Confused over Cluny: a pre-Leeds charters rant

Bits of my Leeds paper are crowding in my head wanting to be written, and I don’t yet have anything like all the data assembled to do it (though if forced I could probably assemble a text tonight). What better tactic, then, but to offload some of the brain-twisting here?

The Leeds sessions that I and my collaborators run hit their third year this year; they’re called ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic’. The idea is to show firstly that charter evidence is subtle and complicated to interpret, and secondly what you can learn when you do interpret it carefully: the first bit is problems, and the second possibilities. Everyone else’s papers seem to be about the possibilities, and mine much more about the problems. It’s not that I don’t have stuff to say on the basis of my charters, as you know, but for Leeds, when I have a charter-savvy group to work in, I get much more interested in the basic questions we often forget to ask, of why we have the evidence, why it looks the way it does, whether what they were recording was real or just formulae, and so on, the basic text criticism and the methodology of it. And this leads me this year, heavens help me, to be messing with the charters of Cluny.

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

You see, last year when I was putting together this proposal, there obviously seemed to be all the time in the world, and so I cast about for diplomatic ideas, and came up with this. We know, and if we didn’t the work from the Lay Archives project would make it clear,1 that many charters exist in archives that appear to have had no interest in preserving them. By and large, of course, a Church archive preserves documents that relate to that church’s lands and donors, and this is most of what we have, but wherever the sample opens up a bit, things leak into preservation that don’t easily fit that scheme. Traditionally, these have been explained as background for donations that occurred later but whose documents have been lost, and that obviously has problems: why did they lose the important one and not the legacy one, why didn’t anyone throw out the useless one? Recently a couple of the people in the Lay Archives group, Warren Brown from his work on Bavaria and Adam Kosto from the Catalan stuff, have been suggesting that actually churches were functioning as kind of depositories, substituting in this way for the old Roman gesta municipalia but also just because the charters in question would often have been written by the local clerics anyway and might as well stay where they could be read. Adam also argues that whole lay dossiers of parchments were sometimes given into the care of the church in difficult times, and that does seem to be what’s necessary to explain the wealth of Church-irrelevant documents in Catalonia, where we know (because some of them still exist) that lay archives were kept.2

For some time this has seemed problematic to me. As with a lot that Adam writes, it’s so close to what I think that I find it hard to articulate my difference, but it seems to me that when a body of charters reaches a Church archive, it often does so because someone who has inherited or acquired the land to which they relate is now giving it to the Church. That is, both explanations were sometimes true at once: there are lay dossiers, and they’re given to the Church with land. But sometimes these dossiers include documents that are nothing to do with the land. So, for example, the first case of this I came across: there are in the Arxiu Capitular d’Urgell six charters from the late ninth century that feature a judge called Goltred. Five of them are purchases of land that eventually come to the cathedral, classic transmission if you will. The sixth however is a trial over which he presided, in which one man was set to pay compensation for breaking into another man’s house, beating him with a cudgel (the document makes it clear that part of why this was so bad is that it was the victim’s own cudgel) and then kidnapping and keeping him prisoner in a neighbour’s house for a week. Frustratingly, why the perpetrator did this is never explained, though the document does say he claimed it was done in self-defence! But anyway: the compensation is monetary, though paid in produce; no land is involved, and neither does the cathedral of Urgell feature.3 So I think the only reason that we have this is that one of the documents that came out of this trial went to the judge, by way of record, and when he finally gave his lands to the cathedral, they shunted all his parchments into the cathedral archive and no-one looked at them for about 1,800 years. Preservation by neglect, I call this, and I think there’s a lot of it.

The abbey of Cluny as it appears today, from Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, we have paradigms, they need testing, and this is where Cluny comes in. There are certain places where the charters preserved predate the actual archive institution’s existence. In Catalonia most places have one or two from ‘before’, and pinning the reason they’re there down is very hard because the string is so short. Four charters at Vic feature an extraordinarily long-lived Viscount called Franco, who seems to have ruled the mini-county of Berguedà in apparent independence. All of the charters are purchases, he doesn’t appear anywhere else, two of them predate Vic’s refoundation in about 885, two of them don’t.4 The lands didn’t identifiably come to Vic, and the only explanation that I can think of is that they were stored at some church in Berguedà of which the cathedral of Vic later acquired control. There’s no proof though. So I wanted to look elsewhere and see what the trends of this preservation are where we’ve got more of it. And there’s nowhere with more than Cluny.

Cluny is a desperately important abbey for most of the High Middle Ages, but in early medieval terms it’s a latecomer, being founded only in 910. Its charter corpus, however, starts in 813, almost a century before, which obviously needs some explanation. I don’t have one, except that so much exists from Cluny, many thousands of charters (almost all of which now exist only in scholarly copies, but that’s the Franco-Prussian war for you), that it seems unlikely they ever really went through weeding the archive: once something came there it stayed. There is a classic edition of Cluny’s charters, but it never reached the index volume, so up till now really working with them has been difficult.5 Now, however, the various projects on Cluny being run from the University of Münster have resulted in a digital transcription of that edition, if you know where to look. So I have been steadily databasing this early stuff, and searching through the files trying to find out why they wind up with Cluny. (“Stand back! I know regular expressions!”)

It’s extremely frustrating. Sometimes they’re just singletons, neither place nor recipient ever seem to turn up again. They may well do, of course, because places change names and landholders bequeath stuff without writing it down but a broken trail is little better than no trail in this particular inquiry. As one advances towards foundation date, the trails get easier to follow, but even so one is often left going: “there’s the land in 880; here’s land in the same villa in 910 that seems to be bounded by the same geography in a couple of edges, but it’s bigger, and if it contains the same estate, if, how it got from Adalramn to this Ardeo geezer is just impossible to say”. They don’t name their parents, they don’t say how they got the land, you’re just stuck with this magic lantern now-you-see-and-now-you-don’t situation when you can see it at all. I’ve got some good cases where it does work out, and especially the royal ones are almost always really simple; this precept is here because the relevant estate is in the hands of the monastery via this person one generation later, sorted. But I’ve also got quite a lot just marked “no clues!”

All the same, I’ve got enough to work with; and I also have the monastery of Beaulieu, whose early preservation is basically one neat example piece of an aristocratic personal archive – but if you want to know more about that you should come and hear the paper.6 I have to leave something in the bag :-)

P. S. Here we see an instance of the phenomenon I realised while leaving a comment at The Rebel Letter; I never seem to doubt that someone will be interested in this stuff. After all, I’m interested; I can hardly be alone in this in a net population of however many numbers-with-many-zeroes…


1. I live in hope that some day the Lay Archives Project will actually publish something, but at the time of writing there is nothing that I can announce. For the opposite case, stressing the way institutions profile memory and record according to its use to them, see Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985).

2. Warren Brown, “When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366; Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74. Professor Brown’s work makes the more careful case that actually this only happened with big families storing their documents at their own foundations, but in areas that were more ‘document-minded’, as Julia Smith would have it (Europe After Rome: a new cultural history, 400-1000 (Oxford 2005), pp. 13-50, concept introduced pp. 45-46) it’s much lower-level than that, as I think this paper will partly show.

3. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 78-143, doc. nos 19, 22, 24, 25, 26 & 27; the hearing is doc. no. 24.

4. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (Segles IX-X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. nos 1, 5, 7 & 138.

5. This difficulty has not prevented some genuinely important work being done from them, most obviously Georges Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le region mâconnaise, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hauts Études, VIe section (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971), repr. in Qu’est-ce que c’est la Féodalisme (Paris 2001) (of which pp. 155, 170-172, 185-195, 230-245 transl. Frederick L. Cheyette as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais” in idem (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (New York 1968), pp. 137-155) and Barbara H. Rosenwein, To Be The Neighbor of Saint Peter: the social meaning of Cluny’s property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989). The charters are edited in Auguste Bernard & Alexandre Bruel (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Cluny (Paris 1876-1900), 6 vols, of which all the material I’m using is in vol. I.

6. Or just have at the charters yourself I suppose: the relevant edition is Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1859) and it’s free to download on Google Books.


Edit: it has been suggested to me that the questions here are hard to understand for non-specialists. Therefore, I have created this summary for the neophytes of diplomatic criticism:

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23 responses to “Confused over Cluny: a pre-Leeds charters rant

  1. A couple of random thoughts:

    1) the Leeds sessions seem really interesting. I wish I could see them. I hope you bring them across the pond sometime. Not enough people do diplomatics (well) over here.

    2) you’re right that people are interested, I think. The lay archives project did a roundtable at the 2008 Medieval Academy meeting in Vancouver (that I attended) and it was very well attended, even generating some fascinating discussion. I too hope they’ll publish something soon.

    3) more of a question. do you think what you’re ultimately doing above is dealing with document survival? This all just seems as if it could have tremendously far-reaching implications…

  2. How many of these singletons might be explained by people giving them to the monastery as a safe place to keep the documents? If Adelramm doesn’t have any other charters to keep track of, he may not have any safe place to keep it–but the monastery, if it’s local or has a connection to the Adelramm family, might put it into safekeeping for him, especially if it’s accompanied by a suitable donation.

  3. Kishnevi, essentially what I am doing with this paper is trying to put some numbers on that first question you ask. The problem is that of course I can’t show anything is a singleton; I can just say, “I can’t find a link”. Places change names, neighbours die and are replaced, people put roads in, build walls, divert rivers… Over fifty years an estate could be kept exactly as it was, be inherited cleanly and the two charters describing it at either end could still make it unrecognisable. But we’ll see what I come up with.

    Matt, why don’t you come to Leeds 2009? :-) I think I’ve talked ADM into presenting this time, and maybe we can get Fabrice Rossi and Nathalie Villa too :-) As for Lay Archives, I shouldn’t go on record with that but I think publication is unlikely to happen on the current set-up. I’ll explain more in replying to your mail. I’m no better: my attempt to get the previous Leeds papers has also fallen idle in a collaboration I’m supposed to be organising…

    Anyway, as to the main question, I’m using Cluny principally because of the huge preservation there, but the more I do on it the more explanations require there to have been other documents that we simply don’t have. This is the big implication I seem to be heading towards at the moment: that either things are much weirder than we’d realised with document use, and expecting there to be rules and customs for something so unusual is perhaps foolish; or, we’ve lost vastly more than we usually expect, because in some places at least charters were really an everyday thing, and every second family would have had a box of them. But N. B. the caveat `some places’; in Germany you have the situation at Freising where the Church wants documents, but no-one else uses them. Burgundy, however, looks a lot like Catalonia (even the names are similar).

    I plan to have the paper up for circulation before the sessions, I’ll let you know where it’s linked if you want. It might be worth doing something with at this rate.

  4. highlyeccentric

    I cannot make head or tail of what you are talking about, but I am impressed by your knowledge of regular expressions ;).

  5. Argh — I will be back to comment on this later (I have a marathon class to teach today). And I may even have a topic for Leeds next year … What aggregated documents don’t tell us!

  6. ADM: sounds good, I like the focus on individuals and managing to disaggregate anything from Dronke is an achievement in itself!

    Meanwhile, Ms Eccentric, let me try and rephrase the post in a more graphic way. No, damn, I can’t do it in comments. So, I have made a small edit to the end of the post for your benefit :-)

  7. The charters of Cluny are online and searcheable? OMG I think I love you!

  8. Happy to be of help, but be cautioned that the online stuff is only what I presume is OCR-scanned texts of the edition, without any apparatus and probably quite full of errors. There still lacks any kind of indexing. I guess they’ll get there some day…

    What are you doing, that Cluny is of use? And would you also profit from knowing about Ménestrel’s list of digitised cartularies? I see from your journal that you already found Telma, but Ménestrel actually gives direct links. However, what I couldn’t figure from the journal was what you’re actually working on…

  9. Maybe for next year ;-) you need a session on Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charter Databases. I think there is an increasing issue that medievalists are building these small databases of charters which would potentially be of use to others and yet which are inaccesible. I know using anyone else’s database would never give you exactly what you wanted, but it’d be a start when so many people are otherwise reinventing the wheel on the Cluny or Lorsch or Freising collections.

  10. Er, *searchable*. Clearly cartularies make me excited.

    I’m working on the history of trial by combat in France and England. The subject turns up in about one charter in every hundred, so tools that help me find the needles in the haystack are very handy. Thanks so much for this, and also for the additional link.

  11. Magistra, you speak of next year as if it’s a joke but I have two papers agreed already… And there is something in what you say: in Britain at least the AHDS used to try and cope with this a bit, but not to the extent of, for example, saying to someone who applied with a charters database, “Oh, yes, we have this drawer full of related submissions you might like to know about…” The problem is, as you say, that one database won’t often do for another’s tasks. I’ve just used a template for my Catalan counts one for this stuff and it’s already needed modification to answer the sorts of question I now want to ask… I had been aiming for a fairly generic format that would adequately describe any charter, but without knowing all European forms of early medieval diplomatic, you can never get that quite right… and if you do, it would be so unusably flabby with fields you hardly ever need that it might not be so much use.

    Henchminion, glad to be of assistance. That really is needle-in-haystack stuff, too: good luck… I’ve gone through about 5,000 charters by now and not found any instances that I remember.

  12. highlyeccentric

    I must say, Lolcat looks good on you ;)

  13. I can make anything look good, except perhaps that beard, that suit or modesty :-)

  14. highlyeccentric

    You forgot ‘that thin red tie’… I will reserve judgement on the suit, beard and hair due to limited visibility, but I can see even from the Internet that modesty becomes you.

  15. If you ever do make it to the UK, or I to Australia, I owe you more than however many drinks I’ve already promised you for your valuable publicity work for me :-)

  16. Also, while we’re on the subject of things that should never have been Lolled: witness the glory of Lolbat!

  17. highlyeccentric

    If you ever do make it to the UK, or I to Australia, I owe you more than however many drinks I’ve already promised you for your valuable publicity work for me :-)

    You mean to say that the Grand Unwritten Rule of Academic Drinking- to whit, those who advance up the ladder of their academic careers are obliged to purchase drinks for those lower, and therefore less well funded, on said ladder than they- doesn’t apply to Cambridge toffs such as yourself?

    As for LOLBAT… erm… right. Comics and I have never got along very well anyway (too many pictures, IMHO), but that’s really something special.

  18. Good lord, you’re right. My hangover today is clearly impeding my academic rigour with pub etiquette. What I should be offering you is either teaching my surplus students (of which, alas, I have none), funding (see above) or a post as a research assistant. Hmm. Are you willing to learn Arabic or Perl?

  19. highlyeccentric

    I long ago decided that I have enough trouble writing neatly in the ROMAN alphabet (thereby cancelling my first-year intentions to major in Arabic and Islamic Studies and become an informed member of modern society, which was a major step in my downward slide into medievalism), and in spite of reading XKCD for nearly a year I still don’t know what Perl *is*, so I think I’m not the person you’re looking for :P

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