Trifle layers, puzzle boxes, and charter statistics

I’m around six months behind in blogging IHR seminars, and Jon Jarrett has already provided not only the text of his paper from June on “Managing Power in the Post-Carolingian Era: Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia”, but also pictures of the event. So instead, I want to use his paper and another much more recent one I heard at the IHR on Spanish charters to act as a springboard for thinking about how we might use charters to compare societies.

The second paper was Graham Barrett on “The Literate Mentality and the Textual Society in Early Medieval Spain”, and for me some of the most interesting parts of his talk were the statistical evidence. He was working from a corpus of around 4000 charters of 711-1031 from the Asturias-Leon and Navarra in northern Spain. And one of the key points he was making was that while the charter numbers went up from 850, there wasn’t an increase in the average number of royal charters per year, but there was one in ecclesiastical charters and the number of lay charters increased more or less steadily. In other words, this is a society where top-down notions of increasing literacy don’t work particularly well – the charter habit isn’t simply percolating down as a side-effect of governmental bureaucracy.

Similarly, Graham had statistics about scribes, showing how over the period there were an increasing number of scribes who were writing more charters, rather than most scribes only writing one or two charters, e.g. that we’ve got something that looks like the tentative start of royal and aristocratic chanceries. And he also thought it was possible to see different categories of scribes, in terms of who they wrote for: royal scribes, episcopal scribes, monastic scribes, aristocratic scribes and village scribes.

The point of both these two lots of statistics is that in theory they’re region-independent. You could take statistics from a completely different area of Spain (or Germany or France or England) and compare them and see if the same patterns are visible. So it might be possible to see whether patterns of top-down literacy do seem more plausible elsewhere, or whether the “professionalisation” of scribes varies in time across different areas. You can start to do comparative history with charters in a way that you can’t easily with just anecdotal or case study evidence.

Well, that’s the charter statistics, but where do the trifles and the puzzle boxes come in? These are two metaphors that have been used for looking at the structure of medieval societies. The first is from Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals (OUP, 1994), p. 40:

the layers of [medieval] society were more like those of a trifle than a cake: its layers were blurred, and the sherry of accepted values soaked through. Taking the whole of society…one has to see it as a very rich and deep trifle with a lot of layers

The other is from Jon’s talk at the IHR, where he described power in Catalonia as akin to a puzzlebox, in which only some of the holes lead to the ground. In some areas counts are visible directly interacting with the lower levels of society, in others they have to go through intermediaries. Looking at when/where that happens is one of the key issues in ideas about the tenth/eleventh century feudal mutation and the “privatization of power”. But the other way round – when/where do local networks start to connect into wider ones, it’s probably one of the main factors in the rise of the Carolingian empire. That’s Matthew Innes’ idea anyhow – that what the Carolingians succeed in doing is getting local societies connecting into court networks, without necessarily changing the families who are actually running these local areas.

So what would be very useful is if we can somehow start coming up with metrics or criteria for how important people that, again, we can use for cross-regional comparisons. The problem is, a lot of titles are very regionally specific, such as the Visigothic saio or the Breton machtiern. And while there are other criteria we can use, a lot of them aren’t really helpful in practice with the evidence we have. For example, Chris Wickham wants to call people peasants only when they’re personally doing some agricultural work (Framing the Early Middle Ages p 386), which is next to impossible to prove either way in the majority of cases. In contrast, Chris’ ideas about the scale of a person’s control over land do sound like one of the most promising ways to start to distinguish some of the layers of the trifle.

Such a statistical approach isn’t the only way we can approach charters; people have got a lot of interesting stuff out of considering individual charters or small clusters, but it might be worth going back now to some of the pioneering statistical studies such as the work by David Herlihy and Barbara Rosenwein and seeing what else we can do now with vastly more computer power and web 2.0 technologies.


2 thoughts on “Trifle layers, puzzle boxes, and charter statistics

  1. So, how much of this information (about charters, say) is already in machine-parseable form?

    (Also, what you say about “connecting local societies to court networks” sounds reminiscent of Charles Tilly’s claims about how one of the requirements for democratization is integrating “trust networks” into public politics…)


  2. I can probably own up to a certain amount of influence from Matthew Innes without surprising anyone. In fact it’s quite nice to have the association made in such a way that leaves some room for originality!

    As to the question above, an increasing amount of charter material is in electronic and marked-up form: there are many different corpora, like Monasterium, Telma and so on, and more coming, but, sadly, as yet almost none of the ones that Magistra is here writing about!


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