Who witnessed early medieval charters?

This apparently simple question has been bugging me a long time, and it was in the hope of answering it that I originally bought the book of Benoit-Michel Tock mentioned a post or two ago. Having got to the chapters where he addresses this question directly, I was delighted to find this:

Quels sont les tiers qui souscrivent des actes du Haut Moyen Age ? Il ne s’agit pas d’établir ici un index de ces actes, ni de constituer un Bottin Mondain. Souvent d’ailleurs, les indications des actes sont elliptiques, et nécessitent l’intervention de nombreuses hypothèses pour arriver à un esquisse de solution…. La question, c’est de savoir si les tiers sont des proches de l’auteur et/ou du disposant, s’ils sont au contraire des proches du bénéficiaire, s’ils sont neutres, et choisis précisements parce qu’ils ne sont proches d’aucune des parties en présence, ou enfin (mais cela ne les empêche pas d’appartenir à une des catégories ci-dessus) s’ils sont détenteurs d’une certaine autorité et souscrivent précisement parce qu’on leur demande de garantir la transaction par la force de leur autorité.

And this is, in fact, exactly the question, but it’s a question hardly anyone asks.1 For those of you not Francolexic enough to get all that, it translates more or less as:

What are the witnesses who subscribe the acts of the early Middle Ages? We are not concerned here to establish an index of these acts, or to construct a Bottin Mondain. Often, moreover, the indications of the acts are not direct, and require the construction of numerous hypotheses to come to the outline of a solution…. The question is to know if the third parties are contacts of the actor and/or person disposing of property, if on the contrary they are contacts of the beneficiary, if they are neutrals, chosen precisely because they are close to neither of the parties present, or finally (what does not prevent them also falling into one of the categories above) if they are holders of some authority and subscribe exactly because someone asks them to guarantee the transaction by the force of that authority.

I’m interested in his answers here because I think that I used absolutely all of these possibilities in my analyses of the Catalan frontier documentation in my Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, and if there’s a general French pattern I need to consider a fair few things again before I could just decide that Catalonia is weird.2 So, what does he detect? In brief, that we move from persons close to the actors of the document to those close to the beneficiary in the mid-eleventh century, and that outside authorities are pulled on occasionally throughout. None of this is total and it rests on a relatively small number of witnesses who declare some kind of connection to other parties, but the move of emphasis is visible to him. It also ties in reasonably nicely with Stephen White’s study of the laudatio parentorum, the consent to a property transfer by the actor’s kinsfolk expressed in their signatures, which he sees as arising and then dying out towards the end of Tock’s period divide here.3 So, this must be taken seriously, and where does it leave me who has suggested quite happily that some documents were witnessed by whoever was at the cathedral or palace that day on completely different business?4

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297

A gift by the Archpriest Ermemir to Riculf, caput scolae of the cathedral of Vic (Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297: here I think it;’s probably safe to say the three clerical witnesses who sign autograph were around the cathedral, but how carefully selected were they?

Well, firstly, the great strength of Tock’s book is that it is founded on a big sample, the 3,631 original documents from before 1121 in French archives that went into the ARTEM database at Nancy, still locked in there when this book was written but now online, which means that ‘real soon now’ we’ll be able to see all the things he could see. Because this sample is the whole of France, though, it is diffuse, with clumps in some obvious places like Cluny and Marmoutier but usually very few per place per year. (By contrast, I read about that many documents for my Ph. D. research, but they came from a two-hundred year period, not a six-hundred year one, and a total of about ten archives all within a few hundred miles of each other.) He can do really impressive things with this sample, with validity not available to most previous researchers, but he can’t chase witnesses in their local context in the way that I can, constructing that Bottin Mondain… And secondly, of course, that would be years and years of micro-study; in a deliberately wide-ranging book that level of localisation just isn’t practical in the space.

Stafford, William Salt Library, 84/5/41

On the other hand, whether any of this lot even needed to be present we will never know for sure, but the names still had to be chosen… This is King Æthelred the Unready granting 8 hides in various places to his thegn Morcar in 1009, Stafford, William Salt Library, 84/5/41, Sawyer 922

So part of our difference here is likely just to be sample density; I have more people repeatedly turning up than he can find and can locate them and identify them more reliably even when they don’t say who they are. On the other hand, implicit in that is a whole vast mass of arguments from silence which the very occasional mention of family ties, and the difficulty resolving those that do get mentioned, should warn me may be false. Not all of them are: I think the analysis of the ‘nobles of the palace’ of Borrell II I did here and in my book shows that sometimes it really is just whoever was there, but when ‘there’ is a session of the comital court maybe a wide spread is not so surprising and I still need better ways to argue against the trend he sees than sheer evidential one-up-manship.5 Still: it’s better than, “well, my study area is just different….”

1. B.-M. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle), Atelier de Recherches sur les Textes Médiévaux 9 (Turnhout 2005), quote at p. 244. Other work that does ask who witnesses are and why they’re there is limited, but notable examples would be Wendy Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1988), pp. 109-128, and Ross Balzaretti, “The Politics of Property in Ninth-Century Milan: familial motives and monastic strategies in the village of Inzago” in Mélanges de l’École de France : moyen âge Vol. 111 (Rome 1999), pp. 747-770, online here, with résumé p. 980.

2. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 143-144, not as substantial a discussion as I should have given it.

3. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins, pp. 244-254; Stephen D. White, Custom, Kinship, and Gifts to Saints. The Laudatio Parentum in Western France, 1050-1150 (Chapel Hill 1988).

4. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 104.

5. Ibid., pp. 161-164.

One response to “Who witnessed early medieval charters?

  1. Pingback: Redactions of many stages | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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