Unexpected female scribe perhaps too unexpected

[I wrote the first draft of this post in August 2014, pretty much all in one go, and queued it. This is even more ridiculous than usual, as since then I’ve actually been to the relevant archive and answered the question it poses. But it’s still a good question, I still wrote the post and I feel very strongly about queues, so I’m putting it up anyway, and you’ll just have to wait for the answer…]

After months, nay years, I have finally found the time to finish Michel Zimmermann’s immense two-volume book Écrire et lire en Catalogne. There are 28 appendices – 28! – and the very last of them is a set of commented plates that include some really interesting documents. And one of them, sitting starkly against one of the things I have most often observed about this complex book, is this one:

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b, as presented in Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

Now this dates from 1044, which is later than I usually run. So, although it is from Vic, my favourite archive, I’ve never seen the real thing. I really want to now, though, and it must go on the list. What Zimmermann thinks is important about it is the scribe, whose name was Alba, which is of course feminine in any Romance language you’d like to name.1 She was, therefore, a female scribe, and by the look of the charter, perfectly regular despite its unpleasant state of preservation, she knew what she was doing. (Some of the look of it must just be the photography, in any case. I have another picture of the same charter that isn’t half as bad, though black and white, so I guess that this one has been treated for increased visibility; I’ve applied nothing more than a bit of extra contrast myself.2) We only have the one document signed by Alba, but that may just be because she wrote for laypeople, although it could instead be that she was one of the literate women the sources occasionally show us, whom Zimmermann almost always prefers to deny, and got called in to write where others could not. It’s a neat and perfectly normal if quite thick charter hand, though, so I doubt that.

A second Riuprimer charter of 1044

Witness this very similar-looking document by the scribe Arnau in the same place a couple of months earlier, it being Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. no. 1026 and lámina 95.

All the same, it bothers me. Look at the left margin of the first document and you will quickly see that this is an example of something I have seen before at Vic, where two documents are written transverse on the same long strip of parchment.3 In the other case I have, the same scribe wrote both, which helps to explain why the same parchment was available to two different sets of transactors (and raises serious but unanswerable questions about archiving—were these people storing their documents with the scribes that made them, like later Italian notaries?4) And it looks, from what very little we can see of the script of the left-hand document, as if it’s the same hand here as well. But Zimmermann, and perhaps more significantly given that author’s tendency to push women out of his account, the index of scribes in the Vic edition of their eleventh-century charters both maintain that Alba wrote only one known document, so I’m willing to bet there’s another scribal signature on the left-hand one. Obviously I need to see it to be sure, but if so, as Mark Knopfler once sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of ’em must be wrong”: either one of the scribal attributions is fictive, or there’s some really similar handwriting around Riuprimer in the 1040s.5 I can’t say any more without seeing it, but which would you guess?

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243 in happy union, click through for (slightly) bigger

Also worth thinking about: if one of the names is fictive, why? When this happened at Sant Joan de Ripoll (that is, when a scribe can be seen to have written a document that has someone else’s name at the bottom) it’s because the person whose name goes at the bottom was the abbey’s apparent chief scribe.6 But that doesn’t really work when they’re both on the same parchment, and whether we see here a woman asserting her right to have writing that she had done and never mind the lazy notary (perhaps her father? I’m not sure if an unmarried woman would sign as femina, I’ve never quite figured out what that appelation means when it’s used), or rather a notary with a narky female client who wanted it noted that she could have written the document even if she hadn’t, we also need to explain the fact that this was not apparently rendered daft bu the other scribe’s signature. OK, if there is one. I think I have now hypothesized as far as my lack of evidence can take me…

The final version of this post was brought to you with the aid of Krankschaft, III, which is excellent.

1. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. 1031 and lám. 96.

3. Arxiu Capitular de Vic, cal. 6 nums 242 & 243, printed most recently 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 1718 & 1719.

4. See Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter (Wien 2011), pp. 163-171.

5. Dire Straits, “Industrial Disease” on Love over Gold (Vertigo 1982).

6. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 29-30; Federico Udina Martorell, 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), p. 205.

8 responses to “Unexpected female scribe perhaps too unexpected

  1. About femina as synonym of single, I think you are probably right. Not shure on C11th, but in Gothia at the beginnig of C10th, that seems to be the case. I have by now up to 83 women recorded who used this title, with at least two examples of married women, Malivercha and Sarra, and both seems to use the title outside of her married period.

    • That’s really interesting, Joan, thankyou. And it’s good old Sarra, too, whom I’ve used often as an example. You must have been entering a lot of data I’m familiar with lately!) But she is complicated. Note that in your D00117 of 902, she has an heir, who is not named, but the penalty clauses also specifies not just her heirs but her children. The latter could all be formulae, though they’re not used in D00756 (and maybe femina is a formula too, after all), but the former is an occurrence as a neighbour, so her heir is apparently of age to hold land. I think that when Sarra’s husband finally turns up in D00225, it’s not because she wasn’t married before, just because he didn’t have any rights to the land involved in the two earlier documents. At the very least, she is older than we imagine a newly-wed, and so if Antuny was a new husband, he may have been her second one. What that does to this tiny sample, I’m not sure, but it would be nice to see all four sides of the square married / femina / not femina / unmarried checked into…

      • Yes, Sarra married twice, but note that Malivercha is also presented as femina probably after the death of his previous husband.
        By now the femina=notmarried/widow hypothesis is only based on negative evidence (and on a very narrow time frame window)… We’ll see…

  2. The contribution of women in copying and spreading manuscript also in Dark Ages is very often underestimated.

  3. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XXXII: my questions answered | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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