What makes a priest write a charter?

Looking at the next week, I can already see that there will be no time for reading or writing or anything but marking, teaching and form-filling. Let me just first write some more about what I was working on over the summer, then, and then I’ll admit I’m too busy to blog for a short while. You’ve heard how I had something of an achievement blank patch and then got a hold of myself and read a lot of charters and came away with a new project (to add to all the old ones). This post is going to take one example of the kind of question that I found myself asking, robbed freely from my crazy notes files described in this earlier post. The questions that it raises, for me, are not maybe that new, but answering them would be, especially for this area, and I may have a way in.1 For now, however, the set-up.

The volumes of Calaixs 6 & 9 of the Arxiu Episcopal de Vic

Most of the tenth-century charters of the Arxiu Capitular de Vic, on a table in front of me in 2007.

There was a priest called Joan who appears in documents now at the cathedral of Vic dating from 951 to 962, and perhaps later though I doubt it. He always appears there as scribe. He does not appear with the cathedral chapter when they transacted, and I haven’t found him with any degree of certainty I’m willing to trust in any other archive’s documents from the county concerned.2 There were plenty of other scribes active in the cathedral at this time, and even more in the wider area, and so the first question that arises from this for me is what it was about these transactions that meant that Joan was called on to write them. What I really want to know, of course, is for whom he wrote, but I’m prepared to take any kind of association that will help explain how he got chosen.

Firstly I should admit that I haven’t actually seen all the originals of these documents and so I can’t be sure that all the Joans featured are in fact the same guy, but I have some hope, for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute.3 Secondly, I have to put aside the obvious association that these documents do have, which is that they’re all in the Arxiu Capitular de Vic; firstly, as I say above, there’s the problem that Joan seems not to have appeared with the chapter of Vic, but secondly and more seriously, not all of these transactions passed land to the cathedral, so there is some other motive for the association and also, presumably, some other step before they came to the archive, dictated perhaps by that as-yet-uncaught common factor.

Ruins of Sant Martí de Sentfores

Ruins of Sant Martí de Sentfores, one of the places in the county of Osona where Bishop Guisad bought land in a charter that Joan wrote

Now a common factor does leap out at one quite quickly, and that is Bishop Guisad II of Urgell. For complex genealogical reasons Guisad turns up in the Vic archive quite a lot, and still more so in that of the abbey of Sant Benet de Bages which a cousin of his had founded (that being the complex genealogical reason, the complexity lying in proving it, which I won’t do here).4 His bishopric may have been up in the Pyrenees but his heart, or at least his property, was in the lowlands too. Three of the transactions Joan wrote were actually purchases by Guisad, and indeed if one goes and pokes at the Urgell cathedral documents there is a priest Joan who turns up there at least once during Guisad’s pontificate.5 But he doesn’t turn up with the chapter either, he’s not associated with Guisad in that document and though it only exists in a later copy, I bet that if we had it and I’d looked at that as well we’d find that the handwriting doesn’t match; I think that is likely to be a different guy, because after all it’s only three times he appears with Guisad; there are five and maybe six more to explain. So, OK, now we get serious and make a table. Just for completeness I’ll put the Urgell one in too. Dates are UK-style, months in the middle.

Date Charter Place concerned Actors Witnesses Notes
951.i.20 CC4 668 Sentfores (Moià) Guibert Sunifred to Bishop Guisad Adulf, Ingilbert, Savaric Church of Santa Eulàlia appears on boundary
951.ii.28 CC4 670 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Belasquina and son Bradilà to Bishop Guisad Sendred, Ennegó, Ermeniscle pr[esbiter]., Ennegó pr.
951.v.12 CC4 674 Sant Julià de Sassorba Lleopard, Belascuda, Bonefaci & Medira to Samuel Sthetulf, Savaric, Bellelo Samuel is a big-deal local notable6
951.v.24 CC4 675 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Ramio to Bishop Guisad Ennegó, Asner, Ermeniscle pr.
959.iv.2 Urgell 132 Ennegó to Urgell cathedral Mesla, Seu d’Urgell Bellelo, Nemvolendo, Joan pr. A priest Ramio wrote
960.i.20 CC4 837 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Miró to Vic cathedral Donat, Sesgut, Franco
960.ii.15 CC4 840 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Agobard and wife Sàlvia to Langovard Igilà, Pere, Ennego lev[ita].
960.iv.3 CC4 849 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Bella, Galí, Tensemon, Sunifred & Borrell with Bishop Ató of Vic Teudefred, Sunyer, Dacó Not that Borrell, though weirdly he is a neighbour
960.v.31 CC4 863 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Vidal with Bishop Ató Asner, Eico, Ennegó lev.
962.ii.9 CC4 897 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Ennegó and wife Adalvira with Bishop Ató Guisad, Oriol, Guifré Presumably not that Guisad
962.iii.23 CC4 899 Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer Godmar and wife Faquilo with Bishop Ató Guifré, Sunifred, [...]
954×867 CC4 1499 [...] Esteve with [...] [...], [...], Guitizà No scribal signature survives here, but its editors were happy that the scribal hand is the same

With this done, we have some kind of an answer: the obvious common thread is the term of Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer, one of the odd areas of this county which were centred not on a castle although several fortifications and a comital estate were nearby, but on a church.8 Of the documents here that don’t involve land there, we might guess that the last one did if we only had the place-name, and Sassorba is only a few miles more or less due north, though in country like this that’s still a tough climb and they probably went round the valley ends to get there (if indeed the transaction wasn’t done at Santa Eulàlia for some reason we’re not going to be able to recover). The Urgell one is interesting: one would assume it’s a different guy, as I did above, except that the transactor and one of the witnesses, as well as a priest Joan of course, can all be paralleled in the Riuprimer documents. Could this be a guy who knew Joan and had some land two counties away (an inheritance? the copy doesn’t say) that he didn’t want to keep and was therefore giving to God for his soul’s sake, and he brought along his local priest as a witness? Given that Joan presumably knew some of the Urgell chapter from the sales to Guisad, and that the Urgell crowd probably frequently had people in the Riuprimer area to pick up renders and so on, this doesn’t seem too improbable. So OK, then, this Joan was presumably a priest at Riuprimer and when the locals wanted a charter written, they come to him. It’s not to do with whom he knew, but where he was. Case closed?

View of Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer

View of Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer

Well, it’s worth checking two more things. Firstly, was he the only priest there? This guy Ermeniscle cropped up twice there… In fact, however, those are his only two certain appearances. (He doesn’t show up at Urgell.) There’s too many possibilities there to make one worth choosing so let’s leave it; we can at least say that Joan seems to have been the obvious writer even when both were there. Nextly, are these all the Santa Eulàlia sales for this period? And that gets funnier, because no, they’re not; in fact they’re not even all the Riuprimer deals with the relevant bishops from the period, there’s a sale to Guisad here from June 959 in which a deacon Ermemir did the scribing and an exchange with Ató from 960 in which a priest called Fruià did.9 The people involved here turn up in the witness groups we’ve already seen, so it’s strange that for these ones somehow Joan was unavailable, given that at other times he was deemed worthy even when the recipients were these, well, worthies. Some explanation probably exists that we’ll never recover. There’s also a sale to Guisad where we don’t have a scribal name and a gift to Santa Maria de Ripoll where we do (unusually) and it was Narulf sacer, and the actors were unknowns-to-us living on the edge of the zone at la Guàrdia.10 I’m slightly happier saying that either they just didn’t know Joan very well or else they went to the monastery to make their gift and he didn’t come with them.

Close-up of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 9, episc. I, núm 50

Remember why this Vic charter is tricky? Click through if not

So, at the end of this we have a picture in which when people here had a transaction to make they enlisted their local priest to write it for them. That doesn’t sound terribly surprising in those terms, I know, but it is still slightly strange given two things about these transactions. They are, substantially, with churchmen. That in itself is not surprising, we should expect that simply because of whose archives get preserved as has often been said here, but the churchmen were high-ranking people. They did not travel without other churchmen in support, we might expect, and yet it’s the local guy who writes the documents, even when it’s a donation to the relatively-nearby cathedral. Our usual picture of early medieval diplomatic is one in which the recipients of the gifts usually write the charter, especially when they’re ecclesiastics and when we might expect the donation to have been made actually at the cathedral, and perhaps by placing a document on the altar there.11 But it looks here as if either Joan wrote that document (in which case one assumes he did so beforehand, and in that case how much input into it did the recipients even get?) or else, perhaps even weirder, the transaction was actually done in Santa Eulàlia whoever the recipient was. That’s weird because we’re so often encouraged to see this kind of transaction as a negotiation of a relationship with a saint and his familia; not going to his house to do it seems stand-offish, especially if you’re actually staying in the house of a different saint to do it.12 And of course, not all these are pious donations, even if they all wound up in cathedral archives. Presumably, at some point, and at different times, the property was passed on and wound up with the cathedral anyway, all relevant charters coming with. I presume this, because the alternative would be that anything Joan wrote was being archived at Santa Eulàlia and that at some point the whole church archive got swooped up into the cathedral one. I’ve posited something like that at Sant Andreu de Gurb, very nearby, but that’s not least because it, unlike Santa Eulàlia, appears to have been staffed by clergy working out of the cathedral (which was even nearer).13 I don’t quite like it here: the recipients must have had copies! why do we have Joan’s and not theirs, even when the recipient was usually a bishop or cathedral? But there doesn’t seem to be any way to count up these documents that doesn’t give both Joan and the documents he wrote a considerable importance to the people who wanted them made. It’s that importance I’m now after…


1. For example, I was just re-reading Rosamond McKitterick’s The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge 1989), and chapter 3 turns out to be one of those things I should have been citing more in almost everything I’ve written but had internalised too deeply to recognise the debt. Other work asking similar questions would be Wendy Davies, “Priests and rural communities in East Brittany in the ninth century” in Études celtiques Vol. 20 (Paris 1983), pp. 177-197, repr. in Davies, Brittany in the Early Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 924 (Aldershot 2009), V, or Carine van Rhijn, “Priests and the Carolingian reforms: the bottle-necks of local correctio” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel & Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 13 (Wien 2006), pp. 219-237. Wendy has similar work forthcoming on the priests in her newer study area of Asturias-León, which is also influential on me.

2. The references are given below in sigillar form, but all but one come from Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, and the numbers in the table below are those in this edition, though the documents are also printed in Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ordeig (Vic 1980-1996), nos 265, 267, 269, 270, 318, 320, 325, 329, 342, 344 & 527.

3. It is some comfort to me that Junyent or Ordeig (or both! the way that edition was produced leaves no clarity over whose words were put onto any given page) say in Junyent, Diplomatari, p. 448, that the writer of docs 325, 329, 342 & 344 was the same person.

4. If you need it, it is done in Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260.

5. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 78-143, doc. no. 132.

6. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 108-109.

7. The left-hand side of this charter is destroyed and all that’s left of the dating clause is that the king was Lothar III, who ruled during these years.

8. Something which is fairly easy to check thanks to the excellent Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del comtat d’Osona (798-993), Atles dels comtats de la Catalunya carolíngia (Barcelona 2001), where pp. 28-29, Q9-11 are the most relevant. It’s reference works like this and decent printed editions that make it possible to do a summary like this in the sort of time that’s reasonable to dedicate to a blog post, and of course thus enable far larger projects, I’d make so many mistakes without this volume because of not being able to be in the actual places very much.

9. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 826 & 848 (= Junyent, Diplomatari, nos 314 & 324).

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos. 771 & 1813.

11. See e. g. Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter, Historische Hilfswissenschaften (Wien & München 2011), pp. 212-213.

12. Classically, Barbara H. Rosenwein, To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter: the social meaning of Cluny’s property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989); more local resonances in Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: individual, community and church in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), esp. pp. 113-134.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 122-123.

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15 responses to “What makes a priest write a charter?

  1. Allan McKinley

    Is there not a third possibility here, beyond recipient and donor production, which is that the scribe (Joan) had his own archive of documents he produced. A similar argument can be applied to explain the random seeming collection of seventh-century charters associated with Peterborough (following Susan Kelly) and may go some way to explain the surprising number of random charters to laymen in some Anglo-Saxon archives. If Joan, who obviously had links to the cathedral, left them property his records of charters he ennacted might also be included, which would explain how he came to be the common link in the group. Not sure how you’d prove this though…

    • Hullo Allan, always good to see you here! I suppose we may say that Joan had some links to the cathedral, though I’d want to say for caution’s sake that what we see here is links to Bishop Ató, and Ató got assassinated so links to him may not have been good after a while. But I do see what you mean: the fact that he appears as scribe to the exclusion of everything else does tend to suggest that that is also a factor in the survival. The question is then why the cathedral would dispose of their own copies in favour of his and why they would keep the other documents that had nothing to do with their property. There must have been some sorting of the record if we’re to explain the lack of duplication, and I find this sort of it hard to explain, even while I see the other strength of what you’re suggesting. I see that not least because I’ve used a similar explanation for the survival of one judge’s documents at Urgell, but there there is a donation by the judge to the cathedral that makes the link directly…

      • Allan McKinley

        Hi Jon,
        There are two questions that arise out of your reply to me. Firstly, do we know enough about archival practice and survival at Vic to be able to investigate which charters were kept and which thrown? I’d normally say the best clue to the status of a group of charters is their archival treatment. But as a much more northern diplomatist, I don’t play with large collections of originals much so this might just be a situational thing… It should be noted though that a rational attempt to streamline an archive would dispose of multiple copies (say scribal and beneficiary) and retain one only (say donor) should they exist. The result of such management would be collections where only one copy of each charter survived – perhaps preserving unique charters not related to the church in question, but not preserving multiple copies. That this was not an automatic process can be shown by reference to our old friend Wissembourg where the (copy of an) early cartulary has those lovely duplicate charters. If Vic is more rationalised, the single copy survival is not an issue (for any theory…).

        Second point is simple enough – what happened to a priest’s books after his death. I have a vague memory that liturgical books at least may return to the cathedral – what about records of transactions? There is an obvious link of hierarchy between Joan and Vic, which in the absence of other evidence is clearly present (unless Catalonia had a presbytarian phase) so the question is not was there a linkage so much as what would we expect the result of this linkage to be. Is there any Catalan priests’ testaments which might help?

        Anyway, I’ll stop trying to count angels on a historical pinhead now but this does, if nothing else, present interesting opportunities to see how far you can push ideas about charter transmission (a field normally firmly bound by limited evidence).

        • Ooh, good questions. To the best of my knowledge (and I feel as if I ought to know) there are only two or three possible duplicate charters at Vic, and one of those is a count’s testament with important variations between the two, so not a simple case. In this sense, it’s a rational preservation, though there are also many many documents that have nothing to do with Church property and some that never can have done (Adam Kosto starts his Speculum article with a case in which two people agree that the former will not prosecute the latter for the bread and wine he stole from the former when they lived together, for example). With that exception and a fair few others, they bear dorsal notes identifying the place they relate to, in anything from tenth- to twelfth-century hands, so organisation may have been geographical. They were bound into the present volumes in the sixteenth century, and those are arranged by prebendaries, but more we cannot say. All the same, I find strange a model in which when duplicate charters came in you’d throw the old, filed, stored ones made by your own scribes out and keep the new ones.

          As to testaments, yes, there are a few, though sadly not Joan’s. The ones I can think of are maddeningly unspecific about books but tend to pass them to relatives also in the cathedral chapter. I don’t think we have any wills from priests from outside the chapter. You’re right that books could be loaned out to priests and presumably were returned handed out to new incumbents, though I suspect they may never have physically moved when this happened. Whether archives would come with is another question, but I don’t see why not and I should watch for this as a possibility, in fact. Thankyou! I suspect that it is more likely that the church was rationalised into a new parish structure in the late tenth century or early eleventh and that the archive might have come then, but I can’t show that any better.

          The point I’m uneasy about is the hierarchy. Certainly, as bishop in the diocese where Joan’s church is located, Ató is Joan’s superior. Whether that means that Santa Eulàlia was yet one of Vic’s dependent churches, however, I’m less sure. That would be the kind of operation I mean in the paragraph above. The reason I’m cautious is simply that Vic as a bishopric was restarted probably in 885. A lot of the churches around here are older than that, as institutions if not surviving buildings, and some of them show signs of a more minster-like configuration and importance that may have been part of an earlier mother-parish sort of network over which the bishop’s authority might be only personal. Whether Santa Eulàlia was one such, though, I’m not sure and would have to check its earlier documents to be more so.

  2. I did not have CC4 at hand, and google seems to deny snippet view on it; Is Joan a presbyter or a sacerdos?

    Not sure about middle C10th, but sixty years before, I can count not least than 126 writters-presbyters, but only 10 writters-sacerdos (3 of them also presbyters).

    In any case, it’s a beautiful example of fine grain history that surely will get better as this ‘importance’ is revealed.

    • A good question! I wrote this post with reference to my notes, not the edition, and my notes on the Vic documents are old now; when I took them I wasn’t paying consistent attention to that distinction (which Michel Zimmermann also believes is significant). I think he’s a presbiter but I’m not able to say for certain straight away. I agree that presbiter is the more common title, and my impression is that priests start to use sacerdos when they reach a position of seniority, though they will still use presbiter sometimes as well. But that is another post I want to write, just not about this priest… Thankyou for the encouragement!

  3. Is part of your question really “What makes a priest KEEP a charter?” It is interesting to me that a scribe would keep a set of his documents. Why? As the equivalent of “show apartments” to display to prospective clients? As some sort of (in)formal archive for his customers? Hoarding instinct? Was it a repository that the local community could avail itself of in time of dispute, or was it a service offered to paying/donating customers (“get me to do your charter, and I’ll keep an extra copy for safekeeping”)? What’s in it for Joan to keep these documents, and do we have any expectation that he kept all the documents he wrote, or only a sub-set?

    • For your first question, if I had to guess, I’d say the second answer, because a number of people other than me seem to be groping towards this idea that churches might have become the local equivalents of gesta municipalia; the Lay Archives volume, when it eventually comes out, will presumably address this, but one of the papers in the forthcoming collection from my Leeds charter sessions also goes into it a bit. In some ways we know that something like this must be going on, because it’s implicit in the idea of people using previous documents as models where there’s no formularies (though see my paper in that volume, when you can, for more on that!) but one of the reasons that might be the case is because they were right there in the church.

      That said, people also clearly did keep documents at home here sometimes, and I don’t know if there’s a good reason why it should vary. Thus, I would also say that I don’t there’s anything too odd in supposing that a priest might take a copy of a charter done for a transaction he’d been involved in. That might, indeed, be how ‘registration’ comes to work, and in that case Joan might be taking such copies of charters actually done by other people but concerning Riuprimer property. I hadn’t thought of that, in fact, but there’s one thing that would disprove it, autograph signatures by witnesses. (At least, it would make it more difficult; I think the stuff you’ve seen of mine on Casserres would indicate that it’s not impossible that witnesses would sign a later copy where they could be found.)

      So, a quick check of my notes again (not definitive, but in default of photographs) reveals that I haven’t marked any of the signatures in any of these documents as being in a different hand from the scribe’s. That might mean that I wasn’t catching that detail then, but I think that I was in other places, so I hope this might be suggestive. At the very least, I need to check next time I’m out there… That was a very provocative question, in the best way, thankyou!

    • The problem of why these copies not the cathedral’s would wind up preserved still arises with this formulation, of course…

  4. My knowledge of the Gesta Municipalia is sketchy at best, but my recollection is that they were part of what made a document legal – i.e. until deposited the document was something less than it would become once it was deposited. In this way I see the Gesta as very much like the UK’s modern day Land Registry – in order to perfect a land transaction the documents have to be lodged with the Registry, which thenceforth becomes the official record.

    A priest performing a similar(ish) function on behalf private clients I would see very differently. In part this is a simple public/private divide, with the priest filling the vaccum left by the absence of Gesta, but doing so in a private capacity. But it also has to do with access. As I understand it anyone could consult the Gesta. Could the same be said for Joan and his ilk? Answers will vary, but I’d have put Joan (entirely from your description you understand, and not from any personal knowledge) more in the class of a modern-day attorney or solicitor asked to keep documents safe for a client. Only the person who deposited the document would have access. Or would you disagree?

    Yes in both cases the documents are transmitted to us by virtue of being deposited somewhere for safekeeping, but the purpose of that deposit, and the contemporary consequences of that deposit vary greatly between the Gesta and the “private” archives.

    • Further very valid points. Yes, this is a problem with this argument, and just how accessible a church archive was is a question we probably can’t answer. If the priest concerned is the local parish priest, can anyone in the parish access it? I’m pretty sure that even if we were able to go back and check, we would find no rules but what each priest made up. What I suppose we would need to show it as an actually public system is a person calling on a priest or church in court, a church that was unconnected with the business concerned, to produce a document he knew they had. I don’t think we have such an instance, at least here, though I suspect there might be one or two in Italy. But maybe actually one wouldn’t need that; the point of registration in the gesta was that it meant that there was a copy the beneficiary didn’t control, that other people could check. In that respect, the role is later performed by notarial registers. The notary’s copy wouldn’t convey title; it served as a means to check the privately-held document. If, as suggested above, Joan is actually making something like notaries’ copies, they would only ever come to court if someone challenged a beneficiary’s charter. We do get charters being found false here, and maybe that implies such a comparison; it is also envisaged by the Visigothic Law that still runs here. Again, however, the instances I can think of where such faulting clearly happens on are from Italy, and I wonder if the system here simply doesn’t deal with this kind of proof for a while, but that the habit or ritual of archiving in the old churches goes on anyway.

  5. Hi again, sorry to enter an off – topic in your blog. Just wanted to ask you if you had ever heard of the “Danila`s Bible”. It was certainly a huge surprise to me. Apparently this ancient bible has been preserved in Italy for centuries but experts have determined that it was copied somewhere in North Spain, by the 1st half of the IXth century. Apparently this might be the “book” that Alfonso II of Asturias mentions in his “Testament”, and some believe the bible was produced in order to preside over the Council that the king started in 812. All this would fit fine with the general policy of Alfonso, who was making a huge effort to create monuments and give some prestige to his kingdom, thus turning Oviedo into an important religious center: “La Biblia di Danila, un monumento trionfale per Alfonso II di Asturie” by Paolo Cherubini, Scrittura e Civiltà, ISSN 0392-1697, Nº. 23, 1999 , págs. 75-131. There are plenty of pictures and articles on-line, if you google them.
    Well, what do you think of it?

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