Tag Archives: documents

Preservation not by neglect

Long-term readers will know that one of the things that concerns me in my researches is why we come to have the documents that we have. If we remember that almost all documents of the early Middle Ages that we have survive via Church archives, we have a perpetual issue about whether we have any means to get at what laymen did between themselves by way of property transfer, management and all the other things I talk about, or whether we’re stuck with the Church’s-eye view of the era. In some areas, and Catalonia is perhaps the most important of these cases, we have plenty of documents which are solely lay transactions but still surviving via a Church archive, so the problem is less bad but we could still use knowing who selected the documentation and what else there might have been out there.

Vic, Arxiu Capitular, Calaix 6 no. 554

A genuine lay transaction in a Church archive, Vic, Arxiu Capitular, Calaix 6 no. 554 in which Sabrosa sold some land in Folgueroles to two couples in 915 (edited as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 142).

Until the 1990s there was really only one answer to this anywhere, which is that property involved in those transactions must have subsequently come to the Church and the charters just never sorted; this we can suppose partly because of things like documents that were marked for weeding and never disposed of and also because of the many places where, when such an effort was made to sort the charters, it was so as to make a cartulary that removed the need for the original documents and as a result of which we no longer have them.1 This is what I have called ‘preservation by neglect’. In this formulation, if there is a cartulary there would be no originals and indeed we very rarely have both, even in Catalonia.2 But in areas like Catalonia where the survival of originals is generally high, and people have either supposed much higher production of documents and what Julia Smith has called ‘document-mindedness’ or else much lower losses here than elsewhere, depending on their views of early medieval literacy, it has been easier to form other opinions, such as that somehow Church archives came to preserve dossiers of lay documents that people had initially maintained outside the Church, or that churches and monasteries were actually fulfilling a rôle as archival institutions for their patrons.3 Last year this line of thought culminated in the volume that finally came out of the Lay Archives project, which has added a lot of complexities to the modalities of this but more or less concludes that, yes, people did keep documents at home and all these things could probably have happened to such documents eventually if they happen to have survived.4

Cover of Warren Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013)

Cover of Warren Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013)

Cover of Josep María Salrach's Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l'any mil (Vic 2013)

Cover of Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013)

Oblivious to all this as far as can be told (and obviously of the last given the timing), in Catalonia last year Josep María Salrach published a book I’ve now mentioned quite a lot and, as I said in my review of it, he happens all the same to mention things that bear directly on a number of heated debates in the historiography outside Catalonia, of which this is one. Something that we generally lack in this question is any evidence of charters that existed already actually coming to the archive of a church. It can sometimes be deduced that this must have happened, but it’s never usually explicit. But Salrach has a case of it, which he throws in while discussing something slightly different, the process in early medieval Catalonia for replacing lost documents.5 The date is 29th January 879, the place is Sant Esteve d’Estoer in Conflent and the occasion is a large hearing convened by the monks of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada as had been till the previous year, when a devastating flood of the Riu Tet washed their new community away along with its archive.6

Saint-Michel de Cuxa

Saint-Michel de Cuxa, as it now is. By Babsy (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

On their way to re-establishing themselves as Sant Miquel de Cuixà, with what was obviously considerable success, they held a large number of hearings in which they invoked the bit of the Visigothic Law known now as reparatio scripturae, repair of a document, by which one could get a lost document replaced by bringing witnesses to its content to swear a solemn oath, whose record then became your new charter.7 At this one, the monks produced their witnesses, Ató, Guisind, Sió, Quixilà, Espanla, Guisad and Llop, and the first thing to which they swore was a donation by Count Miró I of Conflent and Rosselló, of whom we heard last post but one. What they were recorded as saying is as follows:

“We swear first of all by God, the Omnipotent Father, and by Jesus Christ, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, who is in Trinity the One True God, or also by the relics of Saint Stephen, martyr of Christ, whose basilica is known to be founded in the villa of Estoer, on whose sacrosanct altar we placed these conditions with our hands or touched them together while swearing, that we the already-said witnesses known and well recall in truth, saw with our eyes and heard with our ears and were present in the villa of Escaró when Count Miró commended his documents of purchase and royal precept to Abbot Baró and the monk Protasi, and we saw the selfsame documents reading and re-reading and we know the whole series of those documents.”

And they went on to give abstracts of four charters, usually including the scribes’ name and always the date, and all were in favour not of the monastery but of the count.8 One of them was in fact a transaction in which the monastery-as-was had sold the property in question to him!9 (Another was a court case which his representative Sesnan, whom we met last post but one, actually won.10) Nonetheless, it was Abbot Baró and Protasi who had called for the ceremony and provided the witnesses, and the count was not present, the hearing unusually being chaired only by a group of seven judges.

Saint-Étienne d'Estoher

The modern state of Sant Esteve de’Estoer, now better known as Saint-Étienne d’Estoher, where the hearing was being held

So what do we have here? There’s no clue that any of these properties then went to Eixalada in the five-or-less years since they had been recorded there, nor is that what the document they came away from this hearing with claimed. It looks awfully as if Miró had in fact been using the monastery as an archive and they then felt obligated to replace his lost documents as well as their own. But can there only have been four? Well, probably not because apart from anything else they did not recall and replace the royal precept that they initially mention (which indeed, if they were genuinely reading the texts, may have been beyond them given its chancery script), so there could be several more documents than are actually recalled here.11 That’s a pretty meagre archive all the same, even less than we might have expected. But at least we know why we would have it, if of course it had only survived…


1. Simon D. 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; Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1994).

2. Barcelona, Urgell and Vic cathedrals all have Libri of some status in which some of their documents were copied as well as sheafs of originals, but Girona cathedral and several monasteries (Poblet springs to mind) only have cartularies and some places have lost even those (Elna most obviously).

3. Janet L. Nelson, “Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 46-63 at pp. 53-55, Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74 and Matthew Innes, “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in Jennifer R. Davies & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 247-266, for lay dossiers; Warren Brown, “When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 at pp. 351-354 for the alternative.

4. Idem, Marios Costambeys, Innes & Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013); here see esp. eidem, “Conclusion”, pp. 363-376.

5. Salrach, Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013), here pp. 194-198.

6. Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: property, proof and dispute in Catalonia around the year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 152-156; for more detail see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1955), pp. 125-337, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, I pp. 377-484 without documentary appendix.

7. The classic discussion is José Rius Serra, “Reparatio Scriptura” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 5 (Madrid 1928), pp. 246-253; cf. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks, pp. 151-161, who is sceptical about its possible accuracy.

8. Pierre Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, rev. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LXX (Barcelona 2006), 2 vols, doc. no. 121, with the quoted documents indexed separately as nos 82, 84, 86 & 100, here 121: “Iuramus in primis per Deum, patrem omnipotentem, et per Iesum Christum, filium eius, Sanctumque Spiritum, qui est in trinitate unus et verus Deus, sive et per reliquias sancti Stephani, martyris Christi, cuius baselica in villa Astovere fundata esse dinoscitur, supra cuius sacrosancto altare has conditiones manibus nostris continemus vel iurando contangimus, quia nos iamdicti testes scimus et bene in veritate sapemus, oculis nostris vidimus et aures audivimus, et presentes eramus in villa Ascarone cuando comendabat Miro comes ad barone abbate et Protasio monacho suas scripturas emptionis et preceptum regalem, et vidimus ipsas scripturas legentes et relegentes, et cognovimus omnem seriem illarum scripturam.”

9. Ibid. no. 82.

10. Ibid. no. 86.

11. It might, admittedly, be because actually the other documents survived; Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia I: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 or 75 (Barcelona 1926-1952, repr. 2009), I pp. 80-88, thought that the precept must be that that survived into the seventeenth century to be copied and thence edited by him as ibid. Cuixà I, but that text doesn’t mention Miró at all and it’s not clear why he should ever have held it. I think the precept mentioned here was probably Miró’s own.

Managing without an archive in c. 1000 Barcelona

There’s a story I’m fond of and that I’ve told you here before, in which a woman came to the court of Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona in 1005 claiming that the monks of Sant Cugat del Vallès were moving in on her land.1 There’s all kinds of strange things going on in the background of this case, and I do urge you to read the older post, but the bit that interests me on this occasion is the basis on which the plaintiff lost her land, which is that Ramon Borrell and his tame judge decided that the land was in fact the count’s, by virtue of having recently been wasteland, “just as other waste lands belong to the right of the prince”.2 It’s a pretty mean claim given that most people got to hold onto lands they’d cleared, and if the monastery hadn’t also had a claim I doubt very much this bit of casuistry would have been perpetrated upon her. When I’ve looked at this case before, therefore, I’ve either seen it as an instance of the importance of back-story in this legal environment when one was fixing a verdict, or else as an instance of the fact that these rights the counts were claiming over waste lands were not in fact regular and were probably therefore new, which bears heavily on the theory that this was an ancient and long-respected right of the public power.3 Y’see, it’s a very rich case. But what I want to focus on today is the appearance that the document gives that the count didn’t realise, until the problem arose, that this could be claimed as his land. Up till now I have always figured this was simple exigency, that ordinarily he’d never have pressed such a claim unless it was of immediate political use, and I would still think that if what I was reading when I wrote this hadn’t just presented me with another case.4

Cover of Josep María Salrach's Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l'any mil (Vic 2013)

Cover of Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013), which is what I had in fact been reading when this post got written

This one’s from 1013, and it’s Ramon Borrell again, at court with his good lady wife when a delegation arrived from a placee called Villalba near Cardedeu, complaining that the count had some time ago been persuaded by one Rigoald to sell him a meadow next-door to Villalba in what the document has the count call “an innocent and unreflexive manner”, and that Rigoald and his wife and son had started making encroachments into the villagers’ common land.5 Rigoald now being dead, the villagers dared at last come to the count, and he and Countess Ermessenda apparently called the widow and son, Quixol and Ramon, to court, had their charter examined and found it, “made in a fraudulent and deceptive manner, alien to right and to all justice.” Therefore the charter was destroyed in court, and Quixol and Ramon fined thirty sheep, which by a coincidence is exactly what the villagers gave the count in gratitude for the justice he had done them.

Chapel of SS Corneli & Cebrià de Cardedéu

It turns out in searching that Cardedéu has a rather nice Romanesque chapel sitting in its midst, so although I can’t make any direct connection between it and the post I think it will do for illustration anyway don’t you? I’m so glad. By Miquel vico (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to see how anyone but the count and countess won here. Quixol and Ramon presumably felt they were secure enough with their charter, even if they had maybe overstepped its bounds; instead they lost all title to their lands, and what happened to them is not clear, and they lost thirty sheep as well, while the villagers had to pay the same just to get what they had argued was rightfully theirs. What good sixty sheep did the count and countess of Barcelona is less easy to see, but it is reasonably clear, as Josep María Salrach says in his discussion of this case, that Ramon Borrell got a considerable height of moral high ground, defending the loyal peasantry against oppressors even when those oppressors were in fact himself, correctly broadcasting an adherence to right over advantage, even if that right was best paid for. I’m more interested in the thread that seems to me to tie these two cases together, however, which is that Ramon Borrell apparently had only the sketchiest idea of what property he actually controlled.

Arxiu Fidel Fita d'Arenys de Mar, Mas Gelat de Santa Susanna, Mas Bellvehí de Vidreres 91.0.1

This isn’t from the comital archive, but it is a charter of Ramon Borrell, with Ermessenda, Arxiu Fidel Fita d’Arenys de Mar, Mas Gelat de Santa Susanna, Mas Bellvehí de Vidreres, 91.0.1 of 1001. Their signatures, done by the scribe I think, are dead centre of the last full line of text.

In some senses this may not surprise anyone who’s spent much time with the documents from this area, because one of the noticeable things about them is the scale of comital property, which is, tiny and widespread. It is at least arguable that the counts held some really big estates and, because they kept them, we have no transaction evidence in which to see them—there’s a huge complex at Palau de Gurb that we only ever see because it was slowly and reluctantly given to Santa Maria de Ripoll, but it would never have got there had it not originally been part of a comital son’s entry-gift, for example6—but they certainly also held an immense variety of tiny stuff. There’s almost no castle term in which some comital property doesn’t show up, even if it’s just a couple of meadows or similar, and of course they presumably considered the actual castles theirs in some way, too, but that’s not what I mean. Keeping track of this mess of busy little farms and smallholdings would have been beyond most administrations, and yet on the other hand the reason we know about this land is because people near it knew it was the counts’ and said so when called on to detail property boundaries. We know here not to underestimate the ability of tenth-century lords to take inventories and make lists, I think, so there seems little question that the counts could, just about, have known what they owned. So why does Ramon Borrell seem not to have?

Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó, Cancilleria, Pergamins Ramon Borrell 2

This, on the other hand, is from the comital archive, is in fact Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, Cancilleria, Pergamins Ramon Borrell 2, but is nothing to do with the counts and doesn’t feature the man under whom it’s indexed! Funny old world, archives.

Well, there is one fairly obvious excuse in the form of the sack of Barcelona by a Muslim army in 985.7 Lots of documents got lost in that, and because preservation from the Barcelona comital archive is so patchy for the early period, it has been assumed that the counts were among the losers that day.8 I’ve always struggled with this, however, because while it is patchy it is very far from non-existent, so either they didn’t lose it all, or some of the documents that later came to the archive were held elsewhere in 985 despite being about comital property, in which case we’re already looking at a rather less centralised administration than the kind of property tracking we’re looking for might have needed.9

Besides, it’s not just Ramon Borrell who seems to have had this problem: a remarkable case from the reign of his father Borrell II, which Salrach also explores, shows the same issues coming up. This is a hearing from a place in Manresa called Vallformosa, in 977 so that the “day Barcelona died” can’t yet have affected things.10 Borrell was presiding over this court, which makes it all the more surprising what happened: his agent summoned the men of Vallformosa (some of whom were women, but fairly few, so probably the communty’s heads of houses) and claimed that their land was comital property because it had been so in the times of Borrell’s father Count Sunyer. The villagers however claimed that no claim had been made on them for more than thirty years, which under the Visigothic Law was the limit of any outstanding property claims, and so the lands were now theirs whatever the past situation might have been. The judge asked Borrell’s man Bonhom if he had any evidence to refute this, he had none, and so he had to make a quitclaim in front of his boss admitting the collapse of the comital claim, and that document then went into the comital archive.

Sant Salvador de Servitge de Vallformosa

Sant Salvador de Servitge de Vallformosa, which though much modified is possibly the oldest building standing in the village as far as websearching can tell me. Photograph by Antonio Mora Vergés.

Speculation about this has tended to go two ways, and Salrach covers both of them.11 Firstly, it can be seen as proof that the counts could lose, and that they did not have the will or resources always to force a verdict in their favour against determined opposition. Point against this view: why would you have the trail? Bonhom must have known he had no evidence to present, yet he sued the villagers anyway. It would have looked better for his side not to bother. Thus, a second point of view has been that the comital side must have intended to lose, the point being to establish publically the villagers’ rights; that is, that this was what is known in the scholarship of Italy and Germany as a Scheinprozess, a show trial. Point against this view: why must the count lose to do this? Why could he not just grant them a franchise or immunity? These documents were made by others, and indeed by Borrell himself before long, so this seems a very odd way to do it.

So I wonder if in fact they did all know what the outcome must be, or whether in fact no-one was really sure whether Vallformosa’s inhabitants would be able to raise a group of oath-swearers or that Bonhom would not be able to until too close to the trial to call it off. I wonder if, in fact, a trial like this was how both sides settled a question of ownership that beforehand they could not answer. A point for this idea, unlikely though it may seem, and a point against both the other two theories, is that the Vallformosa and Villalba documents survive in the comital archive. What I have called ‘Winner’s preservation’ here before ought to militate against this: why would the counts be keeping records of what they had not been able to claim? These documents ought to have gone to the villagers, so that they could be produced if the matter was ever raised again. The fact that what we have is the counts’ copies suggests to me an archive that barely existed, that was being assembled by chancing this kind of case and filing the results so that if, in the future, someone in Barcelona went, “That place Vallformosa, up north-west of Manresa, that’s ours isn’t it? Bishop says it’s not his…” someone checking would then be able to say, “Ah. No.”

ACA Cancilleria Pergamins Borrell II 63

I seem not to have images of anything from the comital archive from before the sack of 985 that doesn’t hail from Sant Joan de les Abadesses, whose stuff got added in later. There are some, all the same, but this is ACA Cancilleria Pergamins Borrell II 63, a Barcelona sale of 992 that, again, doesn’t feature the count and presumably arrived in the comital archive for some other reason

I admit that there is a nastier possibility, that the counts might lose the case but claim the right to keep the record, far away in Barcelona where no-one from Vallformosa could easily get at it. I would have to admit the possibility of that: but a comital administration with that kind of plan surely wouldn’t be as confused about its rights as it in fact seems to have been. I don’t want to let go of my older idea that Borrell and his son were actually trying to push for new rights under old legal cladding, and that what they attempted to get was sometimes unobtainable precisely because no-one had asked before. (This chapter of Salrach’s book is really good at adding texture to this idea, for a start.) However, I do now think that we probably ought to realise that a governmentalising apparatus with all kinds of strategies for power still doesn’t have to have been very good at them or well-equipped to carry them out…


1. J. Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés vol. II (Barcelona 1946), online here, doc. no. 464.

2. Ibid.: “Propterea iudicatum est in ipso iudicio melius et verius esse hec terra iuris principalis, sicut et cetera spacia heremarum terrarum…”.

3. J. Jarrett, “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, paper presented to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Oxford, 18th October 2010; idem, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x.

4. Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Refeències 55 (Vic 2013), here pp. 114-118.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort and Josep María Salrach (edd.), Els pergamins de l’arxiu comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I: estudi i edició, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 105. I’m working off Salrach’s account cited in the previous note here, which only quotes the document in Catalan translation, but he did edit the thing so I’m guessing it’s OK.

6. 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. nos 419 & 420, show the dissection of the Palau de Gurb estate.

7. On which see Gaspar Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008.

8. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos XVIII (Barcelona 1951), pp. xxxii-xxxiv.

9. Ibid., doc. nos 9, 12, etc.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1229 (or Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 181, because it too is in the comital archive of before).

11. Salrach, Justícia i poder, pp. 109-111.

Working for San Salvatore I: making a polyptych

I seem to have taken the chance of the latter part of the Birmingham job to indulge in reading large amounts of primary material. First there was the cartulary of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, about which you’ve by now heard quite enough, for the paper about documents that predate their archives that I may some day finish, and then as I first wrote this, in May 2014, there had just been the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, which I was reading for the submission version of the paper about Carolingian crop-yields which I gave at Kalamazoo in 2011.1 The point I wanted to make with the former of these kind of disintegrated as I got into the material; it’s not clear that all the material that the monks of Beaulieu were assembling was actually theirs and far less of it is non-ecclesiastical than I had thought. There’s an interesting story to be told there (I should say, another one, as Jane Martindale already told one) but it’s not the one I wanted.2

Thesouth portal of St-Pierre de Beaulieu

One last picture of Beaulieu before we leave it for a few months… By Sjwells53 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Santa Giulia di Brescia polyptych has been far kinder, in as much as it serves my purpose perfectly: those scholars who have posited low crop yields using its figures have done so by what I can only call unthinking assumption that the figures are what they needed, and this is easily disproven.3 In fact, not only can one not show that the monastery’s estates were yielding less than was sown, as has been argued (nonsensically), in one or two cases it is clear that the yields must have been much higher, so it all works very well for me. But there is so much else one could do with this document, and in the paper I can’t, I have no space and it would be irrelevant and to do anything separate with it I would have to work through a mass of Italian historiography, Italian being a language with which I struggle, and probably then find out all this stuff was well-established anyway. But this is where a blog helps: I have to tell someone, so I shall tell you.

A corner of the cloister and the solar of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Santa Giulia has not made it through the ages quite as unchanged as Beaulieu

Let’s start at the beginning by explaining the word polyptych, perhaps not in the average person’s everyday vocabulary. This is a word scholars of the early Middle Ages use for one of the various large-scale estate surveys carried out by fiscal or ecclesiastical agents: these seem to start in the Carolingian Empire, though the techniques presumably weren’t new then, and they carry on being made well into the Middle Ages: Domesday Book could be argued to be the ultimate one and there’s a twelfth-century one from Catalonia I need to read some day, and so on.4 At the later end this category blurs into inventory, survey, census and so on, and it’s something of a term of art. It’s also not the word the texts use, which is almost always breve, though brief these texts are not. Anyway, Santa Giulia’s is quite late, probably dating to 906, and it’s out of area, being from North Italy, which would once have counted as Carolingian heartland but by this time not so much.

Polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832

This is not from the Brescia manuscript, which is not online as far as I can see, but from the 9th-century polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832, online at Gallica; this is fo. 8v.

We don’t have all of this text. The original manuscript survives, and it must be a fascinating thing though it’s quite hard to check since the shelfmark given by the best scholarly edition, which dates to 1979, seems now to have been reorganised out of existence and the Archivio di Stato di Milano, although they have been digitising their stuff since 2000, don’t actually, you know, have any of it online yet. The edition is good, however, and furthermore that has been competently digitised, so you can play along here. But the original would be more fun: as it survives it is apparently twelve big pieces of parchment sewn together top-to-bottom into a roll. One of these pieces is a later short bit acting as a replacement for the end of its predecessor, whose final lines apparently became almost-illegible, but otherwise we have the work of three scribes, two of whom write large chunks and could have been working independently, but the third of whom drops in for a few lines here and there not just within entries but within words of the second scribe’s work, so that they must have firstly been working together and secondly working with source texts. That was always likely, but it at least eliminates the possibility that the information was being written up ‘live’; you can’t really change scribes in the middle of a word if someone is standing there dictating it to you, you’d think.

The cloister of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Back to Santa Giulia’s rather post-medieval cloister

The information that they were receiving and recording was done to a pretty tight template. Interestingly, it’s less tight in some areas than others. The text opens in the middle of an entry, and most of the first few have become illegible, but once they’re not they’re in the Brescia area: after a while the scope moves out to properties nearer Bergamo, Modena, Cremona and Piacenza, and Modena especially is not in style. This seems partly to be because the second scribe thought some details were just too tedious, but in other cases it seems to be because the information hadn’t come in as expected: there are gaps left on the manuscript as if more were expected. Sometimes these gaps are very large, twenty-odd centimetres of unused parchment, suggesting that perhaps entire settlements hadn’t yet reported in when they started writing up and in fact never did, while at the end, after they’d got down to the properties that aren’t even land but just some people in Ivrea who sent them honey once a year, or similar,5 what seem to be extra estates from Brescia and Bergamo were added which had apparently been missed out earlier and whose returns therefore presumably came in late.

So we certainly don’t have a full inventory of Santa Giulia di Brescia’s property here (not least because it would still have been San Salvatore di Brescia in 906 I think) and the most obvious thing that’s missing is the monastery itself, which was at least mentioned somewhere in the text, as the scribes refer back to it as ‘the aforesaid monastery’, but in what we have is not mentioned at all.6 This suggests that what is now the first parchment probably wasn’t originally, and of course that means we don’t know how much is lost, especially as the twelfth parchment also breaks off in medias res. That unknown quantity is also the basis for the date of 906, which is not given in the text that we now have but which is recorded on the dorse of the roll, and which may therefore have once been in the missing part of the text. People have debated the palæography a lot and argued that this is anything from the original to a late-eleventh-century copy. Some of the land involved was only granted to the monastery by King Carloman in 879 so it’s younger than that, but the consensus seems to be that it could be 906, so it may as well be.7

Precept of King Carloman for Saint-Sauveur d'Atuyer, 883

Again, not the right manuscript, but the look is right and so is the dedication, this Carloman confirming the rights of Saint-Sauveur d’Atuyer in 883, from the inestimable Diplomata Karolinorum

Now, there are a whole range of things that interest me about this text, some of which will be their own posts, but let’s stick here with how they made it. As I say, the information is recorded to a template. Each estate is broken down by assets with the assets listed in the same order. Some estates didn’t have, for example, a spelt crop, but when there was a spelt crop it’s always tucked between the rye crop and the barley crop—not the only example, this—so there must somewhere have been a guide that said what order things should be listed in. There’s two ways that could happen, obviously: either the information came in more or less unsorted and the scribes arranged it according to a list in the office or else the template was actually used in the collection of the information. I think it must have been the latter, because there is as I say variation in the order around Modena. The scribes could obviously have fixed that if they were already reorganising data to a model. That they did not suggests that the model was used at record point, not at redaction point.

In other words, the monastery would have sent people out with a form to be filled in. For some reason this makes me terribly gleeful. It’s not that I have any great love for bureaucrats. It may be that I do love making lists of stuff, and it therefore reaches me inside to have good evidence of tenth-century people also making lists of stuff that were meant always to be in the same order and so on. But mainly I love it because this means it is possible to reverse-engineer the form they used, or at least something that would produce the same results. So by way of both showing you the kind of data we have and quite how bad my obsessive compulsion can get, you will find my version of that form, with one estate’s data entered into it, below the cut. For those of you slightly less keen on fine-grained (aha ha grain, sorry) agricultural demography, a seminar report will be along shortly… Continue reading

Before you write a charter

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time is the process in which an early medieval charter, meaning the documents we now have, got written. There is a lot of assumption about this and exposure to original documents can often show that these assumptions are unjustified, because the palæography or whatever demonstrates that it can’t have been done that way. Sometimes this is even obvious in the text: some charters talk about themselves having been placed upon the altar to symbolise a donation to a church, for example, which can’t be correct as it stands – the document can’t have been finished before an action it describes in the past tense. I’ve seen it argued that the documents in question were part-finished and then so deposited, and then finished up afterwards, and indeed sometimes perhaps not finished at all given the state of many papal documents so that sort of works, but I also suspect that in this sense, many of these documents are lying and the procedure they describe didn’t take place as recorded, be they never so authentic.1

The altar slab from the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres

How is an altar like a writing-desk? The much-inscribed altar slab from the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres

If one steps back from the document for a moment and observes the process, however, there were presumably several stages in any transaction a charter records. At least, these would have probably included an initial approach by the person initiating the transaction to the other party and some negotiation between them about how it should go; then a public meeting in which that transfer was enacted before witnesses, and subsequently some shunting around of assets that constituted the actual transfer of property. One could add more: there’s one charter in the Vic archives where the two parties had arranged the transfer but couldn’t arrange the actual meeting, so they had chosen an intermediary and what the charter records is him being given the price and it being laid upon him to go to the first party, transfer the price to him and return to the second party with title to the land, presumably another charter that is not, in fact, the one that eventually came to Vic, suggesting that perhaps the transaction was never actually completed.2 There’s another pair of charters in that same archive which replace earlier documents that had been lost and have witnesses recalling the ceremony in which the originals were made, and those witnesses recall a second ceremony where the recipient went to his new lands and had the charters read out three times so everyone should know he was now the owner. This is a lovely thing to have recorded, and it certainly seems as if something like that should have happened, and if only the scribe hadn’t used titles for the officials involved that never get used ordinarily in Catalan documents, thus indicating that he was working from a written model, I’d believe it, but as it is…3 And this is what I mean about exposure weakening assumptions.

Partial facsimile of a Vic charter in which a third-party collects payment for one of the transactors

Partial facsimile of the charter in which Ferriol firmator acts as the third party described above, M. S. Gros i Pujol, “Làmines” in Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, no. 36.

The reason this now bubbles to the surface, however, is one aspect of this that we have debated here before, which is whether the charter itself is actually written at the ceremony. It would sort of seem that it has to be, as before that one could obviously only guess at who would actually turn up to witness. On the other hand, if unforeseen people had not made it, would that even be admitted, you may ask, and we have to consider that perhaps it would not be, but some documents do give me comfort on this score, in particular those that allowed space for people’s names they didn’t eventually need, or the massive Vall de Sant Joan hearing where the initial list of those present doesn’t quite match up with those who actually witnessed it.4 That of course implies that there was a pre-text, written up in advance ready to be finished off later, something that could obviously go wrong and so we see it happening.

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Other places got round this problem of needing a text to carry out the ceremony but not being able to finish the text till afterwards in other ways. The many original charters of the Alpine monastery of St Gallen famously often have draft versions on the hair side of the parchment sheet which are written up fine on the smoother, flesh side to constitute that actual charter.5 What makes me put fingers to keyboard about this today, though, is having lately found an Anglo-Saxon example of this, or nearly this, a grant of land at a place fittingly called Little Chart, in Kent, to a thegn Æthelmod by King Æthewulf of Wessex in 843. This document was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and is now in the British Library, and the scribe was clearly working from a written precursor. This is suggested by his misspellings of words in the boundary clauses, but it’s much more obviously confirmed, as you can see below, by the fact that attached to the document are two parchment scraps that bear portions of the witness list in other hands. Now, if these were being written from the charter there would surely be no point in storing them with it; you would only do that so as to be able to carry information away. Instead, they must be so attached in order to validate the final copy made using their information. In other words, a couple of people wrote down what was going on on the spot then a nice proper charter was made of it later on.6

Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex to his <i>minister</i> Æthelmod, 843

Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex to his minister Æthelmod, 843

I suspect this is actually how things usually happened, although I expect that parchment scraps were much less often used than writing tablets, which we would hardly ever expect to have preserved.7 In the case of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, it’s again obvious that there were written lists of people involved, as the scribe of the main document scrambled some of the names which he obviously couldn’t read. Some of the St Gallen documents’ draft versions are pretty neat, too, which makes me wonder whether a draft might not sometimes have been preserved as an original in other contexts. Certainly there are two versions of some major grants to religious houses which seem to represent arguments over terms and which one is the winning version is now impossible to say; this affects the earliest evidence of the cathedral of Vic’s right to mint coinage, just to pick one example.8 I worry, you see, that this may be the case much more often than we really have evidence for it, and so when I find evidence for it like this, I like to share…


1. James Campbell, “The Sale of Land and the Economics of Power in Early England: problems and possibilities” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 1 (Woodbridge 1989), pp. 23-37; J. Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41; idem, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 27-71.

2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.) Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 67 (pictured).

3. Ibid. doc. nos 27 & 28, 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), 3 vols, doc. nos 33 & 34; see Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 49-53.

4. E. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 119 & 1526, the former the Vall de Sant Joan hearing (pictured) and the latter a right mess of space allocation pictured and discussed here. On the redaction of the former, see J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-38.

5. Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge 1989), pp. 90-98; Carl Brückner, Die Vorakte der älteren St. Galler Urkunden (St Gallen 1931). The St Gallen charters are now largely edited in facsimile via the Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, but if I give you full edition references for those ten or eleven volumes (so far) I’ll never make it to work today; they can be found here. You’re looking for ChLA I, II & C-CVII. While digging that up, however, I came across the existence of Bernhard Zeller, “Writing Charters as a Public Activity: The Example of the Carolingian Charters of St Gall” in Marco Mostert & Paul Barnwell (edd.), Medieval Legal Process. Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Turhnout 2011), pp. 27-37, which I think I once knew about but haven’t followed up; time I did so!

6. W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885–1899), 3 vols, no. 442; Peter Sawyer (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), rev. Susan Kelly, Rebecca Rushforth et al. as The Electronic Sawyer (Cambridge 2010), online here, no. 293; A. Prescott, “Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex” in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 232, pp. 256-257, gives a facsimile and some discussion.

7. Though see Webster & Backhouse, Making of England, nos 64 & 65!

8. Junyent, Diplomatari, doc. no. 55, takes the two variant Vic texts together; Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV deals with them separately as his doc. nos 103 & 105, which I find less helpful since it suggests they were both definitive. I had a really good example of a charter of King Henry IV of Germany being adapted in response to what can only be called user feedback, too, but can’t now work out where I had this stored and there’s no time to look now. Never mind! Such things exist

Charter-hacking II, From the Sources VIII, Feudal Transformations XVII: scribes who take us through the mutation documentaire

When I set this post up as a stub at the end of June 2012 – yup – it was while I was still working steadily through the three thick volumes of Catalunya Carolíngia IV, and I read a document and decided it was my new favourite charter. This happens quite a lot if you’re me—I think my current favourite charter is Beaulieu LXXI, for reasons I may some day get to—but this one played into the continual problem people working on the supposed changes around 1000 have, or indeed anyone working on change may have if their evidence base grows hugely at a certain point in their period: how do you tell that the changes you are seeing are not simply the result of having enough evidence to catch them at last?

The three volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia covering Osona and Manresa

Shortage of evidence is not really a problem I have

This is of course nothing other than the ‘mutation documentaire’ argued by Dominique Barthélemy in opposition to those who see a ‘mutation féodale’, a feudal transformation around or soon after the year 1000, and it’s especially problematic for Catalonia where the evidence only really begins in the 830s and gets much denser from 940 onwards. This is far from the first time I’ve brought this up here, and I’m not the first to try and find counters either; we’ve seen Brigitte Bedos-Rezak’s take here and I could also, as ever, mention Pierre Bonnassie’s use of numismatic evidence to show that the charters of Catalonia do in fact reflect known changes very quickly.1 I’ve since tried testing for actual change between documents that cover the same sort of things, but we still come up against the problem that change on the documents might be provoked by factors other than changes in actual social practice, even if that would probably also do it… This document enables another attack, however, as we’ll see. I translate from the Latin given in the footnote:2

“In the name of the Lord. I Ermemir am seller to you Adroer, buyer. By this document of my sale I sell to you my selfsame alod that I bought from Déudat and that was the late Atilà’s, that is, houses with a courtyard and gardens and cultivated and waste land as well as a vineyard with its trees, which came to me through purchase or whatever voice, and it is in the county of Manresa, in the castle [term] of Avinyó, in the villa that they call [that]. And all these things inserted above bound: from the east on the torrent that runs there and from the south on the farmstead or on the fief and from the west on the road that goes to various places and from the north on the vineyard of me the seller. Whatever is included within those same four bounds thus I sell you, the selfsame alod that is described above, for the price of 20 solidi in equivalent goods, and it is manifest. Over the which aforesaid alod that I sell you, indeed, I hand from my right to yours dominion and power to do whatever you may want. For if I the seller or any other man who should come to disrupt this same charter, let him not avail in vindicating this but let him compound the selfsame houses with the courtyard and the land with the vineyard and the selfsame trees twofold with all their improvements, and in future let this charter of sale remain firm and stable now and for all time.
“This same charter of sale done the ninth Kalends of May, in the second year that King Louis, son of Lothar, was dead, and King Hugh ought to reign.
“Ermemir S[ub]S[cribe]S, who asked for this same charter of sale to be written and the witnesses to confirm. Mark of Odó. Signed Atilà. Signed Bonfill.
“Oruç, priest, who wrote this same charter of sale and S[ub]S[cribe]S on the day and year as above.”

So, OK, what is so special about this, you may be asking, it looks like a regular enough document? And that’s part of its charm: Oruç clearly knew how a charter should go and stuck to the formulae as far as possible, but in some places it wouldn’t quite work and he had to adapt. The most obvious of these is the dating clause. It’s 989 and there are no more Carolingian kings; Catalonia is famous for its preference for these, to the extent that at this same period one or two scribes went so far as date their documents by Duke Charles of Lorraine, Louis’s uncle who never actually succeeded him, but here we seem to have a scribe or even a transactor who thinks this ridiculous, a lone voice of pro-Capetian opposition.3 There’s no way that’s formulaic pressure, or even a political agenda for the area laid down from on high: this can only be, as with the other dating clause variations at this time, a contemporary reaction to change.

Castell d'Avinyó landscape

Castell d’Avinyó as it now is. I guess it was busier then? From Wikimedia Commons

Once you start looking for those traces of shifting practice, there are more here. The important one for my current work is the reference to a fief on the southern boundary. I know that’s a loaded word, but bear with me. There are in fact quite a few charters from Osona and Manresa, and maybe further afield, that have a benefice, beneficium, on their boundaries. That’s another word with a lot of possible meanings, but there’s three things about it I notice when it turns up: firstly, the word almost never occurs in any other context, so it’s not as it sometimes is elsewhere a catch-all for almost any property, goods or landholding. Secondly, there’s only ever one of these things per charter, and it’s tempting because of that to say it’s always the same one per area and that there is only one. Thirdly, it never, ever, belongs to anyone, whereas usually all the other tenures given as bounds have named owners. (With our example of the day we’re in the wilds and most of the other sides are natural features, but see here if you want.) What I take this to mean is that this land is a benefice, that is, a revocable holding given by a lord to a subordinate, whoever holds it, and that therefore it probably associates with an office. From there it’s but a short jump to saying: this is the allotment of land that supports the local castle, and this is a jump I have made relatively happily before now.4

While I was reading Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I became aware that new words that seem to be doing this same job start to occur towards the end of the tenth century, two of which are the ones we have here, aragal and fevum. The former is tricky: in Castilian documents it seems to mean `stream’ or ‘watercourse’, but Niermeyer gives it as a variant of areale and makes it basically a farm or a piece of land where a farm will be put.5 My sense is that the estate meaning is what we have here, but in any case here the scribe himself isn’t sure it’s right, apparently; it may be a fief. That presents other problems because of other documents doing just this dance not between fief and aragal but between fief and fisc, but that’s exactly why it seems to me that this is the allotment of the local castle, the benefice as was.6 But apparently no longer! Again, formulaic pressure should keep it the same here, but with everything else pretty much stuck in the usual register, ‘my right to yours’, ‘dominion and power to do whatever you may wish’, and so on, this word has to change, because apparently something is going on that means it’s not like a benefice any more. One might suspect that that something is a recognition of hereditary tenure, or maybe a reclassfication or restressing of fiscal rights by the count, and the fact that those two seem like trends in opposite directions isn’t exactly helpful, but this does seem to me a case where the scribe is genuinely having to change his words with the times.

Scribal signture of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 242, by Jonathan Jarrett

The signature of at least an Ermemir, in a different document, Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 242, photo by your humble author

There is more I could say about this charter. The tenure history is unusually informative, for a start, and that itself raises the possibility that either the scribe or the transactor were unusually talkative (though that again evidences a willingness to bend formulae to practice). Also, I suspect that this Ermemir who makes the sale, and possibly Adroer to whom he sells, could be found elsewhere signing as priests in that manner I described a while back. Alas, I still don’t have a way into the Montserrat archive where this document resides, so although Ermemir signs this document autograph so that it ought to be possible to compare with the relevant priest as above, I still can’t. But we have plenty to talk about already, no?


1. For Barthélemy’s position I suppose the quickest consultation is D. Barthélemy, “The Year 1000 without abrupt or radical transformation” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147, extracted and translated from Barthélemy’s La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XIVe siècle (Paris 1993), pp. 333-334, 349-361 & 363-364. Also referred to here: Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices: an essay in interpretative methodology” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343, and Pierre Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

2. 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. 1555: “In nomine Domini. Ego Ermemirus vinditor sum tibi Adrovario, emtore. Per hanc scriptura vindicionis mee vindo tibi ipsum meum aulode que ego emi de Dodadus et qui fuit de Atilanii condam, id est casas cum curte et ortos et terra culta vel erma simul cum vinea vel cum arboribus, qui mihi advenit de comparacione vel per quacumque voce, et est in comitatum Minorissa, in castrum Avignone, ad ipso villare quem dicunt. Et afronta ec omnia superius inserta: de oriente in torente qui inde discurit et de meridie in ipso aragal vel in ipso feo et de occiduo in via qui pergit in diversa loca et de circii in vinea de me vinditore. Quantum infra istas IIIIor afrontaciones includunt sic vindo tibi ipso aulode quod superius resonat, totum ab integrum, cum exio vel regresio suo, in propter precium solidos XX in rem valentem, et est manifestum. Quem vero predicto ipso aulode que tibi vido de me iuro in tuo trado dominio et potestatem ad facere omnia que volueris. Quod si ego vinditor aut ullusque homo qui contra anc ista carta vindicione pro inrumpendum venerit non oc valeat vindicare set componat ipsas casas cum curte et orto et terra cum vinea vel cum ipsos arbores in duplo cum omnem suam immelioracione, et in antea ista carta vindicione firma et stabilis permaneat modo vel omnique tempore.
“Facta ista carta vindicione VIIII kalendas madii, anno II quod obiit Leudevicii regi, filium Leutarii, et debet regnare Ugone rex.
“Ermemirus SSS., qui ista carta vindicione rogavi scribere et testes firmare. Sig+num Eudone. Sig+num Adila. Sig+num Bonefilio.
“Aurucius presbiter, qui ista carta vindicione scripsit et SSS. die et anno quod supra.”


3. On these tendencies see Anscari M. Mundó, “La datació de documents pel rei Robert (996-1031) a Catalunya”, in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 4 (Barcelona 1967), pp. 13-34.

4. In J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), p. 84, where an example is given.

5. Jan Frederik Niermeyer (ed.), Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus. Lexique latin médiéval–français/anglais. A Medieval Latin–French/English Dictionary (Leiden 1976), p. 59.

6. Locally, see Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, but the usage is more widespread than that and was thus noticed a long time ago by none other than Marc Bloch, in e. g. “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

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.

Seminar XCIX: hearing the king’s voice in charters

(Written mostly offline on a plane between London Gatwick and Naples, 28/09/2011, which may also explain the recent quiet patch, sorry.)

The new term looms and I haven’t even reached the summer, I realise, but undeterred I press on with the seminar reports since they are apparently things that people like to read, and this one was actually requested of me a while back. At last I deliver, and may even be able to upload in the next couple of days. On the 1st June 2011, Professor Anton Scharer, no less, was at the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, speaking to the title, “The King’s Voice: expressions of personal concern in royal diplomas”.

Signet ring of King Childeric of the Franks

Signet ring of King Childeric of the Franks

The topic of this paper was one that we have discussed here before, not least because our frequent commentator round here, Levi Roach had spoken on a fairly similar subject only a few months before. I had thought, because of Professor Scharer’s writings on Alfred the Great,1 that he too would be talking about Anglo-Saxon charters but in fact he ranged very widely, not just through Frankish and Ottonian documents but also Merovingian seals and artistic representations of kings. By this kind of survey he was attempting to show that the king was symbolised in many aspects of the royal charter’s difference from the everyday document. Not the least noticeable point of this for me, in the league of things I’ve known for ages but never actually thought about, is why the Carolingian royal charters are in a cursive hand. This is after all the administration that so valued empire-wide uniform legibility that they gave us, as it turns out, most of our modern type-faces in the form of Caroline Minuscule; but the royal diplomas needed to look authentic, and so they carried on in the same horrible chancery cursive the Merovingians had used because that’s what royal documents looked like. For those with the knowledge to read more than just the text, the look and the ceremony (Professor Scharer had one example of a royal charter being actually read out at the recipient’s church, in a case from Paderborn in 813), there were also other clues: the Tironian notes with which Carolingian royal diplomas were usually finished off sometimes record the king ordering the charter drawn up. But it wasn’t always the king—interestingly, under Emperor Louis the Pious it’s more often Empress Judith than Louis, though this is also to say she is known to have done so twice—so when it is, that’s quite possibly genuine information, since it was apparently possible to say something else.

Sealed precept of Charlemagne for Mainz, 813

Sealed precept of Charlemagne for Mainz, 813; online with detail view at the Landesarchiv Stuttgart, linked through

The question remained, of course, whether the kings genuinely had any input on what words were used, even if they were apparently closely involved with the actual making of documents. Here Professor Scharer argued from a very few cases where feelings that only the king might be expected to have had appear to be recorded in charters, such as an unusually long list of family anniversaries given in a precept of King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks in a grant to St-Denis; it’s hard to imagine who else can have thought it necessary to commemorate so many of his minor relatives, and subsequent related grants did not record the same number, so it does look like a unique piece of input based on family knowledge, and Otto I can be found doing something similar for his family’s foundation of Quedlinburg.2

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

I could see other arguments here at least—St-Denis strikes me as a good place to look for genealogy-crazy royal functionaries who might want to show off to get the king’s good attention—but I was a bit more enthused by a document of Emperor Henry III that Professor Scharer cited of which we have two versions, one of which contains much more information on the emperor’s connection to the beneficiary monastery of Hildesheim; this version was enacted, and the former was not, suggesting that it was a first draft that was sent back by the emperor for revision (though someone did wisely raise in questions the issue that somehow, the recipient house also preserved this supposed rejected draft, to which Professor Scharer had only jocular answers).3 This, I can imagine happening much more readily, and it is kind of the minimum that I think is implied by the penitential charters of Æthelred the Unready which Levi had discussed, too; their shared agenda is so closely defined that there must have been some check on their conformity to it (even if in that case it might as easily have been carried out by Wulfstan).4 Whether we can jump from there to the king actually telling his scribe what the thing should say, in detail, especially for a period earlier than the eleventh century when document use is booming in these areas, is a lot harder to say still, I think; but at the very least, papers like this make complete scepticism about the possibility less justifiable.5


1. Most obviously Herrschaft und Repräsentation. Studien zur Hofkultur König Alfreds des Großen, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 36 (Wien 2000), but for many of us I suspect more familiarly “The Writing of History at King Alfred’s Court” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 5 (Oxford 1996), pp. 177-206. His publication record is, needless to say, larger than this.

2. From Professor Scharer’s handout I can tell you that the St-Denis document was †A. Giry, †M. Prou & G. Tessier (edd.), Recueil des Actes de Charles II Le Chauve, Roi de France (Paris 1927-1947), 3 vols, II doc. no. 246.

3. Likewise, this was Harry Bresslau & Paul Kehr (edd.), Die Urkunden Heinrichs III, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Diplomata regum et imperatorum Germaniae) V (Berlin 1926-1931, repr. 1993), doc. no. 236.

4. I should notice that Levi’s paper appears to be forthcoming as “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming), but meanwhile one might turn to his “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203.

5. For Germany I assert this point about increasing document use somewhat blithely on my impressions from having flitted through a great many cartularies of German monasteries for the Lay Archives Project and finding their great bulk too late, but there may be actual literature on it too, and for England you can see Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, though a bit of perspective on this article does help.