Leon is a province of northern Spain, bordered on the north by Asturias, on the south by Zamorra, on the east by Patencia, and on the west by Galicia. Its capital, also called Leon, is located roughly at the center of the province, on the Torio and Bernesga rivers at 42°37′ N and 5°30′ W. The land is Generally mountainous, extending some 9,600 square kilometers, and is largely rural in character. There are extensive wood-lands, wastelands, and natural pastures. Except along the Several rivers of the province, the soils are generally poor, best suited to the cultivation of cereals. Winters can be cold, and drought in summer is not uncommon—this region does not partake of the Mediterranean climatic influences felt in the more southerly regions of Spain.
The ratio of persons to land in Leon is low, and much of the territory is unsettled and undeveloped today. Over the last several decades, population has increased only slowly, more as a result of a lowered death rate than any rise in birth-rates. Migration out of the rural areas also has been a Longstanding factor in keeping demographic pressures low.
Leonese is one of the many dialects of Spanish, not sufficiently divergent to be considered a language in its own right.
History and Cultural Relations
The city of Leon was founded as a Roman frontier town, later conquered by the Moors. Very early in the period of the Spanish reconquest—in the eighth to tenth centuries—it, and the countryside surrounding it, regained its independence. During this time, the movement of populations into the area was encouraged by the Spanish kings, through the policy of granting ownership of unoccupied lands to those who took the care and time to clear and cultivate them. In about the Middle of the eleventh century this region was united with Castile, only to be separated again in the mid-twelfth century; it was reunited with Castile once more in 1230.
In Leon one finds small, nucleated village or town centers, each consisting of residences, local shops, taverns, and a church, as well as an administrative center. The median size of such a village is small—perhaps twenty-five households. Surrounding these settled areas one finds a region of cultivated lands, broken up into a myriad of small plots often less than a hectare each in size; this cultivated zone is itself Generally surrounded by uncultivated scrub or woodland. Mud and adobe brick form the principal construction materials. The houses of the village are built as roughly rectangular Structures, with each surrounding an open central space that serves as a corral. Set into the front wall are two doors, the smaller one to provide access for people and the larger one to accommodate the passage of a wagon. In the traditional layout, the principal living quarters are set up along the front of the structure, with sleeping rooms on the second floor, while shelter spaces for household animals (cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, and perhaps a donkey or two) run along the two sides. Along the back one finds storage areas for grain and other farm products. At one corner of the structure one once Commonly found a kitchen; nowadays the room that serves that function for the household is part of the living area at the front. Where the old kitchen once stood, today one frequently finds a large oven used for baking bread.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Leonese economy is predominantly agricultural, with grain being the principal crop. Rye and wheat are the most important and are sown on as much of the private land as will support them, as well as on common lands. Barley is sown on the remainder. Animal husbandry is also important—each household keeps cows, oxen, sheep, and goats. These animals are merged with the livestock of other households in the village and pastured together on common lands, with herding responsibilities rotated among households in a system called vecera. Households also maintain gardens and keep chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, as well as a family pig.
Industrial Arts. There is specialization in the trades (e.g., carpentry, smithing), and shops specialize in the provision of goods and services needed by the community. There is, However, little industrialization outside of major urban areas, and when farm work is not sufficient to employ villagers, some must leave the area to find employment. Traditional cottage industries arise from the processing of flax and the production of linseed and thread.
Division of Labor. Women work in the fields along with the men and are included in all household and farm decision making, but they are excluded from community leadership. Domestic tasks and child rearing are specifically women's work.
Land Tenure. Individuals each hold title to several Scattered, small plots, the total area of which rarely exceeds 3 hectares, as a result of an inheritance system that operates on the principle of equal shares to all heirs, women as well as men. These small holdings, in themselves inadequate to support the needs of individual households, are offset by use rights to communal lands, which consist of woodlands, "wastes" or scrublands, and grazing areas.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Kinship is reckoned bilaterally, as is descent, but in terms of descent the paternal line is the more significant.
Marriage. Age at first marriage in Leon is generally 18 to 23 for women and 24 to 26 for men. Each of the potential spouses has a say in the match. Traditionally, each of the newlyweds received a marriage portion (dote ) from their Parents, as a sort of advance on their inheritances, but beginning in the late nineteenth century this practice became too great an economic burden, jeopardizing the functioning of the parental households, and thus it no longer occurs. Husband and wife often continue to live in their respective parents' houses, so that they can continue to help on the farm and share in the harvests—otherwise, they would have no land upon which to establish their own farming enterprise. At night, the husband goes to the wife's house to sleep.
Domestic Unit. In Leon, the house itself may contain a number of related nuclear families, usually constituting a sororal or fraternal cooperative group (sisters, their spouses, and their several offspring; or brothers and their spouses and children) or a marital pair and one or more of their married offspring. A widowed parent generally goes to live with a married daughter.
Inheritance. Property rarely passes to the children of the owner prior to his or her death. Rather, use rights to the property, including land, are conferred. Children exercising rights of usufruct are thought to owe their parents part of the grain harvest in return for their land use. Strict equality of Inheritance is observed—not only in kind but in quality. Thus, if the family property consists of lands of varying arability, each heir will receive a small part of each type of land. This principle is followed in the case of inherited livestock and Household goods as well, whenever possible. The division of all property into equal portions is established in advance, and then the portions are allocated among the heirs by drawing lots. Inheritance of the house itself usually falls to the daughter or son who takes care of the elderly parents prior to their deaths.
Socialization. Early childhood training is the responsibility of the mother, although other female members of the Household may participate in the process. Extrafamilial institutions involved in socialization include the school and the church.
Each household is independent in the conduct of its internal affairs. Deference in this context is paid to the owner of the house, when decisions must be made regarding joint activities on the farm. However, each adult member of the household, female and male, has a voice. Outside of the household, local sociopolitical organization is dominated by the concept of the concejo or council, in which each head of household participates. Meetings held in fall and winter, often in conjunction with feasts, are held in the town meeting hall. In spring and summer, they are often held outside. These councils stand as the guardians of customary law, deciding on such community concerns as the use of common lands. Only men could serve on the councils, and among men, only those who were married and possessed a house and some land in the village itself. Upon admission to the council, the member paid a fee. The system of turn taking—in pasturing the pooled cattle of the villagers, for example—was regulated by the Council. Other activities that were the responsibility of the council were the organizing of communal labor to repair roads and maintain boundary markers and to serve in other economic, political, and religious capacities on a turn-taking basis. Such council decisions were optimally achieved by consensus, but leaders and officers existed, chosen by election. Community self-rule of times past was legally displaced in the nineteenth-century imposition of uniform laws throughout the state, and organs responsive to the centralized government (juntas administrativa ) were established in their place. Yet the council system persists, retaining much of its role as interpreter and enforcer of local customary law.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Spain is a Catholic country, and the influence of the church is strong in Leon. Attendance at weekly mass and at masses celebrated for important events on the liturgical calendar is expected. The bread for the mass traditionally was baked by a different female head of household each week, with one piece held in reserve to be passed on to the woman who would be responsible for the next week's baking.
Beliefs regarding the afterlife are consistent with the teachings of the Catholic church. Traditionally, when a Villager or his or her spouse died, all work in the community was prohibited and the council sent two fellow villagers to the household of the deceased in order to sit vigil over the body. The council also provided someone to dig the grave. Attendance at the funeral by villagers was equally enforced, through the assessment of fines. Responsibility for sitting vigil circulated among the households of the village, according to the system of turn taking mentioned earlier with reference to herding duties; however, funeral attendance was a villagewide responsibility.
Behar, Ruth (1986). Santa Mana del Monte: The Presence of the Past in a Spanish Village. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
NANCY E. GRATTON