepts such as nature and decadence, lingering in particular
over the study of the primary and secondary functions of parliament.
But this book, which represented a complete break with everything that
had previously been written on the theme, did not provoke any significant
reaction either in Portugal or in other countries, being received in
virtual silence. Thirteen years after its publication, this article
seeks to rekindle discussion about the more controversial and innovative
aspects of Armindo de Sousas thesis, as well as updating it in
regard to a number of aspects and putting forward a new agenda for research
into the Portuguese mediaeval parliament.
Parliament; Cortes; discourse; burgesses;
commons; representativeness; institutions; powers; duties; functions;
Difficulties in Relation to the Theme and its Historiography
Each theme and chronology presents its own specific difficulties
and challenges. As far as the Portuguese mediaeval parliament is concerned,
I would like to highlight four of these:
1. The propensity, particularly if this is unconscious, for establishing
a continuum up to the present moment, interpreting the mediaeval Cortes in the light of the present-day Portuguese parliament.
2. The excessive importance given to juridical history, which has led
to legalistic interpretations of an institution that was above all political1.
3. Consequently, there is a theoretical weakness which is particularly
noted in this field with the constant use of biological analogies (regarding
the origin, apogee, decadence and
death of the Cortes); such analogies make it difficult
to gain a correct understanding of the subject-matter. The application
of semiology and linguistics has been almost completely absent. It is
not possible to see how an institution that lives mainly from the production
of discourses can be studied in depth without, for example, turning
to the theory of rhetoric and argumentation.
4. Like many other areas of Portuguese history, the mediaeval parliament
has suffered from the lack of a sizeable, sustained and lasting positivist
school that has worked on it2. Until recently, there was no
good institutional study of the Cortes, no reasonably safe knowledge
of the respective documentation; there wasnt even a reliable catalogue
of the meetings of the Cortes in Portugal in the mediaeval period3.
Even worse: it was falsely announced in university circles that everything
had already been done on the Cortes.
The Contribution of Armindo de Sousa
It was in such a context that, towards the end of the 1970s, Armindo de
Sousa, a lecturer at the Faculdade de Letras do Porto, began working on
his doctorate entitled The Portuguese Mediaeval Cortes.
The project was received with some scepticism, precisely because it was
generally agreed that everything that there was to write had been written,
so that this historian, in following his inclination, decided to investigate
what he termed The mentality of the representatives of the commons
through the general chapters of the Cortes.
As he continued to publish methodological essays (the most important of
which was As Cortes de Leiria/Santarém de 1433; Sousa: 1982) in
which he refined the traditional way of approaching parliamentary documentation,
especially the general chapters, Armindo de Sousa realised that not only
was the work not all done, but that there were numerous factual
errors, gaps and ambiguities; furthermore, the overall understanding of
the parliamentary institution seemed to him to be inadequate. So, he began
to direct his efforts towards two main areas:
1. A documentary survey that was as exhaustive as possible and a detailed
criticism of the sources collected, in order to arrive at a catalogue
of those Cortes that really did take place and their respective
2. A renewal of theoretical problems, not only concerning political history
and institutional history (to arrive at a different interpretation of
what the mediaeval parliament actually was), but also as regards the hermeneutics
of the general chapters, which he very soon chose to be the quintessential
source for his work.
In fact, the convergence of these two avenues of research quickly convinced
Sousa that the reality was quite different from the one that he had been
told about: the documentation of the Cortes was insufficiently
known and had frequently been poorly analysed; the inventory of the Portuguese Cortes had been badly compiled; the traditional understanding of
the institution was wrong. So that Armindo de Sousa had to concentrate
his attentions on clearing the terrain, checking every source, every date,
every statement made about the Cortes, in order to reconstruct
the lied who, when, where, how and why of the mediaeval
parliament. And he did not complete his initial project: the study of
the collective attitudes of the representatives of the commons through
the general chapters. He was only to enter upon this terrain in subsequent
The book which came of his research was entitled As Cortes Medievais
Portuguesas (1385-1490), Porto, I.N.I.C./C.H.U.P., 1990, 2 vols. It
left us with an extremely large number of novelties and controversial
interpretations, as well as further paths to explore. Because the author
is no longer with us, because it is a very rare event for stimulating
theoretical proposals to appear in Portuguese mediaeval history, and,
finally, because I believe that Armindo de Sousas thesis never received
the attention that it deserved (even if only by virtue of its being disputed),
except as a simple inventory of the Cortes and their chapters,
I should like to highlight the most innovative aspects of this work and
to concentrate on the new questions that should be asked on the basis
How Should the Mediaeval Parliament be Approached?
The medieval parliament should not have been approached exclusively by
legal historians, searching for its respective nature, disposition,
character, appearance, make-up or
essence; they should have avoided all biological and psychological
analogies that direct our attention to the vitality, apogee,
decadence and death of parliament. Instead, its powers and duties should be defined, since the specificities
of this or indeed of any institution are rooted in its social
function and in the collective awareness of such a function. Taking care
over the use of concepts and resisting the careless use of common sense
notions were always matters of honour in all of Armindo de Sousas
research a rare attitude amongst Portuguese mediaevalists.
Parliament came to be classified as a sub-structure or partial structure
of the overall political system, just like the king, the royal Council,
the jurisdictional domains, the borough councils and the Episcopal curias.
Yet, in this overall political system, the different roles were unclear
and overlapped with one another, whilst powers and duties were confused;
whilst, in the 14th and 15th centuries, there was a tendency to produce
finished structures, with the granting of regiments or regulations, such
a movement did in fact begin at the bottom and did not reach the Cortes,
which never had any regulations or even achieved a complete structure.
For this reason, the Cortes would always be an entity that was in fieri, and, as Armindo de Sousa suggests, one whose fortitudo would vary in inverse proportion to the royal imbecilitas: in other
words, a weak king would lead to the Cortes becoming bold and insolent;
whereas a strong king would lead to the Cortes becoming almost
As they never had any fixed periods for their assembly, the Cortes would be summoned (and juridically created) by convocational letters,
stating the venue, starting date and the aims of the meeting. The author
underlines this aspect: though the Cortes represented the common peoples
quintessential opportunity to be heard, the respective convocation always
depended on the king (duly advised).
3.1. Municipal Representatives: an Honour or a Punishment?
The municipal representatives belonged to the municipal elites, the same
which dominated local government (Coelho; Magalhães: 1986; Barata,
2001; Duarte: 2001). These, in turn, elected from amongst themselves judges
and councillors and, at related meetings, appointed the delegates to the Cortes. Was it worth the trouble becoming a municipal representative?
This is not an easy question to answer and I believe that it must remain
open: in favour of a person accepting the position was the reinforcement
that it lent to his prestige and local political capital, the privilege
of belonging to a restricted club that had close dealings with the finest
nobility in the land, members of the high clergy, the king and his courtiers,
the possibility of establishing fruitful, human and even professional
contacts with his counterparts in the main cities, the fact of being fully
informed about all the kingdoms business, the fact of being
on the inside. Of the factors ruling against accepting the position
were the travel involved, the fact of sometimes being away from ones
home and business for too long a time, attending working sessions that
could become painful and uncomfortable. Apparently there was no hard and
fast rule: some wanted to be representatives, others didnt
just as was the case in relation to positions on the local council.
What is more interesting is the issue of the price of participation. Travelling
to the Cortes was extremely expensive: there was the cost of travel
and accommodation for the representatives and their companions, food,
the cost of paying for the animals needed to transport them, new clothes
and, finally, the cost of buying from the chancery a copy of the decisions
that were of interest to the borough. This is a theme that deserves greater
research, because the financing of this attendance at the Cortes was a constant concern and a delicate problem to solve, requiring the
sort of imagination that was common in municipal finances, because the
price of dialogue, as Denis Menjot has called it (Menjot,
1981), could be so high that it forced some boroughs, those in greater
difficulties, to opt for missing the Cortes altogether. In 1481-82,
Dom João II decided to subsidise the townships expenses in
travelling to the Cortes; but this was a doubly serious precedent,
firstly because it placed an excessive burden on the public purse, and
secondly because, to some extent, it turned the representative of the
commons into the kings hostages. It is certainly a delicate matter
asking a king to pay for ones accommodation, food and travel.
3.2. Primi inter pares: the Seat on the Benches
In mediaeval society, the seat that one occupied at the official opening
ceremony was meant to mirror ones position in society or, in the
case of delegations from the boroughs, in the hierarchy of cities and
towns. The only seating plan that we know of, at the Cortes of
1481-82, shows us the 80 boroughs distributed over 16 benches; on each
of them, we can find the customary order: the most important in the middle,
the second most important on the right, the third on the left, the fourth
further to the right, and the fifth on the left at the end (Sousa: 1990,
1, 132-135). Does this mean that the seating plan for the room in 1481
provides us with an accurate municipal picture of the country?
No: firstly, because, at best, what we have is a picture of political
prestige, which depended not only on economic and social vitality but
also on antiquity and military services; secondly, because these seats
might have been gained one or even two centuries earlier; and lastly because
it was almost impossible to dislodge a borough from its position, even
though it may have become a shadow of its former self. Only the battles
fought over the front bench, with Lisbons leadership being uncontested
and where Porto was desperately seeking to rise above fifth place, would
be worth a closer study.
After the official opening ceremony, at which one of the kings representatives
would make the opening speech, and beginning with the Cortes of
1331, the members of parliament were separated and each estate met separately;
at these same Cortes, the commons were granted the parliamentary
status of a class, order or rank for
the first time, just like the nobility or the clergy.
But this is one of the aspects that Armindo de Sousa explains less clearly,
and which could be usefully studied in greater detail, as soon as we obtain
suitable information. In this same year of 1331, the practice of holding
plenary meetings by estate was established. This may have happened for
the clergy sometimes (on few occasions, as it happens, because the real
plenaries of the clergy were held outside the Cortes, quite possibly
before, but not during, the parliamentary sessions) and it happened even
less frequently (if in fact there was ever such a meeting) for the nobility.
We are touching upon one of the central and potentially most innovative
themes of de Sousas reflection upon the mediaeval parliaments: it
is suggested to us that the traditional corporative and consensualist
idea that we have of the three estates meeting in an assembly to discuss
what was best for the country, under the paternalistic and watchful eye
of the sovereign, should be superseded by another idea: an opening session
conducted with the greatest possible pomp and circumstance, and attended
by the high nobility, the high clergy, the burgesses, the king and the
main officers of the court, for the reading of the initial arguments (the
scenario of the first Cortes summoned by Dom João II was,
in itself, nothing more than an ideological discourse, remarked
Armindo de Sousa; 1990,1, 172). Once this was finished, another type of Cortes was held that was completely different: the king would leave,
although he remained close at hand; the nobles and the clergy, knowing
that they were more than likely to be the main target, would
return home, sometimes leaving behind proctors to act on their behalf
(and then it would be necessary to know who these were and what powers
they had). It was then that the real work would begin, with the peoples
delegates dividing themselves amongst committees and sessions of different
types: plenary sessions, closed sessions, inter or intra-estate committee
meetings, meetings with the king or his delegates. The great spectacle
of luxury, the strictly marked hieratic and hierarchical positions and
the order of the inaugural session, were replaced by the noise, disagreement
and confusion that normally reigned at town council meetings, law courts,
even in churches.
We do not know a great deal about other forms of municipal association
at the Cortes, especially regional sessions. In a recent
debate that greatly enlivened Portuguese public life, some historians
mentioned the lack of any trace of regions in our past, or even
of any municipal coordination. Armindo de Sousa proves that this idea
is wrong: in at least 8 Cortes, there were meetings between burgesses
from Entre Douro e Minho, which led to the presentation of general chapters
from this region; the same thing happened, in at least three Cortes,
with the Algarve boroughs (the minutes of the council sessions in Loulé contain frequent references to meetings of regional coordination;
Duarte, ed. 1999). There are also traces of chapters common to various
regions and possibly refined at multilateral meetings. The hypothesis
raised by the author of there having been exclusive meetings between the
cities (the nine sees) seems to me to be rather poorly demonstrated, however.
In 1477, Prince João (the future king Dom João II) made
a revolutionary proposal: he suggested the creation of a committee
of determinators: an inter-estate delegation, with equal representation
(five members per estate, plus two representing the king, making a total
of 17 people), which would represent the plenary meeting to the prince.
The reform, which would have represented a huge step in the restructuring
of the Cortes, was never implemented. And, as far as the question
of plenary sessions of the three estates occurring between the official
opening and closing sessions is concerned, we only know of five such meetings
(always attended by the king or by somebody representing him).
The Buying of Chapters, (Or The act of buying chapters)
This is another of the novelties to be found in this book, and one that
has largely been ignored: only the general chapters of which each borough
requested a copy were valid for that same borough (except when a coherent
group of chapters with the respective answers was transformed into an
ordinance of the realm). I have not seen this question commented upon;
and yet it is a transcendent one. We need to know if it was always like
this; and then to extract the consequences therefrom: could a borough
be intensely involved in the negotiation of certain claims and then not
ask for the corresponding certificates? Moreover, one borough could adopt
a resolution judicial, fiscal, military or economic and
the neighbouring boroughs might not do so. What implications did this
have? The more we think about the problem, the more doubts occur to us:
the many hundreds of general chapters could be converted into a similar
number of sources of particularisms; the practice, which is common in
our historiography, of considering the chapters and the respective answers
to be a reflection of the situation of the country and the policies of
the crown, already based on a hermeneutic equivocation (that of thinking
that the situations were exactly as the representatives said they were),
also ignores this rule.
Once the Cortes were formally closed, it could happen that the
burgesses were forced to wander about after the king and his chancery,
in order to carefully analyse each general chapter with its respective
answer, so that they could then ask for a copy of those chapters that
might be of interest to their borough. There are various implications
here: this phase of the work required burgesses to have already enjoyed
enormous political and administrative experience, and to have a specific
sensitivity to matters that were of interest to the borough (or, to be
more precise, to the social group that they represented); on the other
hand, whilst going to the Cortes was already expensive in itself,
consulting the final decision and waiting for an over-occupied chancery
to issue certificates case by case led to an exponential increase in expenditure.
The chapters were expensive, so that it was possible to arrive at this
extraordinary situation: the burgesses were forced to choose, from amongst
the numerous chapters that might be useful to the government of their
region, those that they could afford to pay for.
Sedentary Court, Sedentary Cortes
This is another good idea for discussion: today, in Portugal, we enjoy
the visits of a president or a prime-minister to our region, to be dazzled
by the proximity of power. We have projected this feeling into the past
and imagined the regions rejoicing as soon as they heard that they were
going to host the Cortes. This may be anachronic: receiving a parliamentary
meeting would be an honour, it would bring the king and the court to the
region, together with great liveliness and festivities, as well as political
and social advantages (which Armindo de Sousa sums up as follows: administration
of the courts, correction of the abuses and arrogance of the powerful,
supervision of the royal officers and presentation of complaints against
the municipal elites; Sousa: 1990, 1, 178). This was the good news;
the bad news included lodgings, abuses by the courtiers and nobles,
theft, rape, rising prices, disturbances. All in all, weighing up
the costs, on the one hand, and the festivities and prestige, on the other
hand, was it true, as the author says, that the honour of hosting the
court and the Cortes did not outweigh the sacrifices? I think that
this question still remains very much open.
Whether it was a reward or a punishment, this presence was not evenly
distributed throughout the country, as was so often said; the Cortes followed after the king, met wherever it was most convenient for him that
they should meet; and whenever the court remained around Lisbon, Santarém
and Évora, the parliament would follow it. After 1401, parliament
never again crossed the Mondego to go to the whole northern half of Portugal;
and it kept as far from the periphery, so the saying goes, as the devil
keeps from a cross.
The Commons at Ease, the Nobility Much Less So
The corporatist and juristic view that has been formed of the Cortes has overlooked a number of obvious facts: that the clergy and the nobility
had many opportunities to talk to the king individually or collectively,
something that was not possible for the common people; that the boroughs
presented themselves as a collective voice, whilst each nobleman and each
clergyman (except for the cathedral chapters) spoke on his own behalf;
that the overwhelming majority of the Cortes were summoned to ask
the commons for money, which meant that certain concessions had to be
negotiated in return. And because this was overlooked, it was not understood
just how clearly parliament was seen as the peoples tribunal,
that it was in fact the common people who were the most enthusiastic supporters
of parliamentary meetings and that the other two estates of the realm
would prefer to return home as soon as possible after the official opening
ceremony; however, the nobles insisted on the compulsory nature of their
summons to appear, which led Armindo de Sousa to presume that they always
were, with the possible exception of some meetings called to deal with
matters that were exclusively of interest to the commons (an idea that
seems to me to require greater validation). The nobility attended 23 of
the 44 Cortes summoned between 1385 and 1490, and we know only a few general
chapters thereof (special chapters obviously made no sense). The clergy
are documented as attending 24 Cortes, but, being aware that they
were one of the favourite targets for the complaints of the people, they
showed clear disinterest, were late in their participation or boycotted
If, as Armindo de Sousa suspects, the nobles would go to the opening ceremony
and then leave representatives in their place, there are several questions
that remain to be answered: who were these representatives? Why do we
not know even one of their names? What was the extent of their powers
as attorneys of the nobles? Were they simple informants, or did they have
any decision-making capacity? At the Cortes of 1477, the nobles
representatives threatened that, if they left, it would not be possible
to take any decisions about matters involving the nobility; this stance
implied both experience and great political courage. The whole question
has important political implications, as well as other implications relating
to the institutional functioning of parliament. I should like to discuss
deeper Armindo de Sousas belief that the difference between nobles
and the representatives of the commons, at the Cortes, was the
difference between aristocracy and democracy, the individual and
the community, the right of exception and equality in the eyes of the
law, the primacy of the clan and the primacy of the nation, with
the nobles calling for the privileges of lineage and the commons
arguing in favour of the good of the realm and common law
(Sousa: 1990, 1, 188).
Who Was Who on the Peoples Benches?
After guaranteeing its admission to the Cortes of 1254 (Caetano,
1954), the third estate gradually improved its representation; 123 delegations
passed through parliament (including ones from the University of Coimbra,
six judgeships and the farmers of Alcobaça, a big Portuguese
monastery); I believe that the seating plan for the Cortes of 1481-82
gives us a stabilised picture of the 80 delegations that had a right to
their own private seat. There were some Cortes that were exceptionally
open and well attended, while there were other more routine sessions with
restricted access. The map of the boroughs is impressive: the most highly
populated judicial district, Entre Douro e Minho, did not even receive
as many as 9% of the seats; it was worth as much as the Algarve. The sparsely
populated Alentejo enjoyed almost half of the seats (45%); and, together
with Estremadura and Beira, it occupied 76% of the seats. The strength
of the feudal regime, allied to the highly scattered nature of the population
living in Entre Douro e Minho, may help us to understand this picture:
the representation of the boroughs had nothing to do with the number of
townships and even less to do with the density of the population (Sousa:1990,
1, 189-205). I have yet to hear an answer to Armindo de Sousas question:
did the regional chapters of Entre Douro e Minho correspond
to an awareness on the part of the respective burgesses that the district
was under-represented? I rather tend to think that they corresponded to
an awareness of claims and common interests, on the one hand, and to the
reduced negotiating power of these delegations that did not amount to
as much as 9%. Although somewhat crude and hypothetical, the figures that
Armindo de Sousa puts forward provide us with food for thought: a delegation
from the north-west of Portugal represented roughly 13,400 inhabitants,
whereas another delegation from the Alto Alentejo spoke on behalf of 840
people (16 times less). Half of the parliamentary boroughs
were on the border; 30 % in the Alentejo heartland. But it was the heavyweights
from the coastal area (Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra, Santarém), together
with Évora, who dictated the agenda. It is worth following the
authors exercise and trying to discover an economic representativeness,
in other words, a representation that was based on the socio-economic
interests of the regions. This leads us to conclude, for example, that
the elites of the 17 boroughs in Trás-os-Montes and the Beiras
that attended the Cortes had similar economic interests; and that
intensive farming did not have the chance to speak in parliament, their
voice being stifled by that of the great landowners from the Alentejo
and Ribatejo. The sea, however, trade, fishing, the extraction
of salt seems to have been widely represented in parliament.
The burgesses insisted an essential rhetorical trope on
their genuine representativeness. They were not representative geographically,
as we have seen, nor even socially, since they only spoke on behalf of
the few people that had chosen them (landowner-farmers, cattle breeders,
traders and merchants the municipal elites). Who represented
the humble countryfolk and those who were dependent on the manorial estates?
The respective landlords? The burgesses from the neighbouring boroughs?
No-one? It is for this reason that Armindo de Sousa is able to state that
it is a fallacious proposition to postulate that the discourse of
the common peoples representatives reflected the interests, motivations
and political strategies of the commons tout court; and it is much
less true to suggest that the vision of the country and its problems as
conveyed by this discourse can be taken as an objective diagnosis of the
social reality (Sousa:1990, 1, 206). However, this self-evident
fact continues to be ignored and the situation of the country is uncritically
deduced from the general chapters.
Having said this, it is not acceptable to make a poor interpretation of
the representation of interests: there were peoples chapters that
defended the nobles; there were common desires that were jointly shared.
And in the very representation of the common people themselves, it is
possible to see the tensions existing between town and country, the seat
of the borough and its outlying area, the local aristocracy and the artisans.
This question has been discussed at some length, although nowadays it
is difficult to understand why. It has always been maintained that the
mandate of the burgesses was imperative; they could only vote in keeping
with prior instructions that they had brought with them from their boroughs.
The analysis of sources undertaken by Armindo de Sousa finally clears
up the problem once and for all. Immediately addressing the problem of
the summoning of the Cortes: whenever these convocations explicitly
and unequivocally stated the primary aims of the parliamentary meeting
(for example, to vote on a subsidy), delegates could be instructed to
vote in a certain way; but when these convocations concealed the primary
aims, only revealing other objectives or restricting themselves to making
empty generalities, imperative mandates made no sense. Delegates couldnt
be instructed to vote in one particular way on matters that were not even
known about. Furthermore, as we have seen, in each region, only the chapters
that the respective burgesses decided to purchase were worth anything;
and, in these cases too, they had almost complete freedom of action. And
then again: the burgesses ended up having real legislative power, since,
by choosing certain general chapters in detriment to others, they were
deciding upon rights and obligations that would affect the whole borough.
This power, which was established in decisions taken by the Cortes of 1439 and 1459, may have had contradictory effects: demeaning for parliament
(an institution whose decisions have little binding power is weaker) but
prestigious for the representatives of the commons, whose powers increased
significantly. In the actual wording of the general chapters, the burgesses
enjoyed a wide-ranging freedom. A parliament whose delegates were mere
conveyors of others wishes would not be worth anything neither
for the crown nor for the realm.
The less imperative the mandates, the stronger the parliament. And there
was no shortage of other possible causes for its weakness: the three estates
were joined by a fourth group: the kings men. Everything about the
Portuguese Cortes its modus operandi, the almost complete
lack of working plenaries or effective inter-estate committees
served to reinforce parliaments combative aspect, the dispute over
complaints, and did nothing to unite all the participants in a primary
group, clear in its social and affective relationships, one that showed
itself to be an us. The mechanisms of the Portuguese
parliament favoured the continuation of divisions and social antagonisms,
rarely promoting any kind of coming together over common objectives, whether
national or otherwise. The official opening sessions were
exceptional propaganda occasions for the king, but they did not serve
to consolidate the institution of the Cortes; this was what the
plenary working sessions were basically for; but such sessions, as we
have seen, were practically non-existent. Antagonism was encouraged, together
with disinterest and the fruitless waste of energies.
The committee of determiners conceived by Prince Dom João
in 1477 could have solved some of these sticking points. But it never
went ahead. Perhaps because, as Armindo de Sousa suggests, the clergy
and the nobility enjoyed an innate parliamentary status, and were
not prepared to exchange it for the status of elected representatives,
operating on an equal footing with the municipal delegates. Basically,
the first two estates managed perfectly well without the Cortes; the institution
that should represent the three estates only represented one of them
and badly. For this reason, according to the author, the Cortes would never become an inclusive, fleshed-out institution. This is another
key idea that we would do well to discuss.
The Spoken and Unspoken Functions of the Parliament
The Cortes were summoned to debate and decide upon certain matters:
those of a political, monetary and fiscal nature. In 40% of cases, they
concentrated their energies upon the presentation of complaints and petitions
to the king; and a roughly similar percentage of their time was taken
up with deciding upon finance requests and loans. The sovereign, for his
part, would only consult them to decide upon taxes and legal tender; the
commons, for their part, only attended them to discuss petitions and grievances,
or, in other words, to legislate. The prestige of the general chapters
granted by the king was extremely high; according to A.M. Hespanha, it
was at least equal to the prestige enjoyed by the ordinances and greater
than that of the laws promulgated by the king alone (Hespanha: 1982, 367-384).
But it was the taking of decisions upon taxes and legal tender that gave
the Cortes their real strength; and it was this that made them essential
for the king, and which therefore gave the peoples delegates great
bargaining power. As we must surely remember, when the king didnt
need any money, the Cortes lost a great deal of their importance.
Paradoxically, it was on those occasions when the Cortes were politically
more spectacular 1385 and 1439 because there was no king,
that they had less importance as Cortes. They became an instrument
of social change, placing their vocation as a normal structure of government
between parentheses. As far as the classical functions that we were taught
about are concerned swearing in monarchs or heirs to the throne,
confirming royal marriages, declaring war and peace, ratifying international
treaties the Cortes almost never performed these. The commons might
well have wished this; but the kings did not allow it.
One should take note of this extremely important aspect: it was always
popularly believed that the decisions taken at the Cortes could
only be revoked by this same body. This seems to us to be a reasonable
'constitutional' principle. The fact is that this rule was never established;
which reveals a great deal about this institutions structural vulnerability.
But the Cortes also served for what was not said (and, in some
cases, was not even known): to enhance the kings prestige, to efficiently
disseminate information and, only with regard to the third estate, to
create a class ethos: in other words, performing functions that Armindo
de Sousa refers to as pedagogical and political, endowing the benches
where the commons sat with ties of solidarity, integration, affectivity,
a common capital of political experience, plans and utopias for the country
(Sousa: 1990, 1, 266).
Always dependent upon the king and never completely structured, the Portuguese
parliament, rather than having a "juridical nature", had a political
status and the most essential part of its prestige at the time was based
on its legislative function (drawing up and proposing general chapters
to the king). For this reason, the Cortes, which only met if the
king so wished, were never dependent upon him at a political and moral
level; their strength and legitimacy were therefore based on a solid political
authority, and not on any juridical status.
The Controversial Question of the Chapters
I should like to stress just three points. Firstly: at the Cortes and in relation to them thirteen different types of documents were produced.
The chapters are just some of them.
Secondly: the special chapters reproduce very specific claims from each
borough; these were ad hoc petitions that were better suited to ad hoc judgements and not to turbulent negotiatory processes; they
preferred the discretion of a private audience to the publicity of the
plenary sessions. They were only presented at the Cortes for a
question of sparing expenses: if the borough were to spend so much money
on sending a delegation to parliament, then at least a return should be
made on the investment by dealing with the boroughs own private
matters. For this reason, Armindo de Sousa stated quite vehemently that
the special chapters, which were produced in great numbers at almost all
the Cortes, were not characteristic of, nor did they characterise,
the institution. I still believe that this argument has not yet been refuted
in any convincing fashion.
Thirdly: as far as the general chapters were concerned, the vast majority
of which have been lost, their wording presupposed a profound political
experience and a great deal of technical competence, as well as intuition;
the kings personality had to be taken into account, and the arguments
had to be based on law and justice; the help of learned scholars was sought
constantly, whilst recourse was also regularly had to the archives of
the boroughs. As a source, the chapters present problems, for they represent
"a special literary genre", with highly narrative overtones,
dramatic touches and oratory devices. They are structured in three parts:
the facts which motivated them (the matter that led the commons to raise
the problem), the justifications and, finally, the petition(s), or, in
other words, what was in fact being asked for. As can easily be seen,
the first two parts are merely rhetorical devices used to promote the
third part, the one that really matters. Therefore, in order to make history,
we cannot innocently make use of these first two parts, and in particular
the facts lying behind the case: as the author reminds us, these facts
were presented as a "supposedly objective report", but it was
also one that was full of "exaggerations", "social stereotypes"
and "improper generalisations" (Sousa: 1990, 1, 513; Sousa:
The rest belongs to rhetorical theory and game theory in their explanation
of conflicts: one asks for a in order to obtain b; one asks
for a great deal in order to obtain just a part of this; a smokescreen
is put up, concentrating arguments around a claim, in order to deflect
the attention of the royal officers from what one really wishes to obtain;
one systematically asks for something that may never be granted in order
to mark out ones ground, or so that this utopia will start building
its own path. There were Cortes that were well conducted strategically
by the commons, others that were disastrous; there are lists of well structured
chapters, others that reveal ineptitude (the king himself confirmed this).
There were high percentages of success, as well as other percentages that
were acceptable or insufficient. The burgesses job was to exaggerate
in their requests, the kings mission was to refuse just as much
as was necessary. Armindo de Sousa shows himself convinced that when the
commons saw half of their requests granted they would return home satisfied.
The king had available to him nine types of possible answers, which could
be basically reduced to two: to grant or reject the petition. For political
reasons, it might be convenient to disguise rejection: and so the answer
was delayed, other consultations were called for, it was decided that
things should remain as they were, a part of what was asked for was granted,
or else it was granted under certain conditions, or an evasive or inconclusive
reply was given.
And so the author arrives at his thesis: 'The Cortes held
between 1383 and 1490 must be seen as a substructure of the overall political
structure, endowed not with power or powers, but with public, and universally
recognised, authority, to advise monarchs and regents, to supervise the
behaviour of political and administrative agents, to propose laws, to
suggest reforms and to grant extraordinary taxes. All in the name of the
nation especially on behalf of the third estate through
members of parliament who were seen and accepted as the political representatives
of the common people'. (Sousa: 1990, 1, 556-557).
This conclusion was formulated in this way in October 1987, that is 16
years ago. I can see no better programme for a good discussion. And yet
nobody considered that such a discussion was worthwhile.
And So, What Directions Should we Continue in Today?
From the reading that I have made of Armindo de Sousas thesis, I
believe that there are various avenues that can be explored.
1. In the light of his work and his total reinterpretation of the Portuguese
parliament, now is a good time to re-read what has been written about
the Parliament in France, England, Spain and Italy; for example, an
Italian researcher summed up the mediaeval parliament to me in somewhat
colloquial terms, in the various territories that made up the Italian
peninsula, as a trade-off. Here the political authorities needed to
ask for extraordinary financial contributions, so that they could negotiate
a deal with the representatives of the "common people" (basically,
then, they bought the subsidy). The same thing happened in Castile,
during the 15th century. We have seen how this issue was dealt with
in our own case and how essential it was.
2. The fact-gathering enterprise is far from being exhausted. The catalogue
of the Cortes that were held can be constantly improved, whether
to confirm the meetings that Armindo de Sousa states took place, or
whether to clarify what happened both at those that were "insufficiently
documented" and at those that were "erroneously acknowledged"
(Sousa: 1990, vol. 2). There is a great deal that needs to be discovered
about the dates when the Cortes began and ended, the matters
stated in the convocation, the lists of those attending, the opening
speeches, the chapters and other documentation that was produced. This
same researchers catalogue of the documentation produced at the Cortes contains some lapses and a fairly large number of gaps.
3. The participation of the clergy was not very deeply researched by
Armindo de Sousa, although other scholars (Marques: 1988 and Ventura:
1997) have studied this question. The presence of the nobility at the Cortes (who they were, who represented what, how the participation
of this estate came about) is practically still uncharted territory,
although, as we have seen, that estate probably invested little or nothing
in these meetings and would not have been missed over greatly. This
is one of the avenues that it is most worth pursuing, in particular
because the thesis that we have been following paid little attention
to the matter.
4. Along the same lines, it would be worthwhile discussing the existence
of different levels of representativeness amongst the three estates
summoned to the Cortes, on the one hand, and within each of them.
Here, the delegations of the front bench of the commons clearly commanded
the others (and, amongst all the rest, the existence of some delegations
that were more equal than others), with the clergy presumably
behaving as if they were a single block (but a block in the midst of
which there were also different factions and leaders) and with the nobility
letting their respective participation slip to some extent. In relation
to the third estate, when their representatives requested the dwellers
in the regions without a seat at the Cortes to help pay the expenses
of the towns and cities that were "of their responsibility and
stewardship", they were postulating an unequivocal form of representativeness;
was the royal refusal not objectively a denial thereof?
5. It is not understood why no-one seems at any time to have thought
about the royal delegation. We know that the king was present et pour cause at the official opening ceremony; and we
calculate that he later absented himself, although in principle he must
have remained in the region where the parliament was meeting. The answers
to the chapters came either from his own mouth or were made on his behalf,
granting, rejecting, postponing; but the negotiations with the boroughs
and the maintenance of the royal decisions were, as they had to be,
the responsibility of the highest-placed royal officers: a team that
included (was coordinated by?) the head chancellor, and which would
certainly include the corregedor (chief magistrate) of the court
and perhaps those of the judicial districts, the men from the Exchequer
(inspectors and accountants), the occasional high court judge, judges
from the Civil Court or the Court of Petition... (Homem: 1990). In short,
a team with a variable geometry depending on the complexity of the matters
being dealt with, the relationship between the forces involved, as well
as the actual duration and location of the Cortes. And it would
be curious to know the part played by the king and the part played by
his advisers in the final response given to the chapters.
6. One safe way of approaching the Portuguese mediaeval Parliament would
always be to carry out a monographic study of each meeting of the Cortes (there are already some good examples of this), which may include the
set of special chapters that were negotiated thereat. The systematic
publication of the documentation, which is being undertaken by the Centre
of Historical Studies of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, goes some
of the way towards achieving these objectives5. Examples
of such would be studying the history of the participation of each borough
at the Cortes: when it was there, which burgesses it sent, which
chapters they understood it to be advantageous to purchase for their
government, which seats the borough occupied and on which bench, how
long it had done so and why. Barcelos, for example, was sometimes represented
by the Count, sometimes by the burgesses from Porto, until it earned
the right to its own seat in 1490; these were totally diverse, if not
in fact opposite, situations.
7. Armindo de Sousa proposed a new and rigorous hermeneutics for the
study of the documentation produced at the Cortes and, in particular,
for the general chapters. This proposal continues to be generally ignored
at present, and the texts of the chapters continue to be reproduced
and commented upon uncritically, as if they were good reports
of the state of the country. They both boil down to the same thing:
either this historians interpretation is challenged with well-grounded
justifications or more care needs to be taken in using these texts.
8. Finally, Armindo de Sousa brought considerable theoretical enrichment
to the study of the mediaeval parliament. As is frequently the case,
this made it possible to shed light on countless aspects of the way
in which the institution operated, which were being wrongly interpreted.
It would be a pity if this legacy were lost and we returned to the simple
uncritical transcription of documents.
1 Some examples are Caetano, 1963; Merêa, 1923; Santarém,
1828; Soares, 1943.
2 The História de Portugal of Alexandre Herculano
went no further then Afonso III (1279); and the História da
Administração Pública em Portugal nos séculos
XII a XV, of Henrique da Gama Barros, paid little attention to the
Cortes (Barros, 1946, 3, 125-195).
3 A recent one is in Caetano, 1981 (316-320, 476-480); the
more reliable, Ribeiro, 1792, 2, 46-170.
4 Mainly the chapter "A socialidade (estruturas, grupos
e motivações)" (Mattoso, 1993, 391-473), but also
his contribution "Os Homens" (Ramos, 1995, 118-245). Or his
study of social conflict (Sousa, 1983).
5 The Cortes of Afonso IV (1325-1357), Pedro I (1357-1367),
Fernando I (1367-1383) have already been published; those of Manuel
I (1495-1521) are currently being published.
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2004, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol.1, number 2, Winter 2003