What is the point of charters, II: some conceptual pondering

Every now and then I bring up a particular enigma about the early medieval documents at Freising, which I went through very rapidly for the Lay Archives project but is otherwise not my area. There are quite a lot of charters at Freising, and they come to us from a very early cartulary about whose compilation we know more than usual because the scribe, Cosroh, was quite gabby. The last time I mentioned it Clemens Radl popped up like a kind of beneficial Internet spirit and pointed out that the whole thing is in facsimile and edition online, so here, have a sample:1

Page 342 of Cosroh's Codex, from the Bayerische Staatsbibliotek

Page 342 of Cosroh's Codex, from the Bayerische Staatsbibliotek

The enigma is this. There are in this codex about 1000 documents, of which some 14 (before 900 at least) are court hearings. All these hearings call on witnesses only and never bring written evidence. So what on earth are the charters being written for if they’re never to be used?

I’ve previously mentioned the solution of Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, who emphasises the authentication function of gathering everyone together to see it done, at which point the creation of the document becomes a part of the ceremony but its content needn’t necessarily be important. I’m sure that’s true, where there is such a ceremony, but it doesn’t seem quite to work to me because people do go to trouble over the contents sometimes, even if not so much at Freising where the documents are quite often only short notitiae.2 I’ve usually covered this gap with an idea that they were being used for internal reference at the cathedral, which the early copying into a cartulary might support, although for Patrick Geary there are other issues about the control of memory that might have more to do with it.3 I think we can have both, and I wonder if his ascribed motives could ever be conscious. Does it matter if they’re not? I don’t know. Anyway.

The outside of Reading Abbey cartulary

The outside of Reading Abbey cartulary

Something I’ve just read, an article by Isabel Alfonso about legitimisation (not the word her translator uses, you understand… ) of royal power through court judgements in eleventh- and twelfth-century León has got me at least one step further on. Discussing the charters in which those judgements are preserved, she envisages their being read out as a concluding part of the assembly, describing the documents as “vehicles for the communication of the means whereby those decisions had been made, and the social networks that had been activated in the process”.4 I like this better, because it suggests that there is more meaning implied by a charter than is actually in it, the links between the people that my work is about reconstructing but which also explain who is invested in such-and-such a judgement sticking and who is thereby connected to the lucky monstery or cathedral, and of course the king. It’s that connection and mutual self-reinforcement that is the subject of Alfonso’s paper, but the idea that there might be other fora for reading these documents than just in court may get me out of my conceptual bind.

All the same. There’s no evidence for charters in León actually being read out anywhere except as part of a judicial process. So we are having to make stuff up to fill this gap. And so I’m still not happy with it. But until I come across something better maybe this will do.

1. The edition is Theodor Bitterauf (ed.), Die Traditionen des Hochstifts Freising (Aalen 1905-1909, repr. 1967), 2 vols.

2. 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.

3. Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985).

4. Isabel Alfonso, “Judicial Rhetoric and Political Legitimation in Medieval León-Castile”, transl. Carolina Carl in Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 51-87, quote at p. 54.

22 responses to “What is the point of charters, II: some conceptual pondering

  1. (Note: this may be a variation on Bedos-Rezak).
    Let me propose something that might be called the talismanic theory of charters.
    In modern occult practice, the key to an effective talisman is the production and consecration of the physical object; but once that is achieved, the psychic effects are presumed to follow even the talisman is dropped in the middle of the Gobi Desert and completely forgotten about, so long as the talisman itself is not actually destroyed or at least deconsecrated. So if one makes a talisman of love and sticks it in the underwear drawer and forgets about it, the talisman will still work.
    To apply this to charters–perhaps the important thing was in fact the making of the charter, with the contents of the charter of some importance–but once the charters is signed sealed and delivered, the most important thing is the actual existence of the charter, even if the document is never taken out of the cedar chest next to the abbot’s study. Just knowing there was a charter is a potent thing to ward off rivals and calm anxieties about one’s rights. Reading the charter aloud to the assembled multitudes would an optional part of the ritual, or part of the traditional ritual observed in some areas but not in others.

  2. Hmm, I quite like that, and I certainly don’t think it’s to be got from Bedos-Rezak’s take which was more about public affirmation and using the community as witness. I should take this up with my friendly local anthropologist when next I am actually local to them, and see if there’s work that would be safe to cite on such practices. Thankyou.

    How do you think that might relate to copying these things into cartularies, though? The original talisman would presumably derive some of its power from the ceremony in which it was used, but the copy has no such connection. I suppose that would mean that the text, or at least the meaning it conveys, since they are often modernised in copying (not clear at Freising, but elsewhere), is the real talisman, but on the other hand, combination into an object with many other talismanic texts might have its own force…

    This is food for thought, thankyou. It does however mean reading into an area where I have no real background at all. Hey: perhaps it’s time I learnt something!

  3. godsdamnit, Jarrett! There you go posting things that make me feel under-read and buried under administrative and teaching duties again!

    I like Kishnevi’s idea, but why does it have to be that complicated? After all, why do we keep the deeds to our homes (should we be fortunate enough to own them)? Why, in fact, do we keep records at all? The very simple answer is that there are lots of reasons.

    My objection to the talismanic approach is that it imbues the charters with properties that people may or may not believe in — and I worry a bit that this approach could reinforce the stereotypical image of medieval people as superstitious and therefore backward.

    Why not simply pull the quasi-magical out of the equation and call that part the ‘just in case’ reason for having charters? After all, that’s why most of us keep legal records — just in case we need them, to prove we have the right to sell, alienate, will, modify, or even keep a piece of property. We might use it, we might not. The existence of a piece of paper — nowadays also registered centrally somewhere — gives us peace of mind.

    So that’s one reason.

    Then there is the whole witness thing — witnesses provide a type of longstanding communal memory, as well as implying acquiescence of witnesses who might have an interest.

    Then there’s the ‘monasteries keep them’ thing — well, there, you have the facts that monasteries often have an interest, AND can be repositories for local records, AND can often be filled with unscrupulous bastards that forge their own charters to land-grab.

    Oh — and then there’s the ‘look at me giving stuff to the church and please everybody remember I was a pious type!’ reason

    And so on.

    I’m really not trying to oversimplify, yet … well, I’m not so sure there’s a single answer. As you said, people talk to each other. I’m as careful as the next person to run screaming from presentist arguments and from assuming people in the past are motivated by the same things we are. But … I’m not sure it’s wrong to simply say that different people can do the same thing for different reasons, or for multiple reasons.

    So maybe we can’t know ‘what charters were used for’, but we can know ‘ways charters were used’ and even, sometimes, ‘ways in which charter(s) X were used.’ And that’s ok.

    Not that you ever said it wasn’t. Just feeling like being a splitter today. And apologies for the lack of elegance. It’s been another week. :-)

  4. I don’t think one ever stops feeling under-read, at least my bookshelves taunt me every time I step back into my room…

    I agree that different places are probably keeping charters for different reasons, this is I think the chief weakness of Greary’s Phantoms of Remembrance. I also wonder how far Carolingian administrators overwrote that with an idea of proper practice that didn’t necessarily belong to the area they were put in charge of. Freising makes me think this a lot, because it seems clear that the obvious use for charters, producing them as evidence, is something they never did. Yet they copied them up, and that perhaps suggests that they knew there was no use for them in court, because who wants to bring a whole cartulary to court? Though it is perhaps a bit like the visual effect of arriving with a petition made of hundreds of hardly-filled exercise books Yes Minister style. In any case, the problem that Freising gives me is exactly that what you say is the most obvious use for a title deed, and what people do demonstrably do in my area, to wit, use them as evidence of title, is not something that is done with Freising’s thousand-odd acts, so whatever function they’re performing it isn’t that. Geary says it’s more memorial than judicial, as per your “‘look at me giving stuff to the church and please everybody remember I was a pious type!’” explanation. As long as the monastery has the charter and not the donor, though (which is an assumption we shouldn’t make, but.. ), that function can only be performed by the monastery, so I don’t know how well it works for local cred unless everybody is already regularly interacting with the monastery… in which case we’ve gone all Rosenwein, and that may well be the answer I suppose. Perhaps I’m worrying about something that doesn’t need worrying about, but I find it hard to verbalise all this sensibly and that suggests to me that I haven’t properly understood it.

  5. Oh, so you’re looking to understand things? Ha! The Carolingian world, it exists to mock us!

    Ok, maybe not entirely. And I take your point about the ‘look at me’ thing. Except. Well, just a thought, but maybe we are assuming that the audience for ‘look at me’ is outside the monastery, when really, it might not be? Maybe it’s even MORE Rosenweinisch, and there is a locative principle at work as well? Or even, it’s a ‘just in case’ AND ‘look at me’ — after all, if Freising, or any monastery, is keeping the charters, Adalbert pro animae suae can then rest assured that those monks will know, even unto the Apocalypse…

    Maybe I should go to work now. I’m getting far too flippant about this, despite the fact that I’m serious. But I’m so tired at the moment that the idea of a Charter contents drinking game just sounded like great fun.

  6. Hell yeah! “Pro remedio animae meae” – drink! Excluding family and heirs – drink! More than four penalties in the sanctio or quitclaim over something the donor already gave – down in one! Except that last one needs you to be able to use indices, which after a few charters like this clearly isn’t going to work…

    (I realise that no-one will believe me now but I have never actually played a drinking game, because it looks like a really good way to hurt yourself. I can kill my liver at my own pace quite happily.)

    If the monastery is the audience—I have to admit I’m not quite sure what you mean by locative principle—it makes a certain amount of sense, if you’re joining the familia and looking for special patronage, that they know you’re a donor and precious to them and so on, I suppose. Now, that opens up a slightly different explanation that might also help, because it implies that it’s the donors who want the Church to have the charters, not necessarily the Church itself. Gosh ADM, that threatens to actually solve a few things. Is this in Rosenwein and I just didn’t pick it up, or is it your own?

  7. Well, here’s where I admit I’ve never actually done more than gut Rosenwein, so it might be me! That would be cool :-)

    By locative, I think (I have been to a gala, and there was wine) I meant something more than associative (huh?). That is, generally we think (and this *is* Rosenwein, et al.) of connecting the donors to the saints. And that is all well and good. But relics are the same as the saints themselves, right? And we know that there are holy places. But I’m not sure we always give enough credit to the importance of the physical place. So maybe actually locating the documents in a monastery is important — maybe, as you say, even more for the donors than for the Church. After all, I’d think to the medieval mind, a monastery would be implicitly safer in all kinds of ways.

  8. Eep — not as clear as I’d like. So the bit about relics: we know that bits and pieces of saints are still saints.

    And to add to the ‘not giving enough importance to the place’ part, I meant not simply because there were relics/saints there, but also because the place was in and of itself ‘special’. I mean, we know that the saints are important; we have often heard things like, ‘people give more to monasteries that seem especially holy, which lets monasteries get bigger, and that means more holy people which might even mean that the prayer is more efficacious’. We even talk about places (especially pagan ones) that are especially holy, perhaps because god(s) reside there.

    So why might not a monastery be considered to be imbued with a kind of holiness, or safety, or whatever, that goes beyond what is associated with the patron saints or the monks?

    You know, I’m not sure that’s much clearer. With any luck, I’ll be able to write like a sensible human again after the semester is over!

  9. ADM, I think that’s fairly clear. At the very least, it’s clear that Rosenwein is not something I want to offend very often :) And it’s obviously clearer than what I wrote, because I wasn’t trying to suggest that people of that time thought that charters were magical objects. (And I can’t even excuse myself with the plea that I was at a gala.) Only that the same psychological process that is utilized in modern ceremonial magic to make talismans was at play. I merely meant to suggest a parallel.
    1)Perform a ritual according to set form
    2)That produces a physical object which embodies or symbolizes in some way the desired result
    3)The existence of the object guarantees the continuation of the desired result, even if it is not immediately accessible and even if the person who benefit by the desired result do not themselves know the details of what the charter says.
    Of course, in an era when literacy was not a given, and which did accept magic as real, it is quite possible that at least some people believed that written documents were magical objects.

  10. And should have added
    1a) and the exact protocol of the ritual might vary according to time and place, so that, for instance, some rituals would require the document to read aloud before witnesses in open court, and others would merely require signature and witnessing by appropriate personages.
    3a) Copying into cartularies, etc. would be a means of safeguarding the object’s continued existence; but again, as long as the charter was copied to the standards required by the local protocols–which may or may not have required exact duplication–no one was expected to actually look up the text in details.

  11. Kishnevi, what you perhaps don’t know that supports your point is that in most places in the early Middle Ages charters are called scripturae first and foremost, only in places where they’re really common are they cartae or cartulae, the point being to associate them with the only writing most people will have seen, the Bible, Holy Scripture. Just writing arguably has sacral associations until literacy gets more generalised.

    ADM, you are I think very right about the value of place. An awful lot of my monasteries were, or claimed to have been, built on pre-existent deserted Christian sites, ecclesia antiqua or something. There’s a couple of things I could cite on this, including *braces* Le Jan, mostly gathered in a TRW volume called Topographies of Power edited by Franz Theuws and Jinty, but you are certainly right that places are as easily associated with saints as actual bits of bodies. This sometimes gets lost in the question of pagan survival of course, you know, what was that site before someone put a shrine on it?

    Thankyou for throwing so much into this discussion, both of you, it’s really making me think and I’m getting a lot happier with the configurations of the bits of the puzzle we’re pushing around than I was when it was just me playing :-)

  12. Yay for that! And at least I have read Topographies, although I think I took away more about women and kinship from it? But — part of the point I was trying to make was that perhaps(?) the monastery itself became it’s own kind of holy and special place — even talismanic! if you will — apart from any of the obvious associations with saints or their relics, or even some unlikely pagan place.

    Which leads me to a possibly related question, to which I don’t know the answer off the top of my head: Does the recipient matter? Obviously, yes. Duh. But what I mean is, is there a difference between, as in Fulda’s earlier charters (at least) “I give this to the monastery at Fulda where St. Boniface is”; “I give this to St Boniface [possibly adding, ‘at Fulda’]”; and “to the monastery at Fulda”(and I’m not entirely sure that exists, but I think it might)?

    The simplest explanation is that a foundation is both where the saint is, AND a physical extension of the saint — an architectural relic, or ginormous reliquary all in itself. But when a saint loses his popularity (and I think Boniface does, a bit — or at least the monks and abbots of Fulda are not pushing Boniface as a reason to donate, and I’m racking my brain to remember if there are later translations like the one Matthew talks about that happens at Lorsch (Marcellinus and Peter?), what happens to the relationship between the donors and the monastery? Does it/why does it/how does it change?

    ANd obviously, that might be in Topographies too. I really need to work my life so I can keep this stuff fresh in my mind.

    • Marcellinus and Peter is Einhard’s precious pair of martyrs at Seligenstadt, isn’t it? You know it really is a long time since I read Matthew’s book. I ought to get myself a paperback. I also ought to get myself the card that gets me a discount at the CUP shop, etc. Many many things I ought.

      I don’t think people like Boniface, you know? I suspect he was not Germany’s favourite donation incentive. If I was in charge of his monastery I think I’d try and get some other saints in too.

      If I don’t mean Topographies, which is possible, or it may be that I don’t mean Le Jan in it, the other thing it might be in is the first couple of chapters of Amy Remensnyder’s Remembering Kings Past: monastic foundation legends in medieval southern France (Ithaca 1995), which I read at about the same time. I didn’t really like it, it struck me as being an article blown out to book length, but there is a core of very interesting stuff in there about use of sacrality and space and how our people of study try and make it work for them.

  13. Oh yes, and, ADM: answer yer mail :-)

  14. Argh — I will do that after my next class, which starts in 5 minutes!

  15. Gah! You go on a one week conference and miss all the action! Coming in a little late, my responses are twofold:

    First, the affirmative/guaranteeing nature of cartularies and their relationship to holy books. Yes. I seem to recall reading a nice case study on this in Dauvit Broun’s work on Charters and Brieves in Scotland. I think it’s the chapter in the volume on Charters edited by Flanagan and Green – or I might be thinking of the Heidecker one… Don’t have my Endnote in front of me. Anyway, it looks at how early instances of record were copied into bibles etc. as if to imprint a heavenly guarantee upon them. Me thinks this is a nice idea, and supports what seems to have been discussed above as a ‘talismanic’ use of charter material. Which, I would agree with ADM and others, need not have been the exclusive use to which they were put.

    Second, the issue of use in legal procedings. I am currently reading a new volume from the Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy Group, “Strategies of Writing” (edited by Schulte et al.), and there is a really nice paper from Karl Heidecker in it in which he explores the case of two related charters from 11th century France which have apparently previously been read as demonstrating that charters were NOT used (or perhaps no longer used) in legal procedings at this date. But his re-appraisal shows, fairly convincingly in my view, that in fact the two charters in question demonstrate the exact opposite: that discrepancies in the original charter were noticed by some of the witnesses/donors when the specifics of their donation came into question, and that they subsequently had to be redetermined through a public negotiation. I offer this as a place to look for ways of examining the existing evidence that might uncover uses of the charters that haven’t previously been noticed. Of course, the fact that we are lucky enough to have original copies of both charters discussed in this paper helps enormously with showing where the dodgy bits were probably introduced by over-eager scribes, and this probably won’t give you any new ways of looking at cartulary entries, but you never know! Simply put, the evidence for use of charters as written testimony in legal practice might not look like we expect it to.

    • Oho, yes, I’ve seen that Broun paper but had forgotten to include it in my mental map; the whole charters-in-holy-books thing is a bit tied up with Wendy Davies’s Celtic charter theory for me, which is possibly the only point where I would dare differ from her views :-) You are of course quite right, and it’s arguable that a cartulary is just such a holy book in its own way, at least as much as a liber memorialis. It’s in the Flanagan & Green volume, I think, at least it’s not in the Heidecker one as I recall. The latter Heidecker paper I shall have to dig up; I think I know which charters he may be referring to, as I suspect this is a riposte to Bedos-Rezak’s article and therefore I must make sure I get it down me fairly sharpish before she bends my thinking forever… I quite agree with you about the stuff you can only learn from originals, this is one of the joys of working on Catalonia of course, but Heidecker himself is doing great work with Bernhard Zeller and Peter Erhardt with the St Gall stuff and revealing very similar sources of discomfort. When they started presenting this stuff at Leeds I was half bouncing up and down with shared excitement and half seething at being scooped…

      If you carry on commenting at this level of depth, Ms Neal, you’ll wind up being asked to Leeds yourself, I warn you…

  16. I’ve just gone back to it to check, and interestingly he doesn’t cite Bedos-Rezak. He is apparently taking issue with some work by Alain de Boüard in “Manuel de diplomatique française et pontificale” vol 2, “L’acte privé” (1948). However, the tenor of the arguments may well be similar.

    Well, there are probably worse fates than being invited to big medieval meetings…

  17. And one other thing, from memory Broun is very careful to say he’s not arguing for a unique ‘Celtic Charter’ form, but merely observing a way in which charter material was recorded in some circumstances/locations. Must re-read that.

  18. Ah, yes, I know of de Boüard more than actually knowing his work, you understand. I’ll still have to check. As for the Celtic charter form, Broun does a proper demolition job on that somewhere… ach, and now I look it up it is in the Heidecker volume, Dauvit Broun, “The Writing of Charters in Scotland and Ireland in the Twelfth Century” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 113-131. My apologies for the blip.

  19. Pingback: Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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