I was in touch with my old supervisor and erstwhile boss Matthew Innes over the holiday about the project that I’ve been part of with him for a little while now, which is still-unofficially known as the Lay Archives Research Group. Its purpose is mainly to tackle the problem, well-known to anyone who’s even thought about studying medieval history, that most of the evidence was, if not actually created by, at least preserved by the Church, and thus survives only, or mostly, according to their interests.
You’ll notice that that sentence is full of caveats, and for once this isn’t just because I’m a historian. Lots survives which by that rationale has no business doing so, transactions between laymen which appear to have no connection to the interests or properties of the institution that preserves them. My personal favourite is a surety given in 990 by one Ramió, in some village near Vic d’Osona in Catalonia that the document doesn’t name, to his erstwhile housemate Julió that he won’t prosecute Julió for any of the numerous things Julió stole from Ramió while the two were living together. I still want to know how Ramió’s arm was twisted, but that point is that this exists in a cathedral archive, but concerns no landed property, or in fact property of any kind unless Julió was piously giving the wine and bread that he stole to the Church, which seems a priori somewhat unlikely. (For more on this document, and indeed the whole question of lay document preservation in Catalonia, you can have a squint at an article that one of our team, Adam Kosto, wrote in last year’s Speculum.)
Catalonia’s quite unusual in how much of this stuff exists, but the best example of all is Cluny, where there are some eighty-odd charters one way or other preserved in its archive from before the house was founded, going back nearly a century. Things like this and work elsewhere are what have caused our group of scholars to start analytically studying this preservation and seeing what we can say about how and why it occurs. But we’re starting with `where’.
To an extent I have been the worker at the coalface for this enquiry, but in recent months because of being fully committed with my job at the Fitzwilliam and my back-burner work on Medieval European Coinage 6 there hasn’t been much time to add new things to what is already a database covering about two hundred archives. The point of this entry is mainly to say, now that I’m done with MEC6 for a while, Lay Archives is getting moving again. I’m going to be doing some more work adding to the database where time permits, but mainly, material for the first book is already in preparation, and I shall therefore have to spend some time soon getting to grips with placita with Matthew in a way that really no-one has since Hübner. I don’t think of myself as a disputes historian really, but this stuff is interesting, precisely because often you have to ask exactly what we’re researching: Why did anyone keep this document? And sometimes we find out.