Ghost voices in the first person

When I wrote this, in May 2013, I was working my way through Patrick Wormald’s post-mortem Festschrift, which has some excellent stuff in it sharing space with several things that are only just papers.1 I won’t name any of the latter, but there is among many other good things a new treatment of the Fonthill Letter by Nicholas Brooks which does exactly what I would do when given a tricky and well-known document to squeeze something more from, to wit, look for the participants in other charters, and it works out well.2 In the course of doing it he opened one of those problems I hadn’t realised was a problem, though, and I want to turn it round a bit. [Of course, when I wrote this, he wasn't dead, and I might have hoped to turn it round in conversation with him, but I didn't, now I can't, so I can only hope there's nothing here he would have minded. It seems unlikely that he would have.]

Great Ridge Wood, near Cricklade, part of the estate concerned in the Fonthill Letter

Great Ridge Wood, near Cricklade, which the Wikpiedia entry on the Fonthill Letter reckons part of the estate concerned and therefore uses to illustrate the entry! “Great Ridge wood near Chicklade – geograph.org.uk – 465121” by Andy Gryce – From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

First I should probably explain what the Fonthill Letter actually is, which has not always been certain. It seems safe to say that it is a letter written to intervene with King Edward the Elder of the English (899-924), son of Alfred the Great, over a land dispute of Alfred’s time, which one of the parties was now trying to reopen. The landholder, one Helmstan, had been challenged over it because he’d stolen someone’s belt, and the challenger presumably thought this would weaken his network of support and make him vulnerable to challenges on other grounds. In the event, the author of the letter, Helmstan’s godfather, rallied round and interceded for him, even when Helmstan, having been securely reaffirmed in his rights over the land, then threw it all away by getting caught cattle-rustling some time later. The godfather’s interest in this was that Helmstan had promised him the land in question in exchange for his support, Helmstan to carry on holding it under his lordship. By the time of the letter, this had all taken place, Helmstan was presumably dead and the author had shifted the ‘hot’ property on to the cathedral of Winchester in exchange for other less contentious estates, and really didn’t want the whole thing challenged. He entreats Edward: “Sir, when will any suit be ended if one can close it neither with money nor with oath? Or if one wishes to alter every judgement that King Alfred made, when shall we have finished disputing?” All of which is very true and poignant but fails to hide the fact that Helmstan had been able to get away with theft twice because his godfather was in with the kings. It is, as ever, tough to be up against the Man in the tenth century.3

But who was this godfather? The author of the letter doesn’t explicitly name himself, but in it Helmstan is said to have held land from Ealdorman Ordlaf of Wiltshire, and such a man is also listed as present at the final settlement of the case which is recorded on the dorse of the document, along with a Canterbury scribe’s note that the whole document was useless, ‘inutile‘, and should presumably have been thrown away. Nicholas made a good case, using the charters as said, that Ordlaf is the author, and this has been argued before, but a problem with it is that Ordlaf is referred to in the third person and the letter is written in the first. Split personality? Nicholas thought not, and points out: “Such variation between the first and third persons is in fact a common feature of the most nearly comparable extant documents, namely Anglo-Saxon wills.” Which is where I come in, because in the wills of tenth and eleventh-century Catalonia I occasionally see the same thing, as witness (with my emphasis):

In the name of God. Men of these names, Borrell the priest, Ermegell and Dacó, who are executors of the late Avendi, we together as one are donors to God and to the monastery of Sant Benet, which is sited on the Riu Llobregat. By this same donation we give 1 modiata of vine, which came to me Avendi by purchase…

This is not the best example I could give but it is maybe the shortest and it was certainly the first one I could find.4 There are a few of these documents where suddenly the voice of the dead testator comes back to haunt it, and up till now I’d always assumed this was a relic of the elaborate testamentary process used here, where an initial will was sacramentally published before judges or at least churchmen and then individual bequests carried out by the executors, or almsmen, as would be a fairer translation of their title, elemosinarius.5 This obviously opens the possibility that people writing up the latter parts of the process would refer to the initial will and quote it direct without adjusting the grammar, and I’m sure that’s what happened in this case of 987.

But can this explain Ordlaf’s elusiveness in the Fonthill letter? Nicholas went a bit round the houses here, suggesting that there might be a distinct semantic register of documents where the use of the third person for oneself was more appropriate than the first, and that such a document may have been involved here, the local reeve’s judgement that the land Helmstan held from Ordlaf wasn’t forfeit because it wasn’t really his. And I can’t work out if this step about the semantic register is necessary. Certainly, in the Catalan cases, if such a respect for the original will is why it’s quoted direct, it’s not done consistently even within documents (though Nicholas referenced an observation of Mechthild Gretsch’s that the same could be said of King Alfred, or at least whoever wrote the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis in Alfred’s name).6 The Fonthill letter is anything but an accomplished piece of writing, which is one of the things that makes it so interesting (and so hard to edit and translate); if there was a written antecessor here I’m not sure that the author would have thought to change the grammar to fit the new context. That such a thing would be in writing to quote is itself slightly surprising but perhaps not impossible. But between mistake and respect, I find it hard to choose, and wonder whether we even need to: to the recipients and audiences, in all cases, the meaning would presumably have been clear anyway. All of these documents are, after all, at some level reported speech anyway, and we’re as happy now to quote direct or to report speech as this would require. That a nobleman would address the king by letter anyway already suggests a familiarity with writing; I’m not suggesting that this should automatically breed contempt, but we could possibly underestimate the readiness of such a writer to adapt texts to his whim, even if he wasn’t Wessex’s top redactor. A charter, yes, is a special piece of writing, a scriptura, Scripture, but this was not, even if it now is to us, and greater freedom may have been available for the author in which to trip up…


1. Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson & David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009).

2. N. Brooks, “The Fonthill Letter, Ealdorman Ordlaf and Anglo-Saxon Law in Practice”, ibid., pp.301-316.

3. Following Brooks’s translation, ibid. pp. 302-306 with quote p. 304.

4. 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. 1522.

5. The easiest guide to testamentary practice in Catalonia is Nathaniel Taylor, “Testamentary Publication and Proof and the Afterlife of Ancient Probate Procedure in Carolingian Septimania” in K. Pennington, S. Chodorow & K. H. Kendall (edd.), Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress on Medieval Canon Law (Vatican City 2001), pp. 767-780, online here, last modified 9th December 2006 as of 24th June 2007.

6. M. Gretsch, “The Fonthill Letter: language, law and the discourse of disciplines” in Anglia Vol. 123 (Berlin 2005), pp. 662-686 at p. 669, cit. Brooks, “Fonthill Letter”, p. 313 n. 26. On doubt over the authorship here, see Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23; cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited” in Medium Ævum Vol. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215. Brooks referenced other work on the Letter, but one might add more generally Patrick Wormald, “Charters, Law and the Settlement of Disputes in Anglo-Saxon England” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 149-168 and Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257.

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5 responses to “Ghost voices in the first person

  1. Allan McKinley

    I don’t think your discussion is far wrong, and Nicholas would have appreciated your use of a continental comparator here. What I would question is whether the kind of underlying assumption that charters and wills were documentary norms is justifiable. We have lots of charters and a few wills (although not much of either for much of Edward the Elder’s reign) but it is arguable that documents of these types were more likely to survive because of their form. It can be shown there was a much wider range of documents than the classical diplomatic forms known amongst the Anglo-Saxon (plug for another paper for you to hassle me to finish one day) but outside of certain contexts these documents tend not to survive. But there is no reason to assume non-survival means never existed, so it is worth questioning is the odd registers seen in the Fonthill Letter really odd to an Anglo-Saxon audience familiar with perhaps common but now almost lost practical literacy. Our own concerns about form and correctness of language may ironically have been those of Alfred’s (a man who appears likely to have shared some of them) nobility, whose culture is perhaps almost uniquely preserved in the Fonthill Letter. So what appears odd to us in the grammar of the letter may have been normal to them, governed by rules that cannot be clearly reconstructed from a single source.

    Of course, this might just be me problematising a simple case of a not very good author for no reason…

    • Well, yes! :-) But however effective Alfred’s initatives were, I think it might be safe to assume that not very good authors would be the literate norm and so their practices may be the ones we would really like to be able to reconstruct… But now I want to know about your wider range of documentary forms. Letters, of course, we even have one or two, but what else have you in mind? There’s a good literature for the Continent (largely recently generated by Alice Rio and Warren Brown) re-emphasising that the formula collections of Frankish Europe show that lots more sorts of document were needed than we necessarily have preserved, as you know I’m sure, and one of the joys of Catalonia is that sometimes they’re preserved anyway, but with what do we support such an assumption in Anglo-Saxon England?

      • Allan McKinley

        As the argument is still being developed I’ll just summarise here. The key point is that outside of Canterbury Christ Church all Anglo-Saxon functional documents are mainly preserved in selective later copies (it’s therefore unsurprising the Fonthill Letter was preserved at Canterbury) and even at Canterbury there was clearly archival filtering: the surprisingly common inutile endorsement seems to be one phase of this, albeit one not fully followed through.

        So to get a view of what documents were circulating amongst the Anglo-Saxons our best bet is to look for an early collection where documents that did not meet norms were less likely to be edited out. As the three earliest known Anglo-Saxon cartularies are from Worcester that’s quite convenient for me… Actually it is in the third cartulary, that known as Hemming’s, which contains an interesting section of documents. Section K, as labelled by Ker, has been cleverly identified by Francesca Tinti as being documents for lands of the monks of Worcester cathedral that were not threatened by external claims. However, none of the documents in this section have been accepted as authentic charters. Some are indeed clearly late-eleventh-century forgeries, but others are just an interesting miscellany of English and Latin documents. Interpreted in light of Arkady Hodge’s important point about charters and charter-like material being more related than either diplomatic history or later-medieval cartulary compilers seem to have admitted (to slightly misparaphrase an important article -and get in a plug for Problems and Possibilities, from where Charles Insley’s paper has also been influential on my thinking) we seem to be looking at a much wider range of records at Worcester, a few of which were recorded here in the lack of a formal charter. All I can show for certain is ‘look, Worcester had a range of documents beyond charters (the Old English wills are not found in the West Midlands for some reason; for consistency I should perhaps suggest preservation choices…) and this is not likely to be all of them,’ but it’s a point that needs reinforcing at least until we finally get the Anglo-Saxon charters edition for Worcester.

  2. Pingback: Redactions of many stages | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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