The second article in the Davies & Fouracre Property and Power volume is by David Ganz, who considers there the Roman thoughtworld in which people writing documents were circumscribing themselves.1 I’m not sure how convincing I find that, as yet; certainly the reason some of our early medieval charters look the way they do is because Roman documents looked like that, but a lot of them don’t, most of them survive in copies so we don’t really know what they looked like, and the content is so variable in formulae and style that I don’t think the practice of writing a charter is a conscious imitation of Rome so much as a conscious attempt to make an appeal to a higher law, be it of the people or of Heaven.2 David is striving to deal with this on the one side, but on the other the tension of the Church in handling this property that they have, and somehow reconciling it with the ideal of Apostolic community. On that part of the deal he is very clever indeed and I recommend it as reading.3
The reason this article got my attention however is David’s take on why people write charters. As I say the echo of Rome doesn’t convince me, and sometimes it was honestly, I’m sure, just an attempt to record something. Just, maybe not that often. All the same, David was wise to such concerns when he was writing; as anyone familiar with his work will know, David’s subtle prose can almost conceal that he is not so much thinking outside the box as leaning nonchalantly on its sides so as to push them out without you noticing, prior to pointing out that by now we’re standing in quite an odd place. An overworked metaphor, but I’ll explain the bit of this process that bit me in this article: in the middle of this fairly thick stuff about symbology and invocation of legal remedy, he suggests briefly that some people might have made donations that they had no intention of carrying out, simply so as to have their ownership of the property written down somewhere. From a modern perspective that seems crazy—the one way not to prove your ownership of something (whatever that might mean in the early Middle Ages) is surely to record your giving it to someone else!—but it does also indelibly associate you with the property and that association, we get readier and readier to accept, was not easily forgotten.4 It’s all very well saying that that isn’t the idea, but David is there to remind us that the people of the early Middle Ages didn’t necessarily have the same ideas as we do.
1. David Ganz, “The Ideology of Sharing: apostolic community and ecclesiastical property in the early Middle Ages” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1995), pp. 17-30.
2. For the actual Roman precedents of early medieval diplomatic, the classic work, more cited than read as the saying goes, is P. Classen, “Fortleben und Wandel spätrömischen Urkundenwesens im frühen Mittelalter” in idem (ed.), Recht und Schrift im Mittelalter (Sigmaringen 1977), pp. 13–54.
3. It makes a useful counter to the inevitable Terry Jones arguments of a corruptly rich Church that you might get from books like Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (London 1978).
4. This is now most ably brought out by the work of Barbara Rosenwein, especially her To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989).