IMC 3: things to do with charters before you’re dead

Blogging the International Medieval Congress is itself increasingly historical in one sense: nowadays, you can get a range of reports on several of the key sessions, all written by historians with their own biases and agendas, and the attentive reader can try and reconstruct the event from multiple perspectives. In this spirit, I will rashly give you my thoughts on a couple of sessions that a fellow blogger organised on ‘Problems and possibilities of early medieval diplomatic’. Jon will doubtless give us a more informed take in time, but he is coming from the viewpoint that charters are intrinsically interesting, while I…am not.

I think I got turned off charters doing my MPhil at Cambridge, when I realised that there were volumes and volumes of Carolingian royal charters, none of which had been translated. Given that every project involving charters suggested to me seemed to involve reading dozens of them, I decided instead to focus my shaky translating ability on things that gave more immediate results. (OK, I realise now that charters can be read fairly quickly once you’ve got used to them, but I didn’t know that then).

Ever since, I have been gradually forced to admit that, actually, charters are very useful for studying all kinds of phenomena, and Jon’s IMC sessions this year gave a very good spread of both the kind of things you can study with charters, and even more interestingly, the scale you can work on.

At the most local scale, there was Jon’s own paper on St Pere de Casserres, a monastery in Catalonia. He was focusing on the oldest original charter, which was showing fictive sales to the monastery. How do we know they were fictive sales? Because some of the properties had already been transferred earlier to the founder of the monastery, Viscountess Ermentrude (Ermetruit) of Osona/Ausona. What case studies like this can give us is some feel for the texture of local power: for example, how new ‘histories’ are created (all the numerous people whose names appeared in this first charter were complicit in its fiction) and how power relationships worked (the early importance of viscountesses in Catalonia is very interesting).

Also on a local scale and focusing on Spain, but looking at a very different aspect of charters was Wendy Davies’ paper on ‘Local priests in Northern Spain in the tenth century’, which was using charters to look at priests’ education. In fact she was focusing on one formula within a charter (nullius cogentis imperio/nullius quoque gentis imperio) and its multiple variants. It says much about Wendy’s near hypnotic scholarly force that not only was twenty minutes on one formula fascinating, but her wish write a whole book on such language analysis seemed entirely reasonable (though I seem to remember she admitted it probably wouldn’t be publishable). Looking at these formula variations, Wendy saw different preferences between micro-regions, areas around particular cities that preferred one version of the formula, as well as individual preferences of some priests. Her analysis of charter-writing also showed different kinds of priest-scribes – some who were following aristocrats around, some who worked only in one location, writing for people who were probably peasants, because of the small-scale of these exchanges. From this incredibly detailed study of charters, she can thus build up a picture of the background of these members of a purely local elite, far below the social level that other early medieval sources normally deal with.

At a larger scale, Julie Hofmann from Shenandoah University was looking at women’s participation in patronage at Fulda (and hoping to expand this to other Carolingian monasteries east of the Rhine). A fair chunk of the paper was showing how hard it is to spot distinctive trends in women’s activities, when charters mentioning women are a relatively small proportion of a charter corpus that itself is changing over time. For example, how significant is a drop off in women’s charters, when there’s also a general decline in charters after the reign of Charlemagne? And could the overall figures be distorted by a few untypical families, such as one prominent Mainz magnate family which had no surviving sons?

One difference Julie thought she could detect was that women were less likely than men to witness their own donations. (I think I remember this correctly, but my notes are a bit sketchy at this point). The problem is determining the significance of this, which means trying to look at when men do or don’t witnesses their own donations, and there aren’t any clear answers yet. Work on women in early medieval charters has been very much neglected since the early attempts at statistical analysis by David Herlihy, Suzanne Wemple and the like, so this kind of charter analysis potentially offers an important new avenue to looking at Carolingian women’s history. Whether we are going to see consistent gendered patterns in the diplomatic, I’m still not sure, but after all, gender analysis is about similarities as well as differences.

On a national scale, we had Erik Niblaeus on how the Cistercians brought charters to Sweden, which had somehow managed to survive without them until the 1160s. Charters offer a useful approach to looking at the ‘Europeanization’ of northern and central Europe, and certainly provide evidence for it at a textual level. As Michael Clanchy commented, looking at one of Eric’s images, you wouldn’t be able to tell it in style from a charter from almost anywhere else in Western Europe. Despite Erik’s title referring to the ‘Import of a Political Culture’, however, he wasn’t sure that charters could be connected to political institutions, because there was so little other evidence for them from the period. Instead, charters add ‘reassuring mystery and complication’ to our knowledge. (Erik thus shows himself firmly in the John Gillingham tradition of applauding the increase of uncertainty in historical scholarship).

Lastly (though actually the first paper of all) we had the global vision of Georg Vogeler, one of the people working on the Monasterium project, talking about this and other projects to get charter corpora on the web. The possibilities are substantial. Rather than the handful of images that traditional charter editions have included, you can in theory have images of all the charters. You can have access from anywhere in the world and there are new possibilities for rapid textual analysis. Georg gave an example about looking at vernacular dating clauses in German charters and being able to explore regional differences over time. Diplomatic differences that previously might only be spotted by an expert after half a lifetime can be explored within a week or two.

Of course, the full effect is going to take a long time coming, and the other papers showed how different researchers want different things. Jon’s work, and to a certain extent Eric’s involved careful analysis of the specific physical form of charters, which needs high-resolution images. Wendy’s work requires full text (with non-normalized spellings). For the kind of larger-scale statistical analysis which Julie was interested in, in contrast, she didn’t really want the text of charters, so much as standardized data from them (she’d constructed her own database to store such data). In theory, people could code full-text to mark such key sections (as the Charters Encoding Initiative is thinking about), but it would still be an enormous amount of work. Georg said there are projects working on issues like automatic tagging of names, which might reduce some of these problems.

If we could get something like this working on a large scale, I think there are all kinds of new research areas that are opened up. For example, it strikes me as having great potential for socio-economic history. If you can relatively easily pull out charters referring to slaves or vineyards or mills etc, you can build up a selection of sources that you’d never have time to explore otherwise. Similarly, I once found a mention in a Freising charter about a woman serving at the royal court – it might be possible to find more evidence about that. All in all, after the two sessions, I’m starting to feel that I probably ought to be more enthusiastic about charters than I’ve previously been. Maybe, as a friend once commented, ‘charters are the new black’.


6 thoughts on “IMC 3: things to do with charters before you’re dead

  1. Leeds report 2 (Tuesday 14th July)This was a bad day for my alarm to fail, but happily nerves had me awake in plenty of time anyway. I didn’t have a lot of choice about which of the first two sessions of the morning to go, you see, as I was running some. I think they went pretty …


  2. I have no knowledge of this field at all. However, I can enjoy and appreciate a fine piece of academic thinking and written construction.

    Charters, is not a subject, as offered here, that enthuses my thinking with “I really must find out about that” I always enjoyed history at school level, but also diverged into my own reading interests, (a bit of a dissenter from the main course materials which were English-centric). I do pick up strands in your essay, that I can see would be fascinating for further thought and as you say, additional research.

    Big question though, with all due respect for your research and analytical skills: what would you do with the information you gain, other than feed it into academic conferences of like-minded people and blog it into the public domain?


    • Well, as the session organiser perhaps I should say at least that as well as blogging it and presenting it we, the contributors to these and previous years’ instances of the strand, are assembling a book of essays based on the papers, so this research will be in the public domain in old media too where anyone who wants to explore such possibilities can follow up our references and so forth.

      If what you’re asking is a more generally humanistic question about the good of study, though, as it seems to me to read, I would say that the other thing charters are good for, that Magistra doesn’t highlight here because neither did we in the sessions, is that they are records from as low down society as one can usually get, especially if you include records of dispute settlement. They name peasants and landholder’s neighbours, tenants, the people who did the work that underpinned all of medieval society, and show them to us as thinking and choosing persons with their own life circumstances, pressures and characteristics. Not very clearly, perhaps, but the perspective is still unique and humanising. And that’s why I think they’re fascinating: they give one access to a snapshot of the life of persons otherwise completely unknown and forgotten.


      • I can see that some early history teaching programmes in schools could be revised, if indeed it was being taught in sequential blocks as I feel it should be, with a bit more geographical and sociological excitement injected into those particular periods. What you say, does suggest it is possible to present much livelier and broader interpretations of life as lived, rather than the arid presentations of yore.

        It needs selling to a wider audience.


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