Making charters useful

I finished at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the end of December and started a new job last week: as Postdoctoral Research Associate on the new King’s College London project The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe: 768-814. Officially the project is intended to create a database of the surviving documentary evidence from Charlemagne’s reign. Unofficially, I see it as a project to make charters useful.

There are a lot of people, of course, who already find early medieval charters very useful. If you’re doing regional studies (of e.g. Catalonia or Alsace or Brittany), charters are essential evidence. But if you’re doing a study that isn’t regionally focused in this way, then frankly charters are less ideal, because there are just too damn many of them. There are around 4,500 documents for Charlemagne’s reign alone. How do you find the ones that actually provide relevant information for your purposes?

This is why, potentially, our database will come in very handy, especially since it’s being designed by people who have considerable experience of previous similar database projects, such as Prospopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) and Paradox of Medieval Scotland (POMS). The prosopographical side is thus very well-covered. However, the plan is to have more: both mapping facilities and statistical analysis. We’re not providing the full text of charters, but we will be providing structured data of various kinds. So one of the questions we need to ask right at the start is what information do researchers actually want to get out of the corpus of charters that they can’t get currently? Asking this question among the readers of this blog seems as good a place as any to start. I know you’re not all Carolingianists, but a lot of you will have worked with charters or bulk data of some kind. What research questions interest you for which such a database might be a help?

What follows is my first very rough list of possible research areas. All comments welcome; if you know of work that’s already been done, or if I’ve missed out something, please add it in. I’m still at the brainstorming stage at this point, and this post reflects this.

1) Studies on literacy
Graham Barrett is another researcher on the project, so this angle may be fairly well-covered anyhow. He’s already done studies with later Spanish charters, looking, for example, at affiliations of scribes and the number of documents that particular scribes wrote. This immediately ties into research questions about the professionalism of scribes, and the extent of lay literacy.

I also wonder whether we should make a special note of charters that include references to books as property, so we can get a picture of where they are mentioned.

2) Family/women
Most of the detailed studies of families will obviously be done on a regional basis. But the prosopographical side of the database will enable us to create biographies of individuals/families who have a transregional activity. What I’m not yet sure is what kind of data it would be useful to produce on such people. Given the strong spatial emphasis in the database, would it be useful to be able to map the activities of not just an individual, but a group of them?

One of the things we are definitely going to do is give the sex of every individual mentioned, which immediately makes possible a lot of the analysis about women’s land-holding etc. (It takes under a minute to dig out the 48 female witnesses from the POMS database, for example).

I think we need to have some kind of record of relatives being prayed for, though I’m not yet sure in how much detail. But this ties in usefully with discussions about which relatives “counted” in which situations.

It’d be nice to use charters for getting demographic data about families, as well, but that may be unrealistic. Has anyone seen this sort of thing done successfully?

3) Ethnicity
Despite all the problems with questions of ethnicity, it’s still interesting to see how the charters reflect this. We will probably be drawing on the work of Nomen et gens as far as ethnicity of personal names is concerned; what might also be useful to note is if specific ethnic terminology is used in charters to refer to people.

4) Legal practice
This is an area I know less about, so if anyone knows who’s doing interesting work on this, it’d be a help to know. My immediate thoughts for things it would be useful to record are number of witnesses to a document (so you could, say, pull out documents with less than the six witnesses Alemannic law said you were supposed to have) and references to law/laws within the charter (whether specific or general).

5) Monasticism
One useful piece of information would be to know how the collective membership of particular religious communities are described – are they ‘monachi’ or “deo sacrata” or what? It’d be particularly interesting to learn more about references to canons/canonesses.

It’ll be possible to break down charters by date and region, so we can potentially get comparative data on the well-known idea of “waves of pious giving” – how long do people keep on making large donations to churches/monasteries after they’ve been founded?

I don’t know if early Carolingian charters have enough boundary clauses to make this work, but Barbara Rosenwein’s classic study of Cluny was collecting data on the extent to which a donated piece of land was adjacent to Cluny’s property already, which allowed seeing monastic land-acquiring strategies and how literally “being the neighbour of St Peter” was meant.

Looking at statistics for proportions of donations versus precaria for different monasteries/regions also contributes to the whole debate about pragmatic versus spiritual rewards for donors (which I always associate with Rosenwein on Cluny versus John Nightingale on Gorze). I also wonder whether there is any way of flagging up people who make donations to more than one foundation, given these may form particularly interesting test cases for studying how patronage decisions were made.

6) Military history
One of the questions we’re trying to work out at the moment is how much detail we go into about renders. Possibly we will just have a general term for animal renders, given the trade-off between precision in recording and time taken. But I do wonder if we should treat references to renders in horses separately, given their military importance. Any thoughts?

7) Price information
This is again an issue of how much detail we can put in without the project over-running, but how useful would it be to note if there are references to values in coinage? Wendy Davies did some promising studies on this for Spain.

8) Political history
One of the most useful possibilities that the mapping side of the project potentially allows us to explore is the nature of the Carolingian county. The arguments about “flat counties” versus “scattered counties” have been going on for decades: if we input the data right, we can explore in detail the geographical relationships that the sources themselves choose to mention.

It will also be useful to be able to map and contrast royal interventions between regions; while the data from royal charters is probably limited enough that this could be done manually, this project will potentially also allow us a transregional view of royal missi and vassi.

9) Social structure
Chris Wickham, in particular, has used charters from a number of regions for the comparative study of social structures, but of necessity, such work has normally drawn on syntheses of studies of a few locations. Potentially, this database allows wider comparisons, though both potential approaches to categorising social levels have their problems. The first possibility is using explicit references to office and social status within the charters: although there are problems in comparing these across the regions, they are potentially soluble. Perhaps even more intriguing is whether a social classification could be developed based on activity-derived status. In other words, could we find a way to mark all those who made more than a dozen donations, or witnessed over a geographical range of more than 10 miles, etc? This might show to what extent influential people exist who don’t obviously hold office or get called “nobilis” etc.

10) Rural and landscape history
Again, this is an area where bulk comparative data is potentially useful, but we have to work out how much detail we can go into, especially for landscape features in charters. Should these be regarded as purely conventional and excluded or are some of them worth listing specifically? I’m inclined to think it’s worth mentioning mills, but not huts, for example.

Those, for now, are my ideas of what we might do with our data, given the limitation I’ve already mentioned, that we’re not going to have the full text of charters. Any obvious suggestions that I’ve overlooked will be gratefully received.

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10 thoughts on “Making charters useful

  1. That’s a pretty substantial list. 🙂
    Other current curios of mine are date style (is it a number date; a weekday +/- relevant saint’s day; other?) and numerical annotation (Roman/Arabic). In my mind these both come under your literacy heading, and the former perhaps also relates to legal practice. (No doubt there are other connections!)
    I’m also interested in diplomatic structure, and it occurs to me there might be ways of giving this without having to include full text: like for example having fields named according to standard ‘sections’, that the poor trained monkey entering the data can just ‘tick’ where present…?

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  2. I’d have thought you’d also want to record whether the charter is original or a later copy, if there have been questions about its authenticity, the script used, whether it was written on the “hair” side and such like.

    You may also want to keep in touch with the Project Volterra database of ChLA being done at UCL – but you’re probably on top of that already.

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  3. Other things that strike me are penalty clauses (remember, the Anglo-Saxon Charters database has an `index by curse’, you can’t let them top you) and, as Kath says, dating format, which might include royal recognition. Some means of indexing numbers of participants would also be kind of cool, and some kind of geographical filter so that one could GIS-style zoom in on an area’s preservation would be damn handy.

    I think there is an argument, at the very least, that in doing all this, you may as well do full-text. Firstly, if there’s a simpler way to do all this stuff than marking-up texts in XML, for one I’ll be surprised and for two it certainly won’t be less transportable (though that really depends on whether the project plans on selling the source data I suppose); and secondly, every digital humanities conference I’ve been to where this kind of stuff has been discussed has resolved that full text is a basic necessity, because you don’t know what your users are going to want to ask. Again, the benchmark projects you refer to did this, or at least had access to it: ASCharters is full-text, PASE used that and EMC which has full-text of its inscriptions in, and then the Electronic Domesday which is full-text, albeit not-for-free. I don’t know about POMS, I admit.

    Detailed responses to what you mention follow, in two categories, roughly “heck yeah” and “good luck with that”:

    In the category of heck yeah:

    Studies on literacy
    (though how you do that without full-text I don’t know)

    I also wonder whether we should make a special note of charters that include references to books as property, so we can get a picture of where they are mentioned.
    That might be one way…

    I think we need to have some kind of record of relatives being prayed for, though I’m not yet sure in how much detail. But this ties in usefully with discussions about which relatives “counted” in which situations.
    I endorse this idea whole-heartedly!

    It’d be nice to use charters for getting demographic data about families, as well, but that may be unrealistic. Has anyone seen this sort of thing done successfully?
    I’ve attempted it on a micro-scale. I think on a macro-scale you would need a sample this sort of size, as families are rarely securely identified and local prosopography has to be called into play (and is often barkingly amateur), but that requirement of scale is exactly why this is a thing that this project should attempt.

    It’ll be possible to break down charters by date and region, so we can potentially get comparative data on the well-known idea of “waves of pious giving” – how long do people keep on making large donations to churches/monasteries after they’ve been founded? I also wonder whether there is any way of flagging up people who make donations to more than one foundation, given these may form particularly interesting test cases for studying how patronage decisions were made.
    If you can identify such persons in a different context, that sounds tremendously useful!

    One of the most useful possibilities that the mapping side of the project potentially allows us to explore is the nature of the Carolingian county.
    “Heck yeah”.

    In other words, could we find a way to mark all those who made more than a dozen donations, or witnessed over a geographical range of more than 10 miles, etc?
    I really really hope so. GIS components presumably make this possible at some level.

    In the category of “good luck with that”:

    the prosopographical side of the database will enable us to create biographies of individuals/families who have a transregional activity
    In an era pre-surnames, how will you recognise them once out of their areas? Unless they bring their wives, this is not a simple thing. I would be reluctant to trust such deductions and might encourage that they not be made—a paper of mine hopefully shortly to emerge in AfD will argue for this.

    One of the things we are definitely going to do is give the sex of every individual mentioned
    Given the variety of name forms, you are going to wind up with an awful lot of uncertains. What are your linguistic references going to be?

    One useful piece of information would be to know how the collective membership of particular religious communities are described – are they ‘monachi’ or “deo sacrata” or what?
    Sant Joan de Ripoll manage all of sanctemoniales, sodales, monachae, Deo sacratae and ancillae Dei in about forty years so I would very much doubt this will produce anything useful. Orlandis and those Verdon articles I mentioned a while back help contextualise thus.

    This is again an issue of how much detail we can put in without the project over-running, but how useful would it be to note if there are references to values in coinage? Wendy Davies did some promising studies on this for Spain.
    For Spain, the data is already partly collected, not just by Wendy but by the older works she drew on. I think my NC paper goes with Wendy’s to help demonstrate that the path from availability of coin to its appearance in charters is somewhat variable, but I suppose that might still be worth showing? I would expect the analytical yield from this to be very low, but someone will want to do it. And with full-text they subsequently could!

    we’re not going to have the full text of charters
    No, honestly, I think that is a decision you’re going to regret.

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    • Er, when I said:

      Studies on literacy
      (though how you do that without full-text I don’t know)

      I was obviously stuck aboard my full-text high-horse. What I’d meant to say when I originally picked on that bit was something more like, that kind of issue is very hard to address without originals and palæographical analysis, which would seem to argue for images of documents where those criteria apply (though I suppose it would be interesting to see how far figured copies are used–Mark Mersiowsky had some lovely examples of these at Leeds).

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      • Nothing “rong” with a nice high horse from time to time. 🙂
        But, yes, images! That would be handy. See perhaps the Henry III Fine Rolls (another CCH project): http://www.finerollshenry3.org.uk/home.html ? Not sure how much infrastructure it requires to make these zoomable pics work, and for all I know this might be prohibitive. Not to mention the problem of licensing, etc., if the originals are ‘owned’ by different and scattered institutions rather than conveniently gathered in a single, participating institution. But it’s a nice thought.

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  4. we’re not going to have the full text of charters

    I have to joint Jonathan’s plea for full text access, there’s simply no way to predict furure scholar’s needs. Full text access is a safety measure success-wise.

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