Bearing the sins of Michel Zimmermann

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

That title sounds more negative than I really want. You will have observed by now that I have what might best be called a complex relationship with the work of Professor Michel Zimmermann, which I have described here as “three-quarters brilliance”.1 As I continue on through the book, however, more and more secure that he does not have the answer to the question I’m trying to solve, I am becoming more perplexed by the sins of omission than the sins of commission that it could be seen to commit. This is, after all, a 1219-page book in two volumes; it’s slightly surprising to find that he’s omitted anything at all. But we have seen, for example, that there are only three dealing with women, and now I find something else discussed very briefly that I was really hoping for more on, which is one particular form of curse that I occasionally see in the Catalan documents which cries out for study. So I thought I’d ask you guys about it!

You may be wondering what I’m doing with documents with curses in in the first place, since sometimes those can be quite, well, quite literally occult, but honestly it’s above-board: almost all medieval charters end with what’s technically called a sanctio, a clause that sets out what will happen to those who interfere with the transaction declared in the charter.2 Sometimes this is purely a financial penalty, albeit sometimes a completely unrealistic one, but more often (especially as charters that are preserved frequently concern grants to churches) there is a spiritual sanction. Now Zimmermann enthusiastically dedicates seventy-five pages of Écrire et lire to this (so, only say, twenty-five times the amount of space he gives to half of the population), and rather than being impressionistic and just giving examples of the sort of things one can find in the material, which is how he frequently proceeds in the book, leaving one wishing he’d also done the numbers, here he was actually working from a quantitative sample. I am in no position to criticise someone for only using information technology in one part of their thesis of course, but it certainly adds something to this section: we can here say with some certainty what curses are used when, where, how much and how for long.3

Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Wifredo I 8

Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Wifredo I 8, low-quality but larger image linked through

So, OK, here’s the one I mean, and you may be able to see the text on the larger version linked underneath that image, starting line 22 just after the paragraph break:

Peccatis nostris anime illius sit obligatum que pro hac re cupimus esse purgatum

Or, translated:

Let his soul be burdened with our sins, of which we hope to be purged through this matter.4

This is unusually elaborate, actually: it would be more usual to find it just as “peccatis nostris animae illius sit obligatum”, and there are other things about this charter that make it unusual.5 Firstly, as said when I first got this image, it bears the autograph signature of Abbess Emma! (Bang in the middle, first line of signatures, split by the discolouration.) But that’s not actually odd, it can be seen elsewhere.6 More unusual is the fact that the scribe, Athanagild of the chapter of Vic, finished the document off with a line of characters that look like Dingbats, at least partly Greek as far as I can see not wholly and thus a bit hard to work out! Athanagild’s occasional flourishes are well-documented here, and who knows what he was up to on this occasion, but I’ve included the full version because it makes it a bit clearer what the supposed mechanism is here.7 The idea of a donation to the Church, and this is mainly what Zimmermann’s eighty pages are about here, is that, as one of the common introductions to these documents has it, “we have heard the preaching of the Holy Fathers that alms may free the soul from death”. That is, giving to the poor (or to the Church, who will then minister to the poor, albeit perhaps only the poor in spirit) potentially gets you out of going to Hell. That is, the donation will hopefully purge your soul of sin.8 In that case it makes a certain amount of common sense that someone who messes with that joyful process should wind up with the penalty of which the donor had hoped to be free. And so we get a few documents, more than Zimmermann notices but still not many, that add that hope into the curse like this.

And what does Michel Zimmermann have to tell me about this? Well, basically just that it happens and is a bit odd. He notices that it seems to die off around about 1030, and wonders if this might be because of increasing pressure from the papal reform effort, keen on reinforcing the separation of clerical and lay power.9 And indeed that is exactly why this is so interesting, and why I wish he had more to say about it. This is, I think, completely unjustifiable in church terms: this is not just priestly power, this is binding and loosing, the power entrusted to St Peter. The average layman, or even the often-but-not-always-clerical scribes who write these documents, is simply not allowed to deposit a load of sin on someone else! Only God can say for sure who is a sinner and who isn’t. This is an extreme example of a wider phenomenon, admittedly, as many of these documents and lots elsewhere too prescribe excommunication for breaching the charter’s terms, which strictly speaking is something only a bishop can impose. Zimmermann goes into that in some detail, and concludes that the thought of the documents, as it were, is that God will impose this at the Final Judgement, not that it is intended to apply in the world right at the moment of infringement. I find this convincing in itself, although it has to get over the fact that as excommunication becomes less permanent and more worked-out in theological terms the documents start allowing one to repent and be relieved of it, which means it can’t be at the Final Judgement after which, as one document points out, God will forget about the sinners. I think that’s OK, and since that starts about 1030 it may even correlate with whatever pressure is driving out these particular curses, but I’m still left with an impression that it’s the document itself that is the agency here, representing the Word of God ahead of time. It is, as often observed, no coincidence that these texts are often called scripturae. So, I don’t know the canon law of excommunication very well, still less anything that might cover this: am I right in thinking that this is, quod vulgo dicitur, “well weird”? Have you ever seen anything like it elsewhere? How is it justified? What do you make of it? Michel Zimmermann and I are stumped…

Last phrase of scribal signature from Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins, Wifredo I 8

Also, what the heck was Athanagild aiming for here?


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

2. A quick stab at Regesta Imperii’s OPAC suggests that you’re not going to find anything very much in English about these that isn’t extremely specific to an area, though on those lines Jeffrey Bowman’s “Do Neo-Romans Curse? Law, land, and ritual in the Midi (900-1100)” in Viator Vol. 28 (Berkeley 1997), pp. 1-32, repr. in his Shifting Landmarks: property, proof, and dispute in Catalonia around the year 1000 (Ithaca: 2004), pp. 56-80, is very clear and interesting. For some guidance in a language where they care about such things, try Olivier Guyotjeannin, Jacques Pycke & Benoît -Michel Tock, La diplomatique médiévale, L’atelier du médiéviste 2, 3rd edn. (Turnhout 2006), pp. 82-83.

3. Zimmermann, Érire et lire, I, pp. 348-423, esp. pp. 365-380 and 410-422.

5. Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Wifredo I 8, ed. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 10 with facsimile lám. 4, also printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 37, cit. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I p. 409 without reference beyond the date. Check out that jussive subjunctive! (You know who you are.) Also, I should like to note the irony here. Zimmermann quotes the document without reference, as said, but with a year; I knew I’d seen it somewhere so searched my notes files for the word ‘purged’, found the document fairly easily, and yes, it turns out that because it’s the one Emma signs, not only do I already know it quite well but in fact I had a facsimile of it pinned to the board in my office the whole time I was trying to work out which one it was. “It’s behind you…”

5. Others doing this for example Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 164, 179, 496, 563, 827 & 1327, and certainly more even in that edition that I just didn’t note.

6. In a charter printed and pictured in Nathaniel L. Taylor, “An Early Catalonian Charter in the Houghton Library from the Joan Gili Collection of Medieval Catalonian Mansucripts” in Harvard Library Bulletin New Series Vol. 7 (Cambridge MA 1997), pp. 37-44.

7. Athanagild’s other appearances are, sticking with Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, for convenience though all are printed in earlier editions too (of which Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX-X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), catches most and has many facsimiles), nos 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 19, 27, 35, 38, 48, 101, 283 & 285. I have my doubts about those last two, so much later than the others, expressed here.

8. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire I, pp. 348-361.

9. Ibid., I, pp. 378-380.

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18 responses to “Bearing the sins of Michel Zimmermann

  1. My first thought, of course, was that it was Greek, but it’s not. Take a look at that twelfth character… That’s Coptic which was written with Greek uncials and that letter there is an “F”. I’m thinking that what looks like a spread H may be a “J/G”.

    It’s a shame I don’t understand Coptic…

      • From Malcolm Choat – Coptic specialist of my acquaintance:
        “That letter is certainly a coptic character, but also a late form of qoppa for 90: the letters in any case don’t make any sense as Coptic: if not gibberish, perhaps code, or isopsephistic?”

    • I note, slightly later, that Zimmermann does in fact also discuss Athanagild’s signature here, II p. 699. Not having the advantage of this lively support community, he pegs it, as did I, as gibberish, but notes that it’s odd because Athanagild also gave his name in Greek characters, accurately, in another charter, Junyent, Vic, no. 19 as cited above. My notes suggest that Zimmermann actually means Vic 16, in which Athanagild’s name so appears on the dorse, but even so, he obviously knew how to do it!

  2. Wow. I’m consistently amazed by the genuinely nasty sanctions people came up with in earlier charters. In 13th century letters your average epistolographer in England restricted themselves to things like “and don’t fail to do any of this unless you want to make us pretty angry…” I can just imagine the recipient wagging their head in a sort of Pythonesque way, and saying, “Oooohh – I’m so scared!” The nastiest one I’ve ever personally encountered was Edward I writing to his second wife’s physician when she was ill, and telling him that if he should permit the queen to be moved before she was recovered “then, by God’s thigh you will pay for it!” (Actually, in that case, if I were the physician, I probably _would_ be quaking in my boots. Edward could be a right cranky-pants when provoked.) Now, naturally, I’m being rather flippant here, and I’m sure such words *did* have some kind of force; and I admit, none of my documents are charters, or in explicitly ecclesiastical contexts (even when they involve bishops). It just makes me wonder if contemporary land grants were at all similar or if the ‘linguistics of sanctio’ had really shifted so much in a couple of hundred years (and miles)…

    Anyway, all of this is secondary to the question I really wanted to put forward which is whether the whole binding and loosing thing was really set in stone, or whether papal rhetoric simply asserted it to be *because* it was a kind of contentious issue. Just asking. Out of ignorance.

    Oh, and I’d also like to add, in passing,
    utinam amplius subjunctivi in mundo essent…

    • It wasn’t actually you I was aiming the subjunctive at, but someone sufficiently close to you in demographic that now I’m wondering if this is somehow formational. Anyway! This is not really terribly serious as far as curses go in these documents, you should know, a one-line curse that might not even technically see the infringer damned is relatively minor. The best ones come from high churchmen (naturally), and Bishop Sal·la of Urgell was a particularly good proponent of them, as he was with anything involving words and showing-off really:

      Si quis autem religiosorum clericorum aut ullus comes aut ullus pricebs vel ullus secularis potestas superbie inflatus sive ullus iudex aut ullus homo, qui hunc factum nostrum vel ista carte donacionis inquietare vel disrumpere aut frangere voluerit, aut ista omnia suprascribta omnipotento Deo et sancte Marie tollere aut alienare vel fraudere sive usurpare voluerit, auctoritate Dei omnipotentis et sancti Petri apostolorum princeps vel aliorum apostolorum sive a trecente .X.m et .VIII.o sanctorum patrum sit excommunicatus et abominatus et a liminibus sancte Dei ecclesie alienatus atque abiectus et cum Iuda traditore Domini in infernum dimersus, et hoc non valeat vindicare et ista predicta in duplo componat, et in antea ista carta donacionis firma et stabilis permaneat omnique tempore.

      which I render roughly as:

      For if, however, anyone among religious clerics or any count or any prince or any secular power, inflated by pride, or any judge or any man, should wish to disrupt or break this act of ours or this charter of donation, or should wish to steal or alienate or fraudulently acquire or usurp all those same above-written things from omnipotent God and Holy Mary, by the authority of omnipotent God and Saint Peter prince of the Apostles and the other apostles and by the three hundred and eighteen holy fathers let him be excommunicated and abominated and alien to the thresholds of the holy Church of God, and abject and submerged in the Inferno with Judas betrayer of the Lord, and let him not succeed in justifying this and let him compound these same aforesaid things twofold, and as before let this charter of donation remain firm and stable for all time.

      And even that one’s still pulling some punches. I mean, it doesn’t mention being swallowed up by the ground alive like Datan and Abiron or name any of the plagues of Egypt…

      As for the curses in your period, I don’t know, but wouldn’t the DEEDS Project database contain the answers? I can find one or two anathemata in there but no free-text makes it a bit tedious.

      • Thanks – I’d forgotten about DEEDS. But as you say, lack of full text is a stumbling block.

        Reviewing these anathemata gives me significant pause because all of a sudden it seems as if the commanding language of “my” royal letters was actually pretty lame. Did people obey simply because they wanted to/couldn’t be bothered to object?! Or was the (comparatively) cold, matter-of-factness of royal ‘legalese’ itself an authoritative-enough voice? I need to go and re-read Susan Reynolds on power and authority and have a big think… (and possibly a lie down).

        • There’s the contrary case that has been made for these curses in the Midi, that where authority to enforce is weak, you need to lay a lot more weight upon the vengeful power of God and the saints. See here the Book of Sainte-Foy and the article by Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier in Head & Landes’s volume on the Peace of God. In Edward’s England, however, no need because everyone knew his words would be backed up (God’s thigh and all)?

          • Well, true; he was a 6’2″ war hero with an ancestral history of nasty tempers and a proto ‘apparatus of state’ at his disposal… The issues may indeed have been slightly different. A common factor might be the fact that the degree to which any of these documents were effective, binding, and so on, seems to boil down to how much those at whom they were directed accepted their validity as communicative instruments. You can use all sorts of words and threaten all kinds of outcomes, but a foundational (even unspoken) agreement about the terms of documentary engagement seems essential. Is this important? Or is it getting into the realms of meaningless generalisation? When I can’t tell, it’s a sign I need to step away from the computer for a while…

            • There’s a whole set of assumptions here that I mainly know from work on Carolingian capitularies: were they officially drafted, were they ever sent out, were they read where they were sent, were they acted upon? If you’re working from rolls at court, you can presumably be fairly sure of the first two at least, but for the latter two, you would need subsequent correspondence or property transactions, no? Or quotation in sources from the recipient area…

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  7. Cullen Chandler

    Been going through Zimmermann myself lately. I recall an article of his that might be pertinent: “Le vocabulaire latin du malédiction du IXe au XIIe siècles” (1994), but I don’t have notes on it at hand… how much does the Big Book rehash earlier ideas, examples, findings, etc.?

    • It’s really complicated, as no doubt you’ve already begun to realise. It’s his thèse d’état, and so was written over the course of something like a decade when some of his classic articles were already coming out. They’re obviously reflected within it, and sometimes deferred to, but the trouble is that then he took about twenty years to publish the thèse and did so with minimal revisions. He has obviously put in updated references in places, and in others, equally obviously, he has not. So sometimes what you’re looking at is delayed publication of once-simultaneous work, sometimes nods to past work and most often even nods to future work that was nevertheless published before this was. The chronology of it is all twisted. I would assume the 1994 article to be the definitive statement of what was published here, since the thesis submission long predated that, but what was published here will have been revised with the 1994 publication in mind – maybe. The book repeats itself quite a lot, and the final chapter reads as if it was a synthesized version of two previous ones written for some other purpose that got lumped into the thesis anyway. It’s hard to say that any of it can be ignored (though if any can it is almost all in the second volume) but it could certainly have been better arranged and unified. I am a fairly cruel editor, but books like this show why such people can sometimes be useful…

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