I am beginning to see a trend here


I knew this would happen. The more of Michel Zimmermann’s huge thèse I read, the less likely I get to be able to conduct a civil conversation with him, even though I learn a lot as well. If I had to sum this difference of perception up, I would usually say that I find it difficult to believe as easily in the influence of the people who request charters made in what the scribes then write, especially when it comes down to word choice. But here I am also coming up against a broader issue which I suppose is just down to how huge the pile of evidence we share is. This problem is, Professor Zimmermann is revelatory about what one can see in the vast Catalan charter material, but I can often fault him when he asserts that something cannot be found in the material. Assertions of evidentiary silence when there’s so much background noise are always going to be risky.

An exchange between Count Borrell II and the monks of Santa Maria de Ripoll, 957

An exchange between Count Borrell II and the monks of Santa Maria de Ripoll, 957, large image linked beneath

For example. Zimmermann, in a really interesting chunk about whether people really do sign their own names in these documents, who they are when they do (almost always clerics, unsurprisingly, but not always) and so forth, notes that even if the signatories to a charter can’t write, they may be able to draw a signum, a graphical device loosely based on a cross in a circle or on a triple S (from subscripsit), and you can see a few above.1 Sometimes the scribe draws those too and the people just draw one of the dots in the angles of the cross: he says this can be seen in several documents but doesn’t reference them dammit.2 But he also says that people start to mark themselves out by individualised signa in the twelfth century (as with the notaries’ marks we talked about a while back), but not before.3 Well, er, what about the above one? And what indeed about that charter by the nuns of Sant Joan that has featured here so often? There’s at least eight different signa on that. Why don’t they count?4

Arrangement of the succession to the abbacy of Sant Joan de Ripoll, 948

Yes, here it is again, but you see the signa, right? Large version beneath

Now I suspect the answer is simply that Zimmermann, when he was doing this work, didn’t read in the original what was already edited. He does cite a few documents from the edition of the Sant Joan charters and a few from Vic, which are the two corpora I know best and know twit his generalisations here (because they have excellent, if sparingly allocated, plates, and of course I’ve seen a few of the real things too).5 But because they were already edited when he was working, I imagine he didn’t do the same kind of painstaking archive work on them. Neither did I of course, but because I was so far away from them I made extra sure I’d read the palæographical notes. Anyway. So there’s my nuns with their variety and he doesn’t seem to know. And in fact he doesn’t seem to know much about nuns at all:

… toute une catégorie de religieux, les moniales en l’occurrence, reste étrangère à la culture écrite.

I’ll translate:

… a whole category of religious, to wit, nuns, remained strangers to written culture.

Now he justifies this by reference to the nuns of Sant Pere de les Puelles de Barcelona, pointing out that between 986 and 996 they frequently appear in transactions and not only do they not sign but even the abbesses don’t, once or twice having the scribe profess their inability to do so!6 Well, okay, and it’s not like nunneries are thick on the ground in this period (there are three in the whole of Catalonia, though a fair few female religious in other contexts), but if that’s the period you’re looking at then Sant Pere is the wrong one to pick, because it had been sacked and its population captured as slaves in 985.7 So everyone there in 986 is a new recruit, even the abbess, who may be a comital daughter (of Count-Marquis Borrell II, as it happens; small world innit) but she cannot have been more than 18; Borrell and his wife only married in 967, and there’s no indication that Adelaide Bonafilla was their oldest child though she could have been; the oldest son was only born in 972.8 Okay, old enough to have been schooled but far from a senior ecclesiastic. It’s not like there are very many charters featuring the Sant Joan nuns but they do exist (and he knows they do, because he mentions one of them giving a Psalter to a church; strangers to written culture my foot).9 Did he just not look through the small print in Udina’s edition closely enough? Well, maybe, but one further quote has me meanly suspecting another explanation:

… Guischafredus, auteur d’une donation commune avec sa femme Eilo en 955, tient à préciser que seule la maladie l’empêche de souscrire. De crainte sans doute d’être confondu avec sa femme dans la même inaptitude!

Not without distaste, I translate:

… Guiscafred, actor in a donation made in common with his wife Elo in 955, makes sure to specify that only frailty prevents him from subscribing, doubtless for fear of being confused with his wife in the same ineptitude!

« Sans doute », Prof. Z.! I mean, isn’t that the first possibility that occurs to you, dear reader? No? No, me neither. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but I wouldn’t have let it go to the printers myself.10 It leaves me wondering whether three pages in twelve hundred on women and repeated denials of nuns’ ability to write should really be put down to missing some key charters, or whether there’s a more basic problem here.

1. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, I pp. 86-91. The charter is printed in (and scanned from) Federico Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 139.

2. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I p. 89.

3. Ibid., I pp. 89-90.

4. The nuns’ charter is Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 128, but I mentioned that already.

5. Edited in Udina, Archivo Condal, and Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic, segles IX i X, ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs.

6. Zimmermann, Érire et lire, I pp. 82-83.

7. And of course Zimmermann wrote the basic synthesis on that event, so knows this perfectly well: “La prise de Barcelone par al-Mansûr et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’Historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Soci´té des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur. Tours, 10-12 juin 1977, Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218.

8. The family is set out by Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los Condes de Barcelona Vindicados, y Cronología y Genealogía de los Reyes de España considerados como Soberianos Independientes de su Marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), vol. I online at http://www.archive.org/details/loscondesdebarce01bofauoft, last modified 10 Jul. 2008 as of 15 Jan. 2009, I pp. 64-81; Borrell had Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 173, additionally dated by the birth of his son, so I guess he was relieved. They do seem to have had a lot of girls.

9. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I p. 500, referring to Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 160.

10. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I p. 82.

15 responses to “I am beginning to see a trend here

  1. That is precisely the sort of thing that might drive a specialist on nuns to rage.

  2. Cullen Chandler

    Indeed… I haven’t made my way through this myself (shame, shame…), but could it be that his scope is so broad that many details may have escaped being mentioned? I mean, it isn’t necessarily that Zimmermann does not now know or never knew about these things, but that he’s plotting trends in the data. And the nuns of Sant Joan may well be outliers and so are note mentioned among the trends.

    I say this not having the book to hand and being, out of Zimmermann, you and me, the third most learned in tenth-century Catalan charters.

    • I don’t know about that! I talk a good talk but I have only the sketchiest idea what material you’re familiar with. and I really only know Urgell, Vic and Sant Joan at all well. Also, I am bogged down in Chapter 3 of this since teaching started, though I did some index hunting as well. As to your actual point (sorry) I think that really, the book is so large that there is room for outliers, and there are in fact a lot of exceptions and oddities, sometimes frustratingly unreferenced. If it were a question of trends, however, I don’t see why he mentions Carissima’s gift of the Psalter that he uses; there’s no shortage of men giving books by comparison. And I also think that that shows he knows at least some of the Sant Joan material.

  3. I’m curious, is there any evidence/ speculation in your field that people might sometimes have claimed an inability to write/sign their names, because they were being coerced into signing something they didn’t necessarily agree with or want to be associated with? I wonder if nuns, in particular, might be in a position to strategically use an expectation that women religious are more likely than male clerics to be illiterate (though that may be more relevant to a slightly later period, after the Gregorian reforms). That thought was sparked by your comment about the abbesses getting the scribes to specifically profess their inability to write (although in the case you cite of Sant Pere, it does seem as though their claim was more likely to be authentic if they were all ‘new hires’ so to speak).

  4. That’s an interesting idea. It runs exactly opposite to Zimmermann’s reading of the material, which is that people were proud of being able to write and ashamed of not being able to, which is what the quote about Guiscafred and his wife is supposed to be illustrating. We also get people getting scribes to explain that they could write, but were just too ill or feeble now, which does seem to support his point that people, of a certain standing at least, felt that they ought to be able to sign their names and that it needed explaining if they couldn’t. Now the question is, for you, were nuns in that certain standing? and I think the answer is that I think they were and Zimmermann thinks they weren’t, but with so few nuns it might be as simple as house practice. Except, that, all the nuns at Sant Joan sign differently, so they weren't taught in the same place, ergo they could write before they got there, implying that well-to-females were in the in-group for literacy. That's basically the whole of the paper I gave at the McKitterick conference right there.

    But, your actual question: I don't know of any such evidence, or speculation. There are charters where people are recorded as not knowing how to write (including the nuns at Sant Pere de les Puelles, admittedly) and in some cases they are said to have made their points around the cross of the signum instead. But how we would know whether that was true, unless they then signed something else later (or, better, earlier, as they might subsequently have learnt) I don’t know. I don’t think anyone’s yet found that. But if it was going to turn up anywhere I’d expect it to be here! Everything else does! Here or at St Gall.

    • You’re right, it would be tough to prove either way, especially given the relative rarity of written evidence from this period. My speculation (idle, I admit!) was partly prompted by my research in the later Middle Ages, when female literacy in some contexts (especially lay/vernacular) becomes perceived as a threat to the powers-that-be. So, you get people like Margery Kempe using male scribes as a screen and insisting they themselves cannot read or write.

      • Yeah, I can see the possible parallels. At the very least, then, here we do have counter-examples of women who felt no need to hide their penmanship, and there are German examples too from, er, hang on, Essen, in the same sort of period, so it’s not just a Gothic thing. On the other hand it’s certainly true that the Carolingian Renaissance doesn’t seem to have deliberately included women very much at all so those who did participate were in some ways swimming against the tide…

  5. Perhaps those specifications about the inability to write are simply working as an additional authentication formula? That would imply that literacy was widely spread among the upper classes, so as to expect that a document issued by, lets say, an abbess, would be signed by her; so the lack of her signum could be seen as a mark of forgery. Scribes could be just trying to strengthen the document’s authenticity by explaining the reasons of such a fault.

    About monsieur Zimmermann, I’m afraid he’s a good example of how French scholarship likes to sacrifice truth for the sake of a flamboyant statement.

    PS: this blog keeps surprising me

    • I think that we can show, by the very documents of Sant Joan that Prof. M. Zimmermann skips over, that women of at least minor noble rank and up would have been functionally literate at least to a basic degree, so this actually makes a good deal of sense as a proposition per se. On the other hand, however, we have many documents where among the signatures there are names of persons whom we know, from other occurrences, could sign their names, but on this occasion do not, even though others do. So although the Law and the judges who knew it would suggest that autograph signatures would be valuable, it doesn’t seem to be something that was universally cared about. The only way I have so far found to think about these issues in this zone that writing is a way of permanising participation in one of these acts. This matters in the long-term, but in the short-term, the important thing is the participation. So if everyone present knew that Reinoard of la Vinya was happy with this transaction, he didn’t necessarily need to climb over the ridge to Sant Joan the next morning nursing his hangover to sign the finished document, but if he was there anyway he probably would. Either way the name would be written and there would be enough people there to know that it was OK. (Of course, this leaves the possibility that sometimes names were added without consent! Not something that can now be distinguished in the evidence! But non-presence of a known writer’s autograph need not necessarily be suspicious I think.)

      I think that Professor Zimmermann’s work is extremely important, largely rigorous and based on an incredible knowledge of a vast base of material. Everything he writes I take very seriously. My disagreements with him are almost always not due to any flamboyance on his part, but to an understandable tendency he has to try and generalise despite the existence of counter-examples. Often this is acceptable, because the bulk of the documentation is in his favour, and in this category I would place his analysis of the topos of not being able to write, which is quite widespread and which he sees as a way of claiming a kind of second-rank public presence that the actually-literate had automatically. The problems come when the samples from which he generalises are very small, and this is especially true firstly with the ducal title used by (or rather, of) some of the counts of Barcelona and secondly with documents signed by women. In both of these cases I think the documents must be read differently, but his position is quite understandable in a wider framework. In the case of the women, however, I question the ideology behind the framework, since I see no historiographical reason to deny women a public space that the age was apparently happy to give them.

      I hope to continue surprising you! Your comments have been consistently thought-provoking and it’s always a pleasure to receive them.

      • I’m afraid my last comment was sharper than I intended. In fact, I’m in love with French scholarship (perhaps excepting my strong dislike of Lucien Febvre and my reservations about some statements of Barthélémy), but I consider they have a strong tendency to make general assertions on the basis of scarce evidence, which is clear in the way they seem incapable of distinguishing Medieval History from [i]French[/i] Medieval History. I have always been surprised about how easily they can discard methodological problems, just playing with words in a literary way, and fall instead into the trap of such vacuous concepts as “the Medieval mind” or “Medieval men” (which usually merely means that their “model” of medieval man is the XIIIth century theologian, perhaps Thomas Aquinas). However, I love them even in their faults, as we do with our beloved ones. Indeed, many of my favourite historians are French.

        Going back to the signatures, I find very interesting your reflections about the value of the document itself. Many times I’ve wondered if all those lists of witnesses were merely a record of people that could be asked about the matter in case of dispute, or the mark of a community sanction… In a nutshell, the interpretaion of medieval documents, specially Early Medieval documents, do make me panic.

  6. Pingback: Back in my bad books: l’affaire Zimmermann encore une fois | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: Domna grammatika: a surprise from Michel Zimmermann | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Pingback: Unexpected female scribe perhaps too unexpected | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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