In which David Ganz makes me think twice about charters

A twelfth-century bifolium of a cartulary recording an 842 act of Charles the Bald for Burgundy

The second article in the Davies & Fouracre Property and Power volume is by David Ganz, who considers there the Roman thoughtworld in which people writing documents were circumscribing themselves.1 I’m not sure how convincing I find that, as yet; certainly the reason some of our early medieval charters look the way they do is because Roman documents looked like that, but a lot of them don’t, most of them survive in copies so we don’t really know what they looked like, and the content is so variable in formulae and style that I don’t think the practice of writing a charter is a conscious imitation of Rome so much as a conscious attempt to make an appeal to a higher law, be it of the people or of Heaven.2 David is striving to deal with this on the one side, but on the other the tension of the Church in handling this property that they have, and somehow reconciling it with the ideal of Apostolic community. On that part of the deal he is very clever indeed and I recommend it as reading.3

The reason this article got my attention however is David’s take on why people write charters. As I say the echo of Rome doesn’t convince me, and sometimes it was honestly, I’m sure, just an attempt to record something. Just, maybe not that often. All the same, David was wise to such concerns when he was writing; as anyone familiar with his work will know, David’s subtle prose can almost conceal that he is not so much thinking outside the box as leaning nonchalantly on its sides so as to push them out without you noticing, prior to pointing out that by now we’re standing in quite an odd place. An overworked metaphor, but I’ll explain the bit of this process that bit me in this article: in the middle of this fairly thick stuff about symbology and invocation of legal remedy, he suggests briefly that some people might have made donations that they had no intention of carrying out, simply so as to have their ownership of the property written down somewhere. From a modern perspective that seems crazy—the one way not to prove your ownership of something (whatever that might mean in the early Middle Ages) is surely to record your giving it to someone else!—but it does also indelibly associate you with the property and that association, we get readier and readier to accept, was not easily forgotten.4 It’s all very well saying that that isn’t the idea, but David is there to remind us that the people of the early Middle Ages didn’t necessarily have the same ideas as we do.


1. David Ganz, “The Ideology of Sharing: apostolic community and ecclesiastical property in the early Middle Ages” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1995), pp. 17-30.

2. For the actual Roman precedents of early medieval diplomatic, the classic work, more cited than read as the saying goes, is P. Classen, “Fortleben und Wandel spätrömischen Urkundenwesens im frühen Mittelalter” in idem (ed.), Recht und Schrift im Mittelalter (Sigmaringen 1977), pp. 13–54.

3. It makes a useful counter to the inevitable Terry Jones arguments of a corruptly rich Church that you might get from books like Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (London 1978).

4. This is now most ably brought out by the work of Barbara Rosenwein, especially her To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989).

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6 responses to “In which David Ganz makes me think twice about charters

  1. A very interesting idea indeed – ‘giving’ away something that you ‘own’ in order to create a written record of your ‘ownership’ [scare quotes in reference to your previous discussions of landholders, lords & taxpayers ;-)].

    I come to think of our previous discussion of the runestones/pictland(s)’s stones and the (maybe) hidden agenda of stating your land ownership/inheritance by praising your parents in permanent writing.

    Along these lines you could argue for several layers of ‘rhetoric intention’ in written documents – it could be a lever for ‘opening up’ the multiple meanings of writing.

    Oh, friday afternoon, I’d better go bachk to beer drinking. Cheers!

  2. Phew! That was getting dangerously close to theory there! :-) But it’s an interesting point. I think I might be starting to think of ways to deal with this in language such as land being “yours” but someone else “owning” it, but other than stating that this doesn’t confuse people in the Middle Ages I’m not sure that opens anything up as you were starting to. I believe there’s work on this that I ought to read.

    As to the documents, I reluctantly have to accept that they are multivalent, but the fact that charters are often referred to as scriptura would tell you that. Writing on an object at all makes it special; the actual look of the thing is also important, and how it’s physically in public used is a third thing, and this is before you get down to something as trivial as what the words say :-) Then you have invocation of God to watch the transaction, secular witnesses, geographical information; a charter addresses quite a lot of different people at the time of the act it records, if it was around then, but after it’s made its audience changes, to the owners and whomever they want to show it to… Oh yes: one could certainly get theoretical with all this I fear.

  3. Yeah yeah, bring it on!

    And ahh yes, the gift giving and keeping-while-giving is certainly to be considered here. Transaction of any kind would (obviously)need to involve more than one (legal) person…

    On the other hand, the scripture in this form is also a way of pinpointing stuff to a certaing locale and point in time, going back to your point made in above post.

  4. BTW whenever people call their books names like Inalienable Possessions: [subtitle] i cock my gun…..

  5. Well, the joy of medieval charters is that one of the (legal) persons can be God. And of course, one of the things about alienating land is that sometimes it can be as much the people who aren’t mentioned who are important, your family that you’re keeping the land from by giving it to the Church.

    Meanwhile, Rosenwein would suggest that the writing of the document is irrelevant for many participants compared to the public affirmation of the donors’ new relationship with the saint they’re giving to. The document might help renegotiate that relationship later I suppose. And certainly a look at the material from Freising convinced me that the recipients and donors are treating documents in very different ways; the bishops there seem to try to get all donations recorded, but they never produce written evidence of gifts when they go to court, presumably because the court will only respect witness testimony…

  6. And yes: that subtitle doesn’t even have an alliterative jingle of three words as all proper social science books must, by international treaty! What does she think she’s doing etc.

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