Before you write a charter

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time is the process in which an early medieval charter, meaning the documents we now have, got written. There is a lot of assumption about this and exposure to original documents can often show that these assumptions are unjustified, because the palæography or whatever demonstrates that it can’t have been done that way. Sometimes this is even obvious in the text: some charters talk about themselves having been placed upon the altar to symbolise a donation to a church, for example, which can’t be correct as it stands – the document can’t have been finished before an action it describes in the past tense. I’ve seen it argued that the documents in question were part-finished and then so deposited, and then finished up afterwards, and indeed sometimes perhaps not finished at all given the state of many papal documents so that sort of works, but I also suspect that in this sense, many of these documents are lying and the procedure they describe didn’t take place as recorded, be they never so authentic.1

The altar slab from the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres

How is an altar like a writing-desk? The much-inscribed altar slab from the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres

If one steps back from the document for a moment and observes the process, however, there were presumably several stages in any transaction a charter records. At least, these would have probably included an initial approach by the person initiating the transaction to the other party and some negotiation between them about how it should go; then a public meeting in which that transfer was enacted before witnesses, and subsequently some shunting around of assets that constituted the actual transfer of property. One could add more: there’s one charter in the Vic archives where the two parties had arranged the transfer but couldn’t arrange the actual meeting, so they had chosen an intermediary and what the charter records is him being given the price and it being laid upon him to go to the first party, transfer the price to him and return to the second party with title to the land, presumably another charter that is not, in fact, the one that eventually came to Vic, suggesting that perhaps the transaction was never actually completed.2 There’s another pair of charters in that same archive which replace earlier documents that had been lost and have witnesses recalling the ceremony in which the originals were made, and those witnesses recall a second ceremony where the recipient went to his new lands and had the charters read out three times so everyone should know he was now the owner. This is a lovely thing to have recorded, and it certainly seems as if something like that should have happened, and if only the scribe hadn’t used titles for the officials involved that never get used ordinarily in Catalan documents, thus indicating that he was working from a written model, I’d believe it, but as it is…3 And this is what I mean about exposure weakening assumptions.

Partial facsimile of a Vic charter in which a third-party collects payment for one of the transactors

Partial facsimile of the charter in which Ferriol firmator acts as the third party described above, M. S. Gros i Pujol, “Làmines” in Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, no. 36.

The reason this now bubbles to the surface, however, is one aspect of this that we have debated here before, which is whether the charter itself is actually written at the ceremony. It would sort of seem that it has to be, as before that one could obviously only guess at who would actually turn up to witness. On the other hand, if unforeseen people had not made it, would that even be admitted, you may ask, and we have to consider that perhaps it would not be, but some documents do give me comfort on this score, in particular those that allowed space for people’s names they didn’t eventually need, or the massive Vall de Sant Joan hearing where the initial list of those present doesn’t quite match up with those who actually witnessed it.4 That of course implies that there was a pre-text, written up in advance ready to be finished off later, something that could obviously go wrong and so we see it happening.

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Other places got round this problem of needing a text to carry out the ceremony but not being able to finish the text till afterwards in other ways. The many original charters of the Alpine monastery of St Gallen famously often have draft versions on the hair side of the parchment sheet which are written up fine on the smoother, flesh side to constitute that actual charter.5 What makes me put fingers to keyboard about this today, though, is having lately found an Anglo-Saxon example of this, or nearly this, a grant of land at a place fittingly called Little Chart, in Kent, to a thegn Æthelmod by King Æthewulf of Wessex in 843. This document was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and is now in the British Library, and the scribe was clearly working from a written precursor. This is suggested by his misspellings of words in the boundary clauses, but it’s much more obviously confirmed, as you can see below, by the fact that attached to the document are two parchment scraps that bear portions of the witness list in other hands. Now, if these were being written from the charter there would surely be no point in storing them with it; you would only do that so as to be able to carry information away. Instead, they must be so attached in order to validate the final copy made using their information. In other words, a couple of people wrote down what was going on on the spot then a nice proper charter was made of it later on.6

Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex to his <i>minister</i> Æthelmod, 843

Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex to his minister Æthelmod, 843

I suspect this is actually how things usually happened, although I expect that parchment scraps were much less often used than writing tablets, which we would hardly ever expect to have preserved.7 In the case of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, it’s again obvious that there were written lists of people involved, as the scribe of the main document scrambled some of the names which he obviously couldn’t read. Some of the St Gallen documents’ draft versions are pretty neat, too, which makes me wonder whether a draft might not sometimes have been preserved as an original in other contexts. Certainly there are two versions of some major grants to religious houses which seem to represent arguments over terms and which one is the winning version is now impossible to say; this affects the earliest evidence of the cathedral of Vic’s right to mint coinage, just to pick one example.8 I worry, you see, that this may be the case much more often than we really have evidence for it, and so when I find evidence for it like this, I like to share…

1. James Campbell, “The Sale of Land and the Economics of Power in Early England: problems and possibilities” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 1 (Woodbridge 1989), pp. 23-37; J. Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41; idem, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 27-71.

2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.) Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 67 (pictured).

3. Ibid. doc. nos 27 & 28, 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), 3 vols, doc. nos 33 & 34; see Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 49-53.

4. E. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 119 & 1526, the former the Vall de Sant Joan hearing (pictured) and the latter a right mess of space allocation pictured and discussed here. On the redaction of the former, see J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-38.

5. Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge 1989), pp. 90-98; Carl Brückner, Die Vorakte der älteren St. Galler Urkunden (St Gallen 1931). The St Gallen charters are now largely edited in facsimile via the Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, but if I give you full edition references for those ten or eleven volumes (so far) I’ll never make it to work today; they can be found here. You’re looking for ChLA I, II & C-CVII. While digging that up, however, I came across the existence of Bernhard Zeller, “Writing Charters as a Public Activity: The Example of the Carolingian Charters of St Gall” in Marco Mostert & Paul Barnwell (edd.), Medieval Legal Process. Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Turhnout 2011), pp. 27-37, which I think I once knew about but haven’t followed up; time I did so!

6. W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885–1899), 3 vols, no. 442; Peter Sawyer (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), rev. Susan Kelly, Rebecca Rushforth et al. as The Electronic Sawyer (Cambridge 2010), online here, no. 293; A. Prescott, “Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex” in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 232, pp. 256-257, gives a facsimile and some discussion.

7. Though see Webster & Backhouse, Making of England, nos 64 & 65!

8. Junyent, Diplomatari, doc. no. 55, takes the two variant Vic texts together; Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV deals with them separately as his doc. nos 103 & 105, which I find less helpful since it suggests they were both definitive. I had a really good example of a charter of King Henry IV of Germany being adapted in response to what can only be called user feedback, too, but can’t now work out where I had this stored and there’s no time to look now. Never mind! Such things exist

3 responses to “Before you write a charter

  1. Gracias por este post. Nunca me había planteado antes que en documentos opistógrafos el lado pelo fuese usado también como borrador o versión previa. Desconocía las referencias que mencionas por lo que me será muy útil. Ahora me los miraré de otra forma.

    • Me alegra ser de ayuda! El material de St Gallen es muy precioso, pero también es casi único, de modo de generalización puede ser aventurado. Pero, aquí por lo menos tiene varias alternativas. ¿De dónde está su material opistográfico?

      • Aunque no se pueda generalizar, es un paso más en la utilización del pergamino así como en la conceptualización del acto escriturario que abre una óptica diferente a la hora de acercarse a los documentos. En resumen, da que pensar.
        Trabajo con diplomas en visigótica de Galicia (ss. X-XIII).

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