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
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.
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.