Sometimes justice really was blind

I work on the Catalan tenth century not least because, while the amount of evidence I have to work with is huge, if I ever step across the line into the eleventh century there’s just so much more that I would never get through it all. Much less of the material from after 1000 is published, too, though that is now improving. For my Ph. D., however, I set a cut-off date at 1030, figuring that a generation’s space after 1000 would let most of the threads I wanted to follow find their ends, and this lets some fun things sneak in that a study of the tenth century only would miss.

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Like this, for example, about which I wrote a long time ago. It is Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

I think this must be the only reason Josep María Salrach’s study of justice in Catalonia doesn’t mention what I had, when I drafted this, just found in the appendices of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne, of which I was then in the final pages.1 Zimmermann is interested in the early part of that book in people who get documents signed with clauses explaining why they couldn’t write themselves, and his Annexe IV is a long list of all the examples he’d found.2 Usually the reason given is illness, sometimes people stress that they can read even if they can’t write, and very rarely is it just ‘I can’t’, though despite all of this most signatures, in all documents, are done by the scribe, and it’s almost only ecclesiastics who sign for themselves. There’s an odd case, however, a judge named Guillem who, in Zimmermann’s list, always has his signature done with the same clause:3

“Ego Guillermus judex qui huius edictionis tactu necessitate oculorum signoque impressionis corroboro.”

This is quite tricky to translate, not least because it’s possible that where he used ‘necessitas’ he meant or was riffing on ‘cecitas’, which would be ‘blindness’, much more common in these formulae. And it clearly is a formula here, it is repeated for him pretty much word-for-word over a 28-year period and all that changes is the spelling of his name (Willielmus in the first document), despite a myriad of different scribes, so he must have known this clause and dictated it to the scribes. It’s something like:

“I, the judge Guillem, corroborate, by reason of necessity of the eyes, by touching this edict and with a mark of impression.”

It’s not clear to me for this wording whether he was meant to be holding a pen or not, or just to have put his finger to where his signature had been written for him, but in the only one of these documents of which I have a picture, his is the last witness signature and while it is clearly in the scribal hand, as you’d expect, it is followed, as you can see below, by a cross, set crookedly to the line of writing.4 I’d like to think that’s his mark. He presumably would have remembered how it went even if he couldn’t see what he was doing any more, and I do wonder if the odd word choice should be taken to imply that he didn’t think he was blind as such, just, I don’t know, long-sighted or something. He certainly didn’t let it stop him judging for another twenty years! And, as the post title implies, his would have been closer to blind justice than the area sometimes managed…

Partial facsimile of a 986 document from the Arxiu Capitular de Vic

Black-and-white facsimile of part of a charter of Guillem’s, his signature being the last line and a bit of the body text

1. J. M. Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013); Michel Zimmermann, Érire et lire en Catalogne (siècles IX-XIII), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., I pp. 81-83 & II pp. 1107-1111.

3. There’s the question of whether he appears before his eye problem developed and signed for himself then, and there is a judge Guillem in Cebrià Baraut (ed.), ‘Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell’ in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 252 & Antoni M. Udina i Abelló, La Successió testada a la Catalunya medieval, Textos i Documents 5 (Barcelona 1984), ap. 26, but of course to prove it’s the same guy, you’d need, well, his signature… And there is a judge Guillem working at this same time who could still write, so who knows really. The documents in which Zimmermann finds him professing inability so to do run from 986 to 1015, and were then printed as: Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicules, doc. no. 524; Petrus de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniæ, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. Étienne Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), ap. CLXXIII; Francesc Monsalvatje y Fossas (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Condado de Besalú, Noticias Históricas XI-XIII, XV & XIX (Olot 1901-1909), 5 vols, ap. DLXXIII; & Jaime Villaneuva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España tomo XIII: viage á Gerona (Madrid 1850) app. XX & XXII.

4. Miquel dels Sants Gros i Pujol, ‘Lámines’ in Junyent, Diplomatari, pp. 681-808, no. 108 (doc. no. 524).

4 responses to “Sometimes justice really was blind

  1. Ross Smythe

    This makes me wonder if blindness, or another disability, would have disqualified him from (any) office; therefore, he indicates that he is not blind but has a vision problem. Any evidence for this? Any thoughts?

    • Well, negative evidence: as far as I know he’s the only judge who qualifies his signatures like this (emphasis on ‘as far as I know’, as we’re at the later end of my patch here), which would fit. Counter-evidence, though: there are plenty of abbots, abbesses, and elderly ecclesiastics, and one or two laymen (it just being rarer for laymen to sign autograph) who make such signatures at the end of their lives, however, either blindness or illness making it impossible for them to write, so I think that it would have to be specific to the office of judge (which is not a clerical monopoly, though often they are churchmen). Alternative analysis: Zimmermann thinks that many of these illness/blindness cases are covering actual illiteracy in a polite form, because being able to write carries sufficient cachet that one doesn’t admit one can’t, but the actual matching of such claims to documents which do in fact contain autograph signatures at all is less than total; it was obviously something a scribe might copy or write under order even if no-one but he was actually signing at all. Zimmermann’s four pages on this aren’t really enough to satisfy me on this issue, though I’m pretty sure that system would disappear with more exploration and we’d be back to individuals again. But what are the pressures under which they make their choices, I suppose is still the question…

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