Lost archives and time-travel strategies

The apse of the current (Romanesque) church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Adam Kosto began a paper in Speculum a while ago with an apology for how much historians of medieval Catalonia go on about the masses of material we have. Given that it is already a topos, it seems a bit churlish to write a post about how much we’ve lost, but nonetheless this does occasionally hit home. Sant Joan de les Abadesses, my first and dearest archive, with which I am almost certainly not finished, has four big books which were written by the penultimate abbot, Oleguer Isalguer (1529-1581) inventorying the abbey’s archive, and for the ninth and tenth centuries the inventory makes it clear that we now have only about half of what he had, some two hundred documents lost since then, usually entire bags covering whole areas. However, he was inventorying the archive, at Girona rather than at Sant Joan, because he then reckoned that they’d lost about three hundred documents in the last fifty years and something had to be done. So we don’t even know what those ones were or where they might have wound up (or, more interestingly, why they were being stolen).

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

There survive even more charters from the period from Sant Benet de Bages, further west and south, but, unlike Sant Joan, Sant Benet didn’t get to keep its archive on site after it was dissolved in 1835 (Sant Joan became a parish church, so there was some continuity). Instead most of it was hived off to the house of one of the last monks, from there a chunk was grabbed for the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó by Prosper de Bofarull in 1837 but were then never catalogued (as of 1999 this work was ongoing, but by that time 66 had already been lost completely, and just over a hundred survived only in typescript copies because they’d been removed for ‘safe keeping’ during the Civil War to someone’s private collection). Some more went to the Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, but three lots have also been located in various private collections since the Great War when the first of them was given to the Institut d’Estudis Catalans for safe keeping. And that stolen lot is presumably out there somewhere too and quite possibly still more. So the possibility lurks of that sample being much increased even now.

Santa Maria de Ripoll, Catalunya

Santa Maria de Ripoll as it now stands, restored

But the classic and terrible case is this one, Santa Maria de Ripoll, which was once the richest monastery in Catalonia, a scientific centre of European renown, and the comital mausoleum, and which was burnt in 1835 by anti-clerical groups from Barcelona. All its archive went with it, six cartularies and loads of originals, and what we know of its documents we know from a few selective inventories of the most ‘important’ bits by prior archivists and documents quoted by Bofarull and other authors from before his time. Some of it was hugely important for genealogy and prosography of the counts, which is what has mainly been grieved for, but there were also large hearings with audiences in the hundreds, demographic data and just all the usual stuff you can do with a big monastery’s records if you so choose, all of which went up in smoke as future study possibilities on 9th August 1835. In this case, there’s no reason to suppose any stashes taken to safety and now privately held. It’s just gone.

All of which had me thinking. At first I thought how great it would be to have a time machine to go back and warn some of the monks to get at least the cartularies out of the way. But it would make such a huge difference to the field in the last few centuries if they had, to the extent that Ripoll might now be as significant as Cluny as a medieval databank, that a particular instance of the time-traveller’s difficulty arises: by the time you returned, your work would be completely outdated and your knowledge all wrong (or we can wrestle with the paradox that in that improved world you would have known this stuff all along—and then do you still have to go and get it saved? and what happens if you never think of the idea, not knowing how it was saved? and so on). So, unless you just stole it and produced it with some made-up provenance in the present day, which might have its own problems unless no-one else in the world knew about time travel, you’d have to get it kept safely in such a way as to ensure that only you could then find it when your time came, as it were. That, given human ingenuity, would take some doing, not least because you’d kind of have to bump off those on the inside who got the texts out for you, it being the only way to be sure the location wouldn’t be vouchsafed between the then and the now! It all gets extremely unpleasant, and yet, if one could somehow avert the fire through time travel or save the documents like that, presumably one would, even though, paradoxically, it would ruin one’s career… Anyone have enough sci-fi geek in them to suggest a better plan?


Most of this is based on Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), I pp. 33-45. The Adam Kosto article is “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74; Bofarull’s work is Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los Condes de Barcelona Vindicados, y Cronología y Genealogía de los Reyes de España considerados como Soberianos Independientes de su Marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), vol. I online at http://www.archive.org/details/loscondesdebarce01bofauoft, last modified 10 July 2008 as of 15 January 2009.

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8 responses to “Lost archives and time-travel strategies

  1. I had an english teacher once who said time travel would never be possible because if it were Shakespeare would never have had time to write his plays due to the huge number of people popping in to ask a quick question.

    If your scenario were to work out, though, no one would ever notice your mucking around because of the each-minute distortions of the time line from people going back to kill/save Hitler/Stalin/Lieberman.

    If you wanted to be subtle I suppose you could do your research on the saved documents, publish your theories, then slip the documents into the time stream to be “discovered” a few years later. You’d be hailed as a visionary genius when the support showed up and then everyone else would have access to the data.

    • Mmm, yes, I like that (and the Shakespeare suggestion!) but I think I’d actually introduce them before I published. I’d draft the first couple of articles, then arrange to uncrate some wooden box as part of the Gili collection in Harvard or something, ‘find’ the Cartulari Gran, wait for it to hit the papers, then two months later submit both articles to different journals before anyone else could have got a look in.

      Clearly time travel would not bring out the good side in me :-)

  2. Might I suggest that it all depends on what kind of world we’re living in? If the timeline is immutable, as in the short story ‘By His Bootstraps’, then maybe the reason all those documents are missing is because you will, at some point in the future, go back to ‘rescue’ them. :) If the timeline is mutable, on the other hand, like in ‘A Sound of Thunder’, might I suggest NOT even CONSIDERING getting into that time machine, please kthxbye. :D

  3. Ran across your post and thought you might find this useful which I found here.
    Good luck in your research.

    • Thankyou! I can’t immediately find anything I didn’t know about there, and no actual charters certainly, but there’s every possibility that this will come in very useful in the future, especially if it keeps being added to.

  4. I’m with you on grieving for lost records because of the holes they inevitably leave in the scholarship (and it’s always tempting to wonder if there might have been some document somewhere, long since destroyed, that might have put a whole different spin on things). At the same time, I sometimes think about how contemporaries might have felt about some of these docs. In 1381 in England, the rebels deliberately targeted manorial records because they saw them unequivocally as tools of oppression. I imagine something similar might have been going on in 1835 Barcelona. I can hardly bear to contemplate what was lost in France in the early 1790s.

    • You’re entirely right about 1835 Barcelona, for what it’s worth; this was part of a much larger attack on the monasteries and their property and privileges. I’m sure they were sure to set a match or two in the archive deliberately. Ripoll’s documents surviving would almost certainly have made a huge difference to my work, because my first paper and a chunk of my eventual book use the documents of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, its baby sister house up the river. The two were founded at the same time, Ripoll initially ran Sant Joan, they had adjoining properties in several places and I’m sure I’d have found that many people I’ve identified in relation to Sant Joan actually had bigger and more important ties with Ripoll—what survives is sufficient to show this for one guy. Hence the grief…

  5. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XIII: more stones than parchment I (Santa Maria de Ripoll) « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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