Seminar XCIX: hearing the king’s voice in charters

(Written mostly offline on a plane between London Gatwick and Naples, 28/09/2011, which may also explain the recent quiet patch, sorry.)

The new term looms and I haven’t even reached the summer, I realise, but undeterred I press on with the seminar reports since they are apparently things that people like to read, and this one was actually requested of me a while back. At last I deliver, and may even be able to upload in the next couple of days. On the 1st June 2011, Professor Anton Scharer, no less, was at the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, speaking to the title, “The King’s Voice: expressions of personal concern in royal diplomas”.

Signet ring of King Childeric of the Franks

Signet ring of King Childeric of the Franks

The topic of this paper was one that we have discussed here before, not least because our frequent commentator round here, Levi Roach had spoken on a fairly similar subject only a few months before. I had thought, because of Professor Scharer’s writings on Alfred the Great,1 that he too would be talking about Anglo-Saxon charters but in fact he ranged very widely, not just through Frankish and Ottonian documents but also Merovingian seals and artistic representations of kings. By this kind of survey he was attempting to show that the king was symbolised in many aspects of the royal charter’s difference from the everyday document. Not the least noticeable point of this for me, in the league of things I’ve known for ages but never actually thought about, is why the Carolingian royal charters are in a cursive hand. This is after all the administration that so valued empire-wide uniform legibility that they gave us, as it turns out, most of our modern type-faces in the form of Caroline Minuscule; but the royal diplomas needed to look authentic, and so they carried on in the same horrible chancery cursive the Merovingians had used because that’s what royal documents looked like. For those with the knowledge to read more than just the text, the look and the ceremony (Professor Scharer had one example of a royal charter being actually read out at the recipient’s church, in a case from Paderborn in 813), there were also other clues: the Tironian notes with which Carolingian royal diplomas were usually finished off sometimes record the king ordering the charter drawn up. But it wasn’t always the king—interestingly, under Emperor Louis the Pious it’s more often Empress Judith than Louis, though this is also to say she is known to have done so twice—so when it is, that’s quite possibly genuine information, since it was apparently possible to say something else.

Sealed precept of Charlemagne for Mainz, 813

Sealed precept of Charlemagne for Mainz, 813; online with detail view at the Landesarchiv Stuttgart, linked through

The question remained, of course, whether the kings genuinely had any input on what words were used, even if they were apparently closely involved with the actual making of documents. Here Professor Scharer argued from a very few cases where feelings that only the king might be expected to have had appear to be recorded in charters, such as an unusually long list of family anniversaries given in a precept of King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks in a grant to St-Denis; it’s hard to imagine who else can have thought it necessary to commemorate so many of his minor relatives, and subsequent related grants did not record the same number, so it does look like a unique piece of input based on family knowledge, and Otto I can be found doing something similar for his family’s foundation of Quedlinburg.2

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

I could see other arguments here at least—St-Denis strikes me as a good place to look for genealogy-crazy royal functionaries who might want to show off to get the king’s good attention—but I was a bit more enthused by a document of Emperor Henry III that Professor Scharer cited of which we have two versions, one of which contains much more information on the emperor’s connection to the beneficiary monastery of Hildesheim; this version was enacted, and the former was not, suggesting that it was a first draft that was sent back by the emperor for revision (though someone did wisely raise in questions the issue that somehow, the recipient house also preserved this supposed rejected draft, to which Professor Scharer had only jocular answers).3 This, I can imagine happening much more readily, and it is kind of the minimum that I think is implied by the penitential charters of Æthelred the Unready which Levi had discussed, too; their shared agenda is so closely defined that there must have been some check on their conformity to it (even if in that case it might as easily have been carried out by Wulfstan).4 Whether we can jump from there to the king actually telling his scribe what the thing should say, in detail, especially for a period earlier than the eleventh century when document use is booming in these areas, is a lot harder to say still, I think; but at the very least, papers like this make complete scepticism about the possibility less justifiable.5


1. Most obviously Herrschaft und Repräsentation. Studien zur Hofkultur König Alfreds des Großen, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 36 (Wien 2000), but for many of us I suspect more familiarly “The Writing of History at King Alfred’s Court” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 5 (Oxford 1996), pp. 177-206. His publication record is, needless to say, larger than this.

2. From Professor Scharer’s handout I can tell you that the St-Denis document was †A. Giry, †M. Prou & G. Tessier (edd.), Recueil des Actes de Charles II Le Chauve, Roi de France (Paris 1927-1947), 3 vols, II doc. no. 246.

3. Likewise, this was Harry Bresslau & Paul Kehr (edd.), Die Urkunden Heinrichs III, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Diplomata regum et imperatorum Germaniae) V (Berlin 1926-1931, repr. 1993), doc. no. 236.

4. I should notice that Levi’s paper appears to be forthcoming as “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming), but meanwhile one might turn to his “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203.

5. For Germany I assert this point about increasing document use somewhat blithely on my impressions from having flitted through a great many cartularies of German monasteries for the Lay Archives Project and finding their great bulk too late, but there may be actual literature on it too, and for England you can see Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, though a bit of perspective on this article does help.

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13 responses to “Seminar XCIX: hearing the king’s voice in charters

  1. There is a Freudian slip in this post: you allege you are trying to *think* a learned colleague.

  2. highlyeccentric

    *peers at post and says -hmmm-*

    Queen Judith was pretty cool. That is my only relevant opinion here.

    • I wish we knew more about her! But I also wish she was more studied. Apart from two articles by Elizabeth Ward I know of basically nothing. I suppose that she must be covered in Mayke de Jong’s The Penitential State but presumably not as a main focus. She exists mainly as a very powerful stereotype.

      • highlyeccentric

        She turns up in Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers, I think. I’ pretty sure that it was during her tenure as queen that the royal council-taking seems to have moved from exclusively masculine environments like the bathhouse to more heterosocial environs, like the main hall.

        *peers at her notes* ah, and all this crap i have about coronation ceremonies applies to some OTHER Judith, so that’s irrelevant.

        • Hmm, are you sure that’s two different Judiths? In which case, which one were you talking about to start with? The latter stuff must refer to the Empress, second wife of Louis the Pious, surely (and will largely be by Jinty Nelson, right)?

          • highlyeccentric

            It’s by Jinty, but it relates to Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, I think, who married some Anglo-Saxon king, but, oddly, got a full-blown coronation ceremony in Frankia before leaving for England.

            • Oh lor’, yes, of course. I teach this stuff for a living you know! The wife of King Æthelwulf and mother-in-law of King Alfred, given the special coronation because the West Saxon kings had lately made a special habit of downgrading the importance of their wives and Charles the Bald presumably wasn’t having this for his little girl. Fair enough and sorry. So, the grand-daughter of the Empress.

      • She does indeed discuss Judith a fair bit in ‘The Penitential State’, but also has written a very good stand-alone article on her: ‘Bride Shows Revisited: Praise, Slander and Exegesis in the Reign of Empress Judith’, in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300–900 , ed. L. Brubaker and J. M. D. Smith (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 257–77.

  3. Pingback: Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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