Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)
That title sounds more negative than I really want. You will have observed by now that I have what might best be called a complex relationship with the work of Professor Michel Zimmermann, which I have described here as “three-quarters brilliance”.1 As I continue on through the book, however, more and more secure that he does not have the answer to the question I’m trying to solve, I am becoming more perplexed by the sins of omission than the sins of commission that it could be seen to commit. This is, after all, a 1219-page book in two volumes; it’s slightly surprising to find that he’s omitted anything at all. But we have seen, for example, that there are only three dealing with women, and now I find something else discussed very briefly that I was really hoping for more on, which is one particular form of curse that I occasionally see in the Catalan documents which cries out for study. So I thought I’d ask you guys about it!
You may be wondering what I’m doing with documents with curses in in the first place, since sometimes those can be quite, well, quite literally occult, but honestly it’s above-board: almost all medieval charters end with what’s technically called a sanctio, a clause that sets out what will happen to those who interfere with the transaction declared in the charter.2 Sometimes this is purely a financial penalty, albeit sometimes a completely unrealistic one, but more often (especially as charters that are preserved frequently concern grants to churches) there is a spiritual sanction. Now Zimmermann enthusiastically dedicates seventy-five pages of Écrire et lire to this (so, only say, twenty-five times the amount of space he gives to half of the population), and rather than being impressionistic and just giving examples of the sort of things one can find in the material, which is how he frequently proceeds in the book, leaving one wishing he’d also done the numbers, here he was actually working from a quantitative sample. I am in no position to criticise someone for only using information technology in one part of their thesis of course, but it certainly adds something to this section: we can here say with some certainty what curses are used when, where, how much and how for long.3
Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Wifredo I 8, low-quality but larger image linked through
So, OK, here’s the one I mean, and you may be able to see the text on the larger version linked underneath that image, starting line 22 just after the paragraph break:
Peccatis nostris anime illius sit obligatum que pro hac re cupimus esse purgatum
Let his soul be burdened with our sins, of which we hope to be purged through this matter.4
This is unusually elaborate, actually: it would be more usual to find it just as “peccatis nostris animae illius sit obligatum”, and there are other things about this charter that make it unusual.5 Firstly, as said when I first got this image, it bears the autograph signature of Abbess Emma! (Bang in the middle, first line of signatures, split by the discolouration.) But that’s not actually odd, it can be seen elsewhere.6 More unusual is the fact that the scribe, Athanagild of the chapter of Vic, finished the document off with a line of characters that look like Dingbats, at least partly Greek as far as I can see not wholly and thus a bit hard to work out! Athanagild’s occasional flourishes are well-documented here, and who knows what he was up to on this occasion, but I’ve included the full version because it makes it a bit clearer what the supposed mechanism is here.7 The idea of a donation to the Church, and this is mainly what Zimmermann’s eighty pages are about here, is that, as one of the common introductions to these documents has it, “we have heard the preaching of the Holy Fathers that alms may free the soul from death”. That is, giving to the poor (or to the Church, who will then minister to the poor, albeit perhaps only the poor in spirit) potentially gets you out of going to Hell. That is, the donation will hopefully purge your soul of sin.8 In that case it makes a certain amount of common sense that someone who messes with that joyful process should wind up with the penalty of which the donor had hoped to be free. And so we get a few documents, more than Zimmermann notices but still not many, that add that hope into the curse like this.
And what does Michel Zimmermann have to tell me about this? Well, basically just that it happens and is a bit odd. He notices that it seems to die off around about 1030, and wonders if this might be because of increasing pressure from the papal reform effort, keen on reinforcing the separation of clerical and lay power.9 And indeed that is exactly why this is so interesting, and why I wish he had more to say about it. This is, I think, completely unjustifiable in church terms: this is not just priestly power, this is binding and loosing, the power entrusted to St Peter. The average layman, or even the often-but-not-always-clerical scribes who write these documents, is simply not allowed to deposit a load of sin on someone else! Only God can say for sure who is a sinner and who isn’t. This is an extreme example of a wider phenomenon, admittedly, as many of these documents and lots elsewhere too prescribe excommunication for breaching the charter’s terms, which strictly speaking is something only a bishop can impose. Zimmermann goes into that in some detail, and concludes that the thought of the documents, as it were, is that God will impose this at the Final Judgement, not that it is intended to apply in the world right at the moment of infringement. I find this convincing in itself, although it has to get over the fact that as excommunication becomes less permanent and more worked-out in theological terms the documents start allowing one to repent and be relieved of it, which means it can’t be at the Final Judgement after which, as one document points out, God will forget about the sinners. I think that’s OK, and since that starts about 1030 it may even correlate with whatever pressure is driving out these particular curses, but I’m still left with an impression that it’s the document itself that is the agency here, representing the Word of God ahead of time. It is, as often observed, no coincidence that these texts are often called scripturae. So, I don’t know the canon law of excommunication very well, still less anything that might cover this: am I right in thinking that this is, quod vulgo dicitur, “well weird”? Have you ever seen anything like it elsewhere? How is it justified? What do you make of it? Michel Zimmermann and I are stumped…
Also, what the heck was Athanagild aiming for here?
1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.
2. A quick stab at Regesta Imperii’s OPAC suggests that you’re not going to find anything very much in English about these that isn’t extremely specific to an area, though on those lines Jeffrey Bowman’s “Do Neo-Romans Curse? Law, land, and ritual in the Midi (900-1100)” in Viator Vol. 28 (Berkeley 1997), pp. 1-32, repr. in his Shifting Landmarks: property, proof, and dispute in Catalonia around the year 1000 (Ithaca: 2004), pp. 56-80, is very clear and interesting. For some guidance in a language where they care about such things, try Olivier Guyotjeannin, Jacques Pycke & Benoît -Michel Tock, La diplomatique médiévale, L’atelier du médiéviste 2, 3rd edn. (Turnhout 2006), pp. 82-83.
3. Zimmermann, Érire et lire, I, pp. 348-423, esp. pp. 365-380 and 410-422.
5. Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Wifredo I 8, ed. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 10 with facsimile lám. 4, also printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 37, cit. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I p. 409 without reference beyond the date. Check out that jussive subjunctive! (You know who you are.) Also, I should like to note the irony here. Zimmermann quotes the document without reference, as said, but with a year; I knew I’d seen it somewhere so searched my notes files for the word ‘purged’, found the document fairly easily, and yes, it turns out that because it’s the one Emma signs, not only do I already know it quite well but in fact I had a facsimile of it pinned to the board in my office the whole time I was trying to work out which one it was. “It’s behind you…”
5. Others doing this for example Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 164, 179, 496, 563, 827 & 1327, and certainly more even in that edition that I just didn’t note.
6. In a charter printed and pictured in Nathaniel L. Taylor, “An Early Catalonian Charter in the Houghton Library from the Joan Gili Collection of Medieval Catalonian Mansucripts” in Harvard Library Bulletin New Series Vol. 7 (Cambridge MA 1997), pp. 37-44.
7. Athanagild’s other appearances are, sticking with Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, for convenience though all are printed in earlier editions too (of which Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX-X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), catches most and has many facsimiles), nos 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 19, 27, 35, 38, 48, 101, 283 & 285. I have my doubts about those last two, so much later than the others, expressed here.
8. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire I, pp. 348-361.
9. Ibid., I, pp. 378-380.