Seminary LIV: excellent Spanish charter workshop in Oxford

View of Balliol College, Oxford, from the sky

View of Balliol College, Oxford, from the sky

Given the length of the previous post I will try to keep this one brief and not froth too much, but it is very rare to get to talk specialised shop with so many interested people as I did the other day. There are in the University of Oxford a variety of lively postgraduate seminars, including six, count them, six medieval ones—I’m told good things especially of the mainline Medieval History one—and among them is one called Approaches to Medieval Spain. This runs at a time when I could never plausibly attend, but the last one in the term was sufficiently important that I took time off and travelled over in the sunshine to see what happened. Wendy Davies had organised it, you see, and the title was “The Language of Iberian Charters of the Tenth Century”. So the result was that as well as a range of people I didn’t know we got (in order only of their speaking) Wendy, Roger Wright, Alice Rio, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Adam Kosto, David Howlett, me, Chris Wickham and Michael Clanchy, all dealing with the question of how to read and what significances to take from the language of these documents.

Now, you may be wondering what it is about the language of these documents that is worth this many clever people’s attention, and the answer may lie partly in the fact that one of the questions we were asking is, “what language are they in fact in?” Let me give you a bit of transcript:

Zipriano, qui est mandatore de domna Goldregodo et adabatissa, et Belito et Kalendo, suas pesonas, et per sagionem Froilla. Gongnobimus nos in ueritatem quem aramus terra ic, Busti Gogiti, de testamento de Sancta Marina et de abatissa, de domna Goldregodo, per insapienia…1

Which translates as, more or less:

To Cipriano, who is the representative of the lady and Abbess Goldregoda, both Velito and Kalendo, her men, by means of the Saió Froila. We do acknowledge in truth that we sowed this land, Busto Gogiti, which belongs to the testament of Santa Marina and to the Abbess, the lady Goldregoda, through ignorance…

Now, you may be saying, “if you can translate it, Jon, you must know what language it is” or even, “it’s Latin, Jon, wake up”. But is it? Cicero would barely have recognised this. The agreement and use of cases is all over the place, spelling is already quite Spanish, and some words seem misspelt in the direction of a Romance pronunciation. Is this in fact just what written legal Romance looks like, using a lot of grand old words that they spell old style even though they don’t pronounce them that way (as with the Old French terms in modern heraldry, or the Anglo-Latin terms that lawyers still like today)? And if so, can we get at the spoken language through these documents? Did they think they were speaking Latin, or something different? How different was the written language to the spoken, and why was it kept so if it was? And who trained the people who wrote it, and what with?

This was the sort of thing that we were discussing. The way that the day worked was that Wendy had assembled a cache of particularly good example charters, and she gave a short introduction, then Roger spoke briefly about the language, whereafter we discussed them all together in order.2 Roger’s take is roughly the second given above, that this is what Romance looks like written down, though there was disagreement with this, including some from me on the basis of the Catalan feudal oaths that Adam has studied so well which contain what seems to be actual spoken language transcribed and which looks very different.3 Roger did admit that although he would call this Romance the writers would have called it Latin, and probably would their spoken language as well. So there’s room for a lot of debate over terms here but a more useful approach is to just treat it as one language in long-term flux and study the changes more closely.

I won’t attempt to replicate the following discussion, but some points that have been asterisked in my notes are:

  • some of the changes to Latin we noticed were regular usage in the Visigothic period, so by the time of our documents already 300 years old or more;
  • one or two of the documents showed signs of spoken language’s influence, including in one case an apparent speech defect, that implied very strongly that they’d been written at dictation by someone who didn’t know the written language very well, implying some odd edge cases or perhaps specialisations in documentary literacy; we can never have too much proof of this;
  • people might well have deliberately added in obscure Latinisms for effect; Roger’s stock phrase was, “not ignorance, but educated ingenuity misapplied”
  • scribes did do things differently just for fun, they were not robots in a wider regulating system of literacy;
  • and that working on this sort of thing gets a lot harder when editors don’t indicate where they’ve expanded abbreviations.

If any of that gets you thinking, feel free to discuss below. It has me, but I intend to write about it where people can hold it in their hands, hopefully before too very long.


1.J. A. Fernández Flórez & M. Herrero de la Fuente (edd.), Colección Documental de Otero de las Dueñas, doc. no. 43.

2. The documents in question being, if you want to have a go yourself, José María Mínguez Fernández (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Monastero de Sahagún (857-1300) I: siglos IX y X, Coleccion Fuentes y Estudios de Historia Leonesa (León 1976), doc. 151; José Miguel Andrade Cernadas (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova: estudio introductorio, edición e índices (ss. IX-XII) (Santiago de Compostela 1995), 2 vols, doc. no. 221; Emilio Sáez & Carlos Sáez (edd.), Colección documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230) Vol. II (953-985) Coleccion Fuentes y Estudios de Historia Leonesa 42 (León 1987), doc. 442; Mínguez, Sahagún, doc. 329; Sáez & Sáez, León docs 310, 388 & 448; Mínguez, Sahagún doc. 205; Fernández & Herrero, Otero doc. 43 as above; and Alexandre Herculano de Carvalho & Joachim Jose de Silva Mendes Leal (edd.), Portugaliae Monumenta Historica, a sæculo octavo post Christum usque ad quintumdecimum, I: Diplomata et chartae, fasc. 1. Ante sæculum XII exaratae et ad origines antiquitatesque potugaliae utcumque spectantes (Lisboa 1856), doc. CLXIII (though we had a newer transcript for this one supplied by Roger).

3. For Roger’s case in detail you would be well-advised to consult his Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France, ARCA, Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs 8 (Liverpool 1982); Adam’s work referred to is Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: Power, Order, and the Written Word 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001).

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7 responses to “Seminary LIV: excellent Spanish charter workshop in Oxford

  1. Yes, this gets me thinking too. Among the C13 letters I’m currently working on, some are in Anglo-Norman (of some kind) and some in Latin (ditto), but I frequently have the feeling that if only my Latin was a *little* better, I would be able to show how the ‘Latin’ ones are actually written in a ‘language’ which is really what someone thinking in Anglo-Norman would come out with if forced to translate… and if so, that it might be possible to demonstrate – through similarity or dissimilarity of syntax between letters ‘from’ the same person – whether this was a result of one person dictating to many scribes in some kind of Anglo-Normo-Latin, or one person speaking Anglo-Norman and being translated into Latin on the page by a variety of other people with equally varying degrees of accomplishment. And yes, I do think it makes a difference. But, unfortunately, there are currently far to many ‘ifs’ in that logical sequence…

    • My first instinct is to reach for Karl Heidecker’s Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, but that’s mainly because it’s on my desk for other reasons. There’s a paper there by David Postles called “Country clerici and the Composition of English Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Private Charters” but as far as I can see it doesn’t really touch this question, though Clanchy’s Memory to Written Record, which is scattered all over the footnotes, may do. And yet it’s fundamental, I agree. Are you in touch with Ceirsach who writes Mony Wylsum Way? This is the sort of thing I would expect them to have considered given some of their recent translation posts, but I may be putting words into their mouth; I simply don’t know where to suggest you go otherwise.

      • Good suggestions; thanks. And if you think of anything else, you can tell me at Leeds. :)

        • Aha! I had really better put something up with my current appearance in it so that anonymi can spot me. I seem to have arranged to chat with a number of people whom I have no chance of identifying without their intervention :-)

      • I found all the above especially interesting. I don’t want to revisit that hack paper which was originally given in 20 minutes at Leeds IMC, not least because my focus is now early-modern. I do think, however, that late-12th-13th-century charters in England have become more formulaic than 10th-century ‘Iberian’ or 13th-century ‘letters’ (although charters might be regarded as letters in some respects). Paul Hyams demonstrated this development very well in the paper to which both Karl and I referred. I did, nonetheless, indicate that there remained some latitude for clerici to give personal expression through particular clauses or mini-clauses which I, perhaps foolishly, associated with the New Historicist notion of ‘self-fashioning’. By the 13th century in England, I doubt that clerici needed to have the text dictated to them and I suspect that that is the interpretation also of Paul Hyams in that paper originally entitled ‘the flat-arsed conveyancer’. Some of the aspects of the development of the formulae are discussed by Hyams in various places (esp. his piece on ‘Warranty and good lordship …’ and the papers also reprinted, if I may mention them, in Postles, _Missed Opportunities…_ (2009) in the second section.

        • You can certainly mention it, as I didn’t know about it and it looks really interesting, especially the paper about choosing witnesses, something that really hasn’t seen enough attention in the earlier period. So thankyou for that!

          As to ‘self-fashioning’, I have to wonder, not least because the circumstances of the actors also impinge on the text and some scribes may be doing as much to fashion their patrons as to demonstrate themselves, but I would be very happy to admit that many scribes are showing off (one particular pet example being an Urgell scribe called Bonhom who always signed off with “hasci indignus presbiter” in the HUGEST rustics the parchment could contain, thus completely belying his expressed humility…).

  2. Pingback: From the sources IV: following up the simonists and Vikings « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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