Three-quarters brilliance: l’affaire Zimmermann, part III

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne

Because of the various things to do with the production of charters that are currently on my plate to do, it has become necessary to finish getting to grips with Michel Zimmermann’s immense thèse d’état, about which I have already griped.1 Let me say once again that although it drives me nuts it is, honestly, deeply brilliant, full of insight and is written by someone who more than almost anyone, if not actually anyone (Anscari Mundó might perhaps challenge) knows the great bulk of the Catalan charter material, which gives him the ability to say some genuinely well-founded things about literacy and practice. And he does! It is merely that they are punctuated by things that are not well-founded, and even I can easily show this. It makes me afraid to recommend the book to anyone for fear of what they may take on trust (and indeed afraid of what I’m assuming is OK).

Let me exemplify. Chapter 3 is about the development of the notariate in Catalonia and what there was before there was one.2 What there was, Zimmermann shows, is a world where basically anyone who could write might occasionally be invited to do a charter, which they probably did by reference to whatever other charters someone might have locally since there’s no evidence of formularies till later and yet (as we lately saw) the practice is fairly clearly-defined; there must have been a mechanism of continuity here somewhere.3 Over the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, production of documents specialised, so that fewer and fewer people were making more and more documents. Also, fewer and fewer of them were priests, whereas in the ninth century almost all of them were. (Lay scribes, who are really hard to prove because clerics don’t always use their titles here, seem to have stayed steady at between 6% and 10%, ninth to thirteenth centuries.4) Increasingly, these people became attached to institutions, or scribal work was increasingly done by people who were so attached; but some of them were attached only loosely, so it may well have been recruitment of good scribes on a loose retainer (inevitably, by then, a fief; Zimmermann gives several really neat little case studies of this, which fully demonstrate his wry perception of individuality5). By the thirteenth century, this was, more or less a notariate, but it had only really become fully professionalised in Barcelona, there were still other people writing documents and it’s not a simple transition. You see, this is good stuff, and amply demonstrated.

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090

There is also more contentious stuff that is worth thinking hard about. A lot of people occur in these documents with the title sacer. I have always taken this to mean `priest’, that is, as a form of sacerdos, and I take some comfort in the fact that Ramon Ordeig does so too in the Catalunya Carolíngia, but Zimmermann rightly points out that the word doesn’t actually mean that, but just `consecrated’, and wonders if it may actually refer to those in monastic communities who have yet to take their vows.6 His reason for doing this is that sees their frequency in signatures rise along with monachi, monks, while presbiteri, really certainly priests, drop off. I don’t, myself, think that pattern is repeated in the sample as a whole, rather than just in who’s writing, but I haven’t done the numbers (which would be huge). In any case, plenty of people can be found who use both sacer and presbiter of themselves and indeed some sacri who were also monachi, so I just don’t think it works.7 I’m also pretty sure sacri occur in contexts that are unlikely to feature any monks, though I haven’t happened to come across those in the same way since starting this post, so I am dubious for several reasons about Zimmermann then merrily counting these guys among the monastic scribes henceforth, but his basis for saying it is at least clear. If he’s wrong, too, then why the heck is the word sacer apparently driving out presbiter; are we watching Gregorianism sink in at some level here? Because that would be really interesting. It has also forced me to stop and take a look at an assumption about words, so on the whole this is good even if I don’t agree.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39 (reduced-quality version)

So why, why, does he also say things like this? “À la fin du Xe siècle, un juge souscrit tous les actes du comte Borrell – il les souscrit SSS, c’est-à-dire qu’il est davantage qu’un témoin.”8 Let’s leave aside the argument about whether using a ruche means you’re granting legal confirmation rather than just witnessing, because I’m not sure there’s a difference but if there is one I can’t see it in, for example, the document above.9 Let’s just get straight to Borrell II. Did he really have all his acts signed by judges? And the answer is, of course, no, not even a bit. All Zimmermann’s examples postdate 985, so just staying within those final eight years of the count’s forty-eight in power, I can find thirteen documents he issued with no judges attested.10 Now, OK, easy for me, I have a database and so on, but Zimmermann has also seen several of these documents at least so I simply don’t understand where he’s coming from with this assertion. It’s not as if Borrell never had judges witness his documents, it’s not much less frequent than him not doing so, but I don’t think one can deduce from that that this is how they were authenticated; I just think it shows that there were often judges at Borrell’s court, which is, you know, not surprising.11 And this, of course, makes the fact that Zimmermann draws this out to conclude that if people wanted their transactions legally authenticated, they made sure there was a judge present, very problematic, as does the vast wash of documents with no judge present that were still somehow worth keeping.12 But if a reader didn’t know these documents, that reader would believe him. How does this fit with the good stuff? I still don’t get it.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., I pp. 113-170.

3. On the use of formularies here see for now ibid., I pp. 246-284, although this seems to attribute an almost retrospective importance to the Formulary of Ripoll, edited by Zimmermann in his “Un formulaire du Xème siècle conservé à Ripoll” in Faventia Vol. 4 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 25-86, online here, although it can be dated fairly tightly to 977; I cover this in what should become J. Jarrett, “Uncertain origins: comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic: charter critique and history from charters (forthcoming), but until then the dating argument at least is covered in Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis (Birkbeck College, University of London, 2005), online here, pp. 63-68.

4. On lay scribes and indeed others you can also see Jesus Alturó i Perucho, “Le statut du scripteur en Catalogne (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Marie-Claude Hubert, E. Poulle & Marc Smith (edd.), Le statut du scripteur au Moyen Âge. Actes du XIIe Colloque Scientifique du Comité Internationale de Paléographie Latine (Cluny, 17-20 Juillet 1998), Matériaux pour l’Histoire publiées par l’École des Chartes 2 (Paris 2000), pp. 41-55.

5. Thus, at Écrire at lire, I pp. 157-159, Zimmermann treats the comital notary Ponç d’Osor, who was a canon of the cathedral of Barcelona but also held substantial private property and notes that over the two hundred-odd documents in which he appears we see him not just acquire some of this property but also get into boundary disputes with his neighbours, one of whom later seems to have taken over his job when he dies. Before that, too, Zimmermann notes with a certain mordant sympathy that this man who had written so much finished up as one of those who had to have someone else sign his will for him because he was too ill. Poor sod. But you see my point: someone who notices this sort of thing in the documents should be a friend in all my assessments!

6. Ibid., I pp. 119-121.

7. For example, in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1255, the main actor is one Esperandéu sacer, but he signs as presbiter; in ibid., no. 1281 is carried out by one Adroer sacer et monachus; and there’s a pair of priests who hung round Sant Benet de Bages called Badeleu and Baldemar who get both sacer and presbiter used of them pretty indiscriminately and appear in many transactions; I don’t have a definitive list yet, as I’ve only noted these instances whilst working through Ordeig for other reasons – I haven’t had to work to refute this idea.

8. Zimmermann, Érire et lire, I p. 145.

9. Zimmermann makes that argument, somewhat breezily, ibid., I pp. 140-144, whilst observing a good deal of variation and change over time that I think prevent the argument floating. I also think it’s circular and that if you don’t start with the assumption that the subscripsit ruche has a specific significance, the documents don’t themselves demonstrate it. But there is at least evidence, even if its reading remains open. The document, meanwhile, is edited as Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 645.

10. They are, in order: Àngel Fàbrega i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), doc. no. 160 (986); Josep Rius (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés Vol. I (Barcelona 1945), doc. no. 190 (986); Fàbrega, Diplomatari, doc. no. 168 (986); Ordeig, Catalunya Carolínga IV, doc. nos 1524 & 1525 (987); Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari del Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X) (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 537 (987); Fabregà, Diplomatari, doc. no. 187 (988); Lluís To i Figueras, El Monestir de Santa Maria de Cervià i la Pagesia: una anàlisi local del canvi feudal. Diplomatari segles X-XII (Barcelona 1991), doc. no. 1 (989; this may have been `improved’, but I don’t see why you’d downgrade the witnesses if you were doing that); Rius, Cartulario, doc. no. 239 (989); Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 225 (990); Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1596 (990; a bit unfair, this one, as it only survives in regesta, which firstly means it’s abbreviated and secondly means it’s out of Zimmermann’s remit, but since its witness list is recorded I’m including it); Fabregà, Diplomatari, doc. no. 240 (993); and C. Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, ap. 232 (which is Borrell’s flipping will). Zimmermann cites three of these editions (Junyent, Rius and Udina) and one of the relevant documentary series (one of those behind Fabregà) in this chapter alone.

11. On judges around Borrell’s court, see first Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99, then Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-101: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), p. 133.

12. So, for example, in Junyent, Diplomatari, I counted 10 judges who appear in a total of 29 documents; I probably missed a few but there are 628 documents in the collection, and almost all of these guys turn up in the last ten years (see previous note). There is a complication in that we know Guifré Vicar of la Néspola, who appears ibid., doc. nos 557, 603 & 634, was a judge (so attested in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1825) but he is never given the title in any documents from his lifetime. Nonetheless, how many can there be like him? 599?

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10 responses to “Three-quarters brilliance: l’affaire Zimmermann, part III

  1. It may not be much help, given the vagaries of local and chronological variation, but I’ve certainly encountered the term sacer here and there in Anglo-Latin texts where it appears to be an acceptable shorthand for sacerdos (or some equivalent specification of clerical grade, e.g. sacerdotalis ordinis etc). The only example I can drag up without suffering intolerable brain-cramp on a peaceful New Year’s day is the scribe of the Paris Psalter, who identifies himself as sacer dei.

    Your analysis sounds like the only reasonable one to me (for what that’s worth). I don’t know your material of course, but do you reckon the variety of associated terms you identify might simply reflect the fact that the sacerdotal order included ecclesiasts of various categories and ranks (monk-priests, of course). When your clerical grade put you on an equal footing with a bishop, it must have been nice to refer to it as often as possible…

    • [Ed. ‘including monk-priests, of course’].

      • There is work to be done here, which maybe only looks as if it needs doing once you’ve been an Anglo-Saxonist and met the ‘minster hypothesis’, about exactly what pastoral role these monasteries (and nunneries) had. I’m not sure any of them are are strictly Benedictine or canonical, in Gregorian senses, except maybe Santa Maria de Ripoll, and I probably only think that might be different because most of its documentation is lost. It is at least bigger than 12 monks, whereas most of the others show up smaller than 12, with many of their members `on the outside’ in clerical orders. But, I’ve since dug further into the Sant Benet de Bages material and found that one particular group of monks-by-title sign with different dignities depending on the business of the document! A private transfer that they witnessed, they’re `clericus'; if it was a donation to the house, though, then they own up to being `monachus’ (or, as in some cases, `subdiaconus, levita’, etc.). So it’s probably actually impossible to figure out because they seem a lot less bothered than the scholarship is about what their `rank’ was!

        The difficulty for a `minster hypothesis’ reading is, of course, that there is also a parish network here, that the words `monasterium’/`cenobium’ and `ecclesia’ are used consistently, and only the latter get parishes. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident that if you’d have gone into Manresa on a market day of your choice in, say, 980, you’d have found the priests from the city church of Santa Maria and the `clerici’ from Sant Benet (which is very close by) both scribbling and witnessing things for people, probably according to almost unrecoverably informal links like friendship and happenstance, links that were made precisely because on any given market day they’d be down there, or similar. Since it is not my next planned research project I am trying very hard not to get distracted by the fact that if it’s possible to work this out anywhere in the area, it may well be from this material I’m talking about…

    • Just one further example, now that I’ve found a neat one: Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV doc. no. 1255, is an original single-sheet preserved at the Arxiu de l’Abadia de Montserrat that hails from Sant Benet de Bages, and in it the scribe, a man called Duran whose title has been lost, records a gift by a priest called Esperandéu, who is a sacer in the protocol and a presbiter in the eschatocol. I think that’s fairly conclusive and it’s not the only one I’ve found, it’s just the least disputable.

  2. Well, I look upon your supply of documents with enormous envy.

    (I speak as one who’s dissatisfied with the scholarship on early ecclesiastical organisation and collegiate churches in parts of Europe where ‘early’ takes you into the mid-C12th, and where one can afford to be wedded neither to entrenched positions on institutional history, nor procrustean analyses of ecclesiastical rank. [So do please excuse that last flippant remark in the previous…]).

    My understanding of this kind of variable usage, e.g. by professed monks identifying themselves by clerical grade for ‘extra-mural’ documents, has partly been shaped by Julia Barrow and Francesca Tinti’s accounts of the material connected with the monks at Worcester. The comparison may not be especially pertinent, but at least it’s a well-studied body of evidence that draws attention to the difficulty of placing too much weight on nice terminological distinctions where the sources are fewer.

    • It’s also perhaps worth mentioning the evidence for Winchester here, where the Liber Vitae provides very clear cases of monks going by their clerical grades. SDK has a nice discussion of it in his facsilime edition, pointing to the parallels with the Worcester material.

  3. I am not so critic with Zimmermann’s work, imo it’s a must. For example, on the SSS simbol usage, he is presenting an hypothesis: formerly, that the sign started as ‘subsripsi’ abreviation. I am not a peolographer so I cannot say how true of false it is, but it seems to me not to be an specially twisted one. The false sentence about Borrell and his judges, I take-it just as a misconception, probably motivated by the vast amount of material he has been working on; I read far more serious false assertions daily that goes routinely unchallenged. In other words, if Zimmermann had an easy way to check the whole Borrell’s documentation dossier, he surely could avoided this mistake, (that’s why I advocate for an electronic, standarized, normalized and open documental corpus, but that’s clearly outside the topic of your post). :)

    • Well, I agree that the signum started as subscripsi but the question is then, does that mean that the person who uses it is somehow signing for a different reason than the person who does not? Is such a person really “davantage qu’un témoin”? I’m not sure there is any such rôle; I think everyone is a witness here and they just vary for the same variety as Zimmermann observes in other aspects of the signatures. But we can agree that the work is a must; that’s exactly why I find these oddities and errors (presumably carried through from his thesis, of which this is the much-delayed publication) so frustrating. They are in a text that everyone needs to read but which few will be able to filter like this.

  4. Pingback: Bearing the sins of Michel Zimmermann « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Strange deals by intermittent monks | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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