Theory I like: a long post about how to read charters and who did it right first

By now you know that for the last three years I’ve been standing up at Leeds each July and trying to persuade people that charters are complicated documents. Words like `authored’, `context’ and `involved’ have passed my lips, and I’ve written posts here about how the documents are the winner’s record; I could have saved myself many words and just said `situated’, perhaps, but I’d look as if I’ve read things I haven’t. All the same, earlier this year I sat down and wrote something that for now bears the rather worrying title, “Revisionism and the Grateful Dead: a justification”. The Grateful Dead only got into it because Jerry Garcia, may he trip eternally, once said of the Dead’s legendary endless jam `Dark Star’, “There are certain structural poles which we have kind of set up in it, and those periodically we do away with”, and that struck me as a marvellous expression of academic progress.1 If I’d not confessed what it was I’d bet my collaborators would have loved it. Chauvinists. Anyway, it is unlikely that when this emerges, having been through the tender hands of my Leeds collaborators, dear Captain Trips will remain in it, and it’ll probably have a lot of my original rant taken out and this is probably for the best.

All the same, may it be placed on record that in February 2008, I wrote this thing and it had a list of 9 assumptions made by people using charters I wanted to stop. They were, briefly:

  1. In a charter-using society, all transactions were recorded in charters, even if we don’t have them. I can point you to a Catalan count saying that he made one donation to his wife per cartam and another per simplice donacione, and he could afford a scribe and parchment.
  2. Charters can be used to reconstruct tenure patterns of their and their neighbouring territories. Except that when someone makes a charter, it’s because they’re changing something, so you never have a still gameboard.
  3. A charter’s form and content is dictated by the law of its area and may be irrelevant to actual events. Rubbish: scribes vary details incessantly, so it’s not that fixed, but estates consistently keep certain attributes like mills, winepresses and so on; it’s really very complicated to assume that that’s for any reason than that these places have those things.
  4. A charter’s content was set by its transactor/by its scribe. Pick whichever you like, the other possibility’s always there. There is no rule, people talked to each other then too, get over it.
  5. Charters were written in a single operation at the ceremony/before the ceremony/after the ceremony. I can find you instances where any of these must have been the case except during. We have enough charters that describe themselves being placed on the altar to wake up to the fact that that’s a lie^H^H^Hcreative misrepresentation.
  6. Charters are an official record of a transaction… Yeah, for whose office? Oh, it’s the beneficiary’s. Well that’s impartial. Oh no, it’s not is it, sorry.
  7.  … that occurred at the date given by the charter. That kind of falls apart when you don’t know when the charter was written relative to the ceremony, doesn’t it? Which part of the the process do you think the date refers to, drafting, meeting, investiture, witnessing… ?
  8. The transactions recorded in charters took place. Unless, for example, someone else held onto the lands.
  9. Preservation of documents is representative of the documents that existed. See “winner’s history” above.

And I felt a lot better with that off my chest. Only now, the week before last already, I read an article in which someone else sets out the five faulty assumptions of traditional diplomatic:

  1. That texts should be studied by reference to their issuer, even though he hardly ever wrote them
  2. That charters were written for use at law, even though we hardly ever see them being used there [my picture differs, here]
  3. That charters’ validity resided in their adherence to formulaic texts, even though the variation between surviving texts is way way off any fixed national or even regional formula
  4. That charters can be used as evidence of deliberate archiving strategies, even though most surviving archives didn’t generate a lot of their material
  5. That forged documents are somehow to be treated differently

Blimey, eh? Why wasn’t that me? And the answer is, because it was presented in 1991 and published in 1994, before I’d even read my first precept, and that though since I started doing charter work it’s been on reading lists that people have pushed at me, I’ve taken this long to get round to it. It’s “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, and it’s the paper I originally picked up John van Engen’s The Past and Future of Medieval Studies for and have finally reached.2 It’s going to generate me some writing here because it’s very very chewy, and one of the best ways to work out what I think is to put it here. I might break it up a bit though, I could write lots and lots about this. Let’s here stick to charters, and then I’ll do the other two sections she has in separate lighter posts.

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090, a basic sale transaction of the 950s

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090, a basic sale transaction of the 950s, being stretched taut by your humble author

Now, obviously I should have read this a long time ago, as it does share quite a lot of my message and I see why people have pointed me at it. On the other hand, our approaches are very different. Mine has been to verbalise these assumptions and disprove them for particular cases, aiming to imply that we can’t be sure of them in any unchecked case. Hers was to take a fair body of critical theory, though from the Hayden White end arguing that historical texts are ‘situated’, by which we mean here that they cannot be read apart from their author’s and indeed their reader’s preconceptions and do not represent anything objective at all, rather than from whatever the authors of the sort of stuff I’ve complained about elsewhere were smoking. I mean, I think that can be argued with, and she does, but it is at least an argument we have to face. And, when you apply it to charters, or rather argue with the peculiar exception that seems to be made for documentary sources, the obvious response is to remember that these are privately produced narratives written to preserve someone’s advantage and need to be treated with all the suspicion that implies. So our two approaches lead to the same place, mistrust of any idea that these are objective texts, she saying that they can’t in principle be and I saying that sometimes they just provably aren’t. Our findings support each other. And she and I are in accord not just here, but when she says:

Attention and explanation have therefore primarily focused on the actions the sources document. This attitude is of course shared by historians who select their object of study, gather all documents relating to it, study their documents from the viewpoint of this object with far less attention to the circumstances grounding documentary production, and try to resolve contradictions by applying the principles of authenticity and forgery, and by distinguinshing legendary from historical documents. (333)

I mean, I would have put `authenticity’, `forgery’, `legendary’ and `historical’ in snigger quotes (and now I have! I can retire) but that is, in fact, just the sort of work that got me shirty about all this in the first place. So it’s lovely that this is out there to be cited, but I wish some non-diplomatists had actually read it. As it is, I have great trouble getting this stuff out there, because it’s obvious to most actual diplomatists and has been out there for more than a decade, so they don’t see it as new and won’t recommend its publication, but it just isn’t anywhere where the people who do phenomena studies by combing archives about which they don’t care will come across it.

It may not just be me she pre-empted though. In my various posts about the feudal transformation, I have repeatedly cited its greatest opponent, Dominique Barthélemy, who has repeatedly contended that “la mutation féodale n’a pas eu lieu”. His argument is that the documents of around the year 1000 were getting a lot more verbose, and that this reveals things that were always there, or had been for a long long while, but were not previously recorded. So the argument is that it’s more of a documentary revolution than a feudal one. That first came out in 1992.3 In 1991, though, Bedos-Rezak was asking a room full of probably slightly glazed medievalists:

… could we, in talking about a feudal revolution, for instance, be confusing the clarification of social concepts performed through writing with a possibly a-synchronous growth of specific social structure? If this were the case, might not the “feudal revolution” abvove all be a revolution in diplomatics? (321)

I guess there’s no way Barthélemy could have known of that; his article for Annales must have been submitted by then. But it’s a pity because she also has the answer, because she had from the beginning been arguing that charters should not be read “as products, rather than as processes… ” (314) and therefore was set up to contend that documents affect the society in which they are produced. There’s more to say about that, and she does, but I’ll pick up on it in another post because it’s where I disagree with her. For now, let it be noted that though Barthélemy has and always had a point, similarly the critical diplomatists over here have always had an answer: people use documents to change things, so if the documents change firstly, this is probably caused by some larger social change, and secondly, it will also cause social changes as they are used. Matthew Innes and I have argued similar things, but I got it from Matthew and he may well have got it from here.

You see, I don’t mind someone using critical theory like this, because the actual upshot is to bring us closer to understanding our sources, and therefore the times that created them. My objections to over-theoretical historiography are basically, well, that it’s impenetrable, and to be fair this is very hard reading for me at least, but also that it forgets the latter step in the giddy wash of cleverness imbued by the former. When people do something with it that helps me understand my subjects, well, I want more of that please, and perhaps my irritation with critical theory in historiography is mainly that it so often fails to provide that help.


1. This paper was intended to be an agenda statement for a volume we’re working on to publish some of the Leeds papers we’ve solicited, and if the one of my collaborators who reads this hasn’t turned this piece round by the time this goes up, he should know that his beer tally is going up by compound interest. The Jerry Garcia quote can be found in context at this link.

2. B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.

3. D. Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; ibid., “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205. There’s more, but how much do you need?

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10 responses to “Theory I like: a long post about how to read charters and who did it right first

  1. highlyeccentric

    ooooh, interesting :)

    Why on earth I think a post about charters and critical theory is interesting, god knows. Probably something to do with procrastination :P Or perhaps it is your captivating and lucid writing style?

    Also, HI! Haven’t been around much of late, sorry :(

  2. Really interesting…thanks, this gets me to thinking more critically about some sources.

  3. Captivating? Lucid? Are you sure, Miss Eccentric? I am flattered anyway. As for your appearance online, always welcome but sometimes you do just have to do stuff…
    Clio’s, glad to help also. Your high medieval stuff is a slightly different deal because of the involvement of notaries, of course, but some of the issues remain intact despite that more ‘official’ production.

  4. The feeling that there’s what you could call a retorical agenda in/behind a lot of historic sources has been following me for some time now, and it seems obvious (to me, at least) that this agenda (of the transactor/scribe/beneficiary or whomever) is expressed most clearly in written sources.
    It’s like there’s always someone drawing a benefit or advantage from something being put into being (:writing) and that the act itself of putting into being – creating the source, as it were – is heavily loaded with all kinds of statements and opinions, even power, being expressed.
    How good that we have diplomatists to sort it all out, eventually.

    Do write an accessible book on the matter sometime!

  5. I’m going to write an accessible article, at least; a book on this would sell very few copies, I think. But we’ll see how the article goes. Alas, it is some way down the list because of how much reading it needs.

  6. I’m not convinced that you can usefully stop people making some assumptions about charters. A handy rule of thumb I learned when I was a mathematician was that how much you could prove depended on how many propositions you started with. (If you ever look at how a real-live problem is modelled mathematically, you’ll see that it says things like ‘assume the earth is spherical, assume that events happen independently of each other’ etc). If you don’t make enough assumptions as a mathematician, you can’t prove anything interesting.

    In the same way if you start from the minimalist historical view (which you seem to be getting near) that you can’t assume the charter bears any necessary relationship to reality, then what can you say about the actual past? I think assumptions are necessary for us to be able to say anything useful about the past, particularly when we get back to the early Middle Ages.

    What I think we need to do is be more explicit in our work about our assumptions. If you use charters to show patterns of relationship within a locality (as Matthew Innes does), I think it would be reasonable to say up front: “I am assuming that these transactions actually took place and on the dates mentioned. It’s possible that some of what the charters say is inaccurate, but that doesn’t affect my broader argument.” If a few charters are really key to your whole argument, on the other hand, then you do need to show that you have considered the possibility of them being completely inaccurate representations.

    I think the problem with some of the historians you’ve heard/read may be that in a book, you can have several pages in the introduction saying ‘I know there are problems with the sources, but nevertheless we can get useful information from them, etc, etc’. There isn’t really space for that kind of methodological discussion in a 20 minute talk or even a 8000 word article, and it also gets repetitive to write (and for the reader) if you’re writing on the same topics all the time. (Maybe in the future every academic should just say, ‘for a detailed discussion and justification of my historical methodology see my webpage at http://drcleverclogs.com‘ or whatever).

  7. highlyeccentric

    Captivating? Lucid? Are you sure, Miss Eccentric?

    *Looks innocent* Me, exaggerate? ;)

  8. I am unflattered once more, and return to an even keel…

    Magistra, as ever you make sane points close to the heart of the matter. I have been quite close to the minimum view, as you say, but if you were unfortunate enough to have a copy of my thesis in front of you you’d find me saying in it:

    We thus approach a conceptual situation in which a document could, if all our cautions be applied together, be technically authentic according to the discrimen veri ac falsi, but misreport by omission or bias several of the facts, imply a gathering of persons which never in fact took place, or an association of interests which may have been combined for the first time on parchment, and be signed by people who did not actually see the events they were called upon to have witnessed. This would reduce the charter to a private record of desired endorsements of a transfer potentially never to happen. It is of course unlikely that this is actually the state of the bulk of our documentation: it is far simpler to suppose that most of our documents do record, more or less as it happened, a gathering of persons at which a transaction of some kind was publicly carried out and written up soon afterwards. If this were not by and large true the point of recording events as such would be one entirely of legal formality.

    It goes on to say that since my charters are more than mere legal formulae, and vary and so on, they are likely describing real things. I’m fine with that; I’m not trying to prevent all assumptions about charters, even if they do rest shakily. I’m agin’ the ones that are just plain unreliable, like, ‘this charter shows that the king’s butler was in Abingdon on the 15th March 1127 and so plainly couldn’t have been down the road at Oxford the same day’, ‘here Count Guido styles himself comes gratia dei thus proving beyond doubt that he had stepped beyond royal appointment for the legitimation of his power’ or, perhaps most of all, ‘with this hearing the matter was clearly resolved’. No, to all of the above. This is not to do with the falseness or otherwise of an individual document, it’s to do with what these documents actually record as a class and how they are produced, and this lattergrounds for assumption is much more my target than the former.

  9. Mmm. Thanks Jonathan. You’ve just confirmed that I really have to *read* this article soon, having dutifully borrowed the book and photocopied it some time ago. (Ahh! Job done. Oh, wait, no it isn’t…)

  10. It is quite important. I took years to get round to it so you can still beat me to the punch. I have another post written about it and one more to go, so you can see it has made me think a lot.

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