Copied with approval

“The place of charters in social practices cannot be fully appreciated without an adequate knowledge of their production, their range and their diversity. The documents that survive, together with those known through indirect references (in scattered copies or mentions of losses), are only a residual part of what was produced. Any given charter collection has been affected by accidents of conservation: by selection–whether deliberate or not–and by differing amounts of attention being devoted to different documents, while at the same time addition of new materials was taking place. To know to what extent the visible tip of the documentary iceberg reflects the part that is invisible is an old methodological preoccupation…. The question is certainly a quantitative one but it is even more a qualitative one. Does the view conveyed by the sources simply show a reduction of what was once there, or is it a distortion? Similarly, how should we interpret the ebb and flow in the numbers of documents? What part of this is due to fluctuations in the production of writings and what is due to the vicissitudes of conservation?”1

And he goes on to do a case study using three cartularies compared to the preservation of loose documents from the same place and concludes that, at the very least, the originals were still around for a good while after the production of their first cartularies because, for example, they were used in subsequent larger cartularies. However, the cartularies are still, mostly, selective.2 This is tantamount to calling Patrick Geary wrong, which, nothing loath, he goes on to do in a footnote.3

If I don’t get on with it I shall be able to write my article on this subject entirely by quoting other scholars. It may be difficult to convince someone it deserves printing if I do, or even if I just could. Time to get some stuff finished…


1. Laurent Morelle, “The Metamorphosis of the Monastic Charter Collections in the Eleventh Century (Saint-Amand, Saint-Riquier, Montier-en-Der)” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 171-204, quote at p. 171.

2. The one that isn’t, apparently, where he thinks the compiler was just too overwhelmed by the material to organise to an agenda (ibid. p. 191), wasn’t edited when he wrote but now is, by Constance B. Bouchard (ed.), The cartulary of Montier-en-Der, 666-1129 (Toronto 2004).

3. ‘On this point P. GEARY, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, 1994; French tr. by J.-P. RICARD [sic], Mémoire et oubli à la fin du premier millénaire (Paris, 1996), is not strong enough; see my remarks on the chapter of the book concerning archives: L. MORELLE, “Histoire et archives vers l’an mil: Une nouvelled ‘mutation’?”, Histore et archives 3 (1998), pp. 119-141.’ (Morelle, “Metamorphosis”, p. 173 n. 8.)

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3 responses to “Copied with approval

  1. I love that Heidecker volume. So many great issues elegantly raised.

    Currently grappling with similar things in respect of the ‘Ancient Correspondence’ collection at TNA. Even though these weren’t ‘collected’, copied, etc. in the same way that entries in a cartulary were, the archival principles (if I can call them that) are no longer clear. Some extant letters seem so mundane it wouldn’t be inappropriate to suggest that everything was kept, and value was equally and universally applied to ‘official’ correspondence. But on the other hand, we know that not all (outgoing) letters were enrolled, which undercuts lack of differentiating principles as a primary explanation. Some degree discrimination was certainly going on. And then we get apparent lacunae (in the collection of originals) that might arise from deliberate contemporary collection/storage concepts, or a decrease in production, or general accidental loss over the years; and knowing which really matters to certain interpretive frameworks. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s resolvable even by elegant case studies, no matter how much one wants to know the answer…

  2. There’s a lot of good thinking going on about such questions (says the ill-informed early modernist). For an argument that nearly all (admittedly early 15th-century) charters, even from small towns, survived fairly long, look at Peter Brun’s recent dissertation, _Schrift und politisches Handeln_. Between the post-hoc manufacture of charters and the vagaries of preservation (which, however it did happen, clearly did NOT follow modern expectations about the ‘importance’ of different sorts of text-carriers), it seems not very useful to think of some hypothetical “complete” set of charters that have been whittled away, and to follow the good late-medievalists at Münster and Zurich by recognizing that charters were one medium in an ongoing and steadily shifting conversation about power, property, authority, sanctity, and other important things.

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