Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain

I have mentioned Graham Barrett here before, not least as one of those people whom I fear would, if they’d done my doctorate, have done it a good deal better than I did (though, y’know, I’m happy with my outcome). When I mention him, moreover, people pipe up saying how impressed they’ve been with his papers and wanting him to publish on slates, so, you probably want to know about when he presented one called “The Literate Mentality and the Textual Society in Early Medieval Spain” to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 21st November last year, especially since this was kind of a mission statement for his soon-to-be-finished doctorate. So, okay, here I am to tell you about it!

Frontage of León cathedral

Frontage of León cathedral; there are worse places to have to work...

The main question Graham was addressing here was the social level of literacy in Northern Spain, 711-1031, not including Catalonia (though less because of me, I imagine, than because of Michel Zimmermann, whose monster work covers this kind of ground; Professor Zimmermann probably has more to fear from Graham than I do). This gives him some 4,000 charters to play with, of which roughly a quarter are now in the cathedral archive of León. Some useful figures followed, characterising the sample: 61% cartulary copies, 21% originals, 6% loose copies; 54% donations, 36% sales, 10% ‘other’, and so on. He then stressed, however, that these categories aren’t necessarily useful for his kind of enquiry: more relevant may be that only 19% of them are transactions between lay-persons. That’s a lot, by early medieval standards, but the vast majority of the material here still concerns the Church. Preservation peaks at around the year 970, which makes a kind of sense in terms of war and stability but surely needs a better explanation than frequency of randomised destruction; we are instead, Graham argued, probably seeing a sea change in the social uses of writing.

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970, complete with scribes busy altering the social fabric

[Edits to the first sentence of this paragraph, with apologies] At this point there was a pause to address the historiography, whose various offerings on what early medieval societies were doing with writing Graham didn’t find entirely helpful in his case, and the material he brought to bear more or less proved his point. For example, the boom in document preservation is in non-royal ones, so not driven by government directly.1 Instead he sees the pressure to write as having come from the Church, with monasteries and so forth being set up in new areas and effectively archiving community memories in such terms as boundary clauses, names of witnesses and knowledgeable persons, and so forth, and defending themselves at law in such ways that meant others needed documents too, when without that outsider pressure the whole thing might have rested on the community’s collective memory. (The references to documents the monastery didn’t make and didn’t preserve of course indicate that other people could write as well as the monks, and he would come to this.2) The fact that documents were valued at law – and Graham said that he has no court cases where a side with documentary proof ever loses, which surprised me and must, I think, despite its totality, be a factor of preservation as we’ve seen here before – meant that people were willing to forge them, store them, copy them and if necessary, destroy them.

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica

The law, which is the Visigothic Code on which Graham was presenting when reported here the time before last, even governed to an extent what documents were supposed to be written, and was itself a form of socially-active writing, albeit one that could be modified or ignored, and referred to silently, i. e. without saying that that’s what it was; it was, at least, a starting point and suggestion for how to deal with the situations it covered.3 One could argue—Graham did not, quite—that the Bible was used the same way, even though its status was rather different, and higher; nonetheless, it too was a source from which the writers of these documents drew their ideas of how things should be arranged (and, indeed, what would happen to those who disarranged them). These two texts were treated with at least some respect; other, lesser, ones were apt to be recycled, modified, edited or miscopied in fruitful ways, and the last part of the paper focused on their writers.

Three scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Three identified scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Scribes are surprisingly rarely identified in Graham’s documents (it surprises me, anyway, but then I am used to a corpus that is mostly originals) but those who are can be broken down into royal, episcopal, monastic, aristocrats’ and village scribes, almost all clerics or likely to be so. One third of these, roughly, only wrote a single document that survives, but as the period went on it became more usual for a few people to write a lot of charters, which I think probably tells us something about towns becoming spaces of public action and possibly, given its presence in the preservation, the development of León as a capital. These people had written models, of which at least one was the Formulae Visigothicae or, presumably, a version of those texts’ ancestor, with regional variations visible in the detail, and the documents they made could be done at the time of the transactions concerned, although sometimes they would come later. (This must be harder to judge with fewer individuals and I would want to leave some conceptual space for writing them before the ceremony too.)

Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978

Grant by King Ordoño I to Bishop Fronimio of León, 28 June 860, Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978; slightly bigger version linked through

What the ceremony at which the text was deployed, witnessed, signed and given to the property’s new (or new-again) owner did, argued Graham, was to embed the act of writing and its encoding of an action in society. The increase in specialised scribes, as he saw it (contrary to my suggestion above) was a recognition of this by the powers-that-were, monopolising the authority of text and the ability to make it. Here again is supposed a world where for a while, writing got ‘out’ into a wider social plane, but where before that, it had been mostly élite and rare. Michel Zimmermann would, I think, agree with this, but I’m still struggling to see that boom in access to text in the 970s, which I have in my material too albeit maybe a decade or two earlier, as a phenomenon of society rather than of preservation. I’m not sure that when documents are rarely preserved it necessarily implies that few people of that era could write, rather than just that they were not writing things that get preserved. The Visigothic Law and the Formulae Visigothicae envisage far far more things being written down than we have from the tenth century, and the very limited preservation on slate, rather than parchment, from that era seems to show that in action, with accounts, lists and so on far outnumbering solemn documents.4 I, instead, find it easier to imagine a continuity in attitudes to writing from seventh to ninth centuries and that what changed after that was less more people finding it necessary to get at quills and more a greater number of institutions surviving, due to economic growth and so on, that would preserve a certain sort of document better for us. And for that case I would cite girls being taught to write at home, the incredible scale of loss of documentation from the societies of the Peninsula who didn’t have the good fortune of a continuous Church presence through to the modern era and the apparent survival of Visigothic norms of writing, including to an extent the script (something which is a lot truer for Graham’s area than mine5). All the same, I would certainly have to admit, firstly, that Catalunya no es Espanya, secondly, that the evidence we don’t have is obviously impossible to characterise, and thirdly, that Graham’s more complicated version of the history of text in his area would, indeed, look just the same as my simpler one in terms of evidence that we now have.


1. Compare, most obviously, Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979, 2nd edn. Oxford 1993), for a governmentality-driven thesis.

2. And until this work gets published, there’s Roger Collins, “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), XVI.

3. Compare Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism, V, and Jeffrey A. 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. 33-55, just to stick to the English-language literature.

4. I am used to consulting the slates in Ángel Canellas López, Diplomática hispano-visigoda (Zaragoza 1979), but Graham informs me that I would find many more in Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Documentos de época visigoda escritos en pizarra (siglos VI-VIII) (Turnhout 2000), 2 vols, where there are also pictures, for which you otherwise have to go back to Manuel Gómez Moreno, Documentación goda en pizarra: estudio y trascripción (Madrid 1966), with the reproduction standards of that era.

5. On which see Anscari M. Mundó, “Notas para una historia de la escritura visigótica en su periodo primitivo” in Bivium: Homenaje a Manuel Cecílio Díaz y Díaz (Madrid 1983), pp. 175-196, though cf. Collins, “Literacy and the Laity”. I’m sure Graham could provide far more up-to-date references than all of these but they are where my views came from.

2 responses to “Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain

  1. For those who don’t have the Turnhout 2000 edition of the slates, the best way of seeing them is at: http://interclassica.um.es/index.php/interclassica/investigacion/hemeroteca/a/antigueedad_y_cristianismo/numero_6_1989
    This s a 1989 edition, by the same person who then did the 2000 edition.

  2. Mark, you are a complete star, I knew of the edition but had no idea it was online. The pictures still aren’t the best but all the same you’ve either saved me a lot of awkwardly-won library time or cost me quite a number of evenings, depending on how you look at it :-) Thankyou!

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