Chateau Tarascon engraved ship

Medieval Toll Registers from Tarascon

Tarascon is a small town located on the banks of the river Rhône between Arles and Avignon at an old Roman junction. Extensive toll registers from the 14th century shed light on life in Late Medieval Province.

toll registers from Tarascon-cover

Two Medieval Occitan Registers from Tarascon
By William D. Paden
Medieval Academy Books
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division © 2016

Medieval Tarascon was located an old Roman river crossing. Early on it must have been a fortified settlement and pilgrim centre of some notoriety. The history of the place is blessed with an impressive list of preserved archival material. For instance, the deliberations and negotiations in the local council have been preserved since 1370. To this must be added several cadastres and an impressive number of documents related to notarial business. Thus, 644 testaments have been preserved from the 15th century from a town, which at that time had a population of no more than 4 – 5000 people.

However, much of this material was written in Latin. For instance, it is not until 1518 the scribe recording the deliberations of the council notes that they will henceforward be recorded in Occitan as most of the members are “illiterates and do not master Latin”.

Not so with other material, for instance the preserved toll registers from a) sometime between 1325 -1343 and b) after1387, but more probably after 1400, when a more calm period seems to have settled in. These registers were written in the Occitan thus providing a vernacular list of a wide variety of goods shipped to and through Tarascon in Late medieval Provence. However, the registers also provide an impressive range of information about such diverse phenomena as the influence of Italian on the early register and the influence of dialects from the Hautes-Alpes in the later. Other information tells us how the royal administration was able to raise the income from the customs paid in spite of the general depression characterising the period (and caused by climate shifts, plague and warring.

The main object of the two registers was to act as a kind of handbook for the tollkeepers and shareholders. Of these, at least seven out of ten belonged to the Jewish community and it is known one of the registers has existed in a translation into Hebrew. Unfortunately this has been missing from the archive in Tarascon for along time. These were written instruments, widely circulated and known to both people in the royal administration (which received ¾ of the income) and people in the shipping business needing to be able to calculate their expenses.

New Edition

Toll register from tarascon Manuscript Newbury libraryRecently, the Newberry Library in Chicago acquired the latest register from a private collection. This prompted the library to have the material edited and translated by William D. Paden. Some might think, this was a curious choice of editor, as Paden is primarily known for his extensive work on Provençal troubadours from the early 13th century – thus a hundred years before the dry records in the toll registers. However, William D.  Paden is a medievalist with an impressive knowledge of the Occitan language and seems to have worked diligently with identifying the many and varied goods listed in the registers.

The invaluable quality of the recent edition is thus not so much the edition of the registers themselves, nor the translation per se. The real value lies in the extensive word-list of the goods registered and the appended discussion of the meaning of each word. In an afterword we are told that this is due to a continued quest to flesh out the material reality of the love poetry from Tarascon. “Juxtaposing troubadours and toll registers also helps us read the registers in a spirit that does not reduce them to records of tolls alone but sees them as factors in a busy world that included commerce, trade, shipping, slavery, large animals and small one, money pilgrimages… and knights, counts, kings”, he writes (p 68).

And indeed, this is the real value of the edition. We simply get to know of all the kinds of material culture, which were shipped up and down rivers or carted along the roads in Provence – from the mundane to the more spectacular.

For instance we hear that in general “ready-made dresses that are called plagarias” are exempt from toll. However, when the market in May was held in Beaucaire (the city just across the river and belonging to France), we hear that a man has to pay 3d in custom for a load of ready-made dresses. It does not require much imagination to envision a medieval ragpicker on his way to market with a bundle on his back of second-hand clothes bought from families stricken by plague. And while such business was generally not deemed so valuable as to incur a toll, the good city of Tarascon would not allow the passage to go unhindered, when markets were held at the other side of the river in another jurisdiction.

Apparently, collecting customs was complicated business, with the devil residing in the details.

This is a very fine and orderly edition complete with all the trappings: a generous introduction, a careful description of the manuscripts, lists of marginalia, copious notes, glossary and a long list of appendixes with analyses of the different tables and comparisons between the two registers. Finally there is a summary of the evolution of tolls at Tarasconas as well as a very extensive list of references.

However, as already said, the glossary is the real gem. Even if we are told that the glossary is selective, it still provides us with a very fine entry into the animals, building materials, textiles, clothing, coins, dyes, foodstuff, furniture, kitchen utensils, plants, ships, spices, medicines and much more. The glossary even provides indexes of the words named and we thus get a very fine tool to approach Occitan texts from the period – whether in prose or poetry.

Review by Karen Schousboe


Tarascon and its Medieval Castle – Medieval Histories