What is the point of charters? Bedos-Rezak part the two

It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this second part of my original tri-partite plan for response to the article by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak I mentioned to you some time ago.1 If you’ll cast your minds back, as well as the general fulmination against people not thinking before they use charter evidence, where I am right with her, I mentioned that there were things she said that didn’t match my evidence, and these differences in the material we know lead to a fairly important clash over just what early medieval people were actually using these documents for.

A land sale from the archive of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

A land sale from the archive of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

A more elementary problem with Bedos-Rezak’s article is that her focus opens in 1050, and of course everyone who works early likes to show that things people think begin later don’t, because they really begin in your own period obviously. Early medievalists do it to the high medievalists, late Antiquarians do it to us, and everybody does it to the Renaissance scholars. So there are things she emphasises as changes that look well pre-figured to me, and in particular she follows Michael Clanchy on the new growth of documentary literacy, a position that years of early medievalist argument have since persuaded him to nuance.2 And she looks to the Peace of God as providing an idea that office could be a pious way to live your life to the rumbunctious secular nobility of the eleventh century, whereas we Carolingianists would find such ideas in circulation from much earlier (and the late Antiquarians would mention Theodosius and Ambrose pointedly).3 But some of the questions, about how to read the evidence, are just as relevant for me as for her.

The main one of these is that, in her material, charters don’t get used in court. Now the whole apparent point of a charter is to demonstrate right to some, well, rights, and they are self-evidently constructed as if for public reference; they are a statement to an implied audience, not a personal memorandum, and even the abbreviated notitia form you get in some places later on is aimed at someone other than the transactors. And I recognise this from much earlier, in particular from the bishopric of Freising in the eighth and ninth centuries. One of the things we did in the research for Lay Archives, you see, was to revisit Hübner’s handlist of early medieval court cases, and check to see which of them used documents, and if any of those documents were apparently lay ones.4 Freising has a clutch of dispute settlements, actually probably twice as many as Hübner knew, but none of them mention documents at all. And this is odd because Freising also has hundreds and hundreds of notices of donations.5 Was it that charters were so effective that only the ones with no documentation got contested? This seems too good to be true, but the alternative is that they, like Bedos-Rezak’s Frenchmen, were writing an awful lot of documents that were not used when it seems to us as if their moment had come. What on earth were they for if not to be used?

Seal of Count Bertrand II of Forcalquier, 1168, in the Archives Nationales de France

Seal of Count Bertrand II of Forcalquier, 1168, in the Archives Nationales de France

She approaches this question by dealing with something that genuinely is a change in her period, the shift away from witnessing charters and towards sealing them. In my period, the only people who seal charters are kings and popes; but by the end of the twelfth century most important laymen had their own seals, guilds and churches did even, and witnessing by contrast was quite rare. In my period the royal charters never have witnesses, which is annoying, but as you approach 1050 they develop them; the Capetians quite rapidly get their charters witnessed, and this has been both seen as a clear sign of, and used to analyse, their weakening clout.6 And even in Catalonia, where witnessing is regular but usually small-scale, it gets much bigger. Also, of course, the question of who is witnessing is important, but for another post. This increased witnessing dies off again fairly soon, however, and the seal is the new form of authentication.

Bedos-Rezak has some interesting things to say about the symbology of a seal impression, generated by a relief object reproducing one’s own image, and also about the generic quality of some of these images, the legend that identified the seal owner paired up with an Everyknight-type depiction that linked him to a very broadly-defined social position. It’s fascinating, but not the point. The point she makes is that increased literacy and the very spread of law, reading and just seal use itself, as well as the devaluing of this once-royal practice, means that seals will pass as authentication of a document in a way that they once would not, and that before this the witnesses had provided that rôle. That is, by doing your transaction in a big group you got a reasonable guarantee that it would be correctly remembered and sworn to by many people; and that the charter in these instances is not functioning as a record itself but the form that creates the ceremony which provides the actual authentication. Charters, for Bedos-Rezak, are for creating authenticity, and by 1200 they have a new way of doing so that makes them usable much more like documents that we know and understand, whereas before they were being used as focal points in a ritual whose point was not in fact written record. It all fits together quite nicely.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s just that in Catalonia and the South of France, people did use charters in court cases at this time. I’ve mentioned at least three here myself, I could find you others, and Patrick Geary has put some real work in on this.7 What that means is that in some parts of Europe the original idea of document as public reference was still operative, that a charter was still a judicial document even if it was a home-made one. This doesn’t invalidate what she thinks twelfth-century Northern France was using charters for, and it may be what ninth-century Freising was using them for too, but we need to allow for more than one paradigm operating simultaneously, not a single answer but competing or complementary ones. The work to be done from here would be to try and work out which of those two states of coexistence is more like what we can see in the documents, I guess. We’ll see.

1. B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.

2. Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979); idem, “‘Clanchy revised’? Did the Normans really make a new start in the use of written record in England?”, Plenary Lecture, 77th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, Institute of Historical Research, London 2 July 2008.

3. For example, see Karl-Ferdinand Werner, “‘Hludowicus Augustus’. Gouverner l’empire chrétien: idées et réalités”, in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (eds), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford 1990), pp. 3-123.

4. Rudolf Hübner, “Gerichtsurkunden der fränkischen Zeit” in Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung Vol. 12 (Wien 1891), Anhang & Vol. 14 (1893), Anhang pp. 1-248, repr. together separatim (Aalen 1971).

5. Theodor Bitterauf (ed.), Die Traditionen des Hochstiftes Freising, Quellen und Erörterungen zur bayerischen und deutschen Geschichte (nF) 4 & 5 (München 1905-1909, repr. Aalen 1967), 3 vols.

6. Precise references would take a while to find but you could certainly get those two perspectives respectively in Ferdinand Lot, Études sur le règne de Hugues Capet et la fin du Xe siècle, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hautes Etudes 4e série 147 (Paris 1903, repr. 1975) and Jean-François Lemarignier, Le gouvernement royal aux premiers temps capétiens: 987 – 1108 (Paris 1965).

7. Patrick J. Geary, “Land, Language and Memory in Europe 700-1100” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 169-184.

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